Item of the Day: Castiglione’s The Courtier (1727)

Full Title:

Il Cortegiano, or The Courtier: Written by Conte Baldassar Castiglione. And a New Version of the same into English. Together with Several of his Celebrated Pieces, as well Latin as Italian, both in Prose and Verse. To which is prefix’d, The Life of the Author. By A.P. Castiglione, of the same Family. Printed in London by W. Bowyer, 1727.

[The text appears in Italian and English in facing columns.]

From Book II.

I have often, not without Wonder, reflected, whence an Error could arise; which one would be apt to think natural to old Men, since found in so many; viz. that they almost universally applaud the Times past, and blame the present; censuring those Modes and Practices with which their younger Years were not acquainted; lamenting the Decline of Virtue, the Degeneracy of Age, the Change of all Things from bad to worse. Now it seems a most unreasonable thing, and what we cannot but be surprized at, that an advanced Age, such as from its great Experience is wont in other Matters to pass the truest, the most exact Judgment, should in this so err, as not to perceive, that if the World daily grew worse, if the Parents were generally better than their Children, we should long e’er this have arrived at the highest Pitch of Vice, at a State, a worse than which would be impossible. Yet this Error we find, not only in our own, but also in ancient Times, prevailing over Persons of the Age we speak of: As is evident from many of the ancient Writers, and particularly the Comick, who give us a better idea of humane Life than any other.

The Reason of this wrong Judgment I take to be, that our Years, as they pass, carry away with ’em many of the Comforts of Life, and particularly occasion such a Decrease of the Animal Spirits, as effects a Change in our Constitution, and renders all those Organs weak through which the Soul exerts its Operations. Whence the sweet Flowers of Delight fall at that time of Life from our Hearts, as Leaves fall from the Trees in Autumn, and instead of gay and chearful Thoughts, a Train of dark and melancholy Apprehensions possess us, our Minds discovering a Weakness great as what we find in our Bodies: All that remains of our past Pleasures, is the Remembrance of the dear Time when they were enjoy’d, which seems such to us, as if Heaven, Earth, and universal Nature, had then put on their best Array, and afforded us the Entertainment of a delightful Garden, adorn’d with all the Beauties of the Spring. Hence perhaps it were to be wish’d, that in that cold Season, when the Sun of our Life is in his Decline, we might lose at once the Sense of Pleasure and its Remembrance, and that we knew Themistocles’s Art of Forgetfulness; because the Senses of our Bodies are so easily deceived, as to mislead the Determinations of the Mind.

I cannot therefore but regard old Men as in the same Condition with them, who fixing, as they sail out of a Haven, their Eyes of the Shore, think it to move, and the Vessel they are in, to stand still: When on the contrary, the Shore, like the Time, keeps its settled State, and we in the Bark of Mortality, are each after the other carried with a brisk Gale through that stormy Sea which devours all things, nor find it ever in our Power to regain the Haven; but always toss’d by the Fury of the Winds, have our Vessel dash’d at length against a Rock and split.

That the Minds then of the aged know not a Relish of many Pleasures, is, becasue they are not proper Subjects for them. As it is with one in a Fever, to whose vitiated Palate the most delicate Wines appear insipid and disagreeable: The very same it is with those in the Decline of Life; they feel an Inclination for Pleasure, yet whatever they pursue they find tastless, flat, and quite different from what they had formerly enjoy’d, though the Nature of the Pleasure continue still the same. Disappointed thus, they grieve and lay the Fault on the Times, as if they were grown worse; never perceiving the Change to be in themselves, not the Times. On the other hand too, reflecting on the Pleasures pass’d, they reflect likewise on the Time when they enjoy’d them, and commend it as seeming to carry with it a Taste of what they felt in it when present. The Truth is, we ever entertain an Aversion to all those things which have accompanied our Uneasynesses, as we do an Affection to whatever has attended our Joys.

Hence it is that a Lover often views with Pleasure a Casement when shut, and this, because he has at some time seen his Mistress there; so likewise a Ring, a Letter, a Garden, any Place or Thing that has been a Witness to his Happiness. On the contrary, an Apartment deck’d with all that can make it gay and delightful, shall be the Abhorrence of him who has suffer’d Imprisonment, or any other Uneasiness in it. I my self have known some that could never drink out of any thing which bore a Resemblance to what they had formerly taken Physick in. For as the Casement, Ring, or Letter, recall’d to the one the dear Remembrance of what had so much delighted him, seeming a part of what had given him Pleasure: So the very Place or Vessel are regarded by the other, as bringing with them the Imprisonment or Disease. On a Foundation like this, I believe it is, that the advanced in Age applaud the past Time, and inveigh against the present.

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Filed under 1720's, Culture, Education, Modern Language Translations, Oratory, Posted by Carrie Shanafelt

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