Sprezzatura is an Italian word originating from Baldassare 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". 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". 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".
However, while the quality of sprezzatura did have its benefits, this quality also had its drawbacks. Since sprezzatura made difficult tasks seem effortless, those who possessed sprezzatura needed to be able to trick people convincingly. In a way, sprezzatura was "the art of acting deviously". This "art" created a "self-fulfilling culture of suspicion" because courtiers had to be diligent in maintaining their façades. "The by-product of the courtier's performance is that the achievement of sprezzatura may require him to deny or disparage his nature". Consequently, sprezzatura also had its downsides, since courtiers who excelled at sprezzatura risked losing themselves to the façade they put on for their peers.
The Book of the Courtier (Italian: Il Cortegiano) is a courtesy book. It was written by Baldassare Castiglione over the course of many years, beginning in 1508, and published in 1528 by the Aldine Press in Venice just before his death; an English edition was published in 1561. It addresses the constitution of a perfect courtier, and in its last installment, a perfect lady.
The Book of the Courtier is an example of the Renaissance dialogue, a literary form that incorporated elements of drama, conversation, philosophy, and essay. Considered the definitive account of Renaissance court life, it is cited frequently along with Stefano Guazzo's The civil conversation (1574) and Giovanni Della Casa's Galateo (1558). They are among the most important Renaissance works of the Italian Renaissance.
The book is organized as a series of fictional conversations that occur between the courtiers of the Duke of Urbino in 1507 (when Castiglione was in fact part of the Duke's Court). In the book, the courtier is described as having a cool mind, a good voice (with beautiful, elegant and brave words) along with proper bearing and gestures. At the same time though, the courtier is expected to have a warrior spirit, to be athletic, and have good knowledge of the humanities, Classics and fine arts. Over the course of four evenings, members of the court try to describe the perfect gentleman of the court. In the process they debate the nature of nobility, humor, women, and love.
The Book of the Courtier was one of the most widely distributed books of the 16th century, with editions printed in six languages and in twenty European centers. The 1561 English translation by Thomas Hoby had a great influence on the English upper class's conception of English gentlemen.
Of the many qualities Castiglione’s characters attribute to their perfect courtier, oratory and the manner in which the courtier presents himself while speaking is amongst the most highly discussed. Wayne Rebhorn, a Castiglione scholar, states that the courtier’s speech and behavior in general is “designed to make people marvel at him, to transform himself into a beautiful spectacle for others to contemplate." As explained by Count Ludovico, the success of the courtier depends greatly on his reception by the audience from the first impression. This partly explains why the group considers the courtier's dress so vital to his success.
Castiglione's characters opine about how their courtier can impress his audience and win its approval. Similar to the Classical Roman rhetoricians Cicero and Quintilian, Castiglione stresses the importance of delivery while speaking. In Book I, the Count states that when the courtier speaks he must have a “sonorous, clear, sweet and well sounding” voice that is neither too effeminate nor too rough and be “tempered by a calm face and with a play of the eyes that shall give an effect of grace.” (Castiglione 1.33) This grace, or grazia, becomes an important element in the courtier’s appearance to the audience. Edoardo Saccone states in his analysis of Castiglione, “grazia consists of, or rather is obtained through, sprezzatura.”
According to the Count, sprezzatura is amongst one of the most important, if not the most important, rhetorical device the courtier needs. Peter Burke describes sprezzatura in The Book of the Courtier as “nonchalance”, “careful negligence”, and “effortless and ease.” The ideal courtier is someone who “conceals art, and presents what is done and said as if it was done without effort and virtually without thought.” (31).
The Count advocates the courtier engage in sprezzatura, or this “certain nonchalance”, in all the activities he participates in, especially speech. In Book I, he states, "Accordingly we may affirm that to be true art which does not appear to be art; nor to anything must we give greater care than to conceal art, for if it is discovered, it quite destroys our credit and brings us into small esteem." (Castiglione 1.26) The Count reasons that by obscuring his knowledge of letters, the courtier gives the appearance that his “orations were composed very simply” as if they sprang up from “nature and truth [rather] than from study and art.” (1.26). This much more natural appearance, even though it is not natural by any means, is more advantageous to the courtier.
The Count contends that if the courtier wants to attain grazia and be esteemed excellent, it would be in his best interest to have this appearance of nonchalance. By failing to employ sprezzatura, he destroys his opportunity for grace. By applying sprezzatura to his speech and everything else he does, the courtier appears to have grazia and impresses his audience, thereby achieving excellence and perfection. (Saccone 16).
