Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Sprezzatura- the Great Philological Debate

I received an email from a reader and I thought it sufficiently interesting to pass on in its full, unadulterated format, while I collect my thoughts for the conclusion to the series of posts on that coat. Thanks go out to Seth for sending this!

(Links inserted were mine)

Since I have profited, as an obsessive hobbyist who attempts significant alterations, from your knowledge and instruction, I thought I would take the opportunity to offer my knowledge on something of interest to you, that is sprezzatura. I don't often have the chance to put a doctorate in Italian studies to practical use, but this seems to be such an occasion. I thought I would offer a bit more of the historical / social / culture perspective that might help us use the term more precisely. I'm sure you've noticed how it gets bandied about in the igent community, in what can only be described as felony linguistic abuse. The term, as coined by Castiglione, has a very specific meaning, and I think it would be beneficial to try to narrow usage of it to clarify artistic judgments, particularly in coming to terms with what exactly is represented by the coat donated by voxsartoria.

When Castiglione coined the term, he was describing above all a social grace that only makes sense in context. His Libro del cortegiano was intended as a 16th-century "how to succeed in business"-type book, written for the courtier. Fortunately I think his context of Renaissance courts bears striking similarity to the modern business world, and so sprezzatura as a behavioral standard is still functional. The similarity between the worlds is this: success is primarily determined by one's relationship with the immediate superior, whether that is a local prince or a department head. The ability to appear important to one's boss often trumps talent or ingenuity, which is why both worlds are plagued by flattery, envy and petty rivalries. Sprezzatura is intended not primarily as an aesthetic principle, but as a social tool for succeeding in this sort of environment. Its purpose is to simultaneously prevent envy and create admiration amongst colleagues and superiors. Castiglione uses the term in a discussion of the acquiring useful skills. After mentioning which skills matter, he focuses on the way that these skills should be presented. The short answer is "gracefully." Sprezzatura is the answer to the question "how do I act gracefully?" It is the polar opposite of affectation. The skilled courtier acts with what might be rendered as "disdainfulness" (sprezzare is ordinarily used at this time to describe aristocratic haughtiness), a way of presenting one's accomplishments as if they were effortless, but the whole point is that the audience is fully aware of the effort required. The original quotation:
Trovo una regula universalissima, la qual mi par valer circa questo [i.e., how social grace is formed] in tutte le cose umane che si facciano o dicano più che alcuna altra, e ciò è fuggir quanto più si po, e come un asperissimo e pericoloso scoglio, la affettazione. E per dir forse una nova parola, usar in ogni cosa una certa sprezzatura, che nasconda l'arte e dimostri ciò che si fa e dice venir fatto senza fatica e quasi senza pensarvi. Da questa credo io che derivi assai la grazia perché delle cose rare e ben fatte ognun sa la difficultà, onde in esse la facilità genera grandissima maraviglia

I think there are two aspects to be considered for sprezzatura. The first is the concept of "hiding the art," to make the contrived appear natural. The key is appearance. Castiglione is not supporting naturalism here -- he doesn't encourage the courtier to "be himself", he's encouraging the courtier to make himself a better courtier through intense training and then to present that person as if it were the natural self. As someone who spent years mastering a craft, you should be pleased to note that quotation above is preceded by an injunction to master a craft first (set forth in terms of masters and disciples), and only after mastering the craft is the courtier instructed to present his finely honed skills as though they were instinctual and natural. This first point is only a means to an end, however. The second aspect of sprezzatura is the more important one, which is that it creates admiration amongst a group of elites. The purpose is not create the impression of ease and simplicity per se, but to create admiration by making the difficult look simple. Colleagues recognize the immense skilled required by your effort, and then take note that you pass off these skills as mere trifles. Therefore it only works as among experts who recognize that the created effect is not simple at all.

