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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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A Comparison of Renaissance Views


The Renaissance represented, more so than nearly any other previous era in European history1, the pinnacle of man. Other eras had viewed man as nothing more than a subject of God, a profligate sinner, or a helpless robot. The Renaissance was a rekindling of the classical view of man as an end in himself, a master of his own destiny, a being of self-made soul. To be sure, there were exceptions to this generalization, but they were of little import and were overshadowed by the overall trend. The Renaissance humanists believed man to be perfectible to a degree that, as I have said, few eras have.

The manner through which man could be perfected was the subject of many essays, dialogues, and treatises. Most took the form of a letter instructing a ruler or future ruler in the nature of a perfect ruler. From this, the ruler (or other reader) could extract the author's version of what it means to be perfect and how this is to be achieved. The two selections that I have chosen as my specimens for analysis are Francesco Barbaro's "On Wifely Duties" and Baldesar Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier. I chose these two because they are widely-read and representative of the culture of the Italian Renaissance. They present the proper role and nature of the ideal wife and courtier. That these were widely accepted is evinced by their popularity and longevity.

In each example, I will examine three areas: education, behavior, and attitudes. These areas all are essential in painting the complete portrait of the ideal—they are all part of the total program for perfection. By education, I mean what steps the author would have the ideal character take to acquire the knowledge necessary for him to be ideal. Each author outlines a program, some more explicitly than others, for the exemplar to follow. By behavior, I mean the model's outward manner—how he interacts with others. Each author is excruciatingly specific on this subject. Finally, I will delve into the attitudes of the ideal presented. It is not necessarily so that the external behavior matches the internal behavior. Again, some of the authors delve into this area more deeply than others.

In so exploring these pieces and areas, I hope to gain a better understanding of the dualistic nature of the Renaissance man and woman. On the one hand, they attempted to refine themselves because they believed that "man is a worthy being, capable of understanding the universe, and that the universe is worthy of man's interest and study."2 In other words, they displayed pride in man's nature. At the same time, however, they upheld the Christian virtues of humility, renunciation, and self-sacrifice—virtues which are antipodal to their outward behavior. This contradiction, so endemic in Renaissance culture, would prove to be the downfall of the Italian Renaissance—when the so-called "crisis of confidence in the intellect"3 reached its peak.

Francesco Barbaro's "On Wifely Duties"

Although the views expressed by Barbaro seem rather controversial today, it is important that we examine his beliefs in the light of the Renaissance—a time when feminism as we know it simply did not exist. In fact, the paradigm put forth by Barbaro was utterly incontrovertible. As Barbaro suggests, "the first principle [is] that she does not disagree with her husband on any point."4

The model wife has but two responsibilities: maintaining the household and rearing the children. The end to which she performs these twin duties is to free her husband of undue attention to family matters so that he may pursue his role in public service. Her entire education and upbringing are dedicated to these obligations. Barbaro does not go into great detail about the educational program of the ideal wife, probably because the focus of her duties is in the home.

Presumably, she must learn the proper methods of managing a household. Barbaro analogizes the wife's role to that of the leaders of the bees. She "supervise[s], receive[s], and preserve[s] whatever comes into their [home]…." She trains the servants, "demonstrat[ing], indicat[ing], and show[ing them] what they should be doing."5 Barbaro invests in her the responsibility of maintaining order above all else, since that is what "contributes greatly to the splendor, utility, and pleasantness of their homes."6 In keeping her house in order, she is better serving her husband: her thrift preserves his wealth and her diligence obviates his attention.

Her other role is that of mother. She must rear and educate the children, in order that they will not squander the wealth that will be bequeathed to them.7 The duty falls on her shoulders because Nature has "instilled in women an incredible love and affection for their offspring."8 Barbaro then lays out an agenda for the children's education, which, presumably, he believes would produce well-rounded Renaissance men and women. First, he says, they should be taught of their duty to "Immortal God, their country, and their parents…."9 Barbaro explains that only those people who fear God, honor their country, and respect their parents have any chance for greatness. The mother should also teach the children moderation and temperance in all things: food, drink, speech, passion, and laughter. Finally, the mother has the responsibility of instructing her children in virtue, by example. "I [Barbaro] would have mothers sharply criticized for displays of anger, greed, or sexual desire in the presence of their offspring, for these vices weaken virtue."10

In the area of outward manner, Barbaro has much to say to the Renaissance wife. First and foremost, the model wife must never disagree with her husband, as the prior quote illustrates. As Barbaro said, "let the husband give the orders, and let the wife carry them out with an even temper."11 This domestic tranquility is necessary in order for the husband to concentrate on his public service.

He also thinks the wife should appear to reflect her husband's mood: "Let wives strive so that their husbands will clearly perceive that they are pensive or joyful according to the differing states of their husband's fortunes."12 This harkens back to Barbaro's conception of the wife as handmaiden to her husband. If he is troubled, she should appear pensive. If he is successful, she should appear joyful. Further still, Barbaro advises, "If a husband, excited to anger, should scold you more than your ears are accustomed to hear, tolerate his wrath silently. But if he has been struck silent by a fit of depression, you should address him with sweet and suitable words, encourage, console, amuse, and humor him."13 Outwardly, then, the wife should function as an extension of the husband.

