Some pearls of wisdom from Giovanni della Casa, Galateo (c. 1555), trans. Robert Peterson (1576), reprinted in The Portable Renaissance Reader, eds. James Bruce Ross and Mary Martin McLaughlin (1953).
There is no doubt, but who so disposes himself to live, not in solitary and desert places, as hermits, but in fellowship with men and in populous cities, will think it a very necessary thing to have skill to put himself forth comely and seemly, in his fashions, gestures, and manners.
We say, then, that every act that offends any of the common senses, or overthwarts a man’s will and desire, or else presents to the imagination and conceit matters unpleasant, and that likewise which the mind does abhor, such things I saw be naught, and must not be used.
I like it ill to see a gentleman settle himself to do the needs of nature in presence of men, and after he has done to truss himself again before them. Neither would I have him (if I may give him counsel), when he comes from such an occupation, so much as wash his hands in the sight of honest company, for that the cause of his washing puts them in mind of some filthy matter that has been done apart.
And much worse I like it, who reach some sinking thing unto a man to smell until it, as it is many a man’s fashion to do with importunate means, yes , thrusting it unto their noes, saying, “Foh, see I pray you, how this does stink,’ where they should rather say, “Smell not unto it, for it has an ill scent.”
We must also beware we do not sing, and specially alone, if we have an untuneful voice, which is a common fault with most men; and yet, he that is of nature least apt unto it, does use it most.
When you have blown your nose, use not to open your handkerchief, to glare upon your snot, as if you had pearls and rubies fallen from your brains, for these be slovenly parts, enough to cause men, not so much not to love us, as if they did love us, to unlove us again.
When a man talks with one, it is no good manner to come so near, that he must needs breathe in his face; for there be many that cannot abide to feel the air of another man’s breath, albeit there come no ill savor from him.
They do very ill that now and then pull out a letter out of their pocket to read it, as if they had great matters of charge and affairs of the commonwealth committed unto them. But they are much more to be blamed, that pull out their knives or their scissors, and do nothing else but pare their nails, as if they made no account at all of the company, and would seek some other solace to pass the time away.
Let not a man so sit that he turn his tail to him that sits next to him, nor lie tottering with one leg so high above the other that a man may see all bare that his clothes would cover.
It ill becomes a man when he is in company to be sad, musing, and full of contemplation. And albeit it may be suffered perchance in them that have long beaten their brains in these mathematical studies, which are called (as I take it) the liberal arts, yet without doubt ti may not be borne in other men. For even these studious fellows, at such time, when they be so full of their muses, should be much wiser to get themselves alone.
In speech a man may err many ways. And first in the matter itself, that is in the talk, which may not be vain or filthy. For they that do hear it will not abide it; as you talk they take no pleasure to hear but rather scorn the speech and the speaker both. Again, a man must not love any question of matters that be too deep and too subtle, because it is hardly understood of the most. And a man mush watchfully foresee that the matter be such as none of the company may blush to hear it, or receive any shame by the tale. Neither must he talk of any filthy matter, albeit a man would take a pleasure to hear it; for it ill becomes an honest gentleman to seek to please but in things that be honest.
Neither in sport nor in earnest must a man speak anything against God or His saints, how witty or pleasant soever the matter be. Wherein the company that Giovanni Boccaccio has brought to speak in his novels and tales has erred so much that methinks every good body may justly blame them for it.
And they do as much amiss, too, that never have other things in their mouth than their children, their wife, and their nurse. “My little boy made me so laugh yesterday; hear you, you never saw a sweeter babe in your life. My wife is such a one, Cecchina told me; of truth you would not believe what a wit she has.” There is none so idle a body that will either intend to answer or abide to hear such foolish prittle-prattle. For it irks a man’s ears to hearken unto it.
There become again so curious in telling their dreams from point to point, using such wonder and admiration withal, that it makes a man’s heart ache to hear them, and especially because they be such kind of people as it is labor lost to hear, even the very best exploits they do when they be most awake and labor most to show their best.
It is not enough for a man to do things that be good but he must also have a care he does them with a good grace.