Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Baldassare Castiglione by Raphael
Baldassare Castiglione by Raphael, oil on canvas.

Peter Will / Getty Images

The rehearsed spontaneity, studied carelessness, and well-practiced naturalness that underlies persuasive discourse. (The opposite of sprezzatura is affectazione--affectation.)

The Italian word sprezzatura was coined by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier (1528): "[T]o avoid affectation in every way possible . . . 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."

Examples and Observations:

  • "Float like a butterfly; sting like a bee."
    (Muhammed Ali)
  • "And all you got to do is act naturally."
    (Morrison and Russell, "Act Naturally")
  • "It takes a great deal of experience to become natural."
    (Willa Cather, interview in the Bookman, 1921)
  • "A good style should show no sign of effort. What is written should seem a happy accident."
    (W. Somerset Maugham, The Summing Up, 1938)
  • "Writers are not mere copyists of language; they are polishers, embellishers, perfecters. They spend hours getting the timing right--so that what they write sounds completely unrehearsed."
    (Louis Menand, "Bad Comma." The New Yorker. June 28, 2004)
  • "In the presidential debates, everything that the candidates say will have been carefully rehearsed including the ad lib remarks. . . . What a candidate has to do is to memorize the answers to a bunch of questions and know how to look sincere. As a TV producer said, 'If you can fake sincerity, you've got it made.'"
    (Molly Ivins, 1991)

Thomas Hardy on Calculated Carelessness

"The whole secret of a living style and the difference between it and a dead style lies in not having too much style--being, in fact, a little careless, or rather seeming to be, here and there. It brings wonderful life into the writing...

"Otherwise your style is like worn halfpence--all the fresh images rounded off by rubbing, and no crispness or movement at all.

"It is, of course, simply a carrying into prose the knowledge I have acquired in poetry--that inexact rhymes and rhythms now and then are far more pleasing than correct ones."
(Thomas Hardy, notebook entry in 1875, quoted by Norman Page in "Art and Aesthetics." The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Hardy, ed. by Dale Kramer. Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Cicero on Artful Artlessness

"When Cicero recommends to the orator a kind of studied nonchalance, he does not mean it as a general rule, to be applied to all types of rhetorical performance; the term appears in the context of a discussion of a specific variety of rhetoric, namely the plain style ... Castiglione appropriates from Cicero the notion of artful artlessness, as well as its seductive effect: that the audience, finding what it beholds ... is incited to suspect, and desire, the presence of something more than what is actually seen."
(David M. Posner, The Performance of Nobility in Early Modern European Literature. Cambridge University Press, 1999)

The Inherent Ambiguity of Sprezzatura

"As dissimulation or artfulness, sprezzatura, like irony, is inherently ambiguous and equivocal. This ambiguity necessarily introduces the question of the audience, for to be successful the courtier must conceal his artfulness, but for it to be appreciated as sprezzatura, his concealment must be perceived."
(Victoria Kahn, "Humanism and the Resistance to Theory." Rhetoric and Hermeneutics in Our Time: A Reader, ed. by Walter Jost and Michael J. Hyde. Yale University Press, 1997)

Rehearsed Spontaneity

"Being prepared is the key to rehearsed spontaneity in public speaking. Before making a remark, pause and look up like you are searching for something to say. The audience will think you are creating the humor on the spot."  (Scott Friedmann, "Public Speaking: Laws of Humor")

The Appearance of Effortless Mastery

"Whether they have designed clothes, written poetry, composed operas, built public squares, painted for popes, hewn marble, or sailed the fathomless seas, many Italians of genius have placed a premium on achieving an appearance of effortless mastery, or sprezzatura, that is attained only by costly, concentrated effort and unremitting labor. 'In the end,' says Giorgio Armani, 'the most difficult thing to do is the simplest thing.'"  (Peter D'Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish, Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World. Random House, 2001)

The Gimmick of Straight Talk

"At the same time that his campaign was beholden to television, [Richard] Nixon was to denounce the medium and other media manipulations. Said the Nixon media strategy guide: '[T]he sophisticated candidate, while analyzing his own on-the-air technique as carefully as an old pro studies his swing, will state frequently that there is no place for "public relations gimmicks" or "those show business guys" in this campaign.'"​ (Neal Gabler, Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality. Alfred A. Knopf, 1998)

Pronunciation: SPRETT-sa-toor-ah or spretts-ah-TOO-rah

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Sprezzatura." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/sprezzatura-definition-1692129. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 28). Sprezzatura. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/sprezzatura-definition-1692129 Nordquist, Richard. "Sprezzatura." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/sprezzatura-definition-1692129 (accessed March 27, 2023).