“To achieve the nonchalance which is absolutely necessary for a man, one article at least must not match” - Hardy Amies
Italy’s list of contributions to the world is as broad in domains as it is extensive. And I’m not just thinking ‘pasta al dente’ or flamboyant hand movements here. From the Renaissance, with the likes of Michel Angelo and Leonardo da Vinci, to more mundane art forms such as Ferrari or Maserati - the roaring sound of the latter are in and of themselves worth worshiping. But there is one element in which we have to acknowledge Italy, and Italian men in particular surpass all others: Call it panache, suaveness, sophistication or, simply put, style. Their secret weapon: sprezzatura.
The word found its way into the English language in its original Italian form. Coined by Baldassare Castiglione in its 'The book of the courtier’, published in Venice in 1528, Castiglione was clearly engaged in “self-fashioning” - the very same concept that was the precursor to the 18th century dandyism movement. As per these movements, men of the noble class were to “create” themselves as a work of art, according to the conventions of dress and manner as set forth by the Monarchs. But for Castiglione, as for the genuine 18th century dandies, the emphasis is on the importance of not only trying to emulate one’s master, but actually trying to transform himself into his own master - The true and genuine 'cult of self’ in a constant pursuit for excellence.
The quest for excellence, be it in the physical or in the intellectual arena, was (or should I say, is) considered a form of art and as Ovid famously noted, “Ars est celare artem” - The purpose of art is to conceal itself. In Castiglione’s own words:
“(…) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”
Thus, Sprezzatura would best translate as a sort of beautiful dishevelment; the art of nonchalance and perfect imperfection combining; the purposefully broken rule. In a style context, it is very much giving the impression that an outfit has been put together without a conscious effort. To truly grasp the idea it is much easier to see it as a persona, rather than a look per se, especially considering the fact that it would differ from individual to individual.
To write about Sprezzatura and not render homage to its most iconic standard bearer would be close to sacrilege - Gianni Agnelli - The industrialist and principal shareholder of Fiat, is famously regarded as one of the best dressed men of his era and has left an indelible mark in men’s styling. He managed to combine beautifully tailored suits with accessory choices and touches of flair that could often have been misconstrued as mistakes, but in fact, worked perfectly. The style moves from Agnelli’s hefty bag of tricks would range from wearing hiking boots with a perfectly tailored suit to an unbuttoned button-down collar. But his most infamous trick was clearly the watch trick: Agnelli wore his watch, usually a fratello, over the cuff of a handmade shirt. He said he did so because he was a busy industrialist who simply did not have time to peel back his cuff when he wanted to know the time. Although the true origin is, according to some, more pedestrian - Agnelli had his evening shirts handmade by Battistoni, and it turned out the cuffs were so tight he couldn’t get his watch on. So, he wore it on the outside. A style move copied by many over time that “Agnelli’s trick” became synonym with wearing your wrist outside your shirt.
Bred out of the Renaissance, when the standard for self-fashioning was the Aristotelian concept of the golden mean (the desirable middle between two extremes, one of excess and the other of deficiency), it comes as no surprise that the juxtaposition of strongly dissimilar elements has strongly influenced Italian fashion, and subsequently the realm of fashion as a whole. Brands like Brunello Cucinelli, Corneliani or Berluti with its recent endeavor in the ready to wear market line are all excellent examples of Sprezzatura at its finest. Perfected casualness elevated to the highest position in the pantheon of aesthetics.
So, gentlemen, once you have achieved sartorial perfection (and only then), it’s time to adopt a mask of nonchalance; the purposefully broken rule is what can actually stand your outfit from all others. These days it might involve leaving the top buckle on your double monk’s unfastened, sending out vibes that you make your own rules, bringing the ensemble down a notch. 'Thou shall match the color of your shoes with the color of your belt’ is no longer cast in stone as once was, and, purposefully breaking this commandment is no longer enough. Alternatively, try designing a pair of shoes with contrasting stitching, and matching your belt with the color of the stitching neglecting the tone and shades of the leather.
It is believed to have been Pablo Picasso who said: “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” Sprezzatura. Conspicuously Inconspicuous. Undandy!
Here’s to good health, good principles, and above all, good shoes.