Giovanni Della Casa’s Galateo: Or, The Rules of Polite Behavior was one of the most important Renaissance treatises on civility, written in an age obsessed with civility. As M.F. Rusnak points out in his excellent introduction to his charming new translation, civility and politeness was not a side issue for the Renaissance courtier. It was the center of good living.

Not for della Casa the “moral vision of Dante and Petrarch, with their solitude, prayer, saints, and soul searching.” Morality is worked on in “the social networks of life, the various occasions when we are called on to be seen and heard ” (xviii). Politeness was just as much an art form as painting, sculpture, and architecture, a kind of performance art.

In the Galateo , “conscience cannot be detached from the aesthetic principles of pleasure, beauty, perspective, balance, moderation, good taste, symmetry, and form. It is as if a specific behavior is not so much wrong as it is offensive to anyone with an eye for beauty” (xxiv-xxv).

The treatise returns obsessively to the problems of bodily motion: “The risks of motion are myriad,” Rusnak writes, “while lack of it is catatonic stupor.” You can’t not move, and yet “rapid or uncontrolled motions are aligned with the funny, the ugly, the unacceptable” (xxviii).

Dig in, and you find advice about what to touch and not touch, how to sneeze and blow your nose, what to say when, how to compliment, how to be witty and avoid becoming the butt of a joke. Della Casa’s narrator is full of homey Polonian wisdom: Don’t get ready to relieve yourself when others are watching (6). be careful about yawning (7). Wear clothes that fit (15). Don’t make noises when your chewing or pick your teeth and ears at the table or spit in public (72).

If it strikes us as oddly unnecessary advice, Samuel Johnson had an explanation: Renaissance etiquette books are “neglected only because they have effected the reformation which their authors intended, and their precepts now are no longer wanted.” The book gives us a fascinating glimpse into a world when what has become common sense was brand new, when new instincts had to be taught. In so doing, it helps us understand one of the sea-changes in Western cultural history (on which, see Elias, The Civilizing Process: Sociogenetic and Psychogenetic Investigations ).

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Articles by Peter J. Leithart