Sunday, 27 April 2014

Sprezzatura: what does it mean ?

Recently I have come across this term in a book on Venetian painting and in an article about portraits. When the word appeared again in an FT article over sunglasses I felt I had ought to do something about my ignorance and investigate what it means.

Raphael: Portrait of Baldassarre Castiglione, Louvre

Sprezzatura is an Italian words but very few Italians nowadays would understand its meaning, although it sounds quite similar to "disprezzare" ( to despise) and "sprezzante" ( contemptuous).
The term has been coined by Baldassarre Castiglione, an important character of Italian Renaissance, a political counsellor and author of Il cortigiano, a manual in which he outlines the characteristics of the perfect gentleman at court. The book, together with Macchiavelli's The Prince, marks an important shift in culture, when interest turns away from medieval metaphysics and turns to society. Il Cortigiano was one of the best-sellers of the century, and Frances I had it translated in French too.

The book was written in Urbino  between 1513 and 1524 and finally published in 1528, when in Italy courts such as the ones in Ferrara, Urbino, Mantua were at their peak. Courts were not only a centre of political power but cultural hubs where intellectuals, writers, poets, musicians and artists came together.
In Il cortigiano, Castiglione talks about grace as the most important quality that a courtier should possess. The courtier was a gentleman who was supposed to know how to ride, converse, be a scholar, dance, dress up and have impeccable table manners as well as fighting skills.
All these activities, says Castiglione, must be naturally performed without effort, and this is what sprezzatura means, a certain detachment and non-chalance that should dissimulate any strain; in Castiglione's words, make the viewer believe that one just can't go wrong.
In the book he cites as an example a dancer who puts so much attention in what he does that he can be clearly seen counting his steps and is therefore an ungraceful and unpleasant partner.

Sprezzatura is relevant to painting for two different aspects.
 The book's code of conduct was promptly adopted by courtiers, who wished to be painted in a way that showed their grace and sprezzatura, so it quickly became the signature style of XVI century court portraits.
Look at Bronzino's young man in this eponymous portrait from the Met. He is aloof and self confident, at ease, elegant and not overly keen, his gracefulness looks second nature. Sprezzatura encompassed a certain melancholic indifference that we often find in portraits from this period ( is this the common root with the modern Italian words ?).

At the core of sprezzatura is not exactly effortlessness though, but the ability at feigning it, the skill of dissimulating it. This is the other aspect of its influence on painting: bear in mind that the word "arte" in ancient Italian has the wider meaning of modus operandi, and it's at the root of words such as artifice. 

Not only sprezzatura is a behavioural quality of a painted sitter, but the term can be applied to the piece of art itself, made in a seemingly easy way and almost without thinking, with non-chalant virtuosism as if it sprang not from a long and arduous training and painstaking work but purely from natural flair.
It was in those years that sprezzatura became a positive quality for the artist and nowadays we still hear the words "raw talent" enthusiastically spoken about as if the lack of effort or formal training was the most desirable characteristic. 

Roberto Calasso ( an Italian scholar) sees Tiepolo as a perfect example of an artist who practices sprezzatura: light and fluid touch, fast execution, confident and flamboyant brushwork. 

I wonder which modern artists might be considered to have sprezzatura, to produce work that is seemingly easy and has a lightness of touch and a playful grace to it and Matisse is the first one that comes to my mind.

The link with sunglasses is still eluding me though.
For more arty words check this other blog post from a while ago. 


Candace X. Moore said...

Great post, Ilaria. Sprezzatura is alive and well in portraiture today. I know it when I see it, and I try to infuse it into the images that I create. Thank you for articulating the concept.

Motti Shoval said...

Enlighting article.
Thank you,