Salve, amici! Before we start, what thanum an dhul does the name of this column mean? Well, the Oxford English Dictionary describes sprezzatura as “studied carelessness, especially as a characteristic quality or style of art or literature” but it has also been explained as nonchalance, elegant self restraint, or grace. Simply put, sprezzatura is the art of doing something difficult – usually artistic – in a manner that perfectly conceals the effort required to master the skill. Coined by Baldassare Castiglione in his 1528 publication Il Cortegiano, the word is not Latin or Greek in origin but Italian though the idea was clearly inspired by classical values, particularly Cicero’s neglentia diligens and Ovid’s observation, Ars est celare artem (The purpose of art is to conceal itself).
Il Cortegiano was an important work during the Renaissance and has informed the Western conception of what it means to be a gentleman ever since. Structured as a series of conversations between courtiers of the Duke of Urbino over four days, Castiglione touches on the nature of nobility, humour, and love. The author was himself the Count of Casatico, a small principality near Mantua, and played advisor to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and Popes Leo X and Clement VII. Though there is little that is truly original – East or West – by way of etiquette in Il Cortegiano, the book nevertheless captures the humanist spirit in the princely courts of Renaissance Italy; until then, the authors of the peninsula’s famed city-republics – Leonardo Bruni, most prominently – had only espoused a civic humanism.
Sprezzatura cannot be taught; rather, it must be observed and imitated. However, the clay for this creation comes from knowledge – of literature, music, art, philosophy, food, fashion and many of the things found in the third chapter of the Kamasutra. In the 21st century, that list may perhaps be extended to include travel, the assumption being that such a person would be urbane. But what is it all for? Being well-informed is undeniably a desirable trait but what is the fuss about, really?
One theory is that the Renaissance being a period of Classical discovery, was re-emphasising the old Aristotelian notion of eudaimonia. Translating approximately to “the good life,” Aristotle’s concept of what it meant to lead a flourishing life was that it had to be not just philosophised and articulated but reasoned and practiced. As one can imagine, several things fell in the ambit of leading a good life – ethical conduct, wisdom, friendship, wealth, pleasing appearance, health, and so on. Activity, for Aristotle, included much of what Castiglione suggests as the beginning of sprezzatura – practicing a musical instrument, composing poetry, athletic ability, intellectual pursuits on the humanities and the sciences, and so on. The emphasis on activity rather than idle belief is key, as is the idea that virtue alone is not enough but several other factors are required. The corollary is that these habits should be pursued not for happiness but that it is a byproduct of pursuing these activities. Eudaimonia, then, was not a dry and abstract theory of morality but one of engagement with the world. Sprezzatura, then, was not merely an affectation; it was a way to practice eudaimonia with grace, for an overt display of excellence might evoke jealously and be a social faux pas.
So…back to this column then. The focus of this feature will be to discuss all the things mentioned above. You may have noticed several news blogs lately that have taken to reporting only on positive events to balance the flood of negativity in the regular press. This will be a variation on that theme – in the midst of largely socioeconomic and political commentary, Sprezzatura will try and bring you tidbits of joy albeit with far less grace than I would like! What this column lacks in grace shall be compensated for, I hope, in its approachable style – by no means is this meant to be an academic discussion about a minute point in a musical performance or a philosophical technicality but a chatty pointer to matters of interest that readers may be piqued enough to pursue later on their own. At times, there may be a hint of whimsy while at others, a topic may be quite serious: as Seneca reminds us through Lucilius, res severa verum gaudium (true joy is a serious thing)!
Until next time, stammi bene!
This article first appeared in the March 2015 print edition of Swarajya. It was the pilot article in a new column, Sprezzatura.