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Attributes of Decorum; Youth, Beauty, Lion Fur

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by Cesare Ripa, Giovanni Zaratino Castellini

Immediately after the Ekphrasis (i.e., description) of Decorum, epigraphist and scholar Giovanni Zaratino Castellini motivates the various attributes of the allegory he compiled for the 1613 edition of Cesare Ripa's Iconologia, starting with the anagraphic-physical ones (he is a young and handsome man), and then moving on to the first of the garments covering it, the lion fur. Each element is faithfully reproduced in the image paired with Castellini's text. He writes meticulously and repetitively, piling notion upon notion, without any stylistic embellishment. The reader who will have the patience to follow him will be able to gain insight into the antiquarian culture of the Renaissance and Baroque periods and the circumstantial method followed by the intellectuals and artists of the time to elaborate images, both conceptual and visual, that are dense with meaning and capable of speaking for a tradition, a civilization and a complex cultural universe. In this context, the notion of Decorum is pivotal, almost the sum of various other virtues, better known and analyzed by scholars, which have already appeared in previous editions of Iconologia. Indeed, in the figure of Decorum converge ethical and aesthetic reasons, rectitude of action and good manners through which it manifests itself and gains credibility. See C. Ripa, Iconologia, Eredi di Matteo Florimi, Siena 1613, pp.171-173. English translation and notes by Bruno Manfredini.

He is a fine young man because decorum, and the ornament of human life, is honest, for decorum is always united with honesty: for, as Marcus Tullius wisely argues in De Officiis, Book I, decorum generically understood is that in which all forms of honesty are found; & it is of two kinds, for to this generic decorum there is implied another, essential in every form of honesty. The first is defined thus. Decorum is that which befits the excellence of man, insomuch as his nature differs from that of other animals. The other part, which is subject to gender, they define it thus. Decorum is that thing, so convenient to nature, that in it appears moderation, is temperance, with a certain noble, civil, & free manner. So that decorum is present in every thing that belongs to the honest in general, & in particular, in every kind of virtue; therefore, just as the beauty of the body, with the beautiful proportion of the limbs, allures & attracts the eye, & for that very reason is a delight, because all the parts relate gracefully & correspond to each other, so from decorum, the splendor of life, comes the approval of those with whom one lives with order, constancy, & moderation in everything said & done: it follows that decorum is observed in speaking & acting with honor, & in considering what is proper to follow & what is proper to avoid, following just & honorable things as good and expedient, avoiding unjust & dishonest things as bad & unbecoming, contrary to decorum & honor, which is derived from either of these parts; either from the diligent respect & observance of truth, or from the maintenance of human conversation & commerce, giving each his own, according to the faith given, in contrary things, or from the exalted & invincible greatness and strength of mind in all things, which is known and told in order & manner, in which there is modesty, temperance, & every mitigation of the disturbance of the soul, in which is contained decorum, the strength of which is that it cannot be separated from honesty, for what is suitable is honest, & what is honest is suitable. Hence Marcus Tullius said. Hoc loco continetur id quod dici latine Decorum potest, græce enim (tò prepon) dicitur, huius vis est ut ab honesto non queat separari; nam & quod decet honestum est, & quod honestum est decet. Further down he adds. Et iusta omnia decora sunt iniusta contra, ut turpia sic indecora. Similis est ratio fortitudinis, quid enim viriliter animoque; magno fit, id dignum viro, & decorum videtur: quod contra id ut turpe, sic indecorum 〈1〉. In order to show the greatness, strength & high virtue of mind that decorum requires, we have depicted him with a lion’s fur, for the ancients regarded lion’s fur as a symbol of the value of virtue & strength of mind that they assigned to those who had observed decorum, & had shown themselves to be generous, strong and magnanimous, because everything that is done with humanity & great soul seems worthy of a man who observes decorum, while he who lives effeminately, without constancy & greatness of mind, is devoid of decorum. Bacchus, whom Orpheus elected as the symbol of divine intellect, in Aristophanes 〈2〉 wears lion fur; the most manly and virtuous of the Argonauts, Hercules, always wears lion fur; Ajax, the first captain of the Greeks after Achilles, also chose lion fur for his decoration, & it is said that where he was covered by it he could not be wounded, where he was uncovered he could be wounded, to which can be given this beautiful meaning, that a man in actions in which he behaves with decorum, cannot suffer the stings of blame & ignominy, but in actions in which he does not obey decorum, he suffers stings of blame & ignominy, which go to his heart, as in Ajax, who, as long as in his actions he kept a manly attitude of decorum, never found himself to be blamed, but much praised; while he received great blame when he stripped himself of the lion’s fur, that is, of strength of mind, yielding to despair without decorum. We have also wrapped decorum in the lion’s fur, for just as this animal is physically the best structured and composed of all, so in soul no one follows decorum more than him, for he is liberal, magnanimous, victory-loving, mild, just & amiable with those with whom he converses, as Aristotle says in Physognomics ch. 8 and lib. 9 ch. 44, concerning animals 〈3〉, he is not suspicious but pleasant, festive and affectionate with his companions & family members. He never gets angry with a man unless he is offended, he is moderate in punishing if someone has slightly annoyed him, he does not tear him with his nails but merely shakes him off, & as soon as he has frightened him he lets him go: if anything, he tries to punish severely those who have beaten & injured him with darts or skewers. From Elianus, supported by the authority of Eudemus 〈4〉, we learn that he disliked outrages & indeed punished them; in fact, Elianus relates that a Lion, a Bear & a Dog reared together and lived for a long time without any quarrel and with familiarity; but one day it happened that the Bear, seized with rage, slashed the Dog; the Lion, seeing the offense done to his friend, could not bear the outrage and attacked the Bear by slashing him, and as an impartial king condemned him to death. According to Pliny 〈5〉, he is a grateful animal, attentive to benefits, clement and forgiving to those who submit to him, he always shows nobility and generosity of spirit, and if he is forced by a multitude of dogs & hunters to retreat, he does not immediately flee before them, lest he jeopardize his reputation, which is improper unseemly for a king like him, but retreats little by little with elegance, & from time to time, in order to maintain decorum, he stops in the open field & threatens them & shows contempt toward them, until, after he has gone into the vegetation, without being seen he hastily hides himself, bumbles several times & disappears from view not out of fear, but so as not to instill fear and terror in others, & in short he constantly adheres to decorum, like a Prince & a King; and this applies to the decorum of actions; let us now come to the decorum of speech.

