An Introduction to Sprezzatura

Sprezzatura (the ‘contrived spontaneity’ or ‘the feigned naturalness’), rhetorically refers to the concealment of artOpens in new window, and demonstration of what one does or achieves, to be a spontaneous or casual achievement, without one’s external inputs or influences such as skills, studies or careful planning. ‘Sprezzatura’ is an Italian term, translated by an ingenius scholar to be:

  • An art without art
  • A negligent diligence
  • An inattentive attention

Sprezzatura, also frequent in the musical scene, was initially introduced into music by Giulio CacciniOpens in new window in the preface to Le nuove musiche (1602), which advocates “a certain noble negligence in song.” — (Giulio Caccini, Le nuove musiche, trans. H. Wiley Hitchcock (Middleton: A-R Editions, 1970). The term denotes studied carelessness, spontaneity, or nonchalance in declamation (referring both to musical timing and seconda prattica dissonance treatment).

How the Grinch Stole Christmas!
“The Book of the Courtier” (1528).

To paraphrase Times Magazine’s articles, the primary source of the word ‘sprezzatura’ is titled, “The Book of the Courtier” (1528), a work in the Italian High Renaissance by Baldassare CastiglioneOpens in new window advising the well-rounded court politician to practice in all things a certain nonchalance (sprezzatura) which conceals all artistry and makes whatever one says or does seem uncontrived and effortless.

Grace springs and excites the greatest wonder, especially from such things as diligent efforts that is carefully harnessed and hidden. Elmslie defines the technique — which can be practiced by a graceful performer as well as by a superficial manipulator — as “a display of virtuosity that masks how difficult the thing performed is.”

With this paradigm shift in humanist culture, it was no longer regarded appropriate to exhibit competence, diligence, or the ostentatious effort to gain reputation, since by performing tasks with precise artfulness and competence, the elite reveal the adequate performance of such tasks or their symbolic equivalents by others to be mere affectation (which is the opposite of sprezzatura).

Sprezzatura is now considered the ultimate in artistic achievement and is identified with an altera natura or a second nature. Altera natura is art so skillfully hidden that it can no longer be recognized as such but has the apperrance of artless nature, not, however, of nature in its original primitive state but of one domesticated by art. To this vein, a person might even have to demonstrate his/her unconcern over the competition in sprezzatura itself, by planned mistakes or inefficiencies to conceal artfulness or competence.

Further Readings:
Harry Berger, Jr. | Sprezzatura and Suspicion in Two Renaissance Courtesy Books: Sprezzatura and the Absence of GraceOpens in new window
Ceri Sullivan | The Rhetoric of Credit: Merchants in Early Modern Writing; Contrived Spontaneity "Sprezzatura"Opens in new window
The New York Times Magazine | THE WAY WE LIVE NOW: 10-27-02 ON LANGUAGE; SprezzaturaOpens in new window
Edward Klorman | Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works: SprezzaturaOpens in new window