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*Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (April 6 or March 28, 1483 – April 6, 1520)

L’honnête homme was not necessarily an honest man.  He was a “gentleman,” for want of a better term.[i]  As is the case with the French seventeenth-century salons (see below), the idea of honnête homme and honnêteté was imported from Italy.

In 1453, the Byzantine Empire passed into the hands of the Turks.  It became the Ottaman Empire and, in 1930, its capital, Byzantium, was renamed Constantinope, today’s Istanbul.

When the Greeks fled Byzantium, they brought with them the treasures of Greek and Latin Antiquity and most settled in what is now Italy.  Europe entered its Renaissance (rebirth).  Greek and Latin works were translated, but suddenly there also appeared “academies” and less formal institutions, such as the future salons, perhaps best described as somewhat frivolous, but extremely elegant “think tanks.”

The Book of the Courtier (Il Libro del Cortegiano), by Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), published in 1528, constitutes Castiglione’s memoirs of his life at the court of the Duke of Urbino[ii] and is a description of the courtier.  The book is rooted in Cicero’s treatise on the duties of a gentleman, the newly translated De Officiis (1511), but Castiglione made Il Cortegiano his very own masterpiece.  He gave his courtier sprezzatura.

In Il Cortegiano, Castiglione recalls the conversations presided over by Elisabetta Gonzaga (1471–1526), in the Castle of Urbino.  Elizabetta was the sister-in-law of Isabella d’Este (1474–1533) who are both credited with having exported the salon to France.  Wikipedia provides a good description of the courtier:

[t]he perfect gentleman had to win the respect and friendship of his peers and of a ruler, i.e., be a courtier, so as to be able to offer valuable assistance and advice on how to rule the city. To do this, he must be accomplished—in sports, telling jokes, fighting, poetry, music, drawing, and dancing—but not too much. To his moral elegance (his personal goodness) must be added the spiritual elegance conferred by familiarity with good literature (i.e., the humanities, including history). He must excel in all without apparent effort and make everything look easy.

In France, l’honnête homme was described by Nicolas Faret (L’Honnête Homme ou l’art de plaire à la Cour, 1630) and the Chevalier de Méré‘s (Discours sur la vraie honnêteté).  The Chevalier de Méré was not a nobleman.  His name was Antoine Gombaud.  However, he and Faret were l’honnêteté’s foremost theorists.

Therefore, with respect to the Salons, a salonnier did not have be an aristocrat to attend gatherings.  However, in his Maximes (1665) François VI, Duc de La Rochefoucauld, Prince de Marcillac (1613–1680) wrote: “L’honnête homme est celui qui ne se pique de rien.” (L’honnête homme is the one who never boasts.) However, piquer can also mean not to get upset or irritated.  Despite his rank, he was a prince, La Rochefoucauld may well be the finest example of the honnête homme.  Yet, one’s rank did not play a primary role in qualifying as a salonnier, but manners and finesse did, including moral refinement.

Although the word “gentleman” is an acceptable translation of “honnête homme,” it lacks certain details.  In seventeenth-century France, l’honnêteté was genuine.


[i] In French, an honest man would be called un homme honnête.  If the adjective: honnête, follows the noun: homme, the adjective has its literal meaning: honest.

[ii] The House of Montefeltro or the House of della Rovere, families, usually controlled the Duchy of Urbino.  However, between 1516–1519, it was ruled briefly by Lorenzo II de Medici, Machiavelli’s prince (his student) who died of the plague in 1519, as did his wife.  Their bloodthirsty daughter, Catherine de Médicis, married Henri II, King of France and, in 1572, she made her son, a young king, order the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre (the night of 23-24 August).


© Micheline Walker
3 October 2011