〈1〉 «Also included in this part is what in Latin is called Decorum and what in Greek is called Prèpon. It is such by its intimate nature that it cannot separate itself from the honest: for what is decorum is honest and what is honest is decorous [...] and so every right action is decorous, and every wrong action, as it is dishonest, so it is also indecorous. In the same way fortitude behaves: all generous and magnanimous actions appear worthy of man and informed by decorum; contrary actions, on the other hand, as dishonest, so offend decorum.» Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Officiis, liber I, 93-94 [ed.].

〈2〉 Castellini refers to Aristophanes' comedy The Frogs and its protagonist, the theater god Dionysus, Bacchus in Latin culture [ed.].

〈3〉 Castellini refers to Physiognomonics, a Greek treatise (c. 300 B.C.) attributed to Aristotle but probably not autograph, and the definitely Aristotelian Historia Animalium, dating from a few decades earlier [ed.].

〈4〉 Claudius Elianus (165/170-235 CE), Latin writer in Greek language and author of a seventeen-book treatise On the Nature of Animals. Eudemus (not Eudomus, as Castellini writes) from Rhodes, lived between about 350 and 290 B.C., Greek philosopher and scientist, possible source of Elianus [ed.].

〈5〉 Castellini refers to Pliny the Elder's Naturalis Historia, Book VIII [ed.]. 

Homepage: "Decorum", graphic elaboration from the image illustrating C. Ripa's book "Iconologia", Eredi di Matteo Florimi, Siena 1613. Below: reproduction of pages 171-173 from the same book (

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