It is to this deeply practical school of moral philosophy that “Galateo” belongs. Written by the retired, but worldly, archbishop and diplomat Giovanni Della Casa (1503-1556) and first published in 1558, it sets forth the rules on how to comport oneself in polite society. As such, it holds a distinguished place among the world’s many “conduct” books. These range from Andreas Capellanus’s “Art of Courtly Love,” which describes how a medieval knight should behave to win the favor of his lady; to Baldassare Castiglione’s “Courtier,” the Renaissance manual of sprezzatura or aristocratic nonchalance; to Lord Chesterfield’s “Letters to his Son,” which Samuel Johnson grumbled taught “the morals of a whore and the manners of a dancing-master.”
In this new translation, M.F. Rusnak argues that “Galateo” should also be regarded as literature (and even a possible influence on Shakespeare). We learn from Rusnak’s engaging introduction that Della Casa was the finest Italian poet writing between Tasso and Ariosto and that his prose was admired for its purity and refinement. The new translation brings home its surprising mix of the elevated and the down-to-earth:
“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, but rather, if someone loved you, he or she would fall out of love right there.”
Not in the least religious, “Galateo” focuses on our interactions with the real world, on how we are seen and heard. A man, writes Della Casa (and we can duly extend his comment to women), “must not be content with doing good things, but he 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.”
Throughout, the book reveals a sophisticated understanding of human sensitivity, of our deep-rooted hunger for respect: “One must never say or do anything that gives the impression that one has little affection for or appreciation of others.” Similarly, “One should never mock a person, no matter how much he is an enemy, for it seems that ridicule shows greater contempt than injury.” This last is an insight worthy of the author’s near contemporary, Machiavelli.
Della Casa’s title, “Galateo,” alludes to a courtly friend of that name but may also suggest the myth of Pygmalion: The Greek sculptor shaped in stone a perfect woman, and when his love brought her to life, she was called Galatea. So, too, we may shape ourselves into better, more perfect members of society. “Pleasant manners,” writes Della Casa, “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 with any modern etiquette book, “Galateo” offers advice on proper dinner-table conversation and behavior. Have we not all been repulsed by people who, “oblivious as pigs with their snouts in the swill, never raise their faces nor their eyes, much less their hands, from the food? And they gulp down their grub with both their cheeks puffed out as if they were playing the trumpet or blowing on a fire, not eating but gobbling. Those who grease up their hands and arms to the elbows or dirty their napkins such that washcloths in the bathroom are neater.”
Throughout, Della Casa urges a reasonable conformity to the customs of the country in which one lives. Clothes, he suggests, should be well-fitting rather than loud and trendy. He recommends that people speak clearly and plainly, after having “first formed in your mind what you have to say.” He argues for civility but warns against sycophancy: “Flatterers overtly show that they consider the man they are praising to be vain and arrogant, as well as so stupid, obtuse, and so beef-witted that it is easy to lure and entrap him.” This old diplomat and former papal nuncio also despises obsequiousness, giving a comic, but familiar, example of what he means:
“Sir, I beg your pardon if I cannot speak on the case at hand as suitably as it might be wished. I will speak in rough terms, like the simple man I am, according to the very little that I know and my quite obvious poor abilities. I am certain your lordship will mock me afterward, but still, in order to obey your most royal wish . . .”
In its brevity, “Galateo” can almost be viewed as a kind of Renaissance “Elements of Style,” with the understanding that “style” here means courteous behavior. Rusnak’s introductory essay, copious notes and bibliography usefully fill out some of the book’s historical context. But the counsel itself remains timeless: “Most of us hate unpleasant and bothersome people as much as evil ones, maybe even more.” Or, as Rusnak observes of Della Casa, “Pushed forward to our time, his subject is the infuriating woman on the rapid transit train putting on her makeup, someone on the park bench flossing his teeth, people who insist on tapping their feet during a chamber recital, snobs who chat or conduct business on their cell phones in the art museum and . . .”
But why go on? Manners matter. They aren’t just folderol. As Della Casa writes, the annoyances of everyday life only seem trivial or of small moment. “Even light blows, if they are many, can kill.” In the end, regard for the feelings of others lies at the heart of any rational society.
Dirda reviews books every Thursday for The Washington Post.