Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Joking Matters: Politics and Dissimulation in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier [*]

Academic journal article Renaissance Quarterly

Joking Matters: Politics and Dissimulation in Castiglione's Book of the Courtier [*]

Article excerpt

A gentleman is never unintentionally insulting.

Oscar Wilde

The Book of the Courtier outwardly portrays an aura of cordial solidarity as courtiers gathered in Urbino from various regions of Italy attempt to describe the ideal courtier; recently, however, critics have uncovered tensions on various fronts which threaten to expose deep rifts under the elegant courtly veneer. While these "counter" readings have focused primarily on the courtier's relation to the prince and to other courtiers, this essay aims to explore conflicts that arise from the different regional and political affiliations of the group. In particular, I argue that the largely ignored section on joke-telling teaches courtiers how to give vent to their animosity under the cover of humor and dissimulation.

The Book of the Courtier depicts a group of courtiers from various regions of Italy gathered at Guidobaldo da Montefeltro's court in Urbino in 1507. In the course of four evenings of conversation they attempt to create with words the portrait of the ideal courtier. The text outwardly portrays an aura of cordial solidarity; recently, however, critics have uncovered tensions on various fronts which threaten to disrupt the game and to expose deep rifts under the elegant courtly veneer. These "counter" readings have focused primarily on the courtier's relation to the prince and to other courtiers: while the book ostensibly teaches one how to win the favor of the prince and the admiration of one's peers, Castiglione characterizes the former as a despot blinded by poor judgment and the latter as envious rivals ever ready to undermine and attack one's efforts. [1] Given the different regional origins and affiliations of Castiglione's courtiers, one might also expect to find tensions and conflicts owing to the animos ity among the peninsula's various political powers. That the topic of regional rivalry has not received critical attention suggests the care with which Castiglione has presented a sense of unity within multiplicity. Nevertheless, in keeping with the book's healthy dose of realism, Castiglione does find an outlet for the airing of regional disputes. This paper explores how regional rivalries surface in the section on joke-telling (2.43-93). [2] Here, under the cover of humor, courtiers take jabs at one another that reflect the political tensions among the peninsula's various regions.

The Courtier's section on joke-telling has generally received scant attention, and has often been dismissed as of little importance and not well integrated with the rest of the work. [3] J. R. Woodhouse has been kinder to this section than most, arguing that Castiglione's aim was to achieve a sense of italianita which he would have found in Boccaccio's Decameron. As Vittore Branca has pointed out, however, Boccaccio's mercantile novel was also sensitive to regional animosity, especially that between Venice and Florence: "Venice, resounding with trade, suspicious and jealous of the Florentines, is sketched through a veil of scornful animosity with its customary 'escutcheon' of corruption, disloyalty, and garrulous frivolity, which was well known in Tuscan business circles and surely confirmed by Boccaccio's friends from Romagna" (41). Yet, since all ten of Boccaccio's storytellers were Florentine, regional disputes were not apt to develop within the frame story. Castiglione pushes further the sense of Italy's economic and political fragmentation through a conflict among his joke-tellers themselves. The conflict concerns principally the Venetian Pietro Bembo (1470-1547) and the Florentine Bernardo Dovizi da Bibbiena (1470-1520), both of whom were noted writers and statesmen of the time.

Bibbiena's first joke sets the stage in various ways. To Federico Fregoso's stated intention to rest in Bibbiena's words "as if under some most pleasant and shady tree alongside the soft murmur of a flowing spring," [4] Bibbiena replies: "If I showed you my head, you would see what shade could be expected from the leaves of my tree. …

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