Baldassare Castiglione, count of Novellata (December 6, 1478 – February 2, 1529), was a diplomat and was a very prominent Renaissance author.
Baldassare Castiglione. Portrait by Raphael.
He was born in Casatico, near Mantua, Italy to an ancient family from Lombardy that had moved to there at the time of marquis Ludovico II Gonzaga, a relative of Luigia Gonzaga, mother of Castiglione.
In 1494, at the age of 16, Castiglione began his humanistic studies in Milan, which would eventually aid him in future writings. However, in 1499, after the death of his father, Castiglione left his studies and Milan to succeed his father as the head of their noble family. Soon his duties seem to have included representative offices for the court; for instance, he accompanied his marquis for the arrival in Milan of Louis XII. For Gonzaga he travelled quite often; during one of his missions to Rome, he met Guidubaldo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino, and in 1504 Gonzaga, although reluctant, allowed him to pass to that court.
Urbino was at that time the most refined and elegant among Italian courts, a meeting point of culture superbly directed and managed by duchess Elisabetta Gonzaga and her sister-in-law Maria Emilia Pia. The most constant guests included: Pietro Bembo, Giuliano de' Medici, Cardinal Bibbiena, Ottaviano and Federico Fregoso, Cesare Gonzaga (a cousin of both Castiglione and the duke), and many others. The hosts and guests organised intellectual competitions which resulted in an interesting, stimulating cultural life producing brilliant literary activity.
In 1506, Castiglione wrote (and played together with Cosimo Gonzaga) his eclogue Tirsi, in which allusively, beyond the figures of three shepherds, he originally depicted the court of Urbino. The work contains echoes of both ancient and contemporary poetry, recalling Poliziano and Sannazzaro as well as Virgil.
Castiglione wrote about his works and of those of other guests in some letters to other princes, maintaining an activity very near to diplomacy, though in a literary form, like with Ludovico da Canossa.
Francesco Maria della Rovere succeeded as duke at Guidubaldo's death, and Castiglione remained at his court; with Francesco Maria, he took part in Pope Julius II's expedition against Venice (an episode in the Italian Wars) and for this he received the title of conte di Novellata, near Pesaro. When Pope Leo X was elected, Castiglione was sent to Rome as an ambassador of Urbino. In Rome he shared friendship with many artists and writers; among these, Raphael soon became a close friend of his, frequently asking for his suggestions. Raphael gratefully painted a famous portait of Castiglione that now is at the Louvre, (Paris).
In 1516, Castiglione was back in Mantua, where he married Ippolita Torelli, descendant of another ancient noble family. He wrote two passionate letters to her, expressing a deep sentiment, but she unfortunately died only 4 years later, when Castiglione was in Rome again as an ambassador, this time for Mantuan Dukes. In 1521, Pope Leo X conceded him the tonsura (first sacerdotal ceremony), and thereupon began Castiglione's second, ecclesiastical career.
In 1524, Pope Clement VII sent him to Spain as nuncius apostolicus (ambassador of the Holy See) in Madrid, and in this role he followed Charles V to Toledo, Sevilla, and Granada. At the time of the Sack of Rome, the Pope suspected him of "special friendship" for the Spanish emperor Charles: effectively Castiglione should have informed the Holy See about the intentions of Charles V, it was his duty to investigate what Spain was planning against the Eternal City. On the other side, Alonso de Valdes (brother of Juan de Valdes and the secretary of the emperor) publicly declared that the Sacco was a divine punishment for the too many sins of clergy.
Castiglione, in an undoubtedly uncomfortable position, answered both, the Pope and Valdes, in two famous letters from Burgos. Valdes received a very long and severe letter in which the nuncius used hard terms to define the Sacco and Valdes' comments. The Pope received instead a letter (dated December 10, 1527) in which Castiglione dared to underline that several aspects of Vatican politics were ambiguous and contradictory, not at all a valid support in his action of pursuing a fair agreement with the Empire; this lack of coherence in the Church's actions had therefore irritated Charles V, was the sense of his argument.
Against any expectation, he received the excuses of the Pope and great honours by the emperor. Today it seems quite certain that Castiglione had no responsibility in the Sacco, and he had played honestly his role in Spain. Also, a popular story about his death due to remorse found no confirmation: he died by Black Death.
In 1528, the year before his death, the book by which he is most famous, The Book of the Courtier (Il Cortegiano), was published in Venice by Andrea d'Asolo (father-in-law of Aldus Manutius). The book is based upon Castiglione's times at the court of Duke Guidobaldo Montefeltro of Urbino. It describes the ideal court and courtier, going into great detail about the philosophical and cultured discussions that occurred at Urbino. The book defined the ideal Renaissance gentleman. In the Middle Ages, the perfect gentleman was a chivalrous knight who distinguished himself by his prowess on the battlefield. Castiglione's book changed that; now the perfect gentleman had to be educated in the classics as well. The book was soon translated into Spanish, German, French, and English, and 108 editions were published between 1528 and 1616. Pietro Aretino's La cortigiana is a parody of this famous work.
Castiglione's minor works are less known, yet still interesting. Love sonnets and four Amorose canzoni he wrote with reference to his Platonic love for Elisabetta Gonzaga, with a style that recalls very intensively Francesco Petrarca's through Pietro Bembo's ones. Pre-romantics will find in his sonnet Superbi colli e voi, sacre ruine a focal inspiration, however more written by the man of letters than by the poet. Latin poems are to be remembered, together with his elegy for the death of Raphael De morte Raphaellis pictoris , and the other elegy in which he imagined his wife (dead) was writing him. In Italian prose is remembered a prologo for Bibbiena's Calandria.
His letters are another point of interest, describing not only the man and his personality, but also details about the famous people he met and frequented, or about his diplomat activity; they are considered very important for political, literary, and historical studies.
He died in Toledo, Spain