Friday, October 10, 2014

The Book of the Courtier


I found some good advice about growing old gracefully in the second section of a Renaissance book called The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione (1478 – 1529), Count of Novillara.  As I aspire to a "green and lively old age," I shall try to profit from its wisdom.

Castiglione's book is composed of a series of conversations concerning what is required of a courtier.  In the excerpt I have given below, the speakers are Juliano de Medici (My Lord Magnifico), Messer Federico, and Lord Morello.  Federico takes the position that a true courtier must be a man in his mature middle years.  Morello disagrees.

Here Federico begins to develop his argument.  He asserts that a courtier must be skilled in the musical arts, but music making by old men is "unseemly and unlovely."

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Federico said, "But discretion must needs be the spice of everything, for it would be quite impossible to foresee all the cases that occur; and if the Courtier rightly understands himself, he will adapt himself to the occasion and will perceive when the minds of his hearers are disposed to listen and when not.  He will take his own age into account: for it is indeed unseemly and unlovely in the extreme to see a man of any quality old, hoary and toothless, full of wrinkles playing on a viol and singing in the midst of a company of ladies, even though he be a passable performer.  And the reason of this is that in singing the words are usually amourous, and love is a ridiculous thing in old men, albeit it is sometimes pleased among its other miracles to kindle frozen hearts in spite of years."

Then the Magnifico replied: "Do not deprive old men of this pleasure, messer Federico; for in my time I have known old men who had right perfect voices and hands very dexterous upon their instruments, far more than some young men."

"I do not wish," said messer Federico, " to deprive old men of this pleasure, but I do wish to deprive you and these ladies of the pleasure of laughing at such folly.  And if old men wish to sing to the viol, let them do so in secret and only to drive from their minds those painful thoughts and grievous troubles with which our life is filled, and to taste that rapture which I believe Pythagoras and Socrates found in music. And even although they practise it not, by somewhat accustoming their minds to it they will enjoy it far more when they hear it than a man who knows nothing of it.  For just as the arms of a smith, who is weak in his other members, become stronger by exercise than those of another man who is more robust but unaccustomed to use his arms, in like manner ears practised in harmony will perceive it better and more speedily and will appreciate it with far greater pleasure, than others, however good and sharp they be, that are not versed in the varieties of musical consonance; because these modulations do not penetrate ears unused to hearing them, but pass aside without leaving any savour of themselves; albeit even the beasts have some enjoyment in melody.

"This then is the pleasure it is fitting old men should take in music. I say the like of dancing, for in truth we ought to give up these exercises before our age forces us to give them up against our will."

Here my lord Morello replied with a little heat: "So it is better to exclude all old men, and to say that only young men have a right to be called Courtiers."

Then messer Federico laughed, and said: "You see, my lord Morello, that they who like these things strive to seem young when they are not, and hence they dye their hair and shave twice a week.  And this is because nature silently tells them that such things are proper only to the young."

All the ladies laughed, for each one of them felt that these words fitted my lord Morello; and he seemed rather stung by them.  Messer Federico soon continued: "But there are many other ways of entertaining ladies that are proper to old men."

"What are they?" said my lord Morello. "Telling stories?"

"That is one," replied messer Federico.  "But as you know, every age brings, its own thoughts with it, and has some peculiar virtue and some peculiar vice.  Thus, while old men are ordinarily more prudent than young men, more continent and wiser, so too they are more garrulous, miserly, querulous and timid; they are always scolding about the house, harsh to their children, and wish everyone to follow their way.  And on the contrary young men are spirited, generous, frank, but prone to quarrel, voluble, loving and hating in an instant, eager in all their pleasures, unfriendly to him who counsels well.

"But of all ages, that of manhood is the most temperate, because it has left the faults of youth behind and has not yet reached those of old age.  Being placed then at the two extremes, young and old must needs learn from reason how to correct the faults that nature implants in them.  Thus, old men ought to guard against much self-praise and the other evil habits that we have said are peculiar to them, and to use that prudence and knowledge which they have gained from long experience, and to be like oracles consulted of all men; and in telling what they know, they ought to have the grace to speak to the point and temper the gravity of their years with a certain mild and sportive humour.  In this way they will be good Courtiers, enjoy their intercourse with men and with ladies, and be always welcome, without singing or dancing; and when need arises they will display their worth in affairs of importance.

"Let young men use this same care and judgment, not indeed in copying old men's ways, for that which befits the one would not at all befit the other, and we are wont to say that overwisdom is a bad sign in the young, but in correcting their own natural faults.  Hence I greatly like to see a youth, and especially when handling weapons, who has a touch of the grave and taciturn; who is master of himself, without those restless manners which are often seen at that age; because such youths seem to have a certain something in them above the rest.  Moreover this quietness of manner has in it a kind of impressive boldness, because it seems the result not of anger but of judgment, and governed more by reason than by passion.  This is nearly always found in all men of high courage, and we see it also among those brute animals that have more nobility and strength than their fellows,as in the lion and the eagle.

"Nor is this strange; for an impetuous and sudden movement, which without words or other signs of wrath abruptly bursts with all its force at once from the quiet that is its contrary, as it were like the discharge of a cannon, is far more violent and furious than that which increases by degrees and grows hotter little by little.  Therefore they who talk much and move about and cannot stand still, when they have an enterprise on foot, seem thus to exhaust their powers; and as our friend messer Pietro Monte well says, they act like boys who sing from fear when they walk at night, as if to keep up their courage by their singing.

"Again, just as calm and thoughtful youthfulness is very praiseworthy in a young man, because the levity which is the fault peculiar to his age seems to be tempered and corrected, so in an old man a green and lively old age is to be highly esteemed, because his stoutness of heart seems to be so great as to warm and strengthen his feeble and chill years, and to keep him in that middle state which is the best part of our life."
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