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Italian word of the day: 'Sprezzatura'

Clare Speak
Clare Speak - [email protected]
Italian word of the day: 'Sprezzatura'
Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash/Nicolas Raymond

Don't put too much effort into learning this word.

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Sprezzatura is one of those untranslatable words that is uniquely Italian. It's also fun to say.

It was a term that became fashionable back in the sixteenth century, after Renaissance-era writer Baldassare Castiglione used it in his 1528 Book of the Courtier to describe "a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought."

Basically, then, sprezzatura is what it takes to make something difficult look effortless.

There aren’t many courtiers around these days to show us what that looks like, but Italy is full of more modern examples.

It's the impossibly glamorous Italian woman spotted on an evening passaggiata, where la bella figura is everything, who would never let on just how much work she puts into maintaining her immaculate appearance.

It's the almost ridiculously good-looking man I saw in Naples strutting catwalk-style across a piazza, designer sunglasses on, well-tailored suit jacket slung over his shoulder, and a tiny coffee cup held in one hand. He showed no sign of having noticed that he held the full attention of every woman, and probably man, in the square.

It's that charming party host who never breaks a sweat and shrugs off their restaurant-style cooking as "just an old family recipe".

- la sprezzatura è l'arte che nasconde l'arte.
- Sprezzatura is the art which conceals art.

- Ci vuole molta sprezzatura per fare il suo lavoro.
- It takes a lot of sprezzatura to do his job.

The untranslatable word has apparently been adopted into English and appears in the Oxford English Dictionary, defined there as "studied carelessness."

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Though since some Italians don't even know what it means, or at least find it hard to define, it's likely not used widely outside of the country.

And we're not saying it's always a positive attribute.

After all, the root of the word is in the verb sprezzare, meaning to 'disdain' or 'scorn'.

Some writers have described sprezzatura as a kind of aloof detachment, or even "the art of acting deviously," saying those courtiers back in Baldessare's day were in danger of losing their true selves to the need to keep up this façade at all times.

It can also be used to describe a kind of trickery or performance:

- Il mago mostrò molta sprezzatura, compiendo il suo atto con facilità.
- The magician showed a lot of sprezzatura, as he performed his act with ease.

Is it nonchalance, grace, or just trickery? Perhaps a little bit of all three.

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