Sprezzatura and the gentleman in the 16th century

the meaning of the word sprezzatura

In men’s fashion, the term sprezzatura is often used to describe the genuine ability to dress smartly without looking forced. What few people know is that the term actually comes from the book Il Cortegiano, written by Baldassare Castiglione in 1528. In Italian men’s fashion and the ability to dress Italian, the expression is central.

One of the first etiquette books in the world

Il Cortegiano is widely regarded as one of the first books on etiquette in the world and it was widely read when it was published. The English translation The Book of the Courtier by Thomas Hoby was published in 1561 and came to have a great influence on the English upper class’ view of the English gentleman.

Baldassare Castiglione, painting by Raffaello Sanzio from 1514.

The Book of the Courtier was to have great influence for generations, not least during the Elizabethan era, and thus laid the foundations for what was classed as good manners among gentlemen in England for centuries to come.

Il Cortegiano was one of the most popular books of the 16th century and was published in six languages in Europe.

Characteristics of an English gentleman from Richard Brathwait’s book The Complete English Gentleman, 1630. Here again, the author is influenced by the book Il Cortegiano.

The birth of the term Sprezzatura

Il Cortegiano is based on Baldassare Castiglione’s own experiences at the court in Urbino and is a handbook in dialogue form about the ideal court and the perfect courtier. It details philosophical and cultural discussions undertaken in Urbino. The book is also known as the courtier’s equivalent of Machiavelli’s The Prince.

The book’s definition of the courtier was to become a style-setter for the Renaissance. In the Middle Ages, the ideal was a brave knight who distinguished himself on the battlefield with his skill in the art of combat, but the Renaissance also demanded that nobility be versed in classical literature and behave politely.

This is also where the term sprezzatura came into play. He described it as the art of making the most brilliant of skills seem natural – as if no thought had been given to them at all.

The book describes the ideal courtier as one with a good voice, with beautiful, elegant and brave words – along with correct posture and gestures. At the same time, the courtier of this era was also expected to be athletic, have a warrior’s spirit and a good knowledge of subjects such as art and literature.

An interesting detail in the book is that members of the court spend a whole four evenings trying to describe the perfect gentleman. In the debate, topics such as humour, women, love and who is really a nobleman are especially prominent.

How many people spend four consecutive evenings discussing these topics in today’s society?

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