Reading Robert Calasso’s “Tiepolo Pink” this week, I was encouraged to give some thought to that very Italian quality, sprezzatura. Calasso uses it as a conceit, or a prism through which to view the entire body of work by the painter, something I for one had never considered doing.
“For those looking for an example of sprezzatura, no one is likely to be more convincing than Tiepolo, who for a lifetime did his utmost to conceal, behind his blinding speed of execution, the subtly aberrant nature of his subjects to the point that he succeeded in having his most daring and enigmatic works, the Scherzi, passed off as facile amusements…Even when meanings gather densely in his images with brazen insolence, Tiepolo never abandons the air of someone who does things ‘without effort and almost without thinking.”
Calasso seems to believe that sprezzatura in art died with Tiepolo. Maybe so, but sprezzatura is alive and well in daily life in Tiepolo’s home country. It is the art of being artful without breaking a sweat, a perpetual nonchalance in all things. It is why you never see Italians running to cross the street even when cars are bearing down on them. Or why they never show up for an appointment, be it for business or travel, or to meet with their children’s teachers, earlier than that nanosecond when the clock strikes. It is Italian children in the playground who never show the slightest trace of dirt on their well-turned out outfits. Or, most irritatingly, it is why Italians walk ahead of any queue to get to the front of the line as if they were so entitled, and get away with it. It’s the opposite of Lady GaGa, Basquiat, Marina Abramowicz or Al Pacino and there’s hardly any place for it anywhere in the world anymore except in Italy. It is the essential “Made In Italy” and inimitable, even by the Chinese.
However free from care sprezzatura may seem, behind this graceful facade is a mountain of work and a lifetime of obedience to unwritten rules. Rules one absorbs by osmosis, by the village’s collective rebuke if one trips up and strays outside the confines of behavior, or by squeals of mean children who are so sensitive to figura, or face.
The finished product is enchanting, but to attain it there is a price and most of us will not pay it. Instead, we’ll admire it as we would a priceless work of art.