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Sprezzatura and style

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Monday, Jul 16, 2007

Seemingly apropos of nothing, the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal had an appreciation of Castiglione’s Renaissance eea conduct manual The Book of the Courtier. The article has a smattering of biographical detail and some by and large unsubstantiated praise for the man; in short it’s the typical warm-bath-of-genius article in which you are supposed to take away cocktail-party-level familiarity with an alleged great mind. (Sample insight: “Castiglione’s life, from beginning to end, was in pursuit of the ideal, and peopled with leading names of the time. His portrait, which hangs in the Louvre, was painted by Raphael (a native of Urbino); his tomb was designed by the architect-painter, Guilio Romano, with epitaph composed by the literary light, and future cardinal, Pietro Bembo.”) I take some umbrage at this because Castiglione has been a touchstone reference point for me for a while now, and it’s sad to see an opportunity to promote his ideas squandered. I find myself evoking him in order to make use of his notion of sprezzatura, the paradoxical ideal of planned nonchalance. It’s an pernicious sort of goal to set for yourself and it anticipated the great achievements of contemporary advertisers and their marketing of ersatz authenticity, of selling the idea that you can find yourself by using consumer products.


It’s hard to imagine a fashion industry without a version of sprezzatura in operation—usually it takes the form of “style,” the indescribable and ineffable quality that is intended to mystify the periodic changes in fashion that the industry requires. By pointing to models with “timeless style,” the awkward question of why what was timeless last season has become suddenly all too dated is avoided, particularly for those who want to play along with the game, who want to believe that now is the only possible time it could be meaningful to be alive. (Hell, for us it is, right?) The humdrum commercial mechanics of the fashion business disappear, and instead we enjoy a parade of consumer society’s values in their most attractive packaging—beautiful people seeming to live the possibility of effortless spontaneity, with looking the part merging with the pleasure presumed from living it, only the pleasure seems accessible much more conveniently when all it seems to require, as we indulge the fashion fantasy, is donning a costume. The problem with this is that if you believe in these ideals despite the evident contradictions in them, and you stake you sense of self on them, you can end up losing your moorings, beguiled by your own pretenses and left with no stable, operational identity. Since spontaneity is artfully feigned, it’s no longer of use as a way to confirm sincerity, and every emotional state can seem contrived, including one’s own. And one begins to labor to turn one’s own spontaneous reactions into managed signals, expressions of “natural style” and inborn refinement.


This dilemma is evident in The Book of the Courtier, and the strange depiction of ideal love that it develops. Since words are suspect in expressing love, a courtier is instructed to use reason to comprehend the “message written in his heart” in order to entrust his eyes to articulate that message without words to a beloved. Through this message, the lover knows that he is, in fact, in love. But still, his eyes must be “carefully governed,” so that message is not expressed “to others than the one whom it concerns”. He must be able to say to himself what he is forbidden to say to his beloved, and embrace the falsity assured by this situation as preferable to the falsity that might be assumed if he spoke. Exhibiting a “certain shyness,” as the Magnifico, one of the book’s interlocutors, suggests, becomes a self-consciously contrived gesture, as conscientiously offered as the “gesture of respect” that should accompany it. So the shyness, which first informs a lover of his own feelings of love, becomes, like the lady’s timely blush, a pretense. What makes a lover sure of his own sincerity becomes dubious testimony of his sincerity when displayed. Both the ideal lover and the ideal lady then are in this precarious position: they must be able to govern the representation of feelings which if sincere, would be beyond governance, and they must recognize sincerity in acts they know can be contrived.


Perhaps this would not be a problem for that courtier who can “practice in all things a certain nonchalance which conceals all artistry”. But underlying the whole notion of sprezzatura is the idea that the value of an action is in how it is received rather than any essential quality of the action itself. A courtier’s action becomes arbitrary, which leads in The Book of the Courtier to the ludicrous equivalence of disparate practices: from Castiglione’s point of view, how one appears on the battlefield and how one appears at a masked ball are subject to the same criteria, criteria which have nothing to do with why one fights, or why one dances. How the courtier appears when in love, too, is evaluated according to criteria that abrogates any actual emotions involved. What emerges is a picture of how the ideal courtier would appear when in love (e.g. “the man who loves a lot, says only a little”) that makes the actual feelings of love superfluous. (As another noted belle-lettrist, Howard Jones, once asked, What is love, anyway? Does anybody love anybody anyway?) Those actual feelings are precisely those awkward sort which the doctrine of sprezzatura intends to suppress, urging instead a grammar of representation whose rules are divorced from those feelings that presumably necessitate the display. The representation of a feeling replaces the feeling itself.


But if the appearance of love is to be managed, and is, at the same time, the means of determining the sincerity of that love; then how is one to ascertain the sincerity of one’s own feelings? Because those feelings are arbitrary within the sprezzatura system, the question is apparently moot. It is as insignificant as the reasons why one goes to the masked ball; one goes, perhaps, simply because one’s presence is required. One loves simply because one is expected to. In that ideal world where sprezzatura is realized—in the world pictured in fashion ads and Abercrombie and Fitch catalogs—men and women interact with each other without needing an understanding of why.


However, when this is compared with what Castiglione seems to expect of love, a great disparity arises. One speaker remarks, “No other satisfaction” equals that of knowing his lady “returned [his] love from her heart and had given . . . her soul”. A female salonista argues that a person in love should have his soul “transformed” into his beloved’s, “for this is the way of those truly in love”. Another count agrees that “the greatest happiness” is to share “a single will” with his beloved’s soul—“the feeling that one is loved himself” is that which most “stirs” the heart. All these dreams of love depend on certainty: one is assured of the other’s will, and that assurance provides satisfaction. These hopes are all characterized by the freedom from deceit; in fact, having one’s soul “transformed” into another’s makes deceit impossible. Such hopes would seem to betray a deep-seated uneasiness with the deception that sprezzatura requires, revealing a wish for a relationship that would be a haven from perpetual contrivances. But, as Castiglione has one of courtiers explain, the ability to love properly is “one of the most useful and important of the endowments yet attributed to the courtier”. The court lady, too, “needs most of all to be knowledgeable about what belongs to discussions on love”. Love is considered a learned skill, not a natural predilection of the heart. With no reference point to judge another’s sincerity except a code that dictates the propriety of certain appearances, it is mutual love, rather than mutual suspicion, that becomes impossible.

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