Sprezzatura, hierarchy and noble identity

In Baldessare Castiglione’s Il libro del cortegiano, sprezzatura is famously described as the art that hides art. More recently, sprezzatura has been interpreted as the art of simultaneous concealment and revelation. It is akin to a glove that reveals the shape of the hand it hides. The most common understanding of sprezzatura in a musical context is in noble amateur performance: noble performers must be good, but not so good as to reveal an unseemly time commitment to music practice. The extent of their effort must be concealed lest they be mistaken for low-status professionals. Sprezzatura is therefore intimately connected to another cinquecento concern: hierarchy.

The villotte of Antonino Barges and Perissone Cambio, both associated with the literary circle around Domenico Venier, show two different manifestations of sprezzatura. Barges’ villotte require familiarity with a vast erotic lexicon, which simultaneously conceals and reveals sexual content to knowing participants. Perissone Cambio’s careful word-setting in his villotta, ‘Zuccharo porti dentro assa buccucia’ demonstrates a further musical application of sprezzatura, for his splitting of the words reveals sexual indecencies otherwise hidden in the text.

Members of Venier’s informal academy espoused Pietro Bembo’s division of Italian vernacular poetry into high, middle and low styles. The villotta, with its ‘popular’ connotations, is firmly in the lower end of the spectrum. But of course, such categories are co-dependent: in order for there to be a ‘high’ style there must be a ‘low’ style.

A similar hierarchical concern is evident in Alvise Castellino’s dedication to Ercole II d’Este of his Primo libro de villotte (Venice: Gardano, 1541). Acknowledging that his pieces are not ‘run off in the way of Josquin’, Castellino likens his songs to coarse and rustic flowers and fruits. Castellino’s works deal with sexual relationships using straightforward language with a minimum of sophisticated double entendre. While Barges and Cambio demonstrate competent handling of polyphony, thus complicating the status issue, Castellino’s settings are resolutely homorhythmic.

When performed by nobility, Castellino’s villotte might be considered to function as a disguise that conceals and reveals noble identity. It is not necessary for nobility to worry about sprezzatura while masked, partly because the mask imparts a certain licence but also because disguise literally serves to conceal and reveal identity. To give an example from Castiglione’s Il cortegiano, a young man appearing as an elderly man might wear a costume that enhances his lithe physique. Such a costume does not obscure the true identity of the performer, but rather helps to reveal that identity. Noble performance of low status villotte might function in a similar way to masquerade.

Sprezzatura is, therefore, an integral feature of cinquecento songs concerned with sex: whether in the simultaneous concealing and revealing of sexual content through the use of metaphor, the disclosure of hidden indecencies through skilful word-setting, or the revelation of noble status through noble performance of ‘base’ songs. Thus sprezzatura, the ability to do two things at once, is related to the ability to construct two things at once: the categories of high and low.

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