Sprezzatura: Nonchalance in Works of Art

We’re sure you’ve heard of #wokeuplikethis! Have you ever wondered whether the art world has a similar term of its own? The word sprezzatura was first coined by Baldassare Castiglione in “The Book of the Courtier” in 1528. It is defined by the author as, “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 about it”.

While earlier artwork celebrated the genuine labour of creating art, the notion of sprezzatura crept up in the art world. The term is often used for visual arts, music, film and writing too!

Christina Campo, an Italian translator and writer, discusses the inadequacies of apparent synonymies by saying, “[What could be called its] “sister word,” namely elegance, doesn’t acknowledge sprezzatura’s creative quality, its fresh communicative flame; manner restricts it in the domain of deliberation; ease dissolves it in gestures. Carelessness is more similar, but it fills up only sprezzatura’s hollow, negative, and thus temporary shape. Sprezzatura is actually an overall moral stance that, just like the very word, needs a context that is nearly lost today.” The term could, thus, be said to be an amalgamation of all its synonyms and none; the unique and niche definition of the word communicating a certain intensity and deliberation to the act of making art that looks effortless.

Sprezzatura in Classical Paintings

Leonardo da Vinci, “Mona Lisa”, 1503. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Da Vinci and Raphael were both instrumental in incorporating sprezzatura - nonchalance and a practiced ease - into their paintings. It is interesting to note that the term was, however, coined after most of their artistic career was already over. Their paintings are the simplest examples of the word coined by Castiglione. Da Vinci paints Mona Lisa with a gaze of boredom, looking past the viewer is the best (and most famous) example of the term. She does not conform to the convention of looking presentable, her hair almost dishevelled. A similar look is noted in Raphael’s “Portrait of Maddalena Doni” - the disinterest creating a character on canvas that changes the relationship between the viewer and model in the painting. They do not try too hard while still retaining the perfect conduct.

Raphael, “Portrait de Baldassare Castiglione, écrivain et diplomate”, 1478 - 1529. Courtesy: Louvre

Raphael also painted a portrait of Baldassare Castiglione around 1514-1515. The portrait was done with oil paint and is considered one of the greatest portraits in the Renaissance era. Castiglione is shown in three-quarter profile from the waist up, seated in an armchair suggested in the lower right, his gaze fixed on the viewer and hands folded; this posture, as well as the soft luminescence that envelopes the portrait, are a subtle homage to the Mona Lisa. Around the decade later, the poet, humanist and ambassador will go on to coin sprezzatura. We wonder whether it is on his suggestion that Raphael paints a natural portrait, full of elegant detail creating a perfect example of sprezzatura.

Titian, “Flaying of Marsyas”, 1570-1576. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

In the later paintings by Titian, the great master of the finished surface adopted a quickie, sketchy style with visible brushwork and a fluid, loose form that led to Victorian critics dismissing the works as unfinished paintings. They said that the artist was too frail to be able to hold his brush properly. Now, they’re considered “modern” - the casual speed and the apparent artlessness of his strokes are now a marker of his genius and mastery. However, X-rays of the paintings show how painstakingly he worked to create the effect of having merely dashed them off. The sprezzatura of the artist’s later artworks is now unconcealed.

Contemporary Art and Sprezzatura

As art movements went by and the context of the art world with respect to sprezzatura changed, the artworks that imbibe the term also started to differ vastly from the Renaissance masters. According to Gastilione, the essence of art is to conceal art. While the term was earlier used for the models painted by artists, it gradually started to be associated with the intention and attitude of the artist too. An infamous example of this would be Marcel Duchamp. The artist abandoned painting in 1913 after creating “Nude Descending a Staircase” and started making “ready-mades”, ordinary objects from everyday life kept in a gallery space completely removed from its natural context.

Marcel Duchamp, “Fountain”, 1917. Courtesy: Artsy

While this was interpreted as an artistic rebellion in many ways, the effortlessness of the ready-mades and the fact that they didn’t have to be created by an artist incorporated an almost mystic sprezzatura in them - they defied the need for an overt display of skill. Paolo D’Angelo, a philosopher of art, shows the paradox of aesthetics: art hides that it is art, but in doing so it reveals itself to be art and becomes an assertion about art. Duchamp’s “Fountain”, a readymade urinal, attracted much debate from conformists and continues to do so.

Jackson Pollock’s paintings, on the other hand, can stir debate about sprezzatura. While his paintings look uncalculated and spontaneous, the labour of his technique is visible through the strokes of paint. The unconcealed nature of his movements is reflected on the canvas, keeping it from being clubbed with sprezzatura.

Film and Fashion Adopt Sprezzatura

Castiglione wrote in his book, "We may call that art true art which does not seem to be art: nor must one be more careful of anything than of concealing, because if it is discovered, this robs a man of all credit and causes him to be held in slight esteem." This idea has been so influential in the world of art that “laboured” is a word seldom used to describe art for its negative connotations drawn from The Book of the Courtier. The concept of aesthetics being linked to the appearance of ease is now internalised for the art world and its artists.

The word came to mean “cool” for many. It has crept up in our virtual daily lives through (fake) candids that want to communicate that the photograph was taken effortlessly without the model knowing about it, their beauty inherent and natural - unstaged. Sprezzatura also influenced streetwear fashion by incorporating a calculated nonchalance by fashion brands like Vetements and Balenciaga. Famous Hollywood actors like James Dean and Marlon Brando came to be associated with it through their sense of style and their demeanor. Fashion photography has become synonymous with sprezzatura - a look of indifference in this context. Read more about art-inspired fashion here!

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