Don’t Sing, Scarf, or Spit

A Venetian view of polite behavior


in Books • Illustrated by Esther Lee


Culture, if we can still call it that, has taken a definite downward turn in the last couple of decades. Tee shirts with I HATE YOUR F—ING MASK (the F word spelled out) printed in large letters on the front. Texting at the dinner table. Parents using profanity to children. Being honked and tailgated while driving because you’re not going fast enough to suit the driver behind you.  

While there are probably many reasons for this cultural decline, technology is high on the list for a lot of people. In an updated version of the old adage, “No good deed goes unpunished,” we can thank technology for major medical advances, space travel, instant global communication and the Internet, to name a few of its benefits, but trailing in its wake has come isolationism, for both individuals and nations, a brutally polarized society characterized by hateful discourse, which is facilitated in part by the perceived anonymity of social media, a dwindling of good manners and the near disappearance of civility. Should we be shocked or just chalk it up as a sign of the times? Probably a little of both. 

The year 1558 was a memorable one in Western history. In Italy, Benvenuto Cellini, goldsmith, soldier, sculptor and friend of Michelangelo, begins writing his memoirs. 170 years later they’re published in France and the world meets up with one of Renaissance Italy’s most fascinating characters. The autobiography is still read today. That same year in England, Elizabeth Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII, inherits her father’s throne and the Elizabethan Age is born. Five years later in 1563, the Plague kills 80,000 people in England. The following year, Michelangelo dies in Rome, and Shakespeare is born in Stratford-upon-Avon. Amid these momentous events, some of which continue to shape life 500 years later, another event takes place that, while not of the same magnitude as the birth of Shakespeare or death of Michelangelo, leaves a lasting impression on Western culture: Il Galateo: The Book of Etiquette by an Italian archbishop is published in Venice.  

Who was this fussy Italian cleric and how did he have time amid his duties as an archbishop and diplomat for the pope to write a book on how to behave in public, earning himself and his book a place in history? 

Giovanni della Casa was born in Mugello, Italy on July 28, 1503. Educated in Bologna where he immersed himself in the Greek and Latin classics, he wrote poetry (some of it too risque even for Renaissance standards) and political tracts, all the while building a reputation for the purity and refinement of his writing style. In 1532 he entered the priesthood, eventually being appointed archbishop of Benevento and papal nuncio to Venice. Like most prelates of his time, he had his eyes on a cardinal’s cap. After being passed over several times and realizing that his promotion was not in the cards (were those youthful poetic indiscretions the reason?), he retired to a villa in Treviso where he devoted himself to his studies and to the book that brought him fame if not wealth. Apparently, the behavior della Casa was criticizing was all too common to go unnoticed by his fellow Italians. Published two years after his death, the book became an instant bestseller and has remained a standard reference for good manners ever since. 

That the book was noticed at all in light of the more serious events happening in Europe in the years surrounding its publication is a miracle in itself. Yet subsequent translations into French (1562), English (1576), Latin (1580), Spanish (1585), and German (1597) attest to its continued popularity. Since 1900 alone there have been three translations into English, the latest in 2013. The title of the work is the Latin equivalent for the first name of Galeazzo (Galateo) Florimonte, the bishop of Sessa, who suggested to his friend della Casa that he write down for the benefit of others what he knew of how to behave in public. Della Casa took him up on it. 

Written over 500 years ago, Galateo is more than a collection of persnickety complaints by a fussbudget with too much time on his hands. The Washington Post book reviewer Michael Dirda, in his review of the 2013 translation by M. F. Rusnak, described Galateo as “a kind of Renaissance Elements of Style, with the understanding that ‘style’ here means courteous behavior.” 

Unlike other manuals on how to behave in public that were written for privileged classes of people — knights, nobles, diplomats, ladies — della Casa’s purpose was to educate ordinary people about such everyday activities as posture, dress, table manners, conversation, even how to tell jokes and when they’re appropriate or not. Lest we think his concerns comically out of date, most of us have had the experience of dining with someone who is wolfing his food down as if it were his last meal, eyes never leaving the plate, hand moving food to his mouth like a backhoe shoveling soil into a truck. Della Casa calls out the same repulsive behavior in his contemporaries: “Do not gnaw or chew such that you hear the sound or noises, since there is a difference between the eating of men and pigs. We must also be careful not to gobble up our food and occasion a hiccup or some other unpleasant result, as happens with people who hurry and so gasp for air or breathe so heavily that they annoy their companions.”  

In a matter of personal hygiene, della Casa tells us that when you cough or sneeze, “cover your mouth. There are some men that in coughing or sneezing make such noise that they make a man deaf to hear them or spit in men’s faces that stand about them.” Fast forward a few hundred years: you’re in the checkout line at the supermarket when the person near you sneezes, spraying you with a load of bacterial pellets like the blast from a 12-gauge shotgun. Della Casa knew what he was talking about. 

