Great writing, great cooking, seemingly natural born gifts for some of us capture my attention and admiration. The Italians would call this sprezzatura. What a word when said with the embellishment of gusto of a native speaker. I came across this word in this Sunday’s Boston Globe Ideas section in reference to a new cultural publication entitled, n+1. The newspaper describes the journal:
Newsstand browsers will immediately notice the journal’s longing for that halcyon era in which the anti-Stalinist left joined high-modernist litterateurs in the pages of Partisan Review. The stark red cover of n+1, which advertises such essays as “Against Exercise,” “Palestine, the 51st State,” and “Philosophy of Pop” in sans-serif type, is itself a self-conscious homage to the postwar American moment. But to read the contents of the journal — “The Intellectual Scene,” for example, knocks both The New Republic and The Weekly Standard and denounces Dave Eggers and his crew at McSweeney’s and The Believer as a “regressive avant-garde” whose stylistic innovations mask a prissy moralism — is to recognize that the sweet science of the literary brawl has been revivified.
I was more intrigued by the lack of sprezzatura with the use of the word. So feeling humbled I went in search of a definition. In short it means “an assumed air of doing difficult things with an effortless mastery and an air of nonchalance.
The longer academic rambling I found on the Washington State University literary arts section refers to the Castiglione Baldassare the writer of the Renaissance period on the Renaissance his most significant tome being The Book of the Courtier which outlines the ideal man aka The Renaissance Man or
a uomo universale , or as a person expert in a wide variety of knowledge and skills. Most important to the cultured person is a certain ease or facility with situations, knowledge, love, and skills; Castiglione called this quality sprezzatura, and the idea stuck to the aristocratic sense of self for the next several centuries. In fact, the twentieth “cool” is ultimately a descendant of Castiglione’s aristocratic sprezzatura.
So are there any true renaissance men or women today? Someone who is expert in several disciplines?
Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, conductor, teacher, humanitarian to name a few, would fall into the category. Madeline Albright, well-degreed, fluent in five languages and the first woman Secretary of State who recast American foreign policy in a post Cold War world. She also made women’s rights an international issue.
Wendell Berry, farmer, novelist, essayist, poet and environmentalist and I would also put Oprah into the category for she has changed people’s lives both here and abroad and not just with those that watch her show or read her magazine but with her Angel Network and with her work now in Africa including a leadership academy for girls.
There are lots of examples out there that are known. However there are also local heroes that fill our lives—such as family, coaches, and community members. Everyday folks who are doing selfless deeds that make a difference in someone’s life.
So I suppose in a way it’s about skill and talent. Today’s definition of a renaissance individual is more encompassing as it is someone who not only has sprezzatura but transcends it for the benefit of the common good.