Sprezzatura is an Italian word originating from Castiglione’s The Book of the Courtier, where 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.” It is the ability of the courtier to display “an easy facility in accomplishing difficult actions which hides the conscious effort that went into them.”Sprezzatura has also been described “as a form of defensive irony: the ability to disguise what one really desires, feels, thinks, and means or intends behind a mask of apparent reticence and nonchalance.”
Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier as a portrayal of an idealized courtier - one who could successfully keep the support of his ruler. The ideal courtier was supposed to be skilled in arms and in athletic events but be equally skilled in music and dancing. However, the courtier who had sprezzatura managed to make these difficult tasks look easy. Concerning sprezzatura, Castiglione said:
I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all thing a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.
Thus, sprezzatura was essential to becoming the ideal courtier.
Sprezzatura was a vital quality for a courtier to have. Courtiers essentially had to put on a performance for their peers and those who employed sprezzatura created the impression that they completely mastered the roles they played. A courtier’s sprezzatura made him seem to be fully at ease in court and like someone who was “the total master of self, society’s rules, and even physical laws, and [his sprezzatura created] the distinct impression that he [was] unable to err.”
However, while the quality of sprezzatura did have its benefits, this quality also had its downfalls. Since sprezzatura made difficult tasks seem effortless, those who possessed sprezzatura needed to be able to deceive people convincingly. In a way, sprezzatura was “the art of acting deviously.” This “art” created a “self-fulfilling culture of suspicion” because courtiers had to be diligent in maintaining their façades. “The by-product of the courtier’s performance is that the achievement of sprezzatura may require him to deny or disparage his nature.” Consequently, sprezzatura also had its downsides, since courtiers who excelled at sprezzatura risked losing themselves to the façade they put on for their peers.
“I used to admire believers,” Tomas continued. “I thought they had an odd transcendental way of perceiving things which was closed to me. Like clairvoyants, you might say. But my son’s experience proves that faith is actually quite a simple matter. He was down and out, the Catholics took him in, and before he knew it, had had faith. So it was gratitude that decided the issue, most likely. Human decisions are terribly simple.”—The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
n. [Brit. wallesia] a condition characterized by scanning faces in a crowd looking for a specific person who would have no reason to be there, which is your brain’s way of checking to see whether they’re still in your life, subconsciously patting its emotional pockets before it leaves for the day.