Unwelcome Fame

The book’s prefatory letter is addressed to the Bishop of Viseo, Michele de Silva. In it, Castiglione blames a third party for forcing him to print his work against his will. Having lent a copy of the work in manuscript to the noblewoman Vittoria Colonna (1490–1547), herself a refined writer, Castiglione discovered that she was circulating the text in Naples and allowing it to be copied. He thus felt compelled to go to print with a ‘clean’ version of the work, ‘considering it a lesser evil to allow it to appear only partially corrected by my own hand than very damaged by the hands of others’, as he says here.

While it was common practice for Renaissance authors, especially aristocratic ones, to cite various excuses for having their works printed, presumably in order to distance themselves from any charges of fame-seeking or desire for financial gain, in this case Castiglione’s claims were true. Letters between him and Vittoria Colonna in the early 1520s reveal his repeated attempts to retrieve his manuscript. There is also a letter from Colonna to Castiglione, dated 1524, in which she apologises for failing to return the work, and praises it in the highest terms both for its style and its subject matter: ‘I have never seen, nor believe I will see again, another work in prose better or even equal to this one, nor worthy of second place to it.’

Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano (Venice: Aldo Manuzio and Andrea Torresano, 1528), sig. *2r. Cambridge University Library, F152.b.2.5.