Guidebooks for Italy often advise visitors on the do’s and don’ts of good behaviour in the bel paese or beautiful country. Do give up your seat for seniors. Don’t wear mini-skirts in church. Do open the door for ladies. Don’t get drunk. But did you ever stop to wonder where all these rules came from?
In fact Italians have countless rules about making a bella figura, a good impression. And many can be traced back to a “Bible of Good Manners” published over 450 years ago called Il Galateo de’ costumi.
Written by poet, bishop, diplomat and inquisitor Giovanni Della Casa and published in 1558 in Venice, 2 years after his death, the book opens with the wealthy author addressing his nephew.
The old man has compiled all the lessons he’s learnt in life to help the up-and-coming youngster avoid making a bad impression, una brutta figura or taking the wrong direction in life or his career.
Della Casa was, in fact, from a well-heeled Florentine family and spent his early years studying the writing of Ancient Roman philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero and other Latin classics.
Cicero is credited with creating the language of the civilized world, speaking on natural law and innate rights. Not only did Cicero influence his Roman compatriots though. The rediscovery of Cicero’s letters to his friend Atticus by Italian poet Francesco Petrarca (Petrarch) in the middle ages is said to have ignited the 14th century Italian Renaissance. And Cicero continued to influence societies down the centuries inspiring the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, the Founding Fathers of the United States and the revolutionaries of the French Revolution.
Della Casa’s Galateo therefore drew on years of scholarly writing, amassing expertise from the Greeks, the Ancient Romans, early Europe and middle age Italy. Or to be more precise, the states of Florence and Rome as Italy wouldn’t exist for another 300 years. But Della Casa’s rules of polite behavior in his Galateo are not directed to the lords and ladies at court. The Florentine writes about the habits of ordinary people.
His style is chatty, proposing a series of rules for a simple dignified life and in order to be considered sophisticated and polite. A successful man must always combine grace with conformity without vulgarity or revealing crude thoughts.
Della Casa addresses fashion, the art of polite conversation, hairstyles, how to greet friends in the street, what to do as a host and how to gracefully convey intelligence and reserve, for example. So what rules does he set out? Here are just a few of his guidelines –
- A lady should never laugh too loudly nor conduct herself in an offensive way
- A gentleman should never play drinking games, its not the Italian way
- Don’t offer advice unless asked for it, it suggests you think you are superior
- A gentleman should walk on the outside of the pavement to protect a lady from oncoming traffic
- Don’t witter on about pipe dreams, it annoys and bores others
- Don’t make off-colour jokes, they cause offence
- Don’t eat with your mouth open or make too much noise at dinner, it’s vulgar
- Teach your children to behave well and not to be cheeky
- Don’t cut your nails in company
- And don’t keep interrupting, it will make your companion want to punch or smack you!!
But my favourite rule has got to be that a gentleman should never sniff someone else’s wine as something may fall out of one’s own nose and contaminate the glass! According to Della Casa one should never take such a risk! Take heed!
With such wise words, its not surprising that the book quickly became popular in Venice, Milan, Rome and Florence and later around Europe. It is still the go-to book for etiquette guidance and is held in great esteem by a good many Italians in the 21st century.
So, you see, the problems that Della Casa experienced with bores and boasters, windbags and winos and his advice on how to avoid them or becoming one are just the same as today! I’m not sure if that’s a reassuring thing or not, but either way we could do worse than to take note of this fascinating uncle’s advice to his nephew! What’s your pet hate of bad manners? Leave a comment below to let me know. And if you are thinking of visiting Italy, behave yourselves and make sure your manners, as visitors, delight rather than offend your hosts!!
A new edition of the Galateo was published in June 2013 by Chicago Press and can be bought here
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