Giovanni della Casa, poet, archbishop, diplomat, and author of one of the most popular books of etiquette and Renaissance “courtesy,” was born in Florence on June 28, 1503.
In Italy della Casa is highly regarded for the satirical and somewhat bawdy poetry he composed in his early life, but he is most famous for his book on manners, Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior (Il Galateo, overo de’ costumi), which was published in 1558, two years after his death.
The short manual was hugely popular in Italy, where even today the term “Galateo” signifies proper manners. It was widely translated into many languages, including English in 1576 where it is believed to have influenced Shakespeare’s ideas of Italian daily life.
Della Casa’s book is often contrasted with two other highly influential books on personal conduct by his contemporaries: Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier (1528) and Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532).
Castiglione is concerned with the proper comportment of a gentleman who wants to succeed in the courtly world and Machiavelli is guiding his readers in political behaviour to advance their own agendas.
Della Casa is no stranger to either of these spheres, being a nobleman, a worldly archbishop, and a diplomat, but his book has broader ambitions. It aims to instruct anyone who has social obligations and wants to avoid embarrassment or offence.
Galateo was written at a time when della Casa was in retirement in Rome, his faction having fallen out of favour with the current pope and della Casa’s hopes of becoming a cardinal were dashed.
It was written for his young nephew, Annibale (who arranged for the book to be published after della Casa’s death). Della Casa takes the playful guise of a kindly, plainspoken, illiterate uncle who is nearing his death. His basic message seems to be that “courtesy” comes down to making people feel comfortable by not being in any way offensive.
“Pleasant manners,” he tells his nephew, “are those which delight or at least do not annoy any of the senses, the desires, or the imagination of those with whom we live.”
As an example, he says “You do not want, when you blow your nose, to then open the hanky and gaze at your snot as if pearls or rubies might have descended from your brains. This is a nauseating habit not likely to make anyone love you…”
Although della Casa stresses that being “liberal-minded or loyal or generous is in itself undoubtedly more important and laudable than being charming and courteous, nevertheless we must not be content with doing good things, but we must also study to do them gracefully. Grace is nothing other than that luster which shines from the appropriateness of things that are suitably ordered and well arranged one with the other and together.”
Galateo is a charming and sensible book that is clear-eyed about manners and still readable in modern translation. The book’s simple aim is to teach how “to regulate the practice of daily conversation, to correct those depravities which are more ridiculous than criminal, and remove those grievances which, if they produce no lasting calamities, impress hourly vexation.”
In manners, little things do matter.