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“That Pure and Charming Simplicity”: Castiglione’s Theory of Sprezzatura

Humanist Baldassare Castiglione published his magnum opus Book of the Courtier in 1528. In this treaty, he explains the conduct expected from a man of the court while introducing the neologism sprezzatura. The word comes from the Latin depretio (disdain) and refers to a specific form of dissimulation (Ricci, 2003). It is usually translated into English as “nonchalance”, a term that lacks the negative connotation of the original word. Author Fehl (1997) defines it as “the courtier's noble disdain of unworthy effort”. However, its precepts can be applied to multiple areas, from social life to art and literature. For this reason, this broad theory became successful in various cultural milieus in Europe and evolved over time to characterize new perspectives on artistic production, as well as collective and moral behaviors. It also provides insights into the influence of today’s use of social media.

At the Origins of Sprezzatura

Although Castiglione is credited with creating the neologism sprezzatura, referring to a refined form of effortlessness, and devoting numerous pages of his Book of the Courtier to its study, the concept can be traced back to the Classic tradition (Padoan, 2003). As noted by Pliny the Elder in his work Natural History, the Greek painter Apelles would sign his work with ‘Apelles faciebat’ (Apelles was making this picture) instead of ‘Apelles fecit’ (Apelles made it) (Fehl, 1997). This signature underlines the artist’s tendency to leave his painting unfinished to stimulate the observer’s imagination. It also conveys a sense of effortless ease, implying the painter’s natural talent. This form of voluntary imperfection extends beyond aesthetics and is applied to social and interpersonal relations as well, as Aristotle’s Etica Nicomachea demonstrates. The philosopher believes that individuals belittle themselves while trying to make a good impression when interacting with others, to avoid threatening their ego. Another evident source in Castiglione’s manuscript is Cicero’s De Oratore, in which the Latin author explains the properties of a good speech. The perfect orator has to speak eloquently while appearing completely natural, to make his discourse understandable for the public (Ricci, 2003).

Figure 1: "Calumny of Apelles" (Botticelli, 1494-1495).

During the last decades of the Fifteenth century, the term sprezzatura had already been used in musicology to describe a way of singing that was close to speaking (Pirrotta, 1975). This interpretation evolved in the following century to emphasize the importance of expressing emotions, intonation and modulation of words through music, beyond what could be conveyed in written notation (Vicentino, 1555). However, it was in the domain of visual arts that sprezzatura found extensive use. Giorgio Vasari explored this concept in his masterpiece, The Lives (1884), one of the most influential art books ever published. The sixteenth-century painter introduced the notion of “grace” as the aesthetic result of sprezzatura (Padoan, 2003). According to him, many artworks from the preceding century lacked this quality. Despite their admirable proportions and balance, these paintings lacked subjectivity and freedom to break from the rules. Vasari’s view reveals the changing nature of sprezzatura: it adapts to the style and taste of a specific period. His definition shows that grace and beauty do not necessarily go hand in hand. The first derives from an ineffable characteristic, perhaps imperfect, that gives the object (or the person) its charm. This idea significantly influenced the Spanish and French cultures of the two following centuries (Padoan, 2003). Such a specific artistic background inevitably shaped Castiglione’s own theory on sprezzatura.

Towards an Aristocratic Conception of Beauty

Baldassare Castiglione defines sprezzatura as follows:

“To avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some very rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura (nonchalance), so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort” (Castiglione, 1959).

To better understand this theory, it is crucial to delve into some aspects of Renaissance society. The concept of the courtier emerged from the ancient feudal nobility (Ricci, 2003). The structure of feudal society was based on the holding of land and relied on the values of chivalry, like courage and virtue. After its decay, it was supplanted by the figure of the courtier, who had to find his place in the mundane world through different qualities, such as education and elegance (Ricci, 2003). This way, he could earn the favor of the prince and secure a place within the privileged society. Consequently, the attributes proposed by Castiglione in his book are inherently elitist, specifically tailored for the privileged class. Sprezzatura, being a social quality rather than an objective one, requires the courtier to adapt his behavior to fit the context and meet the expectations of his prince (Ricci, 2003). Furthermore, the notion of effort or work is associated with the lower classes in Renaissance society and is consequently rejected by the aristocracy. Just as artworks were expected to convey an idea of neglect and ease to evoke admiration, the courtier must also display a controlled demeanor, making his actions and passions appear effortless (Castiglione, 1959). This self-restraint is considered the hallmark of his superior nature and sets him apart from the lower classes.

Figure 2: "Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione" (Raphael, 1514-1515).

Castiglione’s ideas mark the transition from classicism of the past to the new artistic approach of the Renaissance. During that period, art was heavily influenced by geometric classicism and contemplative neoplatonism which prioritized metaphysical and philosophical aspects. In contrast, sprezzatura offered a pragmatic perspective, breaking away from the dominant movements of the time. The renowned painter Raphael exemplifies this departure from classicism and neoplatonism. Unlike his contemporaries Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, Raphael was not concerned with the subordination of images to metaphysics (Louden, 1968). His portrait of Baldassarre Castiglione, completed between 1514-1515, epitomizes the affinities between the author and the painter himself. Louden (1968) compares it to a copy of the same portrait made by Rubens, highlighting the Italian painter’s use of sprezzatura. The softness of contours and the overall sobriety exude a sense of moderate confidence, contrasting with Ruben’s dramatic portrait and sharp lines. Furthermore, in Raphael’s portrait of Castiglione, the subject’s facial expression conveys the nonchalant attitude commonly associated with sprezzatura- a combination of self-assurance and carelessness. Additionally, Fehl (1997) notes how Raphael’s paintings, like Apelles’, are open-ended, leaving a sense of incompleteness inviting the observer’s participation. This aspect contributes to the ever-lasting fascination of certain Renaissance artworks, a captivating characteristic that has led to the success of this literary concept today.

