Performance, Beauty and Sprezzatura

I just learned a new word:


From The Book of the Courtier, published in 1528, Baldasare Castiglione defined it as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” (Wikipedia)

Sprezzatura – The ability to make the difficult seem easy.  Isn’t this the key to all successful performances?

From Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power:

“Seeing (performers) trying so hard breaks the illusion.  It also makes us uncomfortable.  Calm, graceful performers, on the other hand, set us at ease, creating the illusion that they are not acting but being natural and themselves, even when everything they are doing involves labor and practice”

This concept fascinates me because it’s one of those universal, foundational, aesthetical concepts.  It applies to all creative works, or anything judged to be beautiful.  “Being natural” is key.  Anything perceived to be graceful, effortless and spontaneous has a stronger connection to nature and beauty.

This is why music performances with sheet music, are always inferior to performances without sheet music (barring any other performance flaws).  Sheet music subtly reveals the inner workings of a performance.  Robert Greene again:

“When you reveal the inner workings of your creation, you become just one more mortal among others.  What is understandable is not awe-inspiring – we tell ourselves we could do as well if we had the money and time.  Avoid the temptation of showing how clever you are – it is far more clever to conceal the mechanisms of your cleverness.”

Sprezzatura then, has two layers.  First, one must perceive that a performance or creation is natural and effortless.  Second is the concealment of the creator’s true effort (which may be done with devious intentions).

This adds an ironic twist.  Sprezzatura assumes an illusion, but classifying sprezzatura requires one to uncover the illusion, thereby undoing the perception of an effortless performance!

Sprezzatura is why magicians never reveal the structure of their tricks.  Comedians are also great examples.  Check out this interview with Russell Peters.  Notice at 2:10 he says that once his routines are recorded, or released to DVD, he immediately “forgets” all of those jokes.  That’s sprezzatura!

Peters knows that once his routine is recorded and distributed to the masses, he can’t make those same routines seem natural and spontaneous to audience members who have already heard them on DVD!

Here’s another example: Keith Jarrett’s solo piano performances are considered improvisational masterpieces.  Indeed, they truly are.


Isn’t it possible that Keith is actually improvising over preconceived compositions?  Maybe he’s really executing a fully notated piano score!  Similarly, while he’s performing and supposedly in deep focus, isn’t it possible that he’s really thinking about his personal life, or what he’s going to eat for breakfast?

We’ll never know, and Keith would never reveal.

That’s sprezzatura!

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