As for how to dress, his advice is practical and pragmatic, stressing the importance of outward appearance: “When you go into public, let your dress be genteel and suitable to your age and station of life. He that does otherwise shows a contempt of the world and too great an opinion of his own importance.” Were there 16th-century precursors of our tee shirt-wearing sociopath sporting the same vulgar message in Italian, “Odio la sua fottuta maschera” on the front? 

What Galateo tells us is that proper etiquette in all situations is for “anyone who disposes himself to live in the city and among men.” By applying what he had learned from ancient Greek and Roman texts together with what he had picked up in his public service as a diplomat, della Casa created a guidebook for the man who wants to conduct himself as a gentiluomo (gentleman). The key to good behavior, he says, is to be graceful and to conform to the customs, practices and even the fashions of others. “Pleasant manners are those which delight or at least do not annoy any of the senses, the desires or the imagination of those with whom we converse.” The next time you’re at a professional sporting event with children and a nearby fan expresses his displeasure at something on the field with vile, profane language, remember della Casa’s admonition about manners that “at least do not annoy any of the senses.” 

When in the company of others, he tells us, “Regulate your manner of behavior toward others not according to your own humor but to the pleasure and inclinations of those with whom you converse.” When it comes to singing, he is adamant: “If you don’t have a pleasant singing voice . . . don’t sing! And yet, often he that has the worst voice uses it most.” 

Della Casa covers a wide range of human behavior in his treatise. Don’t bore others with your dreams, he cautions, because most dreams are “idiotic.” Yawning around others is rude, making it seem you want to be anywhere else than where you are. Only give advice when someone asks for it — to do otherwise is to pretend to be smarter than the person you are giving it to (a curious inclusion since the whole purpose of his book is to give advice). It is impolite to use informal language in formal situations or with strangers. Don’t engage in flattery. Don’t talk loudly so as to disturb others. Who hasn’t been in a library, restaurant, or movie theater where someone is talking on a cell phone that can be heard twenty feet away? In matters of personal hygiene, don’t clip your fingernails in public, and never wash your hands in the sight of others. Doing so puts them in mind of whatever caused you to wash them, perhaps “some filthy matter done elsewhere.” 

As mentioned earlier, Galateo is not the first book of manners ever penned. The earliest on record is The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep, written by an official in the Fifth Egyptian Dynasty, 3580 BC to 3536 BC, laying out the rules of behavior a father should teach his son. Similar works followed throughout history such as The Art of Courtly Love (Andreas Capellanus, 1184), Treatise on Courtesy (Tomasino di Circlaria, 1200), On Good Manners for Boys (Erasmus, 1530), The Prince (Nicolo Machiavelli, 1532), and probably Europe’s most famous manual of conduct, Il Cortegiano (The Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione, 1528). The tradition stretches all the way down through George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, copied by the future president from rules written in 1595 by French Jesuits, to modern-day arbiters of good taste and behavior Amy Vanderbilt, Emily Post and Judith Martin (a.k.a. Miss Manners).  

Together with Castiglione’ Courtier and Capellanus’ The Art of Courtly Love, Galateo ranks among the most famous books of manners. One of the reasons for its popularity is its continued relevance. The Courtier teaches how an Italian nobleman should behave in the presence of his prince; there are few princes around today. Capellanus’ book instructs the medieval knight in how to employ courtly love techniques to win the favor of the married woman he has the hots for, be it the village potter’s wife or the Queen herself. Knights too are in short supply. In contrast, Galateo is written for the average man who wants only to be comfortable in polite society. Its precepts are based on the idea that our actions should be focused not on our own self-interest but on not offending those around us. As the worldly archbishop points out, “beauty and grace reside not only in nature but in human actions as well.” 

Another reason for Galateo’s staying power through the centuries is its whimsical nature. Rather than dispense his teachings in a knowing tone like a pedantic schoolmaster to a class of recalcitrant children, della Casa assumes the character of a kindly old uncle telling his nephew about the importance of always making una bella figura (a good impression). Our actions are important, he says, but what people think of us is equally important. Well, maybe. The polarization of today’s society and the attendant vulgarity of discourse seem a far cry from caring about what other people think. And the pseudo-anonymity of social media, for many people, has granted a license to disregard manners, civility and common decency. 

Bad behavior might well be a sign of the times. Or it might be one of those less admirable human traits handed down through the ages that periodically rises to the surface, reminding us of our fallibilities. Whatever its cause, if you happen to be in Italy and witness a display of bad manners, you’ll understand why Italians refer to that person as one who has not read his Galateo.•


John Capista is a reader who loves to write and a writer who loves to read. He reads, writes, and resides in Drexel Hill, PA.