A term coined by Italian statesman Baldesar Castiglione
in his Il libro del cortegiano
(1528) to describe an ideal of courtly
behavior. Castiglione defined sprezzatura as a style of behavior in which every action "conceals art, and presents what is done and said as if it was done without effort and virtually without thought" (Book 1, Chapter 26). Sprezzatura is usually translated
Sprezzatura is a contradictory concept, demanding "the ability to show that one is not showing all the effort one obviously put into learning how to show that one is not showing effort" (Berger, 296). Castiglione resolved this paradox of contrived spontaneity by contrasting sprezzatura with affettazione (affectation), which "exceeds certain boundaries of moderation" and must be avoided "in every way possible as though it were some very rough and dangerous reef" (1.27). Affectation draws attention to the effort the courtier makes in maintaining the appearance of taking "no thought in what he is about." Castiglione illustrated the difference between affectation and sprezzatura by contrasting the ungraceful rider who tries "to sit stiff in his saddle (in the Venetian style, as we are wont to say)" with "one who sits his horse as free and easy as if he were on foot."
How much more pleasing and how much more praised is a gentleman whose profession is arms, and who is modest, speaking little and boasting little, than another who is forever praising himself, swearing and blustering about as if to defy the whole world—which is simply the affectation of wanting to cut a bold figure.
The word sprezzatura was not a new creation, but rather a new sense given to an existing word which meant "setting no price on" (Burke, 31). The term's relation to the verb sprezzare
(to disdain or despise) and adjective sprezzata
suggests a disdain for potential difficulty and human limitations (Berger, 296).
Sprezzatura has Classical antecedents. The dichotomy between affectation and sprezzatura shares similarities with the two extremes of ἀλήθεια (truth) outlined in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics: ἀλαζονεία (boastfulness) and εἰρωνεία (self-deprecation, false modesty). Aristotle condemned both extremes as examples of προσποίησις (pretense), though he considered self-deprecation the "more attractive" falsehood (IV.7).
Sprezzatura rejects the Aristotlian ideal of ἀλήθεια in favor of a discrepancy between being and seeming. Castiglione, referring to Book I of Cicero's De Oratore, wrote, "I remember having read about certain most excellent writers of antiquity, who ... tried to make everyone believe they knew nothing about letters." (1.26) In Orator, Cicero wrote:
...there is such a thing as careful negligence. Just as some women are said to be more beautiful when unadorned—it becomes them—so this plain style, even though unornamented, pleases; in both cases there is in fact something that is more attractive, but does not show itself. (75)
What Cicero saw as a specific rhetorical style
, Castiglione expanded to a defining characteristic of courtly behaviour (Posner, 13). Sprezzatura demanded that the courtier self-consciously manage the impression he gave, simultaneously performing an identity and disguising the effort of performance.
A number of theories have been put forward to explain sprezzatura's value at court. Court life involved fierce competition for the favor of a despotic sovereign; sprezzatura allowed courtiers to mask their competitiveness and aggression, winning admiration without outshining their superiors or appearing presumptuously self-promoting. Sprezzatura also saved a courtier from losing face when his efforts to gain favor failed. Eduardo Sarcone described sprezzatura as "the test a courtier must pass in order to be admitted to his club, to obtain the recognition of his peers" (Sarcone, 60). For Sarcone, sprezzatura was a mode of behavior decipherable as ironic only to those who had mastered it; in this light it was a strategy for marking social status and maintaining elitist enclosure. Sprezzatura implied a molto maggior cosa ("much greater thing", 2.11); the courtier's effortless facility suggested he had even greater skill than demonstrated. Berger saw sprezzatura as way for a courtier to convey the skill and ambition available for his sovereign's use (Berger, 297), without appearing to be a threat to the sovereign.
...a fame that is thought to result from many judgments generates a certain firm belief in a man's worth which then, in minds already disposed and prepared in this way, is easily maintained and increased by actual performance." (2.32)
Sprezzatura was influential outside of Italian courtlife. Composers around 1600 used the word to describe the new style of singing in which monody replaced polyphony and intelligibility was considered more important than ornamentation. Opera pioneer Giulio Caccini described his composing method as as una certa sprezzatura, which he associated with nobility and grace. Lodovico Dolce introduced the term into art theory in his dialogue L'aretino (1557) in a passage advising painters against giving their figures too much polish (Burke, 53). Giorgio Vasari's praise of Michelangelo and Raphael echoed sprezzatura, and Rembrandt's fluent looseness may have owed a debt to Castiglione. Sprezzatura was well-received outside Italy by writers such as Montaigne and Bacon; its influence is notable in Bacon's essay Of Ceremonies and Respects.
Castiglione's Cortegiano was rendered obselete by the rise of absolute monarchs in the 17th century, but sprezzatura remained influential to writers on style and civility. 17th Century French literature made reference to grâce, négligence and nonchalance. Locke's Thoughts on Education (1693) condemned affectation and praised gracefulness, emphasizing the need to keep a child's spirit "easy."
Ease was incorporated as an equivalent to sprezzatura in the 18th Century formulation of the English gentleman (Burke, 126). Sir Richard Steele's Nestor Ironside persona wrote in the Guardian of the ideal British man: "modest without bashfulness, frank and affable without impertinence, obliging and complaisant without servility" (Guardian #34, 1713). Lord Chesterfield's posthumously published letters emphasized the need to achieve an easy manner and "graceful, noble air" (Burke, 127).
In the 19th century, the gentlemanly tradition of sprezzatura was transformed by upper-class men into a form of protest against Romantic sincerity and the bourgeois work ethic (Burke, 134). This new ideal of the dandy was epitomized by Beau Brummell and later Oscar Wilde. Sprezzatura's enduring influence can be seen in contemporary ideals of effortless cool.
StrawberryFrog adds: to be even more contemporary than Jimmy Dean, punk and grunge rock both are well-practiced reactions against artifice.
Berger Jr, Harry. The Absence of Grace: Sprezzatura and Suspicion in Two Renaissance Courtesy Books. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
Burke, Peter. The fortunes of the Courtier: the European reception of Castiglione's Cortegiano. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1995.
Castiglione, Baldesar. The Book of the Courtier. Charles S. Singleton (Trans). Daniel Javitch (Ed). New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2002.
Posner, David M. The performance of nobility in early modern European literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999.
Sarcone, Eduardo. Grazia, Sprezzatura, Affettazione in the Courtier. In Castiglione: the Ideal and the Real in Renaissance Culture. Robert W. Hanning and David Rosand (Eds). New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983.