From what I've seen, sprezzatura is commonly used to describe attempts at sublimating the ordinary, which does a total disservice to the original intention. Sprezzatura is not about make the haggard appear regal, it's about making regal look natural, but in all cases it maintains its regal appearance. In a sense, menefreghismo stylizes lack of effort, trying to pass off apathy as social critique or aesthetic choice. Sprezzatura comes from the opposite end, downplaying acquired skill as natural ability. Sprezzatura as Castiglione intends it might be best exemplified by the pagoda shoulder -- an intensely complex creation demanding great skill which achieves an effect that mimics nature (or better, our expectation of nature, or even a better version of nature) and is a paragon of simplicity and grace. Or perhaps the satin stripe on formal trousers that hides the seam with a simple elegance. Sprezzatura has a somewhat passive-aggressive nature, since you're trying to impress people by making a show of not trying to impress them, but it is the exact opposite of a clear call for attention, like a contrasting buttonhole or an unbuttoned sleeve.

So back to the coat, however the tailor described his effort, I think it provides, perhaps unintentionally, a fantastic counter-example to sprezzatura. From what you've described, the coat was made by someone clearly capable of making a better coat whose worst efforts seem to be focused on the most visible details. My non-expert eyes are reminded of the painter/architect Giulio Romano and his Mannerist style intentionally rejecting Raphael's perfectionism and inserting artistic jokes -- subjects contorted into poses that are anatomically impossible, architectural details like fake keystones that don't actually support anything. From what you've described, the coat bears quite a bit of similarity in the way it presents itself to literary or artistic works that engage in this sort of high-brow self-mockery, but it's an insider's joke, 'yes these pockets are terrible by strict standards, but that's the point'. I think your pause to consider responses to modern art movements was spot on.

I hope you find something of use in this overly-long email. Again, thank you for running such a delightful blog.



Anonymous said...

What an interesting discussion. Part of it reminds me of lectures given by a famous trial lawyer who would always stress that the job of a polished professional was to make trial practice look easy although it actually was very demanding and involved numerous small details and hours of preparation.He may have compared a lawyer trying a case to a magician on stage. Any lawyer who's prepared a complex case understands how much work this entails.

A layperson will appreciate that the lawyer has a persuasive style and is able to elicit facts that support his or her theory of the case. A lawyer will understand what it takes to create those effects.

Marysia said...

Absolutely fascinating read. Thank you so much for sharing with us.
Cannot wait for the next instalment.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to Seth's self-deprecating closure about it being overly-long, it is probably the most concise (and cogent) narrative given about the subject matter. Good stuff.

Matajuro said...

Dear Jeffery Diduch,
as an Italian, as an Italian language teacher, and as a tailoring lover, I've been interesting in the use of the term "sprezzatura" since few years ago, especially in the internet, between the fashion lovers all over the world. I don't want to ruin the mood but, I have to inform everybody that that word is much used by non-Italians than Italians themselves. It was born in Italy long time ago of course, but I suspect its popularity came directly from the web, especially from English-written pages. For me, it remains an internet phenomenon, just like the web-slang "lol": something I understand but I'd never use in a normal conversation, especially with other Italians. Italians would rather use the French "nonchalance" to express the whatever "sprezzatura" means. I swear I had never (I mean never!) heard the term "sprezzatura" in my entire life before I came across it, probably in some Scott Schuman's Sartorialist posts a few years ago! So nobody (Pitti weirdos don't count) in Italy says that guy "veste con sprezzatura" (dresses with sprezzatura), but, "veste con nonchalance". Fascinating stuff, anyway.
Instead, the term "menefreghismo" is widely used by Italians. It's actually a relatively recent noun generated from the verb "me ne frego", "I don't give a hang" (I don't know in English, but it's not very strong or bad word in Italian). However, it's not used in the fashion world, or in a general discussion about clothing. "Menefreghismo" expresses the (bad) habit of not caring about something important, like not caring about politics, our own responsibilities in work, society, etc. So, if I say that that guy is a "menefreghista", it has nothing to do at all with his way of dressing.
Sorry... my "teacher attitude" came out. I hope maybe some other Italian has something to say about it.

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