Wherein V and R discuss how the elitist traditions of liberal learning are becoming increasingly accessible to everyone.
V 1 — What's going on? Isn't sprezzatura something for trendy wannabes?
R 2 — Ouch! People too easily co-opt the term. But even so, it can still be of value and will help make an essential point.
V 3 — OK, let's hear it.
R 4 — We are told that some 500 years ago an Italian count defined sprezzatura while discussing how men born to noble families could acquire the qualities that served powerful courtiers, men of influence in the political and cultural life of the competing city-states. Listen while I read it.
I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter [acquiring the skills of the courtier] 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 [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.
V 5 — Hasn't Hollywood now emblazoned its heroes in sprezzatura to the point of absurdity? — Double-O Sevens who know every cue, master every move, with an apt word in every situation, all without a sweat.
R 6 — Well, not only Hollywood. All sorts try. But they forget the injunction, "to avoid affectation." James Bond oozes affectation in his caricature of sprezzatura. That's what makes him popular.
V 7 — Explain that a bit. I see the caricature, but how does that make him popular?
R 8 — People realize, perhaps only unconsciously, that grace, sprezzatura, the courtier as a type, represented the virtues of the highborn in an aristocratic world. The Book of the Courtier noted that natural nobility emerged occasionally in lowborn persons, but dismissed the possibility of their making it as courtiers. The idea of the courtier was much too elitist for the democratic sensibility. We require it caricatured as something that doesn't need to be taken seriously as an option for ourselves. Male and female respond to the caricature as a fantasy wish-fulfillment, a great path to popularity.
V 9 — OK, but why are we then saying "Value sprezzatura?"
R 10 — Well, let's ask why noble birth was so essential for anyone wanting to be a courtier? People then recognized that natural ability occurred throughout the population, but becoming a courtier was unthinkable without noble birth. What skills did the courtier need and how would he get them to the point of seeming to have them effortlessly? Why was noble birth essential?
V 11 — You know, I haven't read the book, but I've watched that series, The Borgias. Judging from it, the skills were pretty complicated. They were fighters, while riding horses and on foot, using swords, pikes, crossbows, some early cannons and guns; and they were counselors, helping to govern city-states with pretty complicated politics and trade, and they became churchmen sometimes and dealt with the Church, and with crowds, and not a few wingnuts; they considered statecraft and law and negotiated with a confusion of friends and enemies, and they helped commission paintings and build buildings, aesthetic questions, and were part of the court attending to the ladies and ceremonies there, dancing and possibly playing musical instruments, and the ladies now and then might cavort downscale, but they expected to live upscale, participating themselves in decisive ways as well. It was all high risk, ruthless, and with no cushion of affirmative action.
R 12 — Right, you might find Burckhardt a better source, but that's OK. How would one become proficient and at ease in all this, by the age of 20 or so?
V 13 — I get it. Being born into and growing up in a family in which all these things were the stuff of daily life would be a decisive advantage. But I still don't get why sprezzatura should be valued now in our concern for liberal learning.
R 14 — It's actually quite simple. Like the life of the courtier, historically liberal learning has been very elitist. It's been hard to get, expensive, best suited to the well-to-do who don't have to worry as much about preparing for economic success. That was life, but why was that the case?
V 15 — It was because, as you say, acquiring liberal learning was a lot like acquiring the skills of the courtier — it was a lot easier if you were born into circumstances where the tools for liberal learning were ready at hand.
R 16 — Exactly, a well-stocked library, learned elders, tutors and travel, the chance to practice early with the sense that doing so was simply natural — comme il faut, as it should be — all these were almost preconditions of the possibility. And now, we've got to ask, What's happening with the Internet and what we are intending to do on it? What happens if we do a good job putting together in the digital commons, an open environment, the best that's been thought and said available freely for persons — any one, any where, any time? Aren't we opening the requisite material conditions to people who want to learn liberally, study deeply, think formatively, and educate tactfully?
V 17 — Ah ha! Billions of people connect to the Internet and the circumstances for acquiring liberal learning can perhaps be ready at hand for those of them who wish to do so, whatever the accidents of their birth. It would become a different ball game.
R 18 — Yes! We are far from being able to play it yet. But what we see now is just the beginning and in working on our imperatives we should value sprezzatura. We should aim to present the tools for acquiring liberal learning with a scope and depth, such that anyone who wishes to do so can accomplish it with sprezzatura and without affectation.
- For the trendy reductio ad absurdum: "Sprezzatura – What It is, DOs and DON’Ts" by Christopher Lee, Gentleman's Gazette (March 12, 2018), https://www.gentlemansgazette.com/sprezzatura-dos-and-donts/.
- Baldesar Castiglione, The Book of the Courtier (Charles S. Singleton, trans., New York: W. W. Norton, 2002) p. 32.
- The Borgias, Starring Jeremy Irons, Joanne Whalley, Francois Arnaud.(Amazon Prime.)
- Jacob Burckhardt, The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy (Middlemore. trans.)