Sunday, March 15, 2009

Meanwhile in Fifteenth-Century Italy....Part 3

Click here for a link to part 1 or 2

Courtly Culture During the Reign of Borso d’Este (1450-1471)

During Borso’s reign, the court became larger and more complex, and the humanist was demoted to a position that differed little from other court functionaries. And while Leonello preferred a simpler, classicizing aesthetic and his commissions favored the acquisition of Latin books, Borso’s patronage was more closely linked to the propagandistic and ritualistic functions of the arts, which attempts to merge and conflate an aristocracy with its metaphorical representation.[1] In other words Borso had some mad bling.

The Este court became larger as a result of a gradual bureaucratization during Borso’s reign.  Distancing the relationship between himself and various officials, he delegated many duties.  Notaries and chancellors became mere functionaries, executing orders from above. He then assembled what one scholar called a "kitchen cabinet" of his most intimate circle of courtiers, which included his personal friends (such as Dick Cheney, who was actually born already), and the Ducal Secretary.[2] 

Guarino da Verona

By most accounts Ferrara’s intellectual elite were not included in Borso's inner circle of trusted courtiers.  Many documents attest to this change in status of the humanist in Borso's court.  In a Papal brief of 1458, Pius II intervened on Guarino da Verona's behalf after Borso had docked his pay. The changing function of scholars in the Ferrarese court can also be seen in the increased quantity of encomiastic literature dedicated to the Duke.  The first alphabetical inventory of the Este collection, produced during the reign of Ercole, lists seven books whose titles begin with the expression of "Laude" to Borso.[3]  Humanists (like the 24 hour news networks today) were valued for the contributions they could make to Borso’s public persona.

By making the hierarchy more rigid in the innermost circle of his court he was less vulnerable to threats to his power. But while those who interacted directly with the duke were far fewer than in previous years, Borso also made the spectacle of the court open to a greater number of participants.  He employed calculated generosity to create a quasi-feudal system of dependent relationships thereby insuring the full allegiance of his courtiers.  Borso’s court extended extraordinary possibility for both nobles and non-nobles.  The court library became a place where greater numbers of people had access to the resplendent illuminated manuscripts of the Este family allowing them to participate in the discourse and the fashions of the court.

Although the books inhabited the same physical locations during the consecutive reigns of the two brothers, lending practices, manuscript patronage and collection maintenance differed vastly.  By controlling access to the manuscripts and determining how books could be used and by whom, the marchesi ruled the intellectual activities of the court.  During his reign, Leonello d’Este demonstrated a more exclusive, curatorial stance towards his collection.  Under Borso, however, the courtly space of the library was transformed into a more public one.  The Duke allowed both the members of his court and outsiders to borrow more freely from the collection.  Individual manuscripts were also incorporated into part of public spectacles.  In the case of the Bibbia, the book was transformed into an ostentatious statement of piety and the library became an itinerant space.

Courtly Space

So how do we define courtly space? In order to understand our friend Borso it makes sense to reconstruct as best possible the Renaissance definition. The most fundamental definition of courtly space is any location where the court resides. Scholars point out that in Sforza Milan, the word corte bore five different meanings.[4]  Two of the meanings referred to tangible architectural structures which could accommodate and contain the court.  The term corte could be used to identify the persons traveling or staying with the Duke; his “retinue” or “entourage.”[5]  It could also denote the establishment or institution of the court. In order to see courtly space through the eyes of the fifteenth-century courtier in Ferrara, one must relinquish the conception of space as a rational and solely physical entity. 

Renaissance rulers made manifest their political power on the physical, social and metaphorical levels of a courtier’s life. They exerted control over their courts in a physical sense by the ordering of bodies into court rituals, by determining the prosperity and deeply affecting the physical lives of their dependents, and through the ordering of courtiers within the architecture they commissioned. Like dance, spectacle and ceremony ordered the bodies of participants into a lyrical manifestation of marchesinal power.

In a system where favor from the monarch often represented a tangible material gain in the form of a fief or a commission, the nuances of social intercourse; speech, gestures, gazes became primary preoccupations of the courtier.[6]  Access to power was predicated upon a courtier’s knowledge of court rituals and his fluent understanding of the symbolic language of the court embedded in the social interaction between courtiers.

The power of the Marchese was made manifest on a metaphorical level as well through reflections of courtly life through the artistic expressions commissioned by the Este dynasty.  Representations of the rulers, the ladies and lords of the court adorned the frescoed walls of Renaissance palazzi.  Their elegant forms graced the elaborate tapestries and the margins of resplendent manuscripts creating a duplicate courtly space.  Art and society existed in a reciprocal rapport, each defining and influencing the other to the extent that they would not have been viewed as entirely distinct. The Este marchesi manipulated the arts not only to captivate viewers and to reinforce their own sovereignty, but also as  Lauro Martines points out, they could “control the perceived reality of the surrounding world.”[7]  Much as representations of space defied physical laws, the imagery of the court could defy political realities to reinforce and celebrate the Este hegemony.  

(Palazzo Schifanoia. Figure 11. For a more contemporary example of the visual language of power one need look no further than our nightly news with flags and military images flanking our political leaders) For the courtier under the rule of Borso d’Este, courtly space was an expanse of wonder and delight, imbued with the mystical allure of power.[8]  For our purposes, we’ll define courtly space here collectively as any physical place, a social gathering or a metaphorical space that serves to delight, evoke reverence and to reflect and reinforce the social structure of the court.


[1] See Marco Cattini and Marzio A. Romani, "Le Corti Parallele: Per una Tipologia delle Corti Padane dal XIII al XVI Secolo," in Papagno et al., 649.  The authors describe the arts in the Northern Italian Renaissance courts as an instrument of intervention upon reality.

[2] Gundersheimer, 141 - 142.

[3] See Appendix II in Bertoni 1903.

[4] Ibid., 95. The first definition referred to the Palazzo dell’Arengo, the second to the Corte Ducale, or the castle courtyard, and a third to a type of farm buit around a central courtyard (the fourth and fifth definitions refer to the ducal retinue and court functionaries respectively).

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 94.

[7] Lauro Martines, Power and Imagination; City-States in Renaissance Italy (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 229.

[8] Lubkin, 96.


CDB said...

I knew Dick Cheney was that old.

I would have been a kick-a** countess. If I hadn't been kicked OUT.

Thanks for elevating our cultural expertise on 15th c. Italian Royal waddles.

dani c said...

Great post !!

*mary* said...

Great post!
I just wanted to add that not only was Dick Cheney around back then, he has actually been around much longer. The beginning of time, some say. Some cultures know him simply as The Dark One, others call him Lucifer. His sinister presence has been noted throughout history in different manifestations.

(And never go hunting with th guy!)

Hot Belly Mama said...

lol about the cheney comments. love your posts as always.

Poetikat said...

I bow to your greatness, O Supremo Blicko! (Note the regal pennants streaming from my petard.)

May I proffer the corte my most profound respect and beg it to explain how this courtly culture may have had impact on that of England at that time? Did the Italian courts influence those of the realms beyond its borders? I'm just curious.


Lavinia said...

Wow, what a scholarly, learned post. Really brings to life the phrase, "the more things change, the more they stay the same!"

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