Presenting Castiglione’s The Book of the Arts Student

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Baldassare Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528) was the etiquette book for those who wanted to make it in the world of the Renaissance court. His guidance spans several hundred pages and covers matters of rhetoric, mannerisms, warfare, philosophy, love, etc., etc., etc. A little excessive? Perhaps. But becoming a Renaissance man required a little more than following a simple 5-step plan.

Of course, in 2019, many of his tips are stale and dusted off only to be laughed at. Yet, is there still some wisdom to be gleaned from Castiglione’s work? Some wisdom, perhaps, that may help young hopefuls who want to fit in in the world of the Arts Department? Does Castiglione’s courtier have anything in common with the woke art student of today? Let’s find out.


1. The Golden Rule of Sprezzatura: [The Courtier must] eschew as much as a man may, and as a sharp and dangerous rock, Affectation … neyther ought a man to put more dilgence in any thing then in covering [his art]: for in case it be open, it loseth credit cleane, and maketh a man litle set by.

Sprezzatura? What sprezzatura? To succeed in Arts, you must follow this rule religiously, but of course, admit this to no one. Not even yourself. Your aesthetic, including the pencil stub you use to take notes, your small notebook filled with bits of paper and doodles, and your paper bag lunch, is completely natural. No, you did not go out to buy a special notebook despite the five Hilroys lying around at home. No, of course you did not purposely cover your sweatshirt in paint smears. In fact, you hadn’t even noticed they were there. You see, you were very distracted this morning…you’re working on this new project…


2. Trueth it is, there are many wordes in Petrarca and Boccaccio worne out of use now a daies: and suche would I never use neither in speakyng nor in writyng, and peradventure they themselves if thei were nowe alive would use them no more.

This one’s difficult. Certainly it is vital not to be caught using antiquated language —only the newest terms will do — but that does not mean one must revert to the vulgar tongue. In fact, you must never be absolutely clear. Intellectual prowess and maturity, you see, reveal themselves in ambiguity. You might, for example, be dragged to the mall, but you’ll be sure to tell your friend you resent having to step foot in this “capitalist institution enabling reification and perpetuating the lie that spiritual meaning can be commodified.”


3. [In] letters I will have [the Courtier] to bee more then indyfferentlye well seene, at the leaste in those studyes which they call Humanitie … Notwithstanding I wyll have oure Courtier to keepe faste in his minde one lesson, and that is this, to be alwaies wary … and rather fearfull then bould, and beware that he perswade not him self falsely to knowe the thing he knoweth not indede.

Baglione had it slightly off here. Arts students do know everything. Rather, the proper way of preceding is to preface everything you say with a disclaimer that you know nothing, and then proceed to make statements of staggering sweep (in the utmost confidence that you know what you’re talking about because you once took a class on Kant and Nietzsche).


4. In verye deede I am not able to geve anye certeyne rule about rayment, but that a man should frame himselfe to the custome of the moste … But I saie that the garment is withall no small argument of the fansie of him that weareth it…

Ahh, now we’ve hit the heart of the matter, and, unfortunately, Baglione got it wrong again. The Arts student must never dress according to common fashion. Never. Even if it means rummaging through a pile of clothes in a St. Laurent thrift store to find trousers worn by a 1960’s factory worker which you pair with a t-shirt of your own fashioning. But, remember also that you just fell into these clothes. It was no effort at all…


5. What kinde of wayes therefore those be that the Courtier ought to use in causing laughter and of what scope: … That is in like maner an honest and comelie kinde of jesting that consisteth in a certein dissimulacion, whan a man speaketh one thinge and privilie meaneth another.

This one is spot on. After all, what is saying one thing while meaning another if not irony? Which happens to be the all-important tool in the Art student’s kit. If, in conversation, you are hit with the unsettling realization that you are not all-knowing, cover your tracks by speaking with an ironic lilt. It is your get-out-of-jail-free card. Plus, if you’re talking with someone who’s as unsure as you, you can pat each other on the backs and laugh at the poor sods who think everything is straightforward.

N.b. This piece was partially written in a spirit of self-mockery.

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