October 27, 2009


The writer who coined sprezzatura,

Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529),

portrait by Raphael (Louvre Museum)

What Baldassare Castiglione learned about political interactions in the hallways of royalty during sixteenth century Italy, he put into his courtesy book, The Book of the Courtier, presenting in Book III a newly minted necessity, the word sprezzatura, a word that succinctly defines the much observed but previously undefined "studied carelessness" of successful courtly behavior. And those of us since who have discovered sprezzatura and have taken it up and employed it, now treasure it as an irreplaceable bon mot for identifying certain equilibrious moments of human interaction.

Here's how Castiglione explained it:
It is an art which does not seem to be an art. One must avoid affectation and practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, disdain or carelessness, so as to conceal art, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it ... obvious effort is the antithesis of grace.
Ever since Castiglione, lexicographers, scholars, conductors, directors, critics, and even bloggers of all sorts have been steering the word into the accommodations of their own ports of call — of rhetoric, music, portrait painting, dance, and modern film, to list just a few — where the word easily adapts itself to new surroundings and performs with effortlessly effectiveness and grace. Following are a few definitions of sprezzatura from select dictionaries, as well as descriptions from various ports of call that illustrate the word's graceful adaptability and efficiency.





Ease of manner, studied carelessness; the appearance of acting or being done without effort; spec. of literary style or performance. — Oxford English Dictionary


Studied nonchalance : perfect conduct or performance of something (as an artistic endeavor) without apparent effort. Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary


Effortlessness or ease, esp. in art or literature; careless grace; nonchalance. — Webster's New World College Dictionary, 2005


Sprezzatura is an Italian word originating from Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined by the author as

“a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”[1]

It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.[2]

Sprezzatura has also been described “as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance.”[3] Wikipedia.com



The opposite of sprezzatura is affectazione (that is, affectation). Dr. Richard Nordquist, Armstrong Atlantic State University.



A term used in 17th century Italy describing a free style of performing compositions that ignored strict tempo and rhythm but embraced freedom of tempo and expressiveness.— Virginia Tech Multimedia Music Dictionary.



A coinage by Baldesare Castiglione in his Il Libro del Cortegiano, to describe the well-practiced naturalness, the rehearsed spontaniety, which lies at the center of convincing discourse of any sort, and which has been the always-sought but seldom well-described center of rhetorical "decorum," since Aristotle first tried to describe it. Richard A. Lanham. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms, 2nd Ed.




The Renaissance portraits of the late 1400s and early 1500s by Leonardo and Raphael, for example, show sprezzatura-in-spades. Take for example, the two portraits above; Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa 1502-1519 and Raphael’s Portrait of Maddelena Doni 1506. Note how the sitter really doesn’t look at you, but past you and looks almost bored. That’s sprezzatura. — Travelmarx: A Sabbatical Year in Italy and Beyond trabelmarx.blogspot.com




Pictured are Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.[left] and Adolphe Menjou [right]. Both movie stars, both sophisticated, both with extensive wardrobes, both well dressed, both mustachioed, both dandies.

Yet when we look at them today, Fairbanks remains vibrant and stylish, while Menjou looks fussy and fastidious. Fairbanks could walk into a cocktail party today and charm the ladies and make the men envious. Menjou would come across as a relic.Why? In a word, sprezzatura.

As Count Ludovico says in Castiglione’s “Book of the Courtier,” sprezzatura “is an art which does not seem to be an art. One must avoid affectation and practice in all things a certain sprezzatura, disdain or carelessness, so as to conceal art, and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it. Obvious effort is the antithesis of grace.”

Dandies by definition take great care choosing their attire, and as a result are prone to looking too perfect. The Beau’s injunction against looking too tight and too stiff is even truer today than it was two centuries ago. The goal, as we see it, is to emulate Dougie Fairbanks and avoid being mistaken for Adolph Menjou. —www.dandyism.com



From the moment [Diana Vishneva] stepped on stage, one could feel the tragedy of her situation. The power of her emotive grace was palpable, even from three tiers away in the mezzanine gallery. Her face and gracefully broken angles screamed a slow resignation. This was a wonderful articulation of the Italian concept of sprezzatura: The glory of an incredible, technically skilled dancer applying all her skill to demonstrate the tragic beauty of a graceful death, while making it look effortless. —Laura Taylor. —"Columbians 'Fall for Dance' at City Center Festival." Columbia Spectator, 4 October 2009.


