Friday, March 14, 2014

Etiquette, Italian Renaissance Style



They dine and hold court with sprezzatura. "Sprezzatura" is an Italian word originating from Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as "a certain  nonchalance" or "slightly contemptuous indifference."

Even before Louis XIV contained the nobility of France at court, groups of French aristocrats had performed an important experiment in manners. They were following in the tradition of Italian Renaissance treatises on behaviour, such as "Il Libro del Cortegiano" (The Book of the Courtier) by Baldassarre Castiglione, (published: two years before Erasmus's book "de civilitate"), the Galateo of Giovanni della Casa (the word for "etiquette" in Italian is still "il galateo") (1558), and "La Civil Conversazione" by Stefano Guazzo, (1574). These works --more philosophical, ethical, and political then regular manners books had set out to be -- were addressed to aristocrats only, although like Erasmus's treatise they soon became much more widely read, translated, adapted, copied, and discussed.

They emphasized the uniqueness, the grace, the innate good taste of the ideal courtier. You do not learn these graces, you just have them, and you know them when you see them; you recognize them in yourself and the people you choose to associate with. People who do not possess them are pitiable perhaps, but most probably irredeemable. You try your best to keep them out of your life.

An essential part of the charm of those with taste is its effortlessness: you must, says Castiglione, show "sprezzatura", a word meaning slightly contemptuous indifference.  You are not trying to be charming --to try is to ruin the entire effect, for you become thereby pretentious. To "reach" in this manner is by definition to pretend to a level you have not attained.  Indeed, the very fact that you are pretentious means you can never achieve it. Pretentious people sweat and struggle in their attempt to be what they are not -- whereas the elect, the born "powerful because best" (which is the original meaning of the Greek term "aristocrat"), must achieve nonchalance, literally, the state of "not being heated." Apart from the quality of being cool (that is, relaxed and unpretentious), it was very difficult to say in what, exactly, such charm consisted. One was forced to fall back on admitting that it could not be explained. The person in question just had a je ne sais quoi, an "I don't know what."
By Margaret Visser, from "The Rituals of Dinner" 


Judith Martin, aka "Miss Manners"

Don’t Be Disgusting 

A book review by Miss Manners


In Renaissance Europe, Italy was Etiquette Central, attracting all the fascination and ridicule that go with that honor.

English readers in the early 17th century assumed Tom Coryate, a professional jester turned travel writer, was joking when he reported that Italians did not attack their food with hands and hunting knives as did normal people, even normal royalty. Those finicky Italians wielded forks, a nicety that did not become common in the rest of Europe for another two centuries.

Italian princes, courtiers and patricians sought instruction on improving their behavior toward others. That was not a goal that often appeared on the to-do lists of the power elite elsewhere.

"Galateo" by Giovanni Della Casa, published in 1558
Of the three most prominent surviving Italian books on conduct, “Galateo,” by Giovanni Della Casa, published in 1558 and now out in a new translation by M. F. Rusnak, is the one that promotes civilized manners for their own sake. The respective aims of Baldassare Castiglione’s “Courtier,” which recommends sprezzatura, the Renaissance equivalent of being cool, and Machiavelli’s “Prince,” devoted to realpolitik (and therefore stressing effective, rather than genial, behavior), are admiration and glory.

Although “Galateo” is addressed to a favorite nephew, only in passing does Della Casa, an ecclesiastical diplomat, mention career advancement as an incentive to learn the ways of society. Nor, although he was an archbishop, albeit a worldly one who wrote salacious poetry, does he evoke God as his source, as did the earliest writers of rules of behavior. Rather, as a classics scholar, he uses an aesthetic standard.

Della Casa’s message is: Don’t be disgusting. Pretty much everything that comes out of a bodily orifice meets his definition of disgusting — so much so that the mere sight of someone washing his hands would upset people, as their minds would leap to the function that had necessitated that cleansing.


