|Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, by Raphael|
In "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" the great Swiss historian Jacob Burckhardt claims that the true subject of "The Book of the Courtier" is the perfection of the nobleman at court. He summarizes the skills the courtier must acquire. Apart from mastering the arts of war, which are primary, "the courtier," in Burckhardt's summary, "must be at home in all noble sports, among them running, leaping, swimming and wrestling; he must, above all things, be a good dancer and, as a matter of course, an accomplished rider." For Castiglione the courtier should be acquainted with great literature, know music to the point of being able to play an instrument, be skilled at the arts of oratory, and in conversation employ exquisite tact and apply the art, in his memorable phrase, of "cheating expectations."
Not only must the courtier acquire all these skills, he must display them with a casual air of easy mastery. The ideal courtier, Castiglione writes, "must put every effort and diligence into outstripping others a little, so that he may be always recognized as better than the rest." But he must do so without showing the least strain or hint of affectation. He is to accomplish this through sprezzatura, the art of artlessness, or the art that hides art.
"The Book of the Courtier" is in part a manual of advice on such subjects as seduction, the behavior required of women at court, practical jokes, how to keep love secret, why it is a mistake to learn chess, and more. Some of this advice has a cold Machiavellian flavor. Castiglione writes: "There is an adage which says that when our enemy is in the water up to his waist, we must offer him our hand and rescue him from peril; but when he is up to his chin, we must put our foot on his head and drown him forthwith."
Here it becomes clear that Castiglione intends for his ideal courtier to be much more than a Renaissance dandy, a connoisseur in the art of self-presentation; above all, he should instruct his prince on the subject of righteous rule. The point of the courtier making himself so charming, and of his elegant display of mastery of the arts, is that through them he will raise himself in the prince's esteem, thereby seducing him into heeding his advice. If the excellence of the courtier's cultural attainments is "the flower" of his training, "the fruit" lies in helping his prince "toward what is right and to warn him against what is wrong." The courtier, Castiglione holds, is "the whetstone," the prince "the knife"; as the physician is concerned with his patient's health, so the courtier is concerned with the prince's virtue.