How to Live Your Life With the Italian Art of “Sprezzatura”

Contrary to conventional opinion, nonchalance takes years of practice

May 19, 2023 9:59 am
A shot of a young Roger Federer making a remarkable play, fully outstretched to the ball.
Federer burst onto the scene in the early-aughts with grace and swagger — he's a perfect example of sprezzatura.
Photo by Simon Bruty/Anychance/Getty Image

What do Ernest Hemingway, Roger Federer and James Bond have in common?

Aside from the fact that they’ve all worn a Rolex — they represent a historical, modern and fictional manifestation of sprezzatura, the Italian art of nonchalance.

Defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “studied carelessness,” sprezzatura refers to an individual’s capacity to make their performance — in the realm of conversation, fashion, art, writing, athletics, what have you — appear effortless. Their evident ease obscures the underlying truth: they’ve worked really freaking hard to get where they are.

An Italian courtier named Baldassare Castiglione coined the phrase during the Reinassance, in his classic The Book of the Courtier, a rambling dialogue on etiquette and persuasion in 16th-century, high-society Europe. Castiglione devoted a memorable chunk of his book extolling the virtue of “art that conceals art.”

The ideal courtier, Castiglione explained, was one who could dance, or battle, or even counsel a ruler, without breaking a proverbial sweat. They “avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef,” allowing their easygoing faculties to speak for them. Try-hards, on the other hand, weren’t as successful at court. Their ambition was too obvious.

Sprezzatura might be nearly 500 years old, but its spiritual ethos is still resonant. And instead of channeling it to curry favor with a condottiero, you can cultivate it to improve your own well-being.

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Cultivate nonchalance

What does living with sprezzatura look like? Here’s a nonchalance cheatsheet to get you started:

  • Displaying a casual and composed demeanor
  • Not getting overly flustered or panicky when things don’t go as planned
  • Surrounding yourself with things that make you feel at ease
  • Wearing clothes that you feel comfortable and confident in
  • Bringing a kind, unruffled, even waggish attitude to the workplace
  • Seeking out meditative activities that enhance self-awareness and promote a sense of calm

Mastery through practice

Obviously, people who consistently exhibit sprezzatura are really good at whatever they do. Hemingway’s simple prose belied the “iceberg” of detail beneath; Federer’s power and speed were always disguised by his flair and grace; Bond was basically trained to be good at everything.

Sprezzatura takes practice. If you want to trade in carelessness…you kind of have to care. Steph Curry can trot around sinking half-courters during the pre-game show because he’s spent decades putting up tens of thousands of shots from all over the court. He just misses more behind closed doors.

The ultimate keys are repetition, consistency and an aversion to perfectionism…which might seem like the realm of mastery, but is actually at odds with sprezzatura. The art of nonchalance is about making things look easy, not perfect. Masters make mistakes — then use them as learning opportunities. In fact, the very poise and humor with which you handle a slip-up is a display of sprezzatura.

Autotelic activities

It also helps to know your limits and play to your strengths. If you volunteer to cook a large dinner for friends — in hopes of channeling the sprezzatura of a Julia Child — but you’ve in fact never cooked before…you’re in for serious trouble.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get there one day. But you need to (a) put in the work, and (b) decide if the concept of cooking actually qualifies as an “autotelic activity” for you. These are the activities you genuinely enjoy, feel intrinsically motivated to do and love doing for their own sake. The flow state comes naturally.

Personally, I best get out of my head — and discover some degree of sprezzatura — when running, writing fiction or conversing with family and friends. But lately, I’ve found myself eager to commandeer the concept for little moments. How can I find sprezzatura on a commute, in a meeting or during an argument? Preparation is a useful tool. Insouciance is attractive. Pairing the two can make a huge difference in your everyday.

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