Issue 35 Dust Fall 2009
Inventory / When in (Renaissance) Rome...
“Inventory” is a column that examines or presents a list, catalogue, or register.
Nanna (a prostitute): Suppose there’s a nobleman asking for
you [to attend a social gathering]. … You have to know how to talk:
answer to the point, don’t ramble on. … Don’t sit there looking too
gauche or too flirtatious, but carry yourself gracefully. And if
there’s playing or singing, keep your ears fixed on the music or song,
praising the musicians and the singers, even if you don’t enjoy it or
understand it. And if there’s a scholar there, approach him with a
cheerful face, showing you appreciate him more—yes, even more—than the
master of the house.
Good advice from a fictional prostitute, created by the renowned and feared cultural critic, Pietro Aretino (1492–1556), whose pen could make or break a reputation. Aretino’s 1536 text Il Dialogo, recently translated as The School of Whoredom, is a relentlessly explicit satire of the Renaissance advice book, and the mores of virtually everyone who might seek out such a thing—the aristocracy, landed gentry, commoners, artists, clergy, merchants, military, academics, courtesans, and courtiers.
The Renaissance was a golden age for art and literature, and so too for advice. Before the late fourteenth century, there were some advice manuals but, with the invention of the printing press, the increase in literacy, and the rising importance of vernacular writing, the genre exploded. Across Italy, and especially in cities such as Florence and Venice, the middle- and upper-classes were acquiring a greater sense of personal agency, and discussions of individual “virtuosity” and self-fashioning were often paired with those of moral and civic “virtue.” With this came anxiety over the relative merits of high birth and earned status, and in books circulated widely in the newly blossoming print culture, dissimulation came to be openly discussed as a kind of art. The codification of comportment flourished through the dispensation of advice on just about every aspect of body, mind, soul, and property. One wonders how much these advice texts facilitated social reform, and how much they were an instrument of social control; how much they formulated new ideals of doing and being, and how much they reflected what had already evolved.
Advice guides in the Renaissance, while not the money-makers they often are today, came in many formats. Some appeared as small, paperbound print editions, and some as luxury tomes, such as the first edition of Castiglione’s The Courtier. Some advice books were practical instruction manuals, teaching readers how to do things like mix paint (Cennini), have gorgeous, brilliant children (Marinello, Mercurio), or live long and age well (Zerbi). Some were compilations of rules, like Della Casa’s famous Galateo, a precursor to Miss Manners, while others drew on advice that had originally appeared in religious sermons, such as those of the famous and frightening Ferrarese monk, Girolamo Savonarola. Some advice appeared in epistolary form intended for a small readership or sole reader, such as Piccolomini’s letter for the ten-year-old future King of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Others—Annibale Guasco’s counsel to his daughter, for example, as she embarked on a career as lady-in-waiting to the Infanta, Caterina of Spain—were in fact written with distribution in mind. Advice also took the form of aphorisms (Petrarch’s Remedies) and preening autobiographies telling “how I did it” (Cornaro). Some books, like Giambattista Della Porta’s massive compendium of “secrets,” were written in Latin and billed as valuable, hard-to-acquire wisdom that should not be spread around, yet were translated immediately into many languages and sold widely. Cookbooks were printed (Maestro Martino, Scappi), as well as many recipe books for beauty products. One famous advice book was written in the hopes of winning back the job of its author, then in exile: Machiavelli’s The Prince.
Often, advice writing took the form of a dialogue between friends, or between an elder and student or young relative. Less of it was written by women, although they were often subjects (and objects) of the texts, and their avid readers. Much advice pointed to the importance of finding a middle ground or equilibrium. And while biblical references were common, citations from classical authors demonstrating the pedigree of both the advice and the advice-giver were equally frequent. Parodies like Aretino’s were not unusual, but the helpful tips listed below were written in all seriousness, despite what reading them in this form might suggest. My advice: caveat lector!
If a nobleman asks you for a loan:
When choosing what to wear, as a male courtier:
How to approach, for the first time, a woman you love:
When looking for someone to help you mix ultramarine blue paint:
If you think you might get poisoned at a meal:
To make a black star appear on the forehead of a white horse:
After blowing your nose:
How to make a virgin of a deflowered woman:
To stay young:
The correct position for the matrimonial act:
A father, to his daughter, on the current trend:
If you are from Lombardy, but wish to speak well:
Conversing with princes:
To be a successful boss:
How to cook octopus:
To sing more sweetly:
How to know if a woman is pregnant with a boy:
To have beautiful and noble progeny:
In teaching a young child to read:
If you have insomnia:
When speaking or writing:
To help strengthen your memory:
To keep yourself from the sins of the senses and imagination:
How to cook carp tongue:
To dye your hair blond:
To defend against nervous ailments, paralysis, twisting of the mouth, spasm, and trembling:
To prevent spleen problems:
Translations mine, unless otherwise noted in bibliography.
