Sir Thomas Hoby – Castiglione’s “The Courtier”

Lord Gaspar, The Courtier’s misogynist-in-residence, says that women are incapable of such love as they cannot be purged of their passions enough. Also he can think only of male examples for this kind of love, such as Socrates, Plato and St Francis of Assisi. Fortunately Lord Julian (Giuliano di Medici, a younger son of Lorenzo the Magnificent) corrects him, quoting Diotima (who, as Socrates claimed, taught him everything about love), Mary Magdalen and countless nameless Christian martyrs who were willing to devote everything for the love of Christ, despite their young age at which, according to Bembo, sensual and physical love is understandable and pardonable, at least in men. Lord Gaspar wants to answer, but the Duchess intervenes, saying Bembo should be the judge here, but since it is already too late, the dispute should be deferred until tomorrow. “No, tonight”, says Lord Cesar, “it is already tomorrow”. They open the windows and see with surprise that it is already dawn. They have been talking the whole night through without noticing it. There is quite a beautiful description of the spring morning, with birds singing and only Venus left shining symbolically on the horizon. They go to their rooms. Before they part, the lord general (Francesco della Rovere, the duke’s nephew and his adopted son) says that in order to hear Bembo’s answer in full, they should commence their discussion earlier today, and Emilia says they need some kind of surety from Lord Gaspar that he won’t change his position at the trial.

And that’s it – the end not only of the NAEL excerpt but the whole Courtier, so we’ll never learn Bembo’s answer (unless there is a lost Book V, like Aristotle’s Book of Poetics in The Name of the Rose). Reading the text and trying to find my way in the thicket of the sixteenth-century prose was rather trying, but in the end rather rewarding, and individual sentences quite beautiful, so much so that as long as I was reading Bembo’s eloquent words I was willing to suspend my disbelief in the idea of chaste sexless kisses and so on. Reading the bios of the characters involved on Wiki provided also quite a poignant commentary. The Duke of Urbino was impotent (that’s why he adopted his nephew as his heir), but his wife refused to divorce him and took care of him in his illnesses. Maybe that’s why Castiglione breaks off – one needn’t look for an example of a chaste, selfless and loving woman further than the Duchess (the story surely must have been a public secret in Urbino), but it would have been rather indelicate for him to point this out. Another sad fact is that in 1516 she was going to be driven away from the duchy by Lorenzino di Medici, Giuliano’s nephew (Giuliano died in the same year and I hope he had nothing to do with it). 16-th c. Italy was a dangerous place to live, despite all the glory of its art and the refinement of its civilization. I can’t resist thinking about Castiglione as a reverse of Machiavelli: Castiglione chooses to look only at the bright side of the courtly life, with ladies and gentlemen discoursing politely about love and philosophy, while Machiavelli looks at the dark underpinnings of power.

Here’s Bembo as a decidedly not-so-young man. I hope he found solace in his theories.


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