Baldassarre Castiglione's classic Book of the Courtier was set in the ducal palace at Urbino in the early-16th Century. Because of the Duke's illness, he always went to bed early after supper and his place as head of household and director of the evening festivities was taken by the Duchess Elisabetta Gonzago. This was quite an unusual role for women at the time, since the Duchess and her delegate Lady Emilia set the tone for the entire conservation and chose the topic and the speakers. Almost all of the gentlemen present would have chosen other subjects that they perhaps imagined would have been of more interest to the ladies, such as romantic love, personal and private relationships and the emotions of anger and jealousy so often associated with these. Instead, the Duchess and Lady Emilia seem far more interested in the 'man's world' of politics, diplomacy and military affairs, and prefer that the men discuss these things in their presence. They take little part in the dialogues themselves, beyond steering them in the direction they prefer and choosing the speakers. In the first book, Count Lodovico da Canossa describes the perfect courtier in very masculine terms as being adept at warfare and dueling, physically tough and well informed about modern developments, but also talented in the social graces, arts, music and poetry. He would not simply be a warrior knight but a well-rounded gentleman with a humanistic education, unlike his ancestors in the Middle Ages.
Medieval aristocrats and knights certainly put primary emphasis on their dueling and combat skills, though which they gained or defended honor. In the Renaissance, though, men and women also had newer concerns about the "presentation of self in everyday life" and the "self-fashioning" that became a major preoccupation of the gentry and aristocracy. Others outside of Italy also found uses for the new fashions, ideas, books and paintings of the period, which were all part of the civilizing process and "the rise of self-control" in Western Europe (Burke 9). All of the ladies and gentlemen in Castiglione's dialogues exhibit these carefully cultivated qualities of good taste and personal restraint, the type of manners and discipline practiced by monks in the Middle Ages. Like Count Lodovico, medieval knights would have understood the code of chivalry, treating ladies with respect, the need to be familiar with weapons and show courage and honor and battle. Unlike the ladies and gentlemen in The Book of the Courtier, though, they also lacked "self-control and refinement" and were subject to very violent passions (Burke 14). Aristocrats in the Middle Ages had their tales of knightly romance and warriors who felt melancholy when they were away from their ladies, and also rules about never striking women. By the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern era, they were also beginning to read books about manners and civility, so as how to avoid scratching, spitting and breaking wind at meal times and to use utensils rather than their hands. In general, the new humanist philosophy also emphasized "the dignity of man and his distinction from animals, who lacked speech and consequently the power to distinguish right from wrong" (Burke 18). All of these concerns were very much on the minds of all the characters in Castiglione's dialogues.
All the speakers in the dialogue were friends and acquaintances of Castiglione, including Count Lodovico da Canossa, Francesco della Rovere, Ottaviano Fregoso and Giuliano de Medici. Although the Duchess and her ally Lady Emilia Pia rarely speak in these dialogues, when they do they "are presented as effective in changing its course" (Burke 26). In describing the perfect courtier and ideal gentleman, the men do most of the talking, and create a composite character of noble birth, skilled in warfare and diplomacy, but also with extensive knowledge of the arts, music, joking and conversation, while noble ladies would also be familiar with literature, music and poetry. Castiglione noted that this book would never been published at all had it not been transcribed by a noble lady named Vittoria Della Colonna, Machioness of Pescara, who he held "in veneration as a thing divine" (Castiglione 1). By the time he published his book, most of the participants in the dialogues had died, and he admitted that "I grieve more bitterly for the death of my lady Duchess that of all the others, for she was more precious than they" (Castiglione 2). Indeed, throughout the conversations, all the other ladies and gentlemen are properly deferential to the Duchess because of her high rank and to Lady Emila because she formally delegates some of her powers to choose the topic of the discussion and who will speak first. Everyone was permitted talk, laugh and gest freely, and the all appreciated the wit and prudence of Lady Emilia, but they also were so very respectful of the Duchess "that this same liberty was a very great check" (Castiglione 11).
Lady Emilia and the Duchess steered the entire topic of discussion in a direction that would seem unusual for women in this time and place, away from subjects about love and romance to the very public and male world of the soldier and statesman. Of course, Europe in the Renaissance had its share of powerful female rulers such as Elizabeth of England and Isabella of Spain, but for most part women's lives were confined to the domestic sphere. This would be less true of someone like the Duchess, who rules the household due to the physical illness and incapacity of her husband, the Duke of Urbino. Castiglione carefully praises her absent husband, however, as having "a palace regarded by many as the most beautiful to be found in all Italy," ornamented with statues, paintings and books in Latin, Greek and Hebrew (Castiglione 9). Even though he was ill, the Duke "was never vanquished by fortune….he lived in illness as if in health and in adversity as if fortunate" (Castiglione 10). He had served him and his father, but singled out the younger man as an excellent soldier and diplomat who spoke Latin and Greek and appreciated the arts and philosophy. Nevertheless, he goes out of his way to praise the Duchess and for her wisdom and judgment in directing the discussion, and the Marcioness of Pescara for inspiring him to put it all in book form. He borrowed the dialogue form from Pietro Bembo, a student of the classical dialogues of Plato and Cicero after which the Book of the Courtier is modeled. Interestingly, Lady Emelia is purely a fictional character who Castiglione borrowed from Bembo's dialogues.
On the day of the great dialogue, Pope Julius II and his court had visited Urbino, which meant that a large number of gentlemen, artists, poets and musicians were also staying at the palace. Women attended these symposia, but "nearly always the number of men was by far the greater," and except for the Duchess and Lady Emilia none of them really took much part in the conversation. At the outset, the Duchess stated rather formally to Emilia that "I make you my deputy and give you all my authority," and then she calls on the gentlemen to suggest topics for the game (Castiglione 13). Romantic love seemed to be a prominent subject on the gentleman's minds, with Gaspar recommending that they discuss why every person imagined that their beloved had only the highest virtues with no defects, while another guest thought that the follies and foolishness of men would be a worthy topic. Unico Aretino showed interest in the Duchess and read a sonnet that he had obviously prepared in her honor, but she showed no interest in such flattery. Ottaviono Fregoso proclaimed that he did not rate himself "so high, or women so low, that I do not deem many of them worthy to be loved and served by me" and advanced the idea that they discuss the causes of anger that women felt towards the men they loved, and whether it was justified or not (Castiglione 18). Pietro Bembo always found the anger and jealousy of love "most bitter" rather than sweet, and recalled that a lady he once served had become jealous "not from my fault but from her lack of love" (Castiglione 18). Therefore the game should be about cases in which a beloved woman was angry with a man whether it would be better if it were caused by her actions or his.
In the end, the Duchess and Lady Emilia simply do not seem particularly interested in any of these romantic topics, but in the seemingly 'masculine' subject of describing the perfect courtier. Since they have the real power in this situation even though they do not participate very often in the actual discussions, all of the gentlemen present defer to their wishes and agreed that "this was the finest game that could possibly be" (Castiglione 20). In fact, their deference to the authority of the Duchess and Lady Emilia comes close to being obsequious, since Emilia also…