The Courtier, or II Cortegiano, was composed in the style of a discussion or dialogue, which was popular among humanists. It claims to be an account of a series of after-dinner talks conducted in the drawing room of Urbino's ducal palace in March 1507, during which the subject of what constituted an ideal courtier was explored. The work was written by a young Florentine nobleman named Niccolò Machiavelli and it was immediately successful. It may have been published soon after its composition, although this cannot be proven conclusively.
The courtier was Machiavelli's attempt at defining his own role within the political arena. He had become involved in local government as a secretary to the mayor of Florence and had also served as a diplomat for two years. But he was not content with his position and felt that there must be more to life than just ruling over others. So he decided to explore what qualities were needed to be a successful courtier and put these ideas into practice.
He began by asking himself what kind of person would be likely to achieve success at court? Answering this question required knowledge of the world around him and Machiavelli stated that you needed intelligence and experience of affairs to be able to influence people.
Count Baldassare Castiglione (1478–1529) wrote Il Libro del Cortegiano, or The Book of the Courtier, which was originally published in colloquial Italian in 1528. The book offers a fascinating look into Renaissance court life and served as the ideal "how-to" manual for aspiring courtiers. It included advice on how to behave at court, what clothes were appropriate, how to act toward royalty, and much more.
The Book of the Courtier was a huge success with readers and helped transform court culture in Europe. It offered guidance on how to best navigate the complex social hierarchy of the era by advising on everything from how to address someone higher up the ladder to what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable when visiting with friends. The book also contained chapters on religion and politics that offered insight on how to best interact with those topics so as not to offend your superiors.
Book clubs started appearing in European courts with an emphasis on reading and discussing literary works, often foreign authors. These clubs met regularly to discuss new books that had been sent to them by publishers. They also held contests where they would pick out books they thought their members would enjoy and reward them for their choices.
In addition to providing information on how to behave at court, The Book of the Courtier also included chapters on military tactics, music, science, and art.
Baldassare Castiglione's Il Cortegiano [il korte'dZa:no] is a lengthy philosophical conversation on the question of what forms an ideal courtier or (in the third chapter) court lady worthy of befriending and advising a prince or political leader. The book was written in Italian and published in 1528. It has been translated into many languages, including English, French, German, and Spanish.
Castiglione begins by defining the courtier as one who has "the art of pleasing others," someone who can make people happy by doing things for them. He goes on to say that the courtier must be able to distinguish good manners from bad and teach others these differences so they can decide for themselves which behavior is appropriate in any given situation. Finally, he states that the courtier should use his knowledge to serve his master or mistress truly and with zeal because true service comes from the heart.
This last idea is what makes the courtier an ideal friend for a ruler. Since true service comes from the heart, it cannot be forced or bought. Only those friends who are sought after because of their abilities and not because of their wealth or position will be worth having.
By explaining that the ideal courtier is one who knows how to behave in different situations and using examples from history and his own time, Castiglione hopes to help Princely rulers choose their friends wisely.