Another feature of rhetoric which Castiglione discusses is the role of written language and style. Castiglione declined to imitate Boccaccio and write in Tuscan Italian, as was customary at the time; instead he wrote in the Italian used in his native Lombardy (he was born near Mantua): as the Count says, “certainly it would require a great deal of effort on my part if in these discussions of ours I wished to use those old Tuscan words which the Tuscans of today have discarded; and what’s more I’m sure you would all laugh at me” (Courtier 70). Here, the use of the old and outdated Tuscan language is seen as a form of excess rather than a desirable trait. Castiglione states that had he followed Tuscan usage in his book, his description of sprezzatura would appear hypocritical, in that his effort would be seen without a sense of nonchalance (Courtier 71).
Federico responds to the Count's assessment of the use of spoken language by posing the question as to what is the best language in which to write rhetoric. The Count’s response basically states that the language does not matter, but rather the style, authority, and grace of the work matters most (Courtier 71). Robert J. Graham, a Renaissance literary scholar, notes that “questions of whose language is privileged at any given historical moment are deeply implicated in matters of personal, social and cultural significance”, which he states is the primary reason for Castiglione’s usage of the native vernacular. This also illustrates the Count’s response on the relativity of language in Latin. With the role of language set, Castiglione begins to describe the style and authority in which the courtier must write in order to become successful.
The Count explains, "it is right that greater pains would be taken to make what is written more polished and correct…they should be chosen from the most beautiful of those employed in speech" (Courtier 71). This is where the style of which the courtier writes encourages the persuasiveness or successfulness of a speech. The success of a written speech, in contrast to the spoken speech, hinges on the notion that "we are willing to tolerate a great deal of improper and even careless usage" in oral rhetoric than written rhetoric. The Count explains that along with proper word usage, an ideal courtier must have a proper sense of style and flow to their words. These words must be factual yet entertaining as the Count states, “then, it is necessary to arrange what is to be said or written in its logical order, and after that to express it well in words that, if I am not mistaken, should be appropriate, carefully chosen, clear and well formed, but above all that are still in popular use" (Courtier 77). This form of emphasis on language is noted by Graham as; "Although the Count is aware that more traditional aspects of the orator (appearance, gestures, voice, etc.)…all this will be futile and of little consequence if the ideas conveyed by these words themselves are not witty or elegant to the requirements of the situation” (Graham 49).
Brett & Kate McKay | July 14, 2009
A Man's Life, On Virtue
In Praise of Sprezzatura: The Compleat Gentleman
Baldassare Castiglione painting portrait sprezzatura
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Brad Miner. Mr. Miner is the author of The Compleat Gentleman.
What was once called sprezzatura, a wonderful word coined by the sixteenth-century writer Baldassare Castiglione, is a kind of graceful restraint that is an elemental characteristic of true civility. It helped define Western ideas about the gentleman, and it helped strangers to manage the slow transition to friendship.
Castiglione was an advisor to Popes Leo X and Clement VII, and to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier appeared in 1528, but it has surprising freshness today. It was considered revolutionary in its time, and yet Castiglione’s take on manliness owed much to Aristotle and Cicero. The ideal courtier was to have Aristotelian arete, which is to say excellence. An aristos (whence our word aristocrat) was educated in the best ideas and tempered by training to possess the best impulses, martial and artistic. He was, in Jacob Burckhardt’s phrase, engaged in “self-fashioning.” For Aristotle — and for men of the Renaissance such as Castiglione and Shakespeare — the standard for self-fashioning was the “golden mean,” the center between extremes. As Peter Burke explains: “Courage is defined as the mean between rashness and cowardice, liberality as the mean between extravagance and parsimony, and so on.” From Cicero, Castiglione took the Stoic concept of neglentia diligens (studied negligence), an obvious precursor to sprezzatura. And like many writers of his period, Castiglione respected Ovid’s famous observation, “Ars est celare artem.”
The purpose of art is to conceal itself.
Castiglione advocates such “art” in the formation of the gentleman, but his critics say he means pretense or dishonesty, and Castiglione’s courtier has come down to us as a superficial fellow content to fake it if he can — so long as the deception is shrewd.
Sprezzatura in Practice
No one is born a gentleman. Becoming one is a matter of education, and Castiglione’s “art” is really the practice of the principles that when finally internalized create the man whose urbanity, wit, athleticism, and restraint have sunk into his sinews.