The final important component of a wife's conduct, in Barbaro's conception, is discretion. A woman must know when to speak and when to remain silent: "Loquacity cannot be sufficiently reproached in women…nor can silence be sufficiently applauded."14 Further, "[w]hen addressed, wives should reply very modestly to familiar friends and return their greetings, and they should very briefly treat those matters that the time and place offer them."15 In Barbaro's schema, it seems that women should strive to appear totally distant and aloof from all who are not their husband. This would also support the hypothesis that Barbaro desired women to occupy a subordinate position to men. For in praising women's so-called virtues, viz., silence, modesty, dependence, he is insuring their subordination.

In assessing the attitude or inner sentiments of the ideal wife as presented by Barbaro, we cannot find explicit references. We must look at the subtextual support. First, Barbaro supports and encourages repression. "[W]ives must take great care that they do not entertain suspicions, jealousy, or anger on account of what they hear with their ears."16 And, "[l]ust and unseemly desire are harmful to their dignity and to their husbands…."17 Also, the earlier quotes from Barbaro warning wives never to disagree with their husbands and to take their husband's anger silently, with no further mention. Finally, "I would like wives to live with their husbands in such a way that they can always be in agreement…."18 Barbaro, it seems, would have the model wife totally conceal and submerge her desires, opinions, resentment, and even joy. She would do this so that she may appear to her husband and others to be modest, chaste, and serious.

Another characteristic of Barbaro's ideal wife's psyche is dependence. This point has been emphasized already with respect to behavior, but it is even more important in her inner world. "Let her be so close to him that nothing seems good or pleasant to her without her husband."19 He also cites an example of a Spartan woman, taken from Plutarch, who thinks it "best to follow the wishes of [her] husband if [she] wants to be what [she] ought to be."20 The implication of these passages is not just that the ideal wife should behave as her husband wishes, but that she should believe as he wishes. In other words, she must subconsciously translate her opinions and desires into "correct" thoughts.

The picture I have painted of Barbaro's "On Wifely Duties" is bleak. The period in which it was written was not very conducive to the advancement of women, so I cannot judge it by today's standards. Barbaro's vision of the ideal wife is terribly unsettling to the modern woman. And rightly so, for it fosters dependence and repression. To the husband, it seemed perfect. A wife who is quiet, loving, and undemanding. Under the surface, however, the story changes dramatically. More than likely, the average Renaissance wife was a seething bundle of pent-up resentment and lust. There is a subtextual awareness on the part of Barbaro of exactly this sort of portrayal.

To sum, Barbaro believed that the wife should, foremost, obey her husband. She must endeavor to match his expectations and the expectations of others of how his wife should behave. Since her primary responsibilities are maintenance of the household and rearing of the children, Barbaro would have her education tailored to suit such needs, in addition to her considerable moral education.

Baldesar Castiglione's Book of the Courtier

The Book of the Courtier stands in marked contrast to "On Wifely Duties." For one thing, it covered a much more significant topic—at least to the average Renaissance reader. It also went into considerable detail about the education of its subject. It was also a treatise whose ideal was never realized. Also, its subject matter is such that modern readers cannot take umbrage at its direction.

Castiglione, in setting forth the program of education for the ideal courtier, divides the subject into two forks: education of mind and of body. On the latter, Castiglione is quite specific. Although the model courtier's profession is arms, he must be very learned in letters. He must know Latin and Greek. He must be well-versed in the poets, orators, and historians of antiquity, as well as being able to write poetry and prose in Italian. Castiglione supports the necessity of a liberal education to a soldier by citing several antique military commanders who were quite fond of literature, such as Alexander, Cæsar, Scipio Africanus, and Hannibal, among others.21 He reasons that a soldier familiar with the classical writings will be better able to use his mind, a skill necessary in combat.

His perfect courtier's corporal training begins with extensive familiarity with every kind of weapon, both on foot and on horseback, knowing the advantages of each one. He must also be proficient in wrestling, since wrestling "often accompanies the use of weapons on foot."22 Among the other sports he must excel at, such as horsemanship, swimming, jumping, running, and tennis, Castiglione singles out hunting, both for its "similarity to war" and its "suitab[ility] for a man at court."23 All of these elements in the overall regimen have a great effect in our courtier's preparedness for combat.

The mien of the courtier is similarly developed. From the precept, "avoid affectation,"24 Castiglione moves to the concept of sprezzatura or nonchalance. This principle (of nonchalance) governs every action of the courtier. This gracefulness "conceals all signs of artistry and makes whatever one does or says seem effortless and unstudied."25 It connotates a certain sense of false modesty; a particular skill may have taken a long time and much effort to acquire, but the courtier will pretend that he had never encountered the need for the skill until the present. Nonchalance extends into dress and appearance. Care must be taken to appear as if one does care about such things. Castiglione recommends simple clothing, virtually unadorned. As Castiglione said, "Art and intense effort, once it is revealed, deprive everything of grace."26

Another important aspect of the model courtier is courtly love. According to Castiglione, "love is nothing other than a certain desire to enjoy beauty…."27 Many people, Castiglione says, mistake beauty for a bodily characteristic. He contends that it is, instead, "divine goodness."28 Those who so confuse courtly love with physical love are "rebel[ling] against reason" and experiencing the same "pleasures in love…that unreasoning animals feel."29 Thus, Castiglione puts an unbreachable wedge between the pleasures of the mind and the pleasures of the body.

