Behind every great book likes a great culture. In her new article (now live on the Cerae website), Lisa Tagliaferri explores the intricate relationship between text and translation in the Renaissance.
Translation is a careful act of negotiation across not only language but culture, which becomes even more pronounced when we approach historical documents from a contemporary perspective. The work that is done to make a new text in the target language perform the same function as the source text seems remarkably similar to the kind of work that Baldassare Castiglione’s conception of the courtier must do: strike a balance between subtle nuance and astute daring, and achieve a certain amount of that untranslatable quality: sprezzatura.
Castiglione’s The Courtier, a bestseller of the early modern period that warranted an English translation by Thomas Hoby, continuously invites analysis with its broad scope that considers court life, laughter, and metaphysics. The historical setting makes the piece even more interesting, which is addressed throughout the book and in the preceding letter to Signor Don Michel de Silva, the Bishop of Viseu, and taken up again in Hoby’s rendition which includes an extra epistle of the translator, addressed to Lord Henry Hastings.
The letters are fascinating to me because they add an extra texture to the books, leaving substantial traces of the interpersonal relationships that live on the periphery of the texts. As I have studied Vittoria Colonna’s writing in the past, her mention in each Castiglione’s and Hoby’s introductory letters piqued my interest. Book III of The Courtier has served as a point of inquiry and often contention for feminist criticism (for good reason), and I was intrigued by the ways in which that section seemed to pivot off of the relationship that Castiglione had with Colonna, and that Hoby had with Elizabeth Parr.
Baldassare Castiglione and Vittoria Colonna
The correspondence between Castiglione and Colonna that took place outside of the books of The Courtier fueled my interest even more, as I considered this external material alongside the Renaissance classic. Realizing that Colonna was very much staking a claim as a literary critic of the text herself, while also serving to fuel the revision and publication process of the book, placed her in a paradoxical position that was both crucial to the eventual text yet challenged her friendship with Castiglione. Her situation, and that of her corollary Elizabeth Parr, present a feminine foil for the courtier, as individuals who both wield a certain amount of power and leverage an absence of power in an endeavor to advance their careers.
There is a growing interest in cases of cross-cultural exchange throughout the global Renaissance, and the transmission of texts between Italy and England is an area ripe for investigation. Additional inquiries into the texts produced by Castiglione and Hoby would certainly broaden our understanding of these works, as well as deepen our historical knowledge of both the Italian and English cultures of the early modern period.