Il Cortegiano – The Renaissance Superstar

Do you sew? Do you know what a pattern is? It’s a template of sorts, yes? If one studies garment trends over time one could see trends of similar garment construction. If a pattern from the 1500s existed one could use it to achieve a similar result when making a garment even today.

The same holds true for people. My mundane expertise is as a social and environmental scientist. I started with an undergrad in sociology. I studied patterns of behavior for humans over the past centuries. Trends over time show similar construction or constitution in humans and their behavior responses to certain stimuli. Of course DNA is very complicated, but we are all the same. Responses in the past to conflict, sickness, triumph, defeat – are very similar to our responses even today. We are made from the same pattern.

One sphere that exists across time and place is that of the ruling class. The social sphere for the ruling class in the middle ages was the rulers and their court. This would be (in France) the King of France, his spouse, and their entourage and advisers. In Italy it could be the locally powerful ruling family like the Medici, or landed nobility like the Gonzaga of Mantua or the Este of Ferrara.

The manual on how to be successful as a member of the court (lady/gentilidonna or lord/gentilihuomo) came from Italy during the Renaissance. It’s title is Il Cortegiano (The Courtier) and it’s fame spread quickly across the continent as the handbook for success at court. It was written by Baldassare Castiglione, an Italian courtier and member of the noble family of Casatico.

This book is one of the most important accounts of renaissance court life. The interlocutors discuss at length the qualities it takes to succeed and those that foreshadow failure. I would say that because the book is Italian I am probably biased, but Torquato Tasso had this to say:

“Have you read Castliglione’s Cortegiano? The beauty of the book is such that it deserves to be read in all ages; and as long as courts endure, as long as princes reign and knights and ladies meet, as long valor and courtesy hold a place in our hearts, the name of Castiglione will be held in honor.” —Torquato Tasso, Il Malpiglio overo de la corte (1585)

The book is organized as a series of conversations between the courtiers of Urbino in 1507. The discussions are of expectations of the courtier knowledge set (martial arts, athletics, humanities, classical knowledge, and fine arts) and occur as the group tries to describe the ideal gentilihuomo of the court.

These conversations give insight on how to perform a courtly persona in the SCA or other living history organization. Class outline to follow, or if you can join us at the Academy of Performing Arts please do so!


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