Defining the gentleman and the gentlewoman in the Italian Renaissance
By Lisa Saracco
Political Systems and Definitions of Gender Roles, edited by Ann Katherine Isaacs (University of Pisa, 2001)
Synopsis: Examines the way the figures of the gentleman and the gentlewoman developed in European culture during the Renaissance. Much of this article is based on The Courtier by Baldassar Castiglione, an influential 16th century description of the ideal court. This shows us the elaboration of a kind of elite in which gentlewomen and gentlemen were given explicitly intertwining roles in permitting social exchange to take place in a peaceful and elevated setting.
Introduction: Here I wish to discuss the way the figures of the gentleman and the gentlewoman developed in European culture during the Renaissance. To define these roles I will start from a very important text of Italian literature, The Courtier by Baldassar Castiglione. This book, written as a dialogue, gradually came to exert great influence on court society. It contributed unquestionably to the building of the way of life in court society during the period of modern state formation. The Courtier provided the basic grammar of European court society until the French Revolution. Why? There are four reasons which give a particular authority to this book in defining the figures of the gentleman and the gentlewoman.
The first is the European perspective expressed by the book, which comes from the life experience of the author. Baldassar Castiglione, born near Mantova in 1478, lived in many Italian Renaissance courts: in Milan at Ludovico il Moro’s court and later at the Gonzaga court in Mantova. From 1504 to 1513 he lived in Urbino, at the court of Guidobaldo di Montefeltro. The ducal palace of Urbino is the setting of the Courtier. In 1521, after the death of his wife, he became a clergyman. In 1524 he was sent by the pope Clement VII to the Spanish court of Charles V as apostolic nuncio. In 1529 he died of plague in Toledo. Although the genesis of The Courtier is strictly linked to the Urbino period, the book was subjected to some revisions, which allowed Castiglione’s political and diplomatic experience and a new European perspective to emerge. The last revision corresponds to the edition of the book printed in 1528 in Venice. In the published work the particular view of the court became more universal.