Contemporary Interpretations of Sprezzatura

The reason why the concept of sprezzatura survived the test of time is that it extends beyond the realm of arts and permeates various aspects of life. The Book of the Courtier primarily serves as a manual of conduct. One can only distinguish themselves from others if they forget their ego (Ricci, 2003). A compelling example of sprezzatura's timeless applicability can be found in the publications of twentieth-century writer Cristina Campo. For her, the only way of approaching reality is through sprezzatura, or “with a light heart, with light hands'', as she says in one of her essays (Campo, 2004. Translation mine). This causes an attitude of indifference towards the limitations of writing and a rejection of social and political constraints as evidenced by her choice to write under a pseudonym. Campo’s reflections on pain further illustrate the essence of sprezzatura. According to her, pain should not be exhibited; instead, one should only free themselves from it through loneliness, resisting the need to search for other people’s sympathy (Abis, 2011). Ultimately, sprezzatura is the quest for authentic feelings or, as Campo calls it, “temerarious wisdom”; it implies a form of detachment from life’s obstacles and material goods (Campo, 2004).

Figure 3: Cristina Campo (Unknown, n.d.).

Due to its adaptable nature, the concept of sprezzatura as a form of detachment has found an interesting application today. Writer and philosopher Ilaria Gaspari uses it to describe her relationship with her readers and the importance of allowing herself not to be liked. However, what is fascinating about her vision is the treatment of this ancient practice to the modern world and technology. Gaspari suggests that sprezzatura in the modern context involves hiding one’s qualities instead of displaying them on social media. She claims that the ubiquity of social media creates a sense of constant observation, thereby forcing people to be at their best in all situations. From this perspective, reviving the ancient art of sprezzatura can be seen as both a form of rebellion and liberation. Much like the beliefs of Cristina Campo, it frees people from the fear of judgment and the need to be appreciated by others. It is a way of reclaiming oneself. This current vision does not seem to be an unpopular one. Poet James Arthur proposes a similar perspective in his poem “Sprezzatura'' (2012) whose first verses read as follows:

“Effortlessness, I learn again,

means putting all opinion & mulishness aside,

so when this almost-nothingness

alights, as occasionally it must,

it lands with the padding footfall of a child ballerina”

Although the writer does not mention technology, the central idea of his work is close to the one proposed by Gaspari. The time of publication also favors a similar reading.

It would be difficult to give a comprehensive description of all the possible applications of sprezzatura that have been proposed throughout the centuries. Greek and Latin authors pioneered this concept, which later Renaissance writers referred to after rediscovering it in classic sources. Nonetheless, Castiglione's innovative theorization cannot be underestimated. His neologism sprezzatura, loosely translated in English as nonchalance, created a new category that found relevance across various areas, even helping us understand modern issues. The term transitioned from the domain of visual arts to the realm of aristocratic society without losing its original meaning. Due to its adaptable nature, writers and thinkers have referred to sprezzatura over time, offering fresh interpretations while providing readers with food for thought.

Bibliographical References

Abis, S. (2011). Cristina Campo e l’etica della sprezzatura. Studi Novecenteschi, 38(81), pp.171-183

Arthur, J. (2012) Sprezzatura. The American Poetry Review, 41(4). p.34

Campo, C. (2004). Gli imperdonabili. Milan: Adelphi.

Castiglione, B. (1959). The Book of the Courtier. New York: Anchor Books

Fehl, P. (1997). Sprezzatura and the Art of Painting Finely. Groningen: The Gerson Lectures Foundation.

Louden, L.M. (1968). “Sprezzatura” in Raphael and Castiglione, Art Journal, 28(1), pp.43-49+53

Padoan, M. (2003). Il tema della sprezzatura nelle concezioni estetiche italiane tra Rinascimento e Barocco: un’indagine intertestuale. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Rabid

Pirrotta, N. (1975). Li due Orfei, da Poliziano a Monteverdi. Turin: Einaudi.

Ricci, M.T. (2003). La grâce et la sprezzatura chez Baldassar Castiglione. Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance, 65(2), pp.233-248

Vasari, G. (1884). Le vite. Turin: Tipografia e libreria salesiana

Vicentino, N. (1555). L’antica musica ridotta alla moderna prattica. Rome: Antonio Barre.

Visual Sources

1 Comment

Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence
Dec 21, 2023

The concept, elegantly described as "the courtier's noble disdain of unworthy effort," extends its influence beyond the courtly setting, permeating various aspects of life. For individuals who are attempting to navigate the complex requirements of academic writing, I would like to bring attention to the helpful assistance that is provided by paper writing services that can be found at site. Their services are a demonstration of expertise and devotion in the field of academic aid, and they are positioned in the midst of excellence.

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Debora Ricci

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