How Not to be a Brazen Strumpet

Comportmento per Damigelle: Or, how not to be a brazen strumpet
By La Signora Onorata Giata Alberti ~

In this post I will cover comportment (manner of behaving) and deportment (manner of carriage) recommended for women in 15th Century Italian city-states with emphasis on application to courtesies and duties of life in the current middle ages.

A proper “signora” in 1463, according to Ebreo, should:

“Have the proper measure and an airy modesty, and her manner should be sweet, discreet and pleasant. The movement of her body should be humble and meek, and her carriage dignified and stately; her step should be light and her gestures shapely. Nor should her gaze be haughty or roaming (peering here and there as so many do), but she should for the most part keep her eyes modestly on the ground; not however, as some do who sink their head on their breast. She must also be alert, with her mind constantly intent on the music and the measures, so that her actions and gentle gestures will be well formed and in keeping with them.” (Ebreo 109)

The Book of the Courtier

Baldassare Castiglione was an Italian courtier, diplomat, and one of the most influential authors in Europe during the Renaissance. Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) was his most well-known work. It is a courtesy and comportment book, composed of four sections of dialogues which describe conversations held between the courtiers of the Duke of Urbino on four successive nights in 1507. From his work we can glean attitudes, stories, modes of address, and tips on proper courtly behavior.

There, in the Court of Duke Gonzaga after every supper the courtiers took to the presence of the Duke’s consort, Duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga and her close companion Lady Emilia Pia, both who were endowed with grace, lively wit, and innocence. In those hours they held discussions that were free and honorable, talking, jesting, laughing, and taking pleasure in games with humor and ease. There were pleasant pastimes of music, dancing, discussion of questions and opinions on various matters, as well displays and discussion of imprese.

On the evening after the Pope’s departure the group decides to devise a game in which they will uncover the most praiseworthy and useful virtues. Sir Aretino takes a turn at the request of lady Emilia and suggests the game be for each of the companions to explain the qualities of the perfect Court Gentlemen, or cortigiano (Castiglione I:19). These characteristics can be thought of as pointers for those in the current middle ages.

Count Ludovico asserts that sprezzatura is the most important device the cortigiano needs. Sprezzatura is defined as an effortless ease with which the ideal courtier carries on all activities, especially speech, so that what is done and said seems as “without effort and almost without thought”. This nonchalance in which the courtier appears graceful in all things is vital to his reception and success at court (Castiglione I:35).

A few members of the company give their recollections of some witty stories they have heard (II:130-131). Next, Guiliano dei Medici tells a story of Poland and Muscovy (of which Signora Giada has a lively rendition involving the Kingdom of Aethelmearc and the Kingdom of the East). The group then discusses at length the types of innuendos, metaphors, puns, and turns of phrase one can use to retort, redeem, or defend oneself.

Specific Advice for the Cortegiana (Lady at Court)
The cortegiana must be able to win and keep the favor of her Mistress and of all others. Discretion is more necessary too, for causing any suspicion of her reputation would be much more difficult to undo than if she were a man (Castiglione III:175-181).

I. She must have in common with the cortigiano gentle birth, grace, cleverness, prudence, and constancy.
II. She must have qualities that befit all women, such as kindness and discretion, and if married she must have the ability to manage her husband’s property, and her house, and children.
III. She must, if at Court, have a pleasant affability and be able to converse to any rank of person suitably and with calm and modest manners.
IV. She must be chaste, prudent, benign, agreeable, witty, and discreet. Able to barely touch certain limits but not pass them.
V. She should be humble, content, sweet-tongued, and peaceable.
VI. She must avoid saying and willingly listening to evil about other women.
VII. She must not praise herself openly, or talk too much in general.
VIII. She must be able to discern the quality of him with whom she is speaking, knowing and being able to choose from many topics in order to entertain him graciously.
IX. Let her not stupidly pretend to know that which she does not know.
X. Though some women may practice rugged manly activities Lord Magnifico believes a woman should practice activities that only require a gentle daintiness:
XI. In dancing she should not use too active or violent movements. Even when playing an instrument or signing she ought to show a touch of shyness.
XII. She should choose garments that enhance her grace, and possess a bright and cheerful disposition.
XIII. She should have an understanding of things she does not practice, such as wrestling and exercise, in order that she may know how to praise and value cortegiano.
XIV. She should have knowledge of letters, music, painting, games, dance, jesting, and witty repartee.

Lord Gaspar feels these as a whole are absurd impossibilities for the Court Lady to attain (Castiglione III:181). Next, we read a reply that gives a peek into the minds of progressive men during the Renaissance. The following lines also give great fodder for debates in persona 🙂

Magnifico Giuliano retorts that even misogynistic Plato gave women charge over the city and gave all other martial duties to men. Through Magnifico, Castiglione reminds the readers listeners that if they just examine history they will find that worth has continually existed among women as well as men, and that women have waged wars, won victories, governed kingdoms, been learned in philosophy and poetry, and excelled as lawyers and doctors. He mentions Alexandra, wife of Alexander, King of the Jews who with wit and persuasion revenged her murdered husband and won for her children the right to rule. Magnifico speaks of esteemed women and goddesses like Pallas, Ceres, the Sybylls, Aspasia, Diotima, Nicostrate (Evander’s mother), Corinna, and Sappho who were learned and virtuous. Then in their present times the women of the houses Gonzaga, Este, and Pio, Marchioness Isabella of Mantua, Duchess Beatrice of Milan, Queen Anne of France, Margarita (daughter of Emperor Maximilian), Eleanora of Aragon, and Queen Isabella of Spain are all magnificent, admirable, and worthy women (Castiglione III:183-205).

This is a fine argument that gives us insight into the Renaissance mindset as well as the areas of knowledge a learned person would have in the 15th Century.

Burke, Peter (1996). The Fortunes of the Courtier. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press.
Castiglione, Baldassarre. (1903). (trans Leonard Eckstein Opdycke). Book of the Courtier 1528. New York: Scribner.
Castiglione, Baldassarre. (1561). The Courtyer of Count Baldessar Castilio 1528. (trans Hoby, Thomas). London: Hedgehog.
Ebreo of Pesaro, Guglielmo. (2003). (Edited, translated, and introduced by Barbara Sparti). De Pratica Seu Arte Tripudii: On the practice or art of dancing 1463. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press.


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