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"Sprezzatura and Wuwei: A Daoist Approach to European Courtly Grace": An Essay by Helen De Cruz (Keywords: Aesthetics; Skill; Beauty; Wonder; Flow; Music; Confucianism; Daoism; Self-Cultivation)

White house on hill

From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

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“Be more zen,” Anton Birula, my lute teacher cautions. I belabor a prelude in A major by Giovanni Zamboni (fl. early 18th c) on my archlute, a seventeenth-century baroque instrument. To give shape to the extemporizing, improvisatory nature of a prelude one should achieve more with less, giving an air of effortlessness to quick runs using difficult and sometimes awkward grips. The composition of a prelude embodies the aesthetic of studied effortlessness: at first, the notes sound spontaneous, searching, reaching, as if the player is merely tuning her instrument and improvising. But then, as the harmonies are given increasingly definite shape through blossoming arpeggios, the ear inclines to expect the next note with increasing confidence, and finally it all comes together: the earlier hesitant notes get their meaning, and the mind discerns the cohesive whole – it turns out not a single note was coincidental.

A core part of this early modern aesthetic is sprezzatura, a term coined by the Italian Renaissance philosopher and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529). He introduced sprezzatura in his book The Courtier (Il Cortegiano, 1528), an etiquette manual that unfolds through a series of conversations between courtiers held at the small but chic court of Urbino (central Italy). The interlocutors discuss the ideal courtier, and the essential skills for the job. These include dancing, wrestling, fencing, horse riding, sports (such as tennis), and playing a musical instrument. He (or also she) must be well-versed in the art of rhetoric. Above all, he must perform these skilled actions with a kind of effortless grace, or sprezzatura. This term is sometimes translated as “nonchalance,” or “studied carelessness,” but I will leave it untranslated here, as there is no exact equivalent in English. As Castiglione (book 1, 67) writes, this is “a universal rule which seems to apply more than any other in all human actions or words: namely, to steer away from affectation at all costs,” but instead, “to practice in everything a certain nonchalance [sprezzatura] that shall conceal design and show that what is done and said is done without effort and almost without thought” (emphases added).

Fig 1. Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione, by Raphael, ca. 1514 (Source: Wikimedia commons)

Sprezzatura induces a sense of wonder in the audience: we know how hard these skills are, yet the expert makes them look effortless, which increases our admiration. Today, sprezzatura is still highly prized. It is an aesthetic in men’s fashion where one aims for an appearance of effortless grace in what is in reality a carefully curated wardrobe. It is part of how athletes are judged. For example, the International Judging System (IJS) for figure skaters rates, among others, “the use of effortless power to accelerate and vary speed” (emphasis added).  In his recent book, The Aesthetic Value of the World (2022), aesthetician Tom Cochrane equates sprezzatura with the aesthetic of cool, which he describes as containing “elements of aesthetic power or sublimity, specifically an elevation above the passions and indifference to danger.” The graceful courtier is (seemingly) unconcerned with the effect he has on the audience.  Ultimately, he is unconcerned with himself, he has lost all self-consciousness in the intrinsic beauty of his actions.

Sprezzatura induces a sense of wonder in the audience: we know how hard these skills are, yet the expert makes them look effortless, which increases our admiration.

Within the concept of sprezzatura lurks a paradox: it is an effortless grace, but the effortlessness is deceptive. You can only achieve sprezzatura after deep study and effort. It’s not given to beginners. At first blush, this seems to make sprezzatura very hard, perhaps impossible to achieve: you would need to do something hard, and then also put in additional effort to give the appearance of effortlessness. This interpretation is suggested in Castiglione’s original description: “To practice in everything a certain nonchalance [sprezzatura] that shall conceal design.” This emphasis on concealment is prominent in recent discussions of sprezzatura, for example in Sprezzatura: Concealing the Effort of Art from Aristotle to Duchamp (2018), Paulo D’Angelo’s recent book on the topic.

However, there is another element in Castiglione’s description, namely that the courtier acts “without effort and almost without thought.” Count Ludovico, the character who introduces the term sprezzatura, emphasizes this aspect when he discusses the dancing style of a certain Roberto:

Do you not realize that what you are calling sprezzatura in Roberto is in fact affectation, since he evidently goes to great pains to show that he is not thinking about what he is doing? He is really taking too much thought, and by passing the bounds of moderation his sprezzatura is affected and inappropriate, and it has exactly the opposite effect of what is intended, namely, the concealment of art.