"Don't be disgusting." Giovanni Della Casa

 Spittle is not the only unpleasant thing emerging from the mouth, he warns. People who recount their dreams or brag about their children or sing off key are also offensive. Other unfortunately surviving etiquette problems he mentions include checking mail when in company, monitoring what others are eating, grooming in public and joking about disabilities.

Another one is targeting individuals for correction, always a conundrum for the etiquette writer. Della Casa squeaks himself through as a father figure who wishes someone had so instructed him in his youth. But he also excuses his hero, Galeazzo Florimonte, the bishop whose Latinized name he gave to this book. It seems the original Galateo, whose name even now is a synonym for good manners in Italy, once ran after a departing guest to inform him that he ate disgustingly. But because the complaint was bathed in compliments, Della Casa classifies it as a kindness.

A worse handicap is the general belief, then as now, that concern with how people mistreat one another, short of violence, is trivial and pretentious. The author, already known for his writing on subjects considered serious, anticipated that his latest interest would be considered frivolous. Being “appropriate, pleasant and polite,” he writes in response, “is either virtue or something very like virtue. And even though being liberal-minded or loyal or generous is in itself undoubtedly more important and laudable than being charming and courteous, nonetheless perhaps pleasant habits and decorous manners and words are no less useful to those who have them than a largeness of spirit and complete confidence.”

But he might not have expected his subject to be ridiculed by someone who took the trouble to translate “Galateo” (as dozens of others have, in many languages, over the centuries). In his introduction, Rusnak suggests that the book is intended to be comic, not only in its charmingly related examples but also in the above defense of etiquette, which he considers “too presumptuous to be anything but ironic.”

He then claims that “Giovanni Della Casa would be shocked” to be classified with the early- and mid-20th-century etiquette writers Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt, having nothing in common with their presumed preoccupation with “finishing schools, regulations for place settings, bridesmaids’ gifts and formal invitations to showers.”

On the contrary. The Americans emphasized the underlying moral impetus of kindness and consideration. And while Della Casa was unfamiliar with bridal and baby showers, he stresses the necessity of observing prevalent customs and even fashions, and he devotes a chapter to the importance of ritual. The Americans kept making the point that etiquette could be acquired by all; Della Casa, being of his time and station, declared that gentle ways are not for the lower classes and that “silly and tender manners are best left to the ­women.”

Therefore, implying that etiquette has lately taken a turn for the foolish and snobbish is not the way to tout “Galateo.” It holds an important place in the long and rich history of etiquette books, written at a time when the medieval openness about bodily functions was being discouraged. From Erasmus of Rotterdam, in his “On the Civility of Children’s Behavior,” to the late-16th-century Jesuits who wrote rules that are often mis-attributed to George Washington (because he copied them), Renaissance etiquette writers were all begging their readers to stop spitting and touching themselves in public.

More significant, they were coaxing people — or rather, the upper classes — into the modern idea of refined urban life. This is what makes the book of interest historically — its vivid picture of the widespread behavior being condemned. Della Casa’s explanation for his rules of dress, table manners, gestures and speech is the need to avoid offending others. That is the basic bargain required to live in peaceful communities.

Naturally, it never happens without a struggle. Although the fork had been introduced in France by the Italian Catherine de’ Medici when she married the future Henry II, Louis XIV was so annoyed to see a court lady use one a century later that he had hair put in her soup. In “Richard II,” Shakespeare has the Duke of York complain to the dying John of Gaunt about “proud Italy, / Whose manners still our tardy apish nation / Limps after in base imitation,” surely a violation of Galateo’s rule against lecturing people to death.

So the French and the English disparaged Italian etiquette, only to lay claim in succeeding centuries to being Etiquette Central themselves; the translator of “Galateo” disparages American etiquette, and Della Casa writes that snobbery and “affected ceremonies have been brought into Italy from Spain.”

Can’t we all just get along?


Originally printed on NYTimes.com- Judith Martin writes the Miss ­Manners books and newspaper and internet columns.



Etiquette Enthusiast, Maura J. Graber, is the Site Moderator for Etiquipedia© Etiquette Encyclopedia