A gentleman practices sprezzatura so that he can get it right. Confucius said that “although the gentleman may not have attained goodness, he acts in such a way so that he might become good.”
Developing sprezzatura is a worthy challenge in a culture that discourages and is suspicious of discretion and restraint. Many people are simply aghast at taciturnity. We tend to distrust anyone we suspect of not being “open.”
But the whole point of restraint, and the etiquette supporting it, is to give us a chance to negotiate slowly and carefully the difference between being strangers and becoming friends.
The handshake developed as a way strangers could show themselves unarmed. It was a sensible and cautious first step towards friendship. We do well to remember that intimacy must be a process, a negotiation, and that who meets a stranger and jumps quickly into bed, so to speak, has a better than even chance of waking up next to an enemy.
The ability to pause before acting and then to act sensibly is manifest prudence, which is the first among the cardinal virtues.
A man who has sprezzatura is content to keep his own counsel. He not only does not need to have his motives understood, he prefers that they not be understood. His actions, including his carefully chosen words, speak for him. It is not necessary for others—save his intimates—to know more.
Although it is not specifically a reason for embracing circumspection, it so happens that a discrete gentleman amasses, over time, a tremendous edge in the affairs of this world. He hears things that others do not, because people of all sorts confide in him, knowing that he will not betray their trust. The knowledge of the human heart that the compleat gentleman thus develops can be a burden, but it is also something of a liberation. It may call upon every bit of his strength to restrain himself from saying or doing more than he ought with knowledge gained from friendship, but there it is.
The art (and depth) of sprezzatura is defined by a man’s power: the stronger and wiser he is, the gentler his manner and the more circumspect his speech; the more, in other words, his true self is hidden.
Of course there is more to sprezzatura than just restraint. There is the quality people refer to when a man is called suave. Cary Grant was usually a gentleman in his film roles because he seemed able to do difficult things with ease and because he seemed a “man of the world,” not only suave but urbane as well. One could not imagine him saying anything inappropriate, and it was inconceivable that he would blurt out an intimacy, perhaps not even to an intimate friend. He knew the difference between a true friend, an acquaintance, and a stranger.
Implicit in sprezzatura is not only an effortless elegance but also a strenuous self-control. In the end, to be a gentleman is to hold Stoically, quietly to the conviction that he not be seen doing his “gentlemanly thing.” Silence really is golden. As Cervantes has Sancho Panza put it: “A closed mouth catches no flies.”
Intrigued by the concept of sprezzatura? Want to know more about the virtues and attributes that every man should seek to cultivate? Enter to win a copy of Brad Miner’s The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man’s Guide to Chivalry. Mr. Miner reaches back in time to recover the oldest and best ideals of manhood. The book explored the roles every man should embody: warrior (a readiness to face battle for a just cause), lover (he lets a woman be what she wants to be) and monk (a man possessing true knowledge).
Brad Miner is Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and was the founding editor of American Compass: "The Conservative Alternative," which was formerly a division of Bookspan, a joint venture of Bertelsmann and Time-Warner that operated most of America's commercial book clubs. His Compass Points blog received recognition in the 2007 Webby Awards.
He is the author of five books, including The Concise Conservative Encyclopedia and The Compleat Gentleman: The Modern Man's Guide to Chivalry. With journalist Charles J. Sykes, he co-wrote and edited The National Review College Guide: America's 50 Top Liberal-Arts Schools. His most recent book, Smear Tactics, was published in November by HarperCollins, and will be released in paperback this August. A new edition of The Compleat Gentleman was published by Richard Vigilante Books in 2009.
He has managed bookstores in Columbus, Cincinnati, and Dayton, held senior editorial positions in New York with both Bantam Books and HarperCollins, and from 1989 until 1992 was Literary Editor of National Review, America's leading journal of conservative opinion. As a book editor, he has published the work of a diverse and distinguished group of authors, including Sidney Hook, Evan S. Connell Jr., Hal Lindsey, Mother Angelica, and Chuck Yeager. He is the author of scores of magazine and newspaper articles.
He has been a John M. Olin Visiting Professor at Adelphi University.
Mr. Miner has appeared on many radio and television shows and has been quoted in articles appearing in The Washington Times, The New York Times, USA Today, Columbia Journalism Review, The Los Angeles Times, Newsmax, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, and The American Spectator.