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How to act like a nobleman in 16th century Florence

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  July 23, 2013 10:58 AM

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In the 16th century, Italian writer and diplomat Giovanni Della Casa wrote a manuscript on proper social conduct, ostensibly for the benefit of his nephew, who had not yet come of age. A new translation of the manuscript, called "Galateo: Or, the Rules of Polite Behavior," was published last month by the University of Chicago Press. Della Casa's advice is consistently delightful and pointed. Some of his guidance is specific to the social environment of a Florentine nobleman, like this admonition against excessive bowing, especially when time is tight:

although it is every person’s duty to honor judges and men of higher rank, when time does not permit, this regard to punctilio is tedious and must be either avoided or curtailed.

Most of his advice, however, is timeless, like this reminder that, really, no one cares what you dreamt about last night:

one should not annoy others with such stuff as dreams, especially since most dreams are by and large idiotic.
As you might expect, Della Casa comes across as a sensitive observer of social life, and some of his quibbles veer closer to pet peeves than universal rules of decorum. Consider, for example, the types of facial expressions that got under his skin:
There are some who have the habit of now and then puckering up their lips or screwing up their eyes, or of puffing up their cheeks and blowing out their breath, or of making such similar shifty grimaces. It is best to desist from these habits completely.

He also reminds his nephew that, when returning from going to the bathroom, he should be completely composed, so as to give no indication of the job he's just completed. This seems like good advice whether you're exiting a 16th century privy or a stall at a highway rest stop.

Similarly, it is improper for a polite gentleman to arrange himself to relieve his physical needs in sight of others. Nor, when finished, should he return to their presence still adjusting himself in his clothing.

Social life today is probably too diverse to allow for the kind of exact pronouncements Dellla Casa makes. Still, one wishes he were around to remark on humble bragging.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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