The Courtier, Book IV
Bembo's Discourse on Love: a fitting conclusion to The Courtier?

by Souvik Mukherjee

Introduction: The idea of the Renaissance Gentleman. Just as it is false to see the Renaissance as a simple and sharp contrast with the Middle Ages, as did Michelet and Burckhardt, neither should it be seen as all of one piece. After the age of civic humanism came the dominance of the Medici in Florence, and in those contacts made with eastern scholars when the Council of Florence was attempting the reconciliation of the Eastern and Western Churches (a last effort to stave off the menace of the Turk) Cosimo de'Medici had been attracted to the figure of Plato. So there came his patronage of Marsilio Ficino and the birth of the Platonic Academy. Ficino became the disciple of Plato, and an advocate of neo-Platonism. Perhaps coincidentally, but as befits a court, the contemplative ideal began once more to gain over the active one. It was transmitted potently to Europe by a book that mirrored one of the noblest of Italian courts, that of Urbino. This was Baldassar Castiglione's Il cortegiano/The Book of the Courtier). Published in 1528 (that is, after the Sack of Rome, 1527) it has a nostalgic vision of the civilisation nurtured in Urbino from the time of Federigo da Montefeltro, in one of the most beautiful of princely palaces. Apart from offering in its close the neoplatonic idea to Europe, it recommended not so much the status of the courtier, as the ideal of the gentleman. There is no other comparable book that encapsulated the ideals of the Italian Renaissance, and its European success ensured the diffusion of the message. (Penguin Hutchinson Reference Library Copyright © 1996 Helicon Publishing and Penguin Books Ltd)


Renaissance Humanism became increasingly concerned with the self and the fashioning of the self. In Il Cortegiano (The Courtier), published in 1528, Conte Baldassare Castiglione's ideal courtier is an exponent of the latter. The education or the self-fashioning of the courtier involves almost everything under the sun. Therefore, as the courtier must learn the proper skills of war, he must also learn how to love. Love, the deportment of the courtier towards court-ladies, keeps recurring in the conversation in the court at Urbino during the discourses of all four nights and the many controversies generated by Gaspar Pallavicino, Lord Julian, and Bernard Bibiena all involve love and culminate ultimately in Pietro Bembo's inspired Platonic exposition.

Here, however, are a few problems. There seems to be a certain incongruity between the original fashioning of a practical reckelesse courtier, not averse to dissimulation, and the ideal angelic soul of Bembo's discourse. Even the ideals of mediocritas and gratia seem no longer relevant. This has been noted by scholars such as Burckhardt in his Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy.

The theory of well-bred love-making, set forth in the third book, is full of delicate psychological observation, which perhaps would be more in place in a treatise on human nature generally; and the magnificent praise of ideal love, which occurs at the end of the fourth book, and which rises to a lyrical elevation of feeling, has no connection whatever with the special object of the work. [1]

Burckhardt however goes on to add that this was entirely in keeping with the culture of the time and that such discourses 'were actually frequent in good society, cannot be doubted, and that it was an affectation, but genuine passion'.

Yet, perhaps, seen in another light, Bembo's account of Love does not appear entirely incongruous. The 'special object of the work' as Burckhardt puts it, is to fashion the ideal courtier, and after the fashioning of the perfect 'gentlewoman' by the Lord Julian in the third book, Lord Octavian takes over the duty of improving the courtier figure as devised by Count Lewis and Sir Frederick Fregoso. His courtier is indeed quite an improvement on theirs. For the first time we find a social role being given to the courtier. Instead of using his sprezzatura merely to curry favour with his prince and further his own ends, he should use it to gain access to his prince so that he can advise the prince when needed. Thus there seems to be a progressive trend towards creating the perfect courtier. The courtier now has a more rational essence because of his usefulness to the prince and to society.

