Garbo and sprezzatura

Before deciding what Italy is all about, foreigners would do well to learn about two almost untranslatable Italian words. One is garbo, which dictionaries translate as meaning either “grace” or “courtesy.” But that only hints at its connotations. Certainly, a man or woman with garbo is one who behaves elegantly.

But it is also a quality essential to any kind of decision maker in Italy: it is the one needed to keep your options open without appearing to be indecisive, the quality required to impart unwelcome news in a way that is not too hurtful, but also the one needed to keep face as you imperceptibly shift your position.

The other quintessentially Italian noun is sprezzatura, which was coined by Baldassare Castiglione in Il cortegiano, a manual for early sixteenth-century courtiers. His book makes clear that life at court was no soft option. Renaissance courtiers were expected to speak eloquently, think clearly and have not just extensive learning but also the accomplishments of a warrior and athlete. Sprezzatura was the key to how all this should be presented to the world: with a studied insouciance, as if it had all come naturally, even if it was the result of long nights spent reading by candlelight and exhausting days spent

Hooper, John. The Italians (p. 188). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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