Lessons in Renaissance Cool in Urbino, Italy

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IN March of 1507, in a lofty high-windowed room in a palace in Le Marche, a region of Italy northeast of Rome, the High Renaissance reached its pinnacle. For four successive nights, a company of poets, artists, scholars and nobles, assembled on the occasion of a papal visit, gathered around a table in Urbino’s magnificent Ducal Palace to chat about love, law, morals, manners, beauty, sex, seemliness, art, hats, cosmetics, tennis and whatever else most pressed the minds of Renaissance men and women.

These were the conversations that the diplomat Baldassare Castiglione recreated (and no doubt embellished) soon afterward in “The Book of the Courtier,” a kind of manual on how to be cool at court that for centuries afterward was required reading throughout Europe for all who aspired to a life of power and polish.

“Here, then, gentle discussions and innocent pleasantries were heard,” Castiglione wrote of the delightful ambience fostered by Elisabetta Gonzaga, the duchess who presided over the fabled gatherings, “and on everyone’s face a jocund gaiety could be seen depicted, so much so that the house could be called the very abode of joyfulness. Nor do I believe that the sweetness that is had from a beloved company was ever savored in any other place as it once was there.”

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