There are many words in Italian that defy translation: bella figura, simpatico, and my favorite, sprezzatura. The Oxford New American Dictionary will tell you that it means “studied carelessness,” but that’s only a small part of it. What the word actually suggests is a truly Italian approach to the fine art of living—at least as it was practiced several hundred years ago.
Sprezzatura may be difficult for us to understand today. William Deresiewicz has described our “virtually exhausted” American way of life, a time of nonstop and hyperconnected labor, with little boundary between the office and the home. “We’re in a panic as a nation,” Deresiewicz writes, “that we don’t work hard enough, and blame this iniquity for our ‘decline.’ ”
They saw things differently in the Renaissance. The key then was to show people how hard you were not working, to effect an air of nonchalance. This was a sign that you were a cool, capable customer. A gentleman never sweats under pressure.
The book that sums up this practical philosophy is Baldesarre Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier (1528). Part of the Duke of Urbino’s inner circle, Castiglione offers courtiers advice on such matters as the art of seduction, the games one should and should not play, and the nature of love. Most famously, he advocated sprezzatura, a way of acting that “conceals art and presents everything said and done as something brought about without laboriousness and almost without giving it any thought” (trans. G. Bull).
Castiglione was friends with one of the greatest painters of his age: Raphael. His legendary portrait of Castiglione brings the words and ideas of The Book of the Courtier to life.
The eyes are warm and welcoming: the courtier’s signal that he is ready to charm and serve. The openness of expression stands in stark contrast to much Renaissance portraiture, which often emphasized a subject’s nobility and majesty through impenetrable even haughty gazes (I described one of these lofty portraits as “hieratic,” highly formal and stylized, in my essay “Faces of Florence“).
Raphael’s portrait radiates poise and grace: the clothes are nice but not too nice (a courtier never draws attention to himself); the hands are peacefully folded (he always radiates calm); the head is turned toward us, awaiting the prince’s command (but in an inviting, not demanding way). Overall, the effect is what Joseph Epstein describes as “the art of artlessness“—the sprezzatura that reveals the ideal courtier’s effortless savor faire.