I had the rare pleasure recently, while reading an essay in the “personal history” section of The New Yorker, to discover that I once knew something that the great, erudite writer John McPhee did not. McPhee recalled looking at an essay by one of his students at Princeton and coming upon the word “sprezzatura,” which was new to him.
Dictionaries in English and Italian were no help, and his Italian son-in-law didn’t have a clue. He finally got the definition of the rare word from the student who had used it. There’s a longer version, but sprezzatura is most easily defined as the quality of doing difficult things and making them look easy.
My pleasure came from having known the word for quite a long time before McPhee learned it. Knowing it gave me a momentary edge on McPhee, who teaches at Princeton while I dropped out, unlaureled, from the University of Virginia.
I discovered the wonderful word in a Renaissance work called The Book of the Courtier, by Baldesar Castiglione, a primer on manners and noble behavior in much the same vein as Machiavelli’s primer on princely politics and tactics. At the time, I was writing a column about office politics for GQ magazine, and the book was suggested to me by a motorcycling pal, Jeffrey Schnapp, then the head of the Italian department at Stanford and now at Harvard.
As described by Castiglione, sprezzatura was a high virtue in Renaissance Italy, when – presumably – any show of effort was decidedly déclassé, an early 16th century version of “never let ’em see you sweat.” The roots of this form of virtue may lie in the ancient Greek sin of hubris, now thought of as pride but in polytheistic times defined as any attempt to vie with the gods – who were very cranky about that sort of pretension. Centuries later, the echoes of the virtue infused the thinking of the British empire, from the aristocracy all the way down to the soldiers who went out to hostile climes (just think about Lawrence). In that world, modesty was next to godliness, and a chap simply did not blow his own horn. This modesty extended to the uncomplaining, remarkable women who traveled across the desert or the jungles in their heavy Victorian dresses. In a somewhat diluted form, sprezzatura even reached to the suburban society of my youth, where anything that might be construed as bragging was seen as a character flaw.
A few decades ago, a famous football coach admonished his players, “When you get into the end zone, try to act as if you’ve been there before.” In the fifties, I played high school football (quite badly) and college lacrosse (not much better), and I can’t remember ever seeing the kind of self-congratulatory celebration players in all sports now indulge in. I managed to score one touchdown (due to a very well-thrown pass) and trotted back to my team with practiced humility – no end-zone dance, no high fives or chest thumps, just the murmured, “Nice catch” from my teammates. Even without my showing everyone what a wonderful thing I had accomplished, my side still added six points to the scoreboard.
Sprezzatura has long vanished from sports, both here and abroad. Players wildly celebrate all sorts of minor accomplishments, as if the public, and team owners, need to be reminded constantly that those stratospheric salaries are justified. There may be no “I” in team, but there’s an “E,” and it clearly stands for “egotism.” Perhaps only golf retains modesty, with the sinking of a 50-foot putt eliciting nothing more than a doffed cap. Baseball, too, still honors the credo of no-big-deal when a great double play is turned or a fast ball sails up and out of the park. It takes a mighty ovation to get a batter to come back out of the dugout and tip his hat to the crowd. (It must be noted, however, that one of our local baseball batting heroes had the dubious habit of slowing his home run trot to an insolent and self-congratulatory glacial pace.)
Since sprezzatura was a virtue, the opposing vice was simply its lack. The understanding was that you either possessed sprezzatura or you didn’t. I suspect that sprezzatura, like most virtues, is an acquired trait, not something we’re born with. One has to be taught to be self-effacing, especially when accomplishing something very difficult. Observe groups of chimps and gorillas, and you’ll see a lot of male huffing, puffing, and strutting. These days, we live in the age of self-proclamation exemplified by the rivers of selfies flooding Facebook, Instagram, et al. Everyone with an iPhone is at the center of his or her universe, far less introspective than deeply self-interested. The idea of making difficult things look easy has been replaced by making easy things look important. Getting to the Eiffel Tower is not challenging — it’s not climbing Mt. Everest — but out from Paris flow the countless “Look where I am, look what I did” photos that are the digital equivalent of dancing in the end zone.
Why is sprezzatura a lost virtue and immodesty the default setting of at least a few generations? Maybe we can blame it on the self-esteem movement in parenting and education (“Everyone’s a winner!”), on the effect of television on sports, on the “Real Housewives of Everywhere,” on men feeling threatened by powerful women and ramping up their bluster, on a steady diet of superhero movies, on the simple atrophy of a noble tradition going the way of the necktie, eye contact, and family dinners.
Is there any hope of saving this particular saving grace? Perhaps, though, like conquering Everest, it will be an uphill climb. May I suggest that parents and teachers start letting kids know that there are winners and losers, and almost invariably more of the latter than the former. And that sports shows include the worst ego trips of the week along with their highlight reels. And that the terms “bragging” and “showing off” be given the perp walks they so richly deserve, and “bad form” once more be recognized as good criticism.
Who knows? If sprezzatura can be restored to its original glory, perhaps a new Renaissance might be just around the corner.