January 14, 2007

Sprezzatura -- the illusion of effortlessness

Courtiers were expected to speak in highly contrived language but to make their clever performances seem effortless. The most famous model for this kind of behavior is Baldassare Castiglione’s sixteenth-century manual The Courtier, translated into English by Thomas Hoby in 1561. According to this work, the ideal courtier masks his effort and appears to project elegance and natural grace by means of what Castiglione calls sprezzatura, the illusion of effortlessness.

Megan K. Williams describes this modern day sprezzatura in the short story, The Girls in Bikinis from her collection, Saving Rome. “These were professional women – a biologist, a translator, an economics professor and Oriana, the art historian – but they didn’t have the frenzied, beleaguered look of the high-powered working mothers I know. No doubt they’d worked hard to get where they were – this was male-dominated Italy after all. But they’d somehow slipped their jobs comfortably in among managing their homes and the lives of their children and husbands, ski vacations, summers at the beach and looking gorgeous.”

La Bella Figura includes making “always looking your best” look easy. My brothers-in-law tend to frequent women who show up at my son’s volleyball matches on Sunday mornings in spike heels, perfect hair, nails and makeup, ironed tight-fitting jeans and just the right casual Sunday morning accessories. All with effortless ease, or so it seems. I can do it too, but it takes effort and I think the effort probably shows.

An Italian businesswomen told me the story of being called out of her hotel room at 3:00 am due to a fire alarm while attending a conference in a Northern European capital. A German colleague couldn’t believe that she arrived in the foyer with matching bathrobe and slippers, her hair nicely combed and tied back in place, and exclaimed, “YOU ARE SO ITALIAN!!”. She just shrugged and gave her an effortless smile – now that’s sprezzatura.

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