9.29.2014

La Sprezzatura

Machiavelli is right up there with The Art of War as the old 'how to guide' that tend to get most cited today - both can be summed up by "do unto others before they do unto you" - but Castiglione's The Courtier has probably been far more influential over the centuries, and is a far more interesting Renaissance book. His concept of la sprezzatura can be just as devious, or it can be something positive many have aspired to and without which I would argue that it is impossible to achieve true style.

It is about relaxing and exhibiting a certain nonchalance, without which art could not moved from the Medieval to the High Renaissance - compare Raphael's Marriage of the Virgin with his master Perugino's and then those in a Medieval Book of Hours. Raphael's Mary is elegant and graceful rather than stiff and formal.

La sprezzatura is about making things look effortless; even if, like a swan, one is paddling away furiously under the surface, on the surface everything seems serene. 

The term "Swans" was coined by Truman Capote to describe New York society women whose elegance and grace personified la sprezzatura, at a time when many Americans were still suspicious of things eye-talian.



Throughout history some of the most interesting women have been ambitious and quite vulgar, even ones we now admire for their style were considered a bit vulgar in their day. Olympias would more likely have been a fan of The Art of War than la sprezzatura, and I doubt she would have needed a Machiavelli to school her. Those women, ones who were prepared to raise armies to fight for their rights, are more interesting than the seemingly elusive Swans ...

But the whole point of Capote's Swans as with Castiglione's sprezzatura is that the women may have looked serene, but they were also well educated, very bright and worked hard even though it didn't show.

I'll never be a Swan as I'm too Old School in that I don't give a damn, would rather watch a DVD than make small talk at a party, and frankly am far too much a believer in meritocracy ... but many women have turned la sprezzatura into businesses these days, and rather than on the 'society' women who populate reality TV I thought it would be interesting to point out a few women who exemplify Castiglione's concept today.

Top of any list has to be Lauren Santo Domingo, whose APT with LSD in Vogue is addictive, style is incredible and who came up with the brilliant idea of founding a company where one can pre-order runway looks whilst supporting young designers ... I have already raved about: Moda Operandi.* She makes it all look effortless. Plus, how cool is it that she was confident enough to let her husband cut down her wedding dress so she could have fun, rather than get all prissy about it!


In a world of constant selfies, she only post occasionally on Instagram and Twitter.

Aerin Lauder has continued in the footsteps of her grand-mother Estée Lauder, using her effortless style both to promote the family business and her own life-style brand Aerin. Her social media accounts are all corporate-run, so less interesting.

Tory Burch would be the Queen Bee of la sprezzatura for the way she turned her lifestyle into a billion dollar brand, except that I have not quite forgiven her for making caftans overly ubiquitous and my eyes have suffered too much from the colours she uses.

The problem is that these women are now all driven by PRs who want only praise, and that makes them less interesting. Just as good gossip makes the best history - I'm looking at you, Eusebius - society needs a chronicler that slightly mocks them as well as praises them, who sees the irony and the humour, but both Capote and Dominick Dunne are dead. Until someone does, I can recommend photographer Douglas Friedman, who uses images more than words, but hits the target with either.

Posing for 'street style' and society photographers just isn't interesting enough. Just as Eusebius elevated Theodora from merely another beauty to an icon, there is a need for a modern chronicler who makes these women seem more interesting than pretty pictures. (Men traditionally married for rank, and went to courtesans for brains as much as sex; Justinian bucked the trend when he followed in the footsteps of Pericles and wanted to regularise a relationship with one).


Without wishing to be indiscreet, someone recently asked which of a list of society women seemed interesting, and the only one that did was Stephanie Newhouse (Instagram; Twitter).

Just as style is about breaking the rules, society has always been fluid and quickly amalgamated fresh blood as long as the people were rich, charming or interesting. Causes, books and collecting tend to be ignored these days in favour of frivolity.

To me the woman who best exemplifies la sprezzatura is the amazing Clare Algar, partly as she also doesn't give a damn and goes on the news without make-up, but mostly because she is the most amazing woman I know and has seemingly effortlessly actually changed the world. Oh, and she also has style.

Clare runs Reprieve, and has made it the force it is today. If you're wondering why the US is having so many difficulties executing people on death row, it's because Reprieve used tort law and media pressure to stop the drugs used in lethal injections being exported to the US. Everyone else campaigned to get rid of the Death Penalty, Reprieve thought outside the box and actually did something about it.

Luckily David Remnick is as big a fan and is hosting a fundraiser for Reprieve in New York next month. So get out your checkbooks, and support this amazing cause because although not everyone is innocent, everyone deserves a fair trial.

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