Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Castiglione: The Book of the Courtier

Today, I finally procured a book I have always meant to read. The Penguin edition of Castiglione's classic "The Book of the Courtier". This about how to be a courtier in Urbino around 1512. Combined with the Gospels, it is the central inspiration behind the main writers of the English Renaissance, including Shakespeare and the Sidneys. Shakespeare's English witty interchanges are based on Italian word play explained in this book.

I love its Penguin introduction. It made me laugh out loud on the train this evening in spite of fellow passengers seemed vaguely nonplussed by the very unfashionable title. Basically, it states that this book is almost an affront to the modern age. The editor writes,

"It is hard to think of any work more opposed to the spirit of the modern age".

Let's take that statement at face value. The "Book of the Courtier" is about being a Renaissance man (or woman), scholar, Christian, poet, writer, servant, a self contained hero and Christian. It is about correct speech and dress, becoming a skilled amateur who is well read, educated, charming and witty. It teaches that the essence of being a true gentleman is nonchalance and his weapons are wit and a good outfit. I have yet to find out why the Vatican put it on the "Index" of proscribed books until the end of the 19th century.

The modern age is much more serious, in some ways less open, and, apart from the internet, less interesting. Modernity is about being an expert in one tiny area of knowledge, living behind a metaphorical "arrow slit" from which one shoots arrows of wisdom into the world before one retreats into one's impregnable "castle" of qualified expertise. End of story, and discussion. It does not want us to aspire to do many things, like the Renaissance. It approves post modernism, anti-intellectualism, anti -romanticism, anti- Christianity. The last thing it worships is correct speech, the right clothes and hates nonchalant charm in either men or women. Amateurism is sneered at. One has to have a qualification or even better a PhD, in order to be trusted with anything.

So why do I have the feeling that the Western world is in far more chaos today, offering less enduring achievements, with all its "expertise" and degrees, than it was under these "expert amateurs" of the Renaissance?

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