Sprezzatura? Of course, in this advanced age of the handheld vocabulary, everyone on earth knows what sprezzatura means, but in 2000 I had no idea, and I reached for an Italian dictionary. Nothing. I looked in another Italian dictionary. Nothing. I looked in Web II—Webster’s unabridged New International Dictionary, Second Edition. Niente. I picked up the phone and called my daughter Martha, who has lived in Italy and co-translated John Paul II’s “Crossing the Threshold of Hope” into English from the Vatican’s Italian.
Her credentials notwithstanding, Martha was no help.
I tried my daughter Sarah, a professor of art and architectural history at Emory, whose specialty is Baroque Rome. Her answering machine was as helpful as Martha.
That evening, I happened to attend a crowded reception at the New York Public Library with my daughter Jenny, the other translator of the Pope’s book, and her husband, Luca Passaleva, who was born, raised, and educated in Florence. “Hey, Luc. What is the meaning of ‘sprezzatura’?”
Luca: “I don’t know. Ask Jenny.”
Jenny: “I don’t know, but that couple over there might know. He’s in the Italian consulate.”
Consul: “Ask my wife. She is literary, I am not.”
Signora: “I’m very sorry. I have no idea.”
Back in Princeton the next day, I had a scheduled story conference with Abe Crystal, his profile of Grainger David on the desk in front of us. With my index finger touching “sprezzatura,” I said, “Abe, what the hell is this?”
Abe said he had picked up the word in Castiglione’s “The Courtier,” from 1528. “It means effortless grace, all easy, doing something cool without apparent effort.”
Soon after he left, I called Sarah again, and she picked up. She said Abe had it right, but the word “nonchalance” should be added to his definition. She said that Raphael carried the ideal of sprezzatura into painting. “He painted his friend Baldassare Castiglione as the ideal courtier, the embodiment of sprezzatura. It’s now in the Louvre.”
John McPhee, Frame of Reference