Bembo's discourse too, tries to rationalize the aspect of the courtier as a lover. In doing so, he talks of 'Beauty', which signifies goodness. It is not merely the beautiful woman. He talks about the 'beawtifull heaven, beawtifull earth, beawtifull sea, beawtifull rivers, beawtifull wooddes, trees, gardeines, beawtifull Cities, beawtifull Churches, houses, armies.' [2] He later goes on to equate beauty with goodness. This beauty need not have any immediate source, instead it can live in the courtier's imagination. Contemplation of the individual is followed by the perception of universal beauty and then the soul reaches the angelic state. The process of perfection of the courtier therefore reaches its culmination with the creation of the perfect angelic soul which is able to perceive universal goodness.

Under such circumstances, we might agree with Burckhardt's suggestion that the courtier ultimately is concerned only with his own perfection. Love, in Bembo's discourse is like a religion, a worship of perfection outside of himself. As Sir Walter Raleigh says, 'the courtier ran the risk of growing too preoccupied with his own improvement ever to accomplish anything.' Bembo's courtier transcends all the worldly functions of the courtier-image that were hitherto given us.

On the one hand it can be seen as the perfection of the courtier's soul, and on the other as an account independent of the main subject, i.e. the etiquette for courts in cinquecento Italy. If we recall the beginning of The Courtier, we find that most of the proposed pastimes have to do with love: either to examine the virtues of the beloved, or to seek the reason for her disdain, and so on. The education of the courtier too involves the question of how to love, following from the medieval ars amandi. Bembo's discourse might be an answer to all of these various approaches to love.

Looked at as a separate discourse on love, what Bembo says fits beautifully into the Renascence paradigm. It serves as a response to ideas of chivalry and it also follows as a commentary on Platonic and Neo-platonic conceptions of love. In this, Bembo shows his Humanist training as he skilfully uses both Plato's Symposium and Ficino's commentaries on the Symposium to give an account of love that is almost lyrical. Plato, in Symposium says, 'to sum up, there are two aspects of Venus: the intelligence in the angelic mind, and the generating power of the world soul. They are both accompanied by love. By innate love the first is compelled to contemplate the beauty of god, and the second to recreate this beauty in material forms'.

Ficino also speaks of this in De Amore and of 'Divine Frenzy' in his letter to Peregrino Agli. Bembo's discourse also implies the great chain of being where the human soul is free to ascend to the heights of divinity or to descend to the depths of bestiality. To quote Burckhardt once more, 'Yet here, as in the 'Asolani' of Bembo, the culture of the time shows itself in the delicacy with which this sentiment is represented and analyzed.' Considered in itself, it embodies the spirit of Humanist scholarship as well as the belief in the centrality and freedom of the soul.

To the considerable space devoted to the discourse on love, Bembo's words provide an apt conclusion. From a discussion which was largely revolving around physical (and at times carnal) love, he moves to the paradigm of reason and understanding. This is a feeling open to both the young and the old because imagination as well as reason play a large part in it. On this level, the problems caused by infidelity or other untoward situations among courtiers and court-ladies will never arise. Then he transcends the rational and speaks of a love which is divine and perfect love which is the acme of all forms of love.

Having perfected the notion of how a courtier should learn to love, Bembo ends by taking the courtier's soul to an angelic perfection where he can perceive the universal soul. This transcends the worldly duties of the courtier, because it can be seen as the ultimate state of perfection for any man, therefore, this is taking the courtier to the ultimate perfection. If we consider Bembo's discourse on love in the light of either of these viewpoints, then it seems to be a fitting conclusion to Castiglione's The Courtier.

[1] Burckhardt, Jakob. The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. (1860). [I have used the Project Gutenberg etext for all my references to Burckhardt]

[2] This English translation of The Book of the Courtier is that of Sir Thomas Hoby (1561) as edited by Walter Raleigh for David Nutt, Publisher, London, 1900, and partakes of the virtues and faults, as may be, of that edition.

© Souvik Mukherjee, September 2002
Souvik Mukherjee, formerly of Jadavpur University, Calcutta, obtained his Ph.D. from Nottingham Trent University in 2009
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