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on 17 July 2008
There really was a Camelot. But it was in Italy, Urbino in northern Italy to be exact, in the 1500s. Perched on top of a couple of hills in the region Le Marche, Urbino was ruled by the Montefeltro family. From 1444 to 1482 Federigo de Montefeltro skillfully steered his tiny domain through the rough storms of Italian Renaissance realpolitik. Federigo was a successful soldier of fortune yet maintained one of the largest libraries in Italy, spoke Latin, read Aristotle, helped orphans and in general earned the love of his people. He built a beautiful fairy-tale palace and had Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca decorate it.

His less fortunate son Guidobaldo inherited this charming and well-run dukedom. Guidobaldo married the cultivated Elisabetta of the Gonzaga family from Mantua. He was an invalid and not made of his father's stern military stuff. A victim of the brilliant military campaigns of Cesare Borgia that so enchanted Machiavelli, Guidobaldo was temporarily deposed. When the Borgias (Cesare and his father Pope Alexander VI) died, the people of Urbino rose up, drove out Borgia's soldiers and cheered Guidobaldo and Elisabetta upon their return.

For the next few years the court of Elisabetta and Guidobaldo was the most beautiful, enlightened, genteel place on earth. They attracted musicians, scholars and artists. Conversation was honed into a fine art. Into this paradise strode our Lancelot, Baldasare Castiglione, a diplomat descended from minor Italian nobility. He loved Elisabetta, but as far as we know the devotion remained platonic

It is because of Castiglione that we believe we have a sense of what the court of Montefeltro was like, or at least how they would have like to have been remembered. His "The Book of the Courtier" (Il Cortigiano) painstakingly analyzes the attributes of a gentleman through conversations (probably highly idealized) of refined visitors to Urbino.

It's a long, slow, but thoroughly enjoyable book. It is a window into the renaissance mind. It does not describe how the Italians of the sixteenth century were, Machiavelli and Cellini are probably more useful there. But it tells how they wanted to be. The book was read and studied by nobility all over Europe.

It's also how I wanted them to be. Urbino is one of my favorite places. It's a crowded student city now. But on a quiet morning when only a few people are about and the sun has made its way over the hills from the Adriatic, I can imagine that I can see the ghosts of Elisabetta and Guidobaldo walking on the cobbled streets outside their beautiful palace. Fussy, snobbish, yet kind and gentle Castiglione and his wonderful book help make that fantasy more real.
-Bill McGann, author of "The Story of the Tour de France"
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on 27 August 2011
Castiglione, writing in the 16th century is noted as a renaissance writer, and his role was that of giving advice to the young men of the aristocracy. However, do not expect much similarity to the gems of essential wily wisdom offered by that other 16th century statesman and political scientist, Machiavelli, and do not expect pointed, shrewd and perceptive psychological insights of a similar quality to those that La Rochefoucauld offered the elite aristocrats in the 17th century.

Castiglione however, I found to be interesting for anthropological or sociological reasons. We gain insight into the roles of women, and the assumption that men were innately superior beings - Castiglione teaches that women are inferior, somewhat wretched beings, aspiring for cosmic and heavenly perfection when they form bonds with men - whilst men are corrupted and made imperfect by their bonds with women.

We also learn about men's tastes in art, and fashion - Castiglione chastises a fashion amongst the idle rich of wearing eye liner and plucking their eye brows, and behaving in an effeminate manner, whilst he advises his charge to be manly, taking care of his physical form, that should be as masculine as imposing as possible, yet, graceful and dignified. The young aristocrat should also ensure that he studies painting and classical Greek and Roman literature.

Of interest too, is Castiglione's teachings regarding how the aristocracy should hold on to their power and encourage faithfulness from his peasant class, and in these verses, we also gain insight into what newly emerging concepts of `nation', `patriotism' and `identity' meant in the 16th century - one might speculate that these national identities meant far more to the aristocrats, who had much to gain from such definitions and sense of belonging, whilst to the peasant, these notions probably meant little more than fulfilling the roles of a diligent servant and as cannon fodder in times of war and strife.

Castiglione also gives advice on a number of other topics, such as how to behave in company of ones equals, superiors and inferiors - Castiglione advises respect for the concepts of otherworldliness and detachment displayed by the philosopher and religious figures -- but the young aristocrat should realise these are not at all the correct ways for a worldly man to behave, should he wish to gain respect from fellow aristocrats, statesmen and his servants, the peasant and common man.

Castiglione's book is interesting, but as mentioned before -- do not expect the insights of others 16th century writers such as Machiavelli, whose wisdom we can still apply today to an understanding of realist schools of thought, political science and international relations.
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VINE VOICEon 10 March 2014
It felt at times like reading a book on a university reading list - hard work but you can see it's a classic. It's the Italian Renaissance equivalent of How To Win Friends and Influence People.

Still, it's relevant today - how are you supposed to behave in the court of David Cameron, for example? He's surrounded by aristocratic and talented individuals, and he clearly wants loyalty, but how should his courtiers handle him?

The perfect courtier needs to be honest and persuade the prince to be virtuous. How many of them manage that?

It reminded me of Montaigne and Robert Burton - good stories from the Classical world are used to explain ideas.
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One of the `bestsellers' of the European Renaissance, Castiglione depicts, debates and has fun with articulating the virtues of the ideal Renaissance courtier. Engaging, witty, and entertaining, this is set up as a series of discussions set over four evenings at the court of Urbino, with the various characters agreeing, disagreeing and contesting each others' assertions. Everything from the courtier's ability to play tennis (really!) to his love life is up for debate, and this at least purports to give a female as well as male view.

The translation is now an old one, but it is elegant and unobtrusive. The introduction is probably a little slight as are the notes, but this is still a good price for an unexpectedly engaging read.
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on 27 November 2009
Baldesar Castiglione, writing at the beginning of the fifteen hundreds, shows a game held at the Court of Urbino where the lords, and to an extent the ladies, decide to play a game where they have to create the 'perfect courtier'. The first two books are devoted to the courtier, where the lords discuss humour, physical activities to be adopted by a courtier, how a courtier should be the best at everything and love.

Book three debates the lady of the court, they ladies act against what the Magnifico says, and when defended against ignorance they ask him to explain what he means because they do not understand. So I am not sure what Castiglione's point was at this juncture. For he is not consistant in this arguement

Though despite the minor blip in the sense of Book three (which was very intertaining) this book is well worth reading. Gives a great insight in to the attitudes and values of the medieval world. Is also helpful in the modern day, giving a model for perfect politeness.
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on 10 September 2013
I would Recommend this book to anyone who likes Italian history and it's wonderful eloquence.
A must for good bookshelves.
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on 23 October 2013
Part of my missed clasical education, as afoil to the Prince. I wish I had known it when I was young Manager
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on 9 September 2013
For the researcher, a very useful book. The chapter headings lay it all out for you (as they ought to do)
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on 12 December 2014
The condition of the cover was not good
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