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 sprezzatura simply means doing something extremely well without showing that it took any effort.
So what does that look like?
There aren’t many courtiers around these days to show us, 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 – but no one will admit to making any effort with their appearance.
It's the guy I saw in Naples sauntering across a piazza, wearing a sharp suit and designer sunglasses, a tiny coffee cup held in one hand and his suit jacket slung over his shoulder with the other as if he were on the catwalk. Despite having the full attention of every woman on that piazza, he pretended not to notice.
It's that charming party host who never breaks a sweat and shrugs off his 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.” Though since some Italians don't even know what it means, I doubt it's used much elsewhere.
We're not saying it's always a positive attribute, though.
Some writers have described sprezzatura as a kind of detachment, or even “the art of acting deviously,” and said those courtiers back in Baldessare's day, who had to show sprezzatura at all times, were in danger of losing their true selves to a façade.
The root of the word is in the verb sprezzare, meaning to disdain or scorn.
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.
Do you have a favourite Italian word you'd like us to feature? If so, please email our editor Jessica Phelan with your suggestion.