Similar to nonchalance, a good courtier should always give the impression that he is a great man, even though his words may downplay this and he might feel otherwise in his mind. He should give "the impression of avoiding self-praise while practicing it."30 This maintenance of reputation without visible effort is highly characteristic of the Renaissance. In Barbaro's work, the wife is constantly exhorted to remain composed and aloof so as to give observers the correct impression of her virtue. In fact, one could argue that Machiavelli's The Prince has this same idea for its theme. But I digress.

What, then, should the inner state of the courtier be like? Castiglione would have him be constantly calculative. For example, in his passage on the provocation of laughter, Castiglione implores the courtier to carefully weight the consequences of mockery. He says that the courtier should not deride those who are too low of station, which might excite compassion towards the individual being mocked and resentment towards the courtier, nor those of too high a station, as they may use their power to the courtier's detriment. Also, the courtier should be careful in speech: "Let the courtier be eloquent when it meets his purpose…."31 Further, he must be "diffident and reserved rather than forward."32 This reticence in external manner belies the internal calculation, in much the same way as the doctrine of nonchalance dictates.

Subtextually, we see much similarity to Barbaro's "On Wifely Duties." The courtier is constantly working to make his manner appear spontaneous and effortless. He attempts to garner esteem while explicitly denying the root causes for such praise. The appearance masks the reality. Moreover, in placing the locus of morality on others, Castiglione has made the courtier dependent on other's judgment and approval.


Herein lies the fundamental contradiction that doomed the Italian Renaissance. By Aristotle's Law of Non-Contradiction, something cannot simultaneously be both what it is and what it is not. Colloquially, contradictions cannot exist in perpetuity. While implicitly upholding the notion that man is an end in himself and perfectible, the Italian Renaissance simultaneously and explicitly embraced the Christian doctrines of man's body as smutty and degrading and man's nature as sinful. As the saying goes, you cannot have your cake and eat it too. Something had to give.

That something was reason. When their heretofore sovereign reason indicated that a contradiction was in the works, the Italians were faced with two options. Either they could reaffirm the dominance of reason and eradicated the contradictions inherent in their belief systems or they could banish reason altogether from the sphere of human activity. Since they had been indoctrinated with Christianity for over one thousand years, one could safely say that their cultural situation did not bode well for reason. They banished reason to the realm of the body—traditionally, science and mathematics—and upheld faith's supremacy in all things moral.

The consequences were dramatic and far-reaching. The Italian Renaissance wound down and the torch was passed to Northern Europe. The Italian cultural situation deteriorated in a series of wars. The papacy's power was diminished by the Lutheran Reformation. The focus of the Western intellectual tradition shifted to Paris, London, and Amsterdam rather than Venice, Florence, and Rome.

Castiglione and Barbaro were, however, still widely read after the fall of the Italian Renaissance. It is a tribute to their skill that the Book of the Courtier was still considered required reading for Northern European courtiers and that the model wife remained much the same. These two treatises have several similarities which I have mentioned. They both create ideal persons who are, at once, proud of their status and skill and required to qualify, marginalize, and downplay this same status and skill. They both create a rift between appearance and reality, mind and body, outer and inner. The only real difference is found in the nature of their subject matter. Barbaro really cannot say much, since the woman's role is as handmaiden to her husband. Castiglione has the freedom and opportunity to really create a Renaissance man.

1 The notable exceptions being ancient Greece and Rome.

2 Sures, Mary Ann. "Metaphysics in Marble." The Objectivist (March 1969): 11.

3 Bondanella, XVIII.

4 Kohl/Witt, 196.

5 Ibid., 217.

6 Ibid., 220.

7 Ibid., 221.

8 Ibid., 221.

9 Ibid., p. 224.

10 Ibid., p. 225.

11 Ibid., p. 193.

12 Ibid., p. 197.

13 Ibid., p. 193.

14 Ibid., p. 204.

15 Ibid., p. 205.

16 Ibid., p. 194.

17 Ibid., p. 213.

18 Ibid., p. 197.

19 Ibid., p. 196.

20 Ibid., p. 193.

21 Bondanella/Musa, p. 222.

22 Ibid., p. 215.

23 Ibid., p. 216.

24 Ibid., p. 219.

25 Ibid., p. 220.

26 Ibid., p. 220.

27 Ibid., p. 239.

28 Ibid., p. 239.

29 Ibid., p. 241.

30 Ibid., p. 213.

31 Ibid., p. 228.

32 Ibid., p. 223.