Leon Battista Alberti, The Family in Renaissance Florence [1434–1443], trans. R. Neu Watkins (Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, 2004), p. 236.
Pietro Aretino, School of Whoredom , trans. R. Falvo, A. Gallenzi, R. Skipwith (London: Hesperus, 2003), pp. 20-21
Baldassare Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier , trans. C. Singleton (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), Book II, §27, p. 89; Book III, §65, p. 198.
Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook [fourteenth century], trans. D. V. Thompson (New York: Dover, 1960), §62, p. 39.
Isabella Cortese, I Secreti (Venice: G. Bariletto, 1561), Book I, p. 1; Book III p. 213.
Giovanni Della Casa, Galateo , trans. K. Eisenbichler and K. Bartlett (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 1986), p. 7.
Giambattista Della Porta, Natural Magick [1589 edition], (London: T. Young and S. Speed, 1658), Book XV.iii, p. 330; Book IX.xix, pp. 252–253.
Marsilio Ficino, Three Books of Life , trans. C. V. Kaske and J. R. Clarke (Tempe, AZ: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1989), Book II.xi, pp. 197-199.
Frate Cherubino da Siena, Regole della vita matrimoniale [ca. 1490], reprint of the 1888 edition, ed. F. Zambrini and C. Negroni (Bologna: Commissione per i Testi di Lingua, 1969), Chapter 3, pp. 88–89.
Annibale Guasco, Discourse to Lady Lavinia, His Daughter , trans. P. Osborn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), First Day, p. 79.
Stefano Guazzo, The Art of Conversation , (London: J. Brett, 1738), Book. II, p. 113; Book. II, p. 161.
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince , ed. and trans. H. C. Mansfield (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1998), §8, p. 38.
Maestro Martino, The Art of Cooking: The First Modern Cookery Book [mid-fifteenth century], trans. J. Parzon (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), p. 108.
Giovanni Camillo Maffei, “Letter on Singing” , in Readings in the History of Music in Performance, trans. C. MacClintock (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1979), p. 60.
Giovanni Marinello, Le medicine partenenti alle infermità delle donne (Venice: Giovanni Bonadio, 1563), Book III.iii, p. 208r.
Girolamo Mercurio, La commare o raccoglitrice  (Venice: G. B. Ciotti, 1601), Book I.xi, p. 61.
Matteo Palmieri, Libro della vita civile [fifteenth century], (Florence: Heirs of F. di Giunta, 1529), Book I, §57.
Francesco Petrarca, On Remedies for Fortune Fair and Foul [ca. 1366], trans. C. Rawski (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991), Book II, §18, p. 63.
A.S. Piccolomini, letter dated 1450 to the tutors of future King Ladislas of Bohemia, in Humanist Educational Treatises, trans. C. Kallendorf, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), p. 203.
Jacobus Publicius, Oratoriae artis epitome , trans. H. Bayerle, in The Medieval Craft of Memory, ed. M. Carruthers and J. Ziolkowski (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), pp. 247–248.
Girolamo Savonarola, Sermon 28: “On Ruth and Micah: On the Art of Dying Well,” delivered 2 November 1496, trans. K. Eisenbichler (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2003), p. 135.
Bartolomeo Scappi, Opera dell’arte del cucinare (Venice: Michele Tramezzino, 1570), §136, p. 131r.
Caterina Riario Sforza, Ricettario di bellezza [late fifteenth century], ed. Luigi Pescasio (Verona: Wella, 1971), p. 24.
Gabriele Zerbi, On the Care of the Aged , trans. L. R. Lind (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1988), pp. 103, 109.
Arielle Saiber is associate professor of Italian at Bowdoin College. Her publications include essays on Dante, medieval and Renaissance mathematics, Renaissance typography, genre theory, and electronic music; a co-edited volume of primary documents, Images of Quattrocento Florence (Yale University Press, 2000); and Giordano Bruno and the Geometry of Language (Ashgate, 2005). She is currently writing a book on the dialogue between mathematics and literature in early modern Italy.
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