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First Things

Peter J. Leithart

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


Giovanni Della Casas 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.




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 Casas narrator is full of homey Polonian wisdom: Dont get ready to relieve yourself when others are watching (6). be careful about yawning (7). Wear clothes that fit (15). Dont make noises when your chewing or pick your teeth and ears at the table or spit in public (72).

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