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 was coined by Baldassarre Castiglione, an important character of Italian Renaissance, a political counsellor and the 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 Francis 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, lead a pleasant conversation, 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.
At the core of sprezzatura is not 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.
Ilaria Rosselli Del Turco is an Italian painter living in London.