Gone are the coutiers of the renaissance, those sophisticated factotums who pleased their monarchs with every deep bow and apt compliment. But with us today are handlers, staff assistants, aides, and press officers who continue to aspire to and sometimes achieve a form of dark sprezzatura, as they mediate business executives and political personages with their respective publics, each word carefully chosen and syntactically in place, each physical gesture calm and natural, while, perhaps beneath the calculated show, some uncertainty ruminates about the wisdom of their superior's intentions and competence.

Though the word has moved into wider usage during recent years, we find it defined mainly in unabridged dictionaries, most collegiate dictionaries currently being edited by etemologists who need to be thunked into alertness about the usefulness of this emerging word.



Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World. Mary Desmond Pinkowish Peter D'Epiro. New York: Anchor, 2007.

Publisher Comments:

“Sprezzatura,” or the art of effortless mastery, was coined in 1528 by Baldassare Castiglione inThe Book of the Courtier. No one has demonstrated effortless mastery throughout history quite like the Italians. From the Roman calendar and the creator of the modern orchestra (Claudio Monteverdi) to the beginnings of ballet and the creator of modern political science (Niccolò Machiavelli), Sprezzatura highlights fifty great Italian cultural achievements in a series of fifty information-packed essays in chronological order.

Table of Contents


1 Rome gives the world a calendar—twice

2 The Roman Republic and our own

3 Julius Caesar and the imperial purple

4 Catullus revolutionizes love poetry

5 Master builders of the ancient world

6 “Satire is wholly ours”

7 Ovid’s treasure hoard of myth and fable

8 The Roman legacy of law

9 St. Benedict: Father of Western monasticism, preserver of the Roman heritage

10 Salerno and Bologna: The earliest medical school and university

11 St. Francis of Assisi, “alter Christus”

12 “Stupor mundi”: Emperor Frederick II, King of Sicily and Jerusalem

13 St. Thomas Aquinas: Titan of theology

14 Dante’s incomparable Comedy

15 Banks, bookkeeping, and the rise of commercial capitalism

16 Petrarch: Creator of the modern lyric

17 Boccaccio and the development of Western literary realism

18 The mystic as activist: St. Catherine of Siena

19 Inventors of the visual language of the Renaissance: Brunelleschi, Donatello, Masaccio

20 Lorenzo Ghiberti and the “Gates of Paradise”

21 Cosimo and Lorenzo de’ Medici, grand patrons of art and learning

22 Sigismondo Malatesta: The condottiere with a vision

23 Leonardo da Vinci: Renaissance man, eternal enigma

24 A new world beckons: Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, Verrazano

25 Machiavelli and the dawn of modern political science

26 Michelangelo: Epitome of human artistry

27 Sprezzatura and Castiglione’s concept of the gentleman

28 Aretino: Self-publicist, pornographer, “secretary of the world”

29 Giovanni Della Casa’s Galateo: Etiquette book par excellence

30 Andrea Palladio and his “bible” of building

31 Catherine de’ Medici: Godmother of French cuisine

32 Peri’s Euridice: The birth of opera from the spirit of tragedy

33 Galileo frames the foundations of modern science

34 Two sonorous gifts: The violin and the piano

35 Claudio Monteverdi, father of modern music

36 The Baroque splendors of Bernini

37 Pioneers of modern anatomy: Eustachio, Fallopio, Malpighi, Morgagni, et al.

38 Founder of modern penology: Cesare Beccaria

39 Trailblazers in electricity: Galvani and Volta

40 Venice: Rhapsody in stone, water, melody, and color

41 Europe’s premier poet of pessimism: Giacomo Leopardi

42 Giuseppe Garibaldi: A united Italy emerges

43 The last “Renaissance” prince—D’Annunzio at Fiume

44 La Dottoressa: Maria Montessori and a new era in early childhood education

45 Marconi invents the radio

46 Enrico Fermi: Father of the atomic age

47 Roberto Rossellini: Neorealist cinema and beyond

48 An unlikely international bestseller: Lampedusa’s The Leopard

49 Ferrari—on the road to perfection

50 La moda italiana: The art of apparel


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