Baldassare Castiglione  

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Baldassare Castiglione (1478 – 1529) was an Italian writer, courtier, diplomat and soldier, author of The Book of the Courtier, a courtesy book dealing with questions of the etiquette and morality of the courtier. It was very influential in 16th-century European court circles and helped spread the art term sprezzatura.

Biography (Opdycke)

Baldesar Castiglione was born on his father’s estate of Casatico in the Mantuan territory, 6 December 1478. Michelangelo was his senior by four years; Leo X by three years; Titian by one year; Giorgione and Cesare Borgia were born in the year of his birth, while his friend Raphael and also Luther were his juniors by five years.

His surname is said to be derived from the little town at which Bonaparte defeated the Austrians near Mantua in 1796, and which is by some supposed to have taken its name from Castrum Stiliconis, Camp of Stilico, a Roman general of the 4th century. One Tealdo Castiglione was Archbishop of Milan as early as 1074, from which time the family is often and honourably mentioned in the annals of northern Italy.

Baldesar’s parents were Count Cristoforo Castiglione, a soldier-courtier, and Luigia Gonzaga, a near kinswoman of the Marquess of Mantua. The boy studied at Milan,—learning Latin from Giorgio Merula and Greek from Demetrios Chalcondylas, an erudite Athenian who had fled from Byzantium about 1447, and of whom another pupil wrote: “It seems to me that in him are figured all the wisdom, the civility and the elegance of those ancients who are so famous and so illustrious. Merely seeing him, you fancy you are looking on Plato; far more when you hear him speak.”

Having spent some time at the splendid court of Ludovico Sforza at Milan, Castiglione lost his father in 1499, and (the Sforzas being expelled the same year) he returned to Mantua and entered the service of his natural lord, the Marquess Gianfrancesco Gonzaga; he accompanied this prince to Milan to witness the entry of Louis XII of France, and afterwards on an expedition to aid the French in their vain effort to hold the kingdom of Naples against the Aragonese. When Gonzaga abandoned the French cause (after being defeated by Ferdinand the Catholic’s “Great Captain,” Consalvo de Cordova, near the Garigliano in 1503), Castiglione obtained leave to go to Rome, and there met Duke Guidobaldo di Montefeltro, who had come to pay homage to the newly elected Pope Julius II. He entered the duke’s service, and soon became one of the brightest ornaments of that brilliant company of statesmen, prelates, scholars, poets, wits and ladies, known as the Court of Urbino.

In 1504 he took part, under Duke Guidobaldo, in the papal siege of Cesena against the Venetians. The next year he attended the duke on a diplomatic visit to Rome. In 1506 he was sent to the court of Henry VII of England to receive the insignia of the Order of the Garter on the duke’s behalf. As appears from a letter to his mother, he returned to Urbino as early as 5 March 1507, notwithstanding his mention of himself in The Courtier as still absent in England at the date (8-11 March) of the dialogues he professes to report at second hand. In the same year he was sent on a mission to Louis XII at Milan.

314On Guidobaldo’s death in 1508, Castiglione continued in the service of the new duke, Francesco Maria della Rovere (“my lord Prefect” of The Courtier), who appointed him governor of Gubbio. In the following year he served in his master’s campaign against the Venetians, and contracted a dangerous illness, during which he was tenderly nursed by the dowager duchess, Elisabetta Gonzaga. In 1511 he accompanied the duke to Rome on the occasion of the latter’s trial for the murder of Cardinal Alidosi, and was active in Francesco Maria’s successful defence. In 1513 the duke created him Count of Novillara and gave him an estate of that name, which however he soon lost through the Medici usurpation of the duchy, and never regained. At the death of Julius II, Castiglione was ambassador to the sacred college, and continued in that office during nearly the whole of Leo X's pontificate. His numerous letters show the variety and importance of the diplomatic business in which he was engaged.

Several plans for his marriage came to nothing, and on one occasion, when the lady’s father hesitated, the suitor broke off negotiations, saying: “The wife that I am to take, be she who she may, I desire that she should be given to me with as good will as I take her withal,—yea, if she were the daughter of a king.”

Pope Leo having in 1516 basely deprived Francesco Maria of the Duchy of Urbino, Castiglione accepted an invitation to Mantua and there married Ippolita, daughter of Count Guido Torello di Montechiarugolo and Francesca Bentivoglio, a daughter of the former ruler of Bologna. This union proved exceptionally happy and was blessed by three children: a son Camillo, a daughter Anna, and a second daughter Ippolita, at whose birth the young mother lost her life in 1520. His son attained the age of eighty years, and is said to have been the true embodiment of the qualities described in The Courtier.

Castiglione resided alternately at Mantua and at Rome, where he served as Mantuan ambassador, and where his learning, wit, taste, gentle disposition and integrity earned for him an almost unique eminence at the papal court.

In 1524 he was sent by Pope Clement VII as ambassador to the Emperor Charles V (who was waging war against the French in Italy), but while his counsel and high qualities were appreciated, he was too honest a man to cope with the tortuous politics of the time, and proved unable to avert the capture and sack of Rome (1527) or the imprisonment of the pope. These catastrophes, together with a malicious and easily disproved charge of treason brought against him, preyed upon his health, and despite the many honours conferred upon him by Charles, he failed to rally, and finally died at Toledo, 7 February 1529, without again seeing his native land. His body was afterwards brought to Italy and buried in the church of the Madonna delle Grazie near Mantua, where his tomb was erected from designs by his young friend Giulio Romano.


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