In his Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione describes a series of imaginary discussions between the Duke of Urbino of the House of Montefeltro, and his courtiers. The court of Urbino was regarded as one of the most sophisticated Italian courts of the 16th century and so it was there, at the crossroad of knowledge, humanity and art, that the nature of the perfect gentleman of the court was established. In need of a cool mind, good voice, courage, erudition and a proper demeanour, the most important quality the courtier needed to display was, according to Castiglione, sprezzatura. Defined as a studied carelessness, sprezzatura contains elements of nonchalance, studied concealment and a certain degree of irony.
Effortlessness, insouciance, ease. Un negligé recherché.
Despite the demise of the court and, to a no lesser degree, of the gentleman, sprezzatura persist. No longer a rhetorical device, sprezzatura now is a feature, an asset, a trick. Un atout.
A crystal vase. The backdrop of light. The gentle fall of the tulips. A petal softly caressing the floor.
A steel structure. Granite, glass and stainless steel. Somewhere, a chair, hand-made, leather and chrome, a throw dangling over the corner of the back.
The perfect dose of the superfluous and the irrelevant, recognizably based on solidness and the familiar. The everyday, the conventional, reinvented.
The food arrives. Stacked. Colour coordinated. Ingredients deconstructed, reconstructed. Negotiated, equilibrated. Configured along the ring mold. A swipe with the back of a spoon. Droplets from a squeeze bottle. Microgreens and flower petals placed with precision, the invisible touch of the medical tweezers. Food, assigned and perfected. Admirable. Orderly. Michelin starred and starry. Edible. An explosion of tastes and textures. A soft touch, a crunch. The surprise, the unexpected. The imitation of cascading waterfalls, the illusion of the wild. A reminder of a voyage, of faraway places.
The art of plating.
On the other end of the spectrum, slow cooked food. Cheaper cuts, dignified and gentrified. Spiced up acquired tastes. Local tastes. Hailed by the lovers of earth as a return to self. A truthful version of, a dare we say it, stew. Crisis food. Awareness food. The return to the womb of the comfort of eating. But slow food is not granny food. Instead, the right sprig of thyme, a quill of cinnamon, the perfection of the eight pointed star anise. More art. More plated. More sprezzatura.
But not everybody agrees.
Marie Kondo is a Japanese cleaning consultant and declutter specialist. She has named her book ‘The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing‘.
Simplify, organize, store.
But can she do it with sprezzatura? Or rather, can we? How do we pretend to be tidy with natural flair? Or is tidiness necessarily flairless?
Sprezzatura is a skill that in the hands of specialists, chefs, designers and stylists can become an art. But not all perfection accepts the guise of imperfection and effortlessness, not all perfectionists can master the art of sprezzatura.
Following the publishing of ‘The Monocle Guide to Good Business‘, Lucy Kellaway in a recent column for the Financial Times, describes her visit to the Monocle‘s offices. Defined by Douglas Coupland, as ‘a taste-making forum for global elites’, Monocle, the creation of Mr. Tyler Brûlé, is tantamount to ‘Life-Style’.
A new Urbino? But from what one gathers after reading Mrs. Kellaway’s piece, this brave new Urbino does not do sprezzatura.
Identical water glasses and jugs, a ban on stray pieces of clothing, matching stationary. Talk of the perfect weight of a business card, the right angle or width of the leg of a desk, in somebody else’s office….
The epitome of ownership, obsessiveness and rule of law. This used to be known as dictatorship. Now it is called good business?
The Michelin Guide once started as a road atlas, guiding travellers, helping them to find places to refuel, change their tires and ‘charge their batteries’. Having evolved into the food bible par excellence, it has reassuringly kept its slogan, Nunc est bibendum, from Horace’s ‘Cleopatra Ode’.
Monocle meanwhile remains true to its slogan ‘keeping an eye and an ear on the world’, seeing to it that globalization remains ‘glamorous and good’.
“Practise in everything a certain nonchalance that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought,” Castiglione said.
A bon entendeur, salut!