Comportment for Damigellas: KAS Entry

Comportment Paper by Giata Alberti, XLIX

Purpose and Introduction

In this post I will discuss the comportment (manner of behaving) and deportment (manner of carriage) of a proper lady of the central and northern Italian City-States of the 15th Century, with emphasis on application to courtesies and duties of life in the current Middle Ages. A proper signora of 1463, according to the dance master Ebreo of Pasaro, 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 2003:109)

This gives me a place to start as I attempt to re-create a Florentine lady via my persona of Giata Alberti. There are many other books of the 15th and 16th Centuries we could turn to for further guidance, but perhaps none of them are so prestigious as Il Libro del Cortigiano.


1490 Carpaccio - Two Ladies
1490 Carpaccio – Two Ladies

The Book of the Courtier

Baldassare Castiglione was an Italian courtier, diplomat, and one of the most influential authors in Europe during the Renaissance (Burke 1996). Il Libro del Cortegiano (The Book of the Courtier) was his most well known work and was intended as an etiquette book for those at court. It is a courtesy and comportment book published in 1561, comprised 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. While my primary interest is in the comportment of the ladies at court it is necessary to look at what the author has related about the gentlemen because that is the context in which expectations for ladies is placed.

Book I describes the desirable qualities of a courtier covering his manner and education, as well as the courtier’s physical and mental abilities. Book II is devoted to language and speech, and to the proper way of addressing peers in formal and informal social settings. Book III describes female comportment, conduct, and education, especially focusing on chastity and matters related to love. Book IV examines the role of the ideal courtier in following his duty to those he serves.

In the Court of Duke Gonzaga of Urbino, 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” (Castiglione 1561). In those hours they held discussions that were free and honorable, talking, jesting, laughing, and taking pleasure in games with humor and ease (Castiglione 1561). There were pleasant pastimes of music, dancing, discussion of questions, and opinions on various matters, as well displays and discussion of imprese[1] (Castiglione 1561).

The house was often full of prominent courtiers and powerful visitors. Pope Julius II, Magifico Giuliano dei Medici, Messer Pietro Bembo, Messer Cesare Gonzaga, Count Ludovico da Canossa, Lord Ludovico Pio, and countless more (Castiglione 1561). It is in the discussions among this group that we glean the characteristics of the ideal courtier. Let’s dive right in to the details of the story.

On the evening after the Pope’s departure the group decided to devise a game in which they would 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 1561 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 “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 1561 I:35, Burke 1996).

The next evening they take up the same discussion and it is recorded in Book II. The group agrees on the need for the cortegiano to be cautious in action so as not to draw attention to his bravery. The courtier should also take care not to sing all the time to show off his fine voice, or demand a match of tennis to show his athletic prowess, or dance as he passes through the streets, or put himself in a posture for fencing or wrestling at inopportune times (Castiglione 1561 II:86).

 The group then speaks on the matter of jesting. A courtier must not always seek to make others laugh, but he must also not be too sour or dry. Again, sprezzatura is called for. One may make a joke at the right time without being too harsh or too foolish. A few members of the company give their recollections of some witty stories they have heard (Castiglione 1561 II:130-131). 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.


Advice for the Cortegiana

Castiglione adds a preface to Book III, interjecting that the Court of Urbino hosted these gatherings for the refreshment of weary minds as a superior example for all other courts of Italy. Messer Gonzaga begins this conversation by reminding the group that without ladies no court or courtier can be graceful or pleasing or brave, or perform any gallant feat of chivalry.

Lord Gaspar believes the same rules that are set for the Courtier also serve for the Lady. She ought to have regard for time and place, know how to interact with the Prince appropriately, and be able to show grace in practicing courtly activities such as riding and handling weapons (Castiglione 1561 III:173).

Lord Magnifico disagrees. He asserts that some qualities are common and necessary to both male and female but others befit woman more than man. A woman, in her ways, manners, words, gestures, and bearing, must be very unlike a man. She should show a soft and dainty tenderness with an air of sweetness in her every movement, but also have a learned mind and accomplished talent (Castiglione 1561 III:174).

Lord Gaspar feels these, as a whole, are absurd impossibilities for the Court Lady to attain (Castiglione 1561 III:181). The reply from Giuliano d’Medici gives insight to the minds of progressive men of 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 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 he states that 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 were all modern, magnificent, admirable, and worthy women (Castiglione 1561 III:183-205).



The cortegiana must be able to win and keep herself in the good graces of her Mistress and of all others (Castiglione 1903, Burke 1996). Discretion is necessary too, because causing any suspicion of her reputation would be much more difficult to undo than if she were a man (Castiglione 1561 III:175-181, Pizan 1999). This list of characteristics for a cortegiana can also be goals for our courtly female personas. Below I have given my recommendations for modern living history enthusiasts in parentheses (Castiglione 1903, Burke 1996, Pizan 1999):

  • 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. (Be discreet)
  • 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. (Be courteous)
  • She must have in common with the cortigiano gentle birth, grace, cleverness, prudence, and constancy. (Be kind)
  • She must be chaste, prudent, benign, agreeable, witty, discreet, and able to barely touch certain limits but not pass them. (Be prudent)
  • She should be humble, content, sweet-tongued, and peaceable. (Be merciful)
  • She must avoid saying and willingly listening to evil about other women. (Be honorable)
  • She must not praise herself openly, or talk too much in general. (Be discreet)
  • 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. (Be wise)
  • Let her not stupidly pretend to know that which she does not know. (Be honest)
  • Though some women may practice rugged manly activities Lord Magnifico believes a woman should practice activities that only require a gentle daintiness. (Be gracious)
  • 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. (Dance!)
  • She should choose garments that enhance her grace, and possess a bright and cheerful disposition. (Dress as well as you can)
  • 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. (Be wise)
  • She should have knowledge of letters, music, painting, games, dance, jesting, and witty repartee. (Be accomplished)



[1] An emblem for a person or family (Florio 1611)

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