The Courtly Lady

Book III discusses the courtly lady. Frustratingly for modern historians, the ladies who are present at the discussion rarely speak in Castiglione’s work, and this is no less true in Book III when the discussion turns to the merits of their own sex. Instead they elect a champion, Giuliano de’ Medici, who takes a relatively pro-women position in debating with a highly misogynistic speaker, Gaspare Pallavicino.

In this section, Giuliano describes the attributes of the ‘donna di palazzo’. He makes it clear that she should not have the same qualities as the male courtier: rather she should complement him, and her ‘ways, manners, words, gestures and behaviour should be very different from the man’. Where the courtier is virile, the courtly lady must be tender and delicate. Above all, it is more important for the lady to be beautiful than it is for the man, ‘for the woman who lacks beauty lacks much’.

Giuliano’s words are not as superficial and damning as they might appear. Neoplatonic philosophy, which was much in vogue in the Italian courts of this period, taught that outward beauty was a reflection of inner virtue. In falling in love with a beautiful woman, a man was led towards virtue and ultimately towards God.

Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano (Venice: Aldo Manuzio and Andrea Torresano, 1528), i1v. Cambridge University Library, F152.b.2.5. R

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