‘A Studied Carelessness’

In this section of Book I, the speaker, Count Lodovico da Canossa, defines one of the key concepts of the work, using a new term devised by Castiglione. The term is sprezzatura, meaning a ‘studied carelessness’ or the ability to accomplish the most difficult actions with an appearance of ease and effortlessness. The key section of the text translates as follows:

‘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 things a certain sprezzatura, 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.’

This appearance of nonchalance is of course an illusion. The courtier must have such a consummate command of his abilities that they seem effortless, but this appearance of effortlessness would inevitably have required considerable time and effort to perfect. Later in the text, the courtier is advised always to perform his skills where he can be seen and appreciated, preferably by his prince.

Baldassare Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano (Venice: Aldo Manuzio and Andrea Torresano, 1528), sig. b4r. Cambridge University Library, F152.b.2.5.