The Fickle Prince

At this point in the second book of the Libro del cortegiano, an uncomfortable note of realism is inserted into the dialogue by the speaker Federico Gonzaga. He points out that courtiers do not always rise at court according to merit, but, because princes are fickle and superficial, often virtuous men are overlooked or scorned. ‘Fortune has great sway over the opinions of men’, he asserts. Thus the prince might decide on a whim to reject a man, even ‘the most virtuous in all the world’, and whatever the prince does all his acolytes do too.

Gonzaga’s intervention casts a problematic light back on the earlier sections of the text: if the courtier is working to perfect himself in order to please his prince, and the prince is in fact a fool, then what is the point of the courtier? It was in part to resolve ambiguities like this, which crowd the text throughout, that Castiglione added the fourth book of the dialogue, which introduced the discussion of the courtier’s duty to lead the prince towards virtue. Notably, the later English translation ignored or underplayed such ambiguities in order to present Castiglione’s work more as a conduct book.

Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano (Venice: Aldo Manuzio and Andrea Torresano, 1528), sig. e8r. Cambridge University Library, F152.b.2.5.

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