Baldassare di Castiglione, friend of Raphael (who painted the picture — I love Castiglione’s hat!), wrote a work called The Book of the Courtier, which was, as its title suggests, about how to be a courtier. More than that, it’s about how to be courtly; how to be courteous.
Now I believe that courtesy is never out-of-date, though some of the details change. As Emerson said, “Manners are the happy way of doing things, each one a stroke of genius or of love.” Courtesy smooths out the harsher edges of life and social intercourse, and makes it pleasing. Knowing the right elements of courtesy makes it easy to go into new situations, because you know what’s appropriate. You know how to act, and that leaves you free to be. It is grace.
The most important quality of a courtier, says Castiglione, is sprezzatura. This is often translated as nonchalance, which is a bit difficult because in modern English we pretty much only ever see it as something feigned. Now, of course, nonchalance often is feigned, because it is all about appearances. It’s not about being a hypocrite, but about doing things with aplomb, with panache, with ease. It’s making things look easy, about being gracious, and, as Castiglione says, is properly the opposite of affectation.
The best example I have of this is watching someone truly excellent do something you know is very difficult and making it look simple. Watching someone throw a pot, for example: they make it look as if anyone could sit down at the wheel and do the same thing. My favourite Olympic sports are all the gymnastic ones, especially pairs figure skating. There’s something where you see sprezzatura in action, where it’s part of the game to make it look effortless. If it’s obviously full of effort it’s not quite the same.
Sprezzatura is not something I personally am all that good at, but it’s a quality I particularly admire. It requires competence and courage and daring, because the best way to be nonchalant is to be excellent. It requires at least basic humility, because vainglory wants everyone to know how hard the activity is, wants to boast, but sprezzatura delights in delayed admiration. Courtesy requires confidence, knowledge, practice. It’s not hypocrisy, but is a beautiful way to be in the world.
I am minded of a character in Diana Wynne Jones’ Dark Lord of Derkholm, who is very good at swirling his cloak nonchalantly. The main character tries to do the same and realises the nonchalance isn’t because the action actually is easy, and asks the other character why he can do it so well. And the answer is practice, in private, so that in public one acts with aplomb. Sprezzatura: a key part of the toolbox of how to be awesome, which, some have argued, is really what we should be aiming at. Being gracious.