This encourages a different interpretation of sprezzatura, namely as non-action, or, in classical Chinese philosophy, wuwei (this similarity was first briefly observed by Peter Croton in his handbook, Performing Baroque music on the lute and theorbo). Sprezzatura is not the impossible task of pretending that a hard skill is easy. Rather, it is the difficult, but not impossible achievement of a mental emptiness that facilitates exceptional skill.


Wuwei (無為, literally not-acting) is a central concept in proto-Daoist philosophy, notably in the Daodejing and the Zhuangzi (both written around the 4th century BCE) where it comes up in relation to skill and virtue. The term “Daoism” first appears in Confucian philosophy, where it refers to participating in a ritual you know so well that you’re no longer conscious of what you’re doing. This hints at a deep connection between two philosophical traditions – Italian Renaissance philosophy of manners and pre-Qin proto-Daoist philosophy.

Like Italian courtiers, Chinese philosophers of the Warring States Period (476-221 BCE) were interested in general questions of how to achieve effective government, how to have a happy population that isn’t itching to unseat their ruler, and how to conduct yourself in a way that contributes to the flourishing of all. Indeed, as Tongdong Bai has argued in China: The Political Philosophy of the Middle Kingdom (2012), Chinese debates on statecraft (e.g., between the Legalists and Confucians) anticipated those in Europe by many centuries. Warring States Period philosophers such as Mengzi, Xunzi, and Zhuangzi were intrigued by the idea of effortless action and how to achieve it – just like the Renaissance courtiers in Urbino.

As Edward Slingerland details in Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity (2014), Warring States Period philosophers aspired to effortless action but disagreed on how to get there. The Confucians thought the path to effortless action consisted in ever more cultivation, in studious polishing of the self after deep self-reflection and studying the classics, and in gradual improvement. As you continued the path of cultivation, you would eventually grow to be authentic within the practice of your choice (e.g., a ritual) and make it part of you. Being skilled may be unnatural initially, but it becomes second nature. The Daoists disagreed. They argued instead that wuwei (or non-action) is the primary way to achieve high levels of skill. To achieve true mastery, you must lose yourself in a skilled task that harmonizes you with your physical and mental environment, and you will achieve mental quietude as a result.

To achieve true mastery, you must lose yourself in a skilled task that harmonizes you with your physical and mental environment, and you will achieve mental quietude as a result.

Sprezzatura had a considerable influence on early modern musical practice. It is explicitly and implicitly mentioned in several musical methods of the 17th and early 18th century. For example, English lutenist Mary Burwell (fl 17th c) notes in her Instruction Book for the Lute that lute-players often give the impression of extreme concentration and labor, which dampens the aesthetic appeal of their performance. She advises that instead, a lutenist should aim for sprezzatura:

One must then sit upright in playing to show no constraint or pains, to have a smiling countenance, that the company may not think you play unwillingly, and [to] show that you animate the lute as well as the lute does animate you. Yet you must not stir your body nor your head, nor show any extreme satisfaction in your playing. You must make no mouths, nor bite your lips, nor cast your hands in a flourishing manner that relishes of a fiddler. In one word, you must not less please the eyes than the ears.

Although Burwell is focused on the outward appearance of the lutenist, she hints at the concept of losing oneself while playing. You should not be self-conscious in showing “extreme satisfaction” and you should also allow the instrument to move you. This interaction between an instrumentalist and her physical environment (instrument) is crucial for sprezzatura and wuwei.


To not be self-conscious and showy but to lose yourself in the skillful act of playing music and achieve a mental quietude is the essence of wuwei. The effect of wuwei on the audience is to instill a sense of wonder. Musicians aiming at wonder fits with broader aesthetic of early modern music, namely that music should stir the passions of the audience. For René Descartes, who wrote both on music (Compendium of Music, 1618) and on the passions (Passions of the Soul, 1649), wonder (in French, admiration, a term that at the time meant wonder rather than merely admiration) is the very first passion we experience in a new situation. It allows us to consider something we have not encountered before with an open mind.


We can see this effect of wonder evoked by sprezzatura in the many skill passages in the Zhuangzi which feature various experts: a butcher, a bell stand maker, a wheelwright, and a swimmer. In each of these cases, the onlooker is dazzled by the effortless beauty of the performance. The best-known example is probably the butcher.

In this anecdote, Lord Wenhui watches in silent admiration as his butcher (who is also his cook) is cutting up an ox: “every move of his feet, every thrust of his knee – zip! zoop! He slithered the knife along with a zing, and all was in perfect rhythm, as though he were performing the dance of the Mulberry Grove or keeping time to the Jingshou music.”     

Fig 2. The butcher described by Zhuangzi, by Helen De Cruz


“Ah, this is marvelous!” said Lord Wenhui. “Imