Twenty miles inland from the Adriatic, midway between Loreto and Rimini, hidden aloft on a scenic spur of the Apennines, the little principality of Urbino—forty miles square—was in the fifteenth century one of the most civilized centers on the earth. That fortunate territory, two hundred years before, had come into the possession of a family—the Montefeltri—that made fortunes as condottieri, and spent them as wisely as they were darkly earned. In a remarkable reign of thirty-eight years (1444–82) Federigo da Montefeltro ruled Urbino with a skill and justice unequaled even by Lorenzo the Magnificent. He began judiciously by being a pupil of Vittorino da Feltre, and his life was the finest encomium that noble teacher ever received. While governing Urbino he hired himself out as a general to Naples, Milan, Florence, and the Church. He never lost a battle, and never allowed war to touch his own soil. He captured a town by forging a letter, and sacked Volterra with superfluous thoroughness; yet he was reputed the most merciful commander of the time. In civil life he was a man of high honor and fidelity. He earned enough as a condottiere to administer his state without oppressively taxing his people; he walked unarmed and unprotected among them, confident of their affectionate loyalty. Every morning he gave audience, in a garden open on all sides, to any who wished to speak to him; in the afternoon he rendered judgment, in the Latin tongue. He relieved the destitute, dowered orphan girls, filled his granaries in time of plenty, sold grain cheaply in time of dearth, and forgave the debts of impoverished purchasers. He was a good husband, a good father, a generous friend.

In 1468 he built for himself, his court, and the five hundred members of his government a palace that served not so much as a bastion of defense as a center of administration and a citadel of letters and arts. Luciano Laurana, a Dalmatian, designed it so well that Lorenzo de’ Medici sent Baccio Pontelli to make drawings of it. A façade of four stories, with four superimposed arches in the center and a machicolated tower at each side; an inner cortile of graceful arcades; rooms now mostly bare but still revealing, by their irremovable carvings and magnificent fireplaces, the taste and luxury of the time; this was the center of the court where Castiglione molded his Courtier. The rooms that most delighted Federigo were those in which he gathered his library, and discoursed with the artists, scholars, and poets who enjoyed his friendship and patronage. He himself was the most widely accomplished man in the state. He preferred Aristotle to Plato, and knew the Ethics, Politics, and Physics thoroughly. He put history above philosophy, doubtless feeling that he could learn more about life by studying the record of human behavior than by tracing the web of human theory. He loved the classics without surrendering his Christianity; he read the Fathers and the Scholastics, and heard Mass every day; in peace as well as war he was a foil to Sigismondo Malatesta. His library was as well provided with patristic and medieval literature as with classic works. For fourteen years he kept thirty copyists transcribing Greek and Latin manuscripts, until his library was the fullest in Italy outside the Vatican. He agreed with his librarian, Vespasiano da Bisticci, that no printed book should be allowed entry to the collection; for they thought of a book as a work of art in binding, lettering, and illumination, as well as a vehicle of ideas; and almost every book in the palace was carefully handwritten on vellum, illustrated with miniatures, and bound in crimson leather with silver clasps.

Miniature painting was a favorite art at Urbino. The Vatican Library, which purchased Federigo’s collection, prizes particularly two volumes of the “Urbino Bible” which the Duke commissioned Vespasiano and others to illustrate, bidding them, says Vespasiano, to “make this most excellent of all books as rich and worthy as possible.”17 To adorn the palace walls Federigo brought in tapestry weavers and the painters Justus van Ghent from Flanders, Pedro Berruguete from Spain, Paolo Uccello from Florence, Piero della Francesca from Borgo San Sepolcro, and Melozzo da Forli; here Melozzo painted two of his finest pictures (one now in London, the other in Berlin), showing the cultivation of the “sciences” (i.e., literature and philosophy) at the court of Urbino, with a splendid portrait of Federigo. From these painters, and from Francia and Perugino, came the stimulus that developed Urbino’s own school, led by the father of Raphael. When Caesar Borgia appropriated the art treasures of the palace in 1502 they were valued at 150,000 ducats ($1,875,000?).18

Federigo had few enemies, many friends. Pope Sixtus IV made him a duke (1474), Henry VII of England made him a Knight of the Garter. When he died (1482) he bequeathed a flourishing principality and an inspiring tradition of justice and peace. His son Guidobaldo did his best to follow in his steps, but disease interfered with his military pursuits, and left him an invalid through most of his life. In 1488 he married Elisabetta Gonzaga, sister-in-law of Isabella, Marchioness of Mantua. Elisabetta too was a frequent invalid, made timid and gentle by physical weakness. Perhaps she was relieved to find that her husband was impotent;19 she was content, she said, to live with him as a sister;20 and on that basis they avoided the quarrels of man and wife. She became his mother rather than his sister, cared for him tenderly, never deserted him in his tragic tribulations. Her letters to Isabella are all the more precious because they reveal a delicacy of feeling, a warmth of family attachment, that are sometimes ignored in moral appraisals of the Renaissance. When, after a fortnight’s visit at Urbino in 1494, the lively Isabella returned to Mantua, Elisabetta sent after her this touching note:

Your departure made me feel not only that I had lost a dear sister, but that life itself had gone from me. I know not how else to soften my grief, except by writing every hour to you, and telling you on paper all that my lips desire to say. If I could express the sorrow I feel, I believe that you would come back out of compassion for me. And if I did not fear to vex you, I would follow you myself. But since both these things are impossible from the respect which I owe to Your Highness, all I can do is to beg you earnestly to remember me sometimes, and to know that I bear you always in my heart.21

One of the questions discussed at the court of Guidobaldo and Elisabetta was, “After perseverance, what is the best proof of love?” The answer was, “The sharing of joys and griefs.”22 The young couple gave plentiful proof. In November, 1502, Caesar Borgia, after flourishing protestations of friendship for Guidobaldo, suddenly turned his army up the road to Urbino, claiming that principality as a fief of the Church. The ladies of Urbino brought to the Duke their diamonds and pearls, their necklaces, bracelets, and rings, to finance an impromptu mobilization for defense. But Borgia’s treachery had left no time for effective resistance; what troops could now be mustered would be easy victims of the trained and ruthless force that was advancing; the bloodshed would be useless. Duke and Duchess left their power and wealth, fled to Città del Castello and thence to Mantua, where Isabella received them with loving commiseration. Borgia, fearing that Guidobaldo would organize an army there, demanded that Isabella and her Marquis should dismiss the exiles; and to protect Mantua Guidobaldo and Elisabetta moved on to Venice, whose fearless Senate gave them protection and sustenance. A few months later Borgia and his father, Alexander VI, were struck down with acute malarial fever in Rome; the Pope died; Caesar recovered, but his finances collapsed. The people of Urbino rose against his garrison, drove it from the city, and joyously welcomed the return of Guidobaldo and Elisabetta (1503). The Duke adopted his nephew Francesco Maria della Rovere as heir to his throne; and as Francesco was nephew also to Pope Julius II, the little principality remained for a decade secure.

In the five ensuing years (1504–8) the court of Urbino became the cultural model and paragon of Italy. Though fond of the classics, Guidobaldo encouraged the literary use of Italian; and it was at his court that one of the earliest Italian comedies—Bibbiena’sCalandra— received its first performance (c. 1508). Sculptors and painters carved and painted scenery for the occasion; the spectators sat on carpets; an orchestra, hidden behind the stage, provided music; children sang a prelude; ballets were danced between the acts; at the close a Cupid recited some verses, viols played a song without words, and a quartet sang a hymn to love. For though Urbino’s was the most moral court in Italy, it was also the center of the movement that raised woman upon a pedestal, and liked to talk of love—Platonic or unphilosophical. The leading spirits in the cultural life of the court were Elisabetta, who had no viable alternative to Platonic love, and Emilia Pio, who remained to the end of her life the chaste and grieving widow of Guidobaldo’s brother. A livelier element was contributed to the circle by Bembo the poet and Bibbiena the dramatist; an esthetic dash by a famous singer, Bernardino Accolti, called Unico Aretino—”the one and only Arezzian”—and the sculptor Cristoforo Romano, whom we have met in Milan. A seasoning of noble blood was provided by Giuliano de’ Medici, son of Lorenzo; Ottaviano Fregoso, soon to be Doge of Genoa; his brother Federigo, destined to be a cardinal; Louis of Canossa, soon to be papal nuncio to France. Others now and then joined the group: high ecclesiastics, generals, bureaucrats, poets, scholars, artists, philosophers, musicians, distinguished visitors. This varied company gathered in the evening in the salon of the Duchess, gossiped, danced, sang, played games, and conversed. There the art of conversation—the polite and urbane, serious or humorous consideration of significant matters—reached its Renaissance peak.

It was this genteel company that Castiglione described and idealized in one of the most famous books of the Renaissance—Il Cortigiano, The Courtier, by which he meant the gentleman. He was himself an exemplary gentleman: a good son and husband, a man of honor and decency even amid the dissolute society of Rome, a diplomat esteemed by friend and foe, a loyal friend who never had an unkind word for anyone, a gentleman in the best definition as a man always considerate of all. Raphael caught his inmost character astonishingly well in the superb portrait that hangs in the Louvre: a wistful meditative face, dark hair and soft blue eyes; too guileless to be successful in diplomacy except by the sheer charm of his integrity; clearly a man who would love beauty, in woman and art, in manners and style, with the sensitiveness of a poet and the comprehension of a philosopher.

He was the son of Count Cristoforo Castiglione, who held an estate in the territory of Mantua, and had married a Gonzaga relative of the Marquis Francesco. At eighteen (1496) he was sent to the court of Lodovico at Milan, and pleased everyone by his good nature, good manners, and versatile excellence in athletics, letters, music, and art. When his father died his mother urged him to marry and attend to the perpetuation of his line; but though Baldassare could write most elegantly of love, he was too Platonic for matrimony; and he kept his mother waiting seventeen years before he yielded to her counsel. He joined the army of Guidobaldo, achieved nothing but a broken ankle, convalesced in the ducal palace at Urbino, and remained there for eleven years, enamored of the mountain air, the courtly company, the gracious conversation, and Elisabetta. She was not beautiful, she was six years older than he, and almost as heavy, but her gentle spirit captivated his; he kept her picture behind a mirror in his room, and composed secret sonnets in her praise.23 Guidobaldo eased the situation by sending him on a mission to England (1506); but Baldassare seized the first excuse to hurry back, The Duke perceived that there was no harm in him, and graciously consented to form with him and Elisabetta a Platonic ménage à trois. Castiglione stayed on till the Duke’s death (1508), continued in chaste devotion to the widow, and remained at Urbino until Leo X deposed the nephew of Guidobaldo and put upon the ducal throne a nephew of his own (1517).

He returned to his little patrimony near Mantua, and disinterestedly married Ippolita Torelli, twenty-three years his junior. Then he began to fall in love with her, first as a child, then as a mother; he perceived that he had never really known woman, or himself, before, and the new experience brought him a profound and unprecedented happiness. But Isabella persuaded him to serve as Mantuan ambassador in Rome; he went reluctantly, leaving his wife behind in the care of his mother. Soon across the divisive Apennines a tender letter came:

I have given birth to a little girl. I do not think you will be disappointed. But I have been much worse than before. I have had three bad spells of fever; I am better now, and I hope it will not return. I will write no more, as I am not very well yet, and I commend myself to you with all my heart.—From your wife who is a little exhausted with the pain, from your Ippolita.24

Ippolita died shortly after writing this letter, and Castiglione’s love of life died with her. He continued to serve Isabella and the Marquis Federigo in Rome; but even at the polished court of Leo X he missed not only the peace of his Mantuan home but the integrity, kindliness, and grace that had made the Urbino circle almost the embodiment of his ideals.

He had begun in Urbino (1508), he finished in Rome, the book that carried him down to posterity. Its purpose was to analyze the conditions that produced, and the conduct that distinguished, a gentleman. Castiglione imagined that fine company at Urbino discussing the subject; perhaps he reported, nicely refined, some of the conversations he had heard there; he used the names of the men and women who had spoken there, and gave them sentiments agreeing with their characters; so he put into the mouth of Bembo a paean to Platonic love. He sent the manuscript to Bembo, asking if the now exalted secretary of the pope had objections to this use of his name; the genial Bembo had none. Even so the timid author kept his book unpublished till 1528; then, a year before his death, he surrendered it to the world only because some friends forced his hand by circulating copies of it in Rome. Within ten years it was translated into French; and in 1561 Sir Thomas Hoby made it a quaint and piquant English classic, which every educated Elizabethan read.

Castiglione was not quite sure, but he inclined to believe that the first requisite of a gentleman must be gentle birth; i.e., it would be very difficult for one to acquire good manners, and an easy grace of body and mind, except by being reared among persons already possessing these qualities; aristocracy seemed a necessary depository, nursery, and vehicle of manners, standards, and taste. Secondly, the gentleman must, early in life, become a good horseman, and learn the arts of war; enthusiasm for peaceful arts and letters must not be carried to the point of weakening in the citizens the martial qualities without which a nation is soon enslaved. Too much war, however, can make a man a brute; he needs, along with the hardening hardships of soldiering, the refining influence of women. “No court, how great soever it be, can have any sightliness or brightness in it, or mirth, without women; nor any courtier can be gracious, pleasant, or hardie [brave], nor at any time undertake any gallant enterprise of chivalrie, unless he be stirred with the conversation and love… of women.”25 To wield this civilizing influence woman must as far as possible be feminine, avoiding all imitation of the male in carriage, manners, speech, or dress. She must discipline her body to comeliness, her speech to kindness, her soul to gentleness; therefore she should learn music, dancing, literature, and the art of entertaining; in this way she may achieve that inner beauty of spirit which is the stimulating object and genesis of true love. “The body, where beauty shineth, is not the fountain whence beauty springeth… because beauty is bodiless.”26 “Love is nothing else but a certain coveting to enjoy beauty”;27 but “whoso thinketh in possessing the body to enjoy beauty, he is far deceived.”28 The book ends by transforming the lusty chivalry of the Middle Ages into that pale Platonic love which is the last disappointment that a woman will forgive.

The ideal world of refined culture and mutual consideration that Castiglione had conceived collapsed in the brutal sack of Rome (1527). “Many times,” reads a passage toward the end of his book, “abundance of wealth is cause of great destruction, as in poor Italy, which hath been, and still is, a prey and booty in the teeth of strange nations, as well for the ill government as for the abundance of riches in it.”29 He could in some measure reproach himself for the disaster. Clement VII sent him (1524) as papal nuncio to Madrid to reconcile Charles V to the papacy; Clement’s own behavior made the mission difficult, and it failed. When the news reached Spain that the troops of the Emperor had invaded Rome, imprisoned the Pope, and destroyed half the wealth and grace that Julius and Leo and a thousand artists had created there, life flowed out of Baldassare Castiglione as from a severed vein; and at Toledo in 1529, aged but fifty-one, the gentlest gentleman of the Renaissance passed away.

His body was taken to Italy, and his mother, “who against her will survives her son,” raised a tomb to his memory in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie outside of Mantua. Giulio Romano designed the monument, and Bembo composed for it an elegent inscription; but the finest words engraved on the stone were the verses that Castiglione himself had composed for the grave of his wife, whose remains were now, in accordance with his will, brought to lie beside his own:

Non ego nunc vivo coniunx dulcissima vitam

corpore namque tuo fata meam abstulerunt,

sed vitam tumulo cum tecum condar in isto,

iungenturque tuis ossibus ossa mea:

“I do not live now, O sweetest spouse, for fate has taken my life from your body; but I shall live when I am laid in the same tomb with you, and my bones are joined with yours.”30

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