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Castiglione vs. Cicero: political engagement, or effeminate chatter?

by Susan Gaylard

The political message of Castiglione's Cortegiano, first published in 1528, seems to bear little resemblance to that of its formal model, Cicero's De Oratore. While Cicero's ideal republican orator is actively engaged in political debate, Castiglione's courtier is in many respects an entertainer: removed from the possibility of civic engagement, the courtier's most obvious attributes are aesthetic. Despite these differences, Castiglione opens the final book of his dialogue with two strong Ciceronian echoes: he first laments the deaths of three key speakers, and then compares all of the dialogue's interlocutors with the Greek leaders who emerged from the Trojan horse. The result of the double reprise is that Cicero's focus--the silencing and displacement of the ideal orator in the context of political crisis, and his ambivalence toward a new cultural model--forms the backdrop for Castiglione's Book Four. This essay focuses on the political significance of" these motifs to show that the Cortegiano both critiques the wistful idealism of Cicero's De Oratore and offers a solution to the paradoxes inherent in the Ciceronian dialogue. While Cicero's best speakers adhere to their principles, they are ineffectual in a political crisis. In addition, although Cicero's text is heavily indebted to Greek culture, it offers at best an ambiguous view of Greek oratory, stigmatizing it as "effeminate" and divorced from political reality. Castiglione's reconsideration of these contradictions seeks not only to justify the new profession of courtiership but also to establish its superiority to the Ciceronian model. Implicitly critiquing Cicero's nostalgic republican idealism, the Cortegiano validates both side-switching as necessary for political survival, and the "effeminate" arts of courtiership as a tool for empire-building.

KEYWORDS Renaissance, Castiglione, Cicero, Effeminacy, Imperialista, Republicanism, Trojan horse

Cicero, Castiglione, and Crisis

Cicero's De Oratore (c. 55 BCE) and Castiglione's Libro del Cortegiano (1528) both seek to define the role of the male intellectual in public life--yet both were written during socio-historical moments in which the aristocratic man was threatened with political disempowerment. (1) The resultam contradictions in the texts are clear. For Cicero, the great senatorial orators celebrated in his dialogue are dead, and with them, the Roman republic that the orator is supposed to serve: in its place is political turmoil--and, in Cicero's own case, retirement from public life. In addition, De Oratore borrows extensively from Greek literature, yet it denounces the Greek separation of philosophy and ethics from oratory as pernicious, effeminizing, and distasteful. Cicero, like most of the cultural elite, was himself a Hellenist whose work was heavily indebted to Greek culture, and yet his dialogue considers the increasing Greek influence in Rome a threat to Roman pragmatism and ethical political engagement (Zetzel, 2003). A similar set of paradoxes is evident in the case of Castiglione, a nobleman or cavaliere writing in an age in which the medieval chivalric ideal was alive only in the pages of literature. In place of the self-determining, arms-bearing knight were men obliged to entertain lords and ladies at court with speeches, music, poetry, and the occasional chivalric spectacle. What is more, fifteenth-century humanist notions of emulating both classical writers--like Cicero--and their celebrated ancient heroes, were being questioned (Greene, 1982; Hampton, 1990). With the rise of the northern Italian signorie, or despotic city-states, active engagement in politics modeled on Cicero's Roman republicanism (advocated by the likes of Leonardo Bruni) was clearly obsolete. Although the university-educated "man of letters" still drafted laws, wrote poetry and treatises, and performed the role of ambassador, he was clearly subordinate to the prince, and his place at court was precarious and lacked definition. While indispensable to the running of both court and state, the early sixteenth-century Italian aristocrat rarely held a stable, secular, political post; and, perhaps for this reason, writers increasingly sought the security of ecclesiastical office (Dionisotti, 1967). Exacerbating the situation in Italy was the succession of wars following the French invasion of 1494 and extending beyond the Sack of Rome in 1527, which has led to these decades being characterized as a period of crisis during which "men of letters" were dispersed from one court to another (Mazzacurati, 1985: 55-64).

In the midst of this turmoil, the question of imitation--the relevance of an idealized classical past to an increasingly brutish present--loomed large. When Castiglione modeled his Libro dei Cortegiano on Cicero's De Oratore, he was situating the dialogue within a much broader intellectual debate about imitation--both imitation of Cicero's prose, and imitation of the kind of engagement in republican politics advocated by Cicero. (2) Considering that the courtly aesthetic of the Cortegiano is far removed from De Oratore's model of civic political activity, Castiglione's ample borrowings from Cicero seem to suggest that he was more concerned with literary imitation than with apparently obsolete notions of applying the political lessons of the ancients to real life in the present day. Cicero's perfect orator is, by definition, an ideal citizen, actively engaged in "the endless toil of public speaking" to serve the state (1.1). (3) Indeed, serving the patria is so important that the author-narrator--assuming the role of ideal orator himself--laments his lack of free time for the leisure of contemplation and study. We know that this is disingenuous since Cicero wrote De Oratore while he was retired from politics and had the time to devote to writing. (4) Castiglione, by contrast, wrote the Cortegiano during his long and active political career; yet he presents leisure as the motor for the dialogue. In the fiction of the text, discussing the ideal courtier is ostensibly one of many games intended to pass the time at court. While Cicero's orator embodies the republican ideal of civic engagement, Castiglione's courtier is, at least superficially, an entertainer, a man whose livelihood depends on his ability to amuse the court with playful speeches, carefully balancing gravity with play in a process Daniel Javitch (1983) has called "studied indirection."

Given the playful framing of the Cortegiano and its courtly setting, it is not surprising that critics have tended to focus on Castiglione's stylistic borrowings from Cicero--especially the discussion of jokes in Book Two. (5) Castiglione's proem, however, positions his dialogue in a genealogy of ancient political treatises, including Cicero's De Oratore; and Javitch famously argued that the courtier is an alternative model to the orator, highlighting the contrast between Castiglione's and Cicero's political programs (1978, 18-49). As we shall see, Castiglione's text revisits and offers a corrective to both De Oratore's ambivalence about its debt to the Greeks, and the persistence of Cicero's republican idealism in an increasingly non-republican political climate.

The fourth and final book of the Cortegiano opens with two important motifs borrowed from De Oratore, which suggest that the author had a specific political purpose in highlighting Cicero's dialogue as his primary model. Castiglione's author-narrator starts this final book with a lament for the deaths of three interlocutors. He then compares all of the dialogue's speakers with the Greek leaders who emerged from the Trojan horse. Both the elegy for the three dead speakers, and the Trojan horse image, echo Cicero's text. (6) The result of the double reprise is that Cicero's focus--the silencing and displacement of the ideal orator in the context of political crisis, and his ambivalence toward a new cultural model--forms the backdrop for Castiglione's Book Four, opening the section of the dialogue that redefines the aristocratic intellectual as the magisterial educator who leads the prince to build empires. In this way, by reworking two Ciceronian motifs, Castiglione critiques Cicero's anti-Hellenic republican idealism, highlights the paradoxes weakening Cicero's model citizen-orator, and shows the advantages of his own, alternative model of political engagement.

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