Tuesday, 2 November 2010

Castiglione's ideal woman

Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier is a literary treasure of Italy, put on the Index of Forbidden Books by the Vatican for 400 years, not least because of its views on the equality of women.

Consider these words written by a Castiglione, five hundred years ago:
  • 'Do you not know that Plato who was certainly no great friend of women, put them in charge of the city and gave all the military duties to the men?' 
  • 'Don't you think that we might find many women just as capable of governing cities and armies as men?'
  • 'Cannot you recall reading of many women who knew philosophy, of others who have been consummate poets, and others who prosecuted, accused and defended before judges with great eloquence?'
  • 'I say that everything men can understand, women can too and where a man's intellect can penetrate, so along with it, can a woman's'
This sounds like modern feminism but more attractive. Castiglione's high view of female mental ability is balanced by the view that women should remain totally feminine. They should always appear a woman without artifice and without any resemblance to a man.

In The Book of the Courtier, he warns women not to do macho things - namely, wrestle and play tennis. They must not play the trumpet, drums, play the fife, because stridency is not feminine.  For him, these instruments are fit only for brazen women, who lack the qualities special to women.

Castiglione's ideal woman is someone who is highly educated, graceful, able, feminine, witty, agreeable, charming - and spirited. This is exactly the kind of heroine that William Shakespeare creates in his plays.  It is the type of woman that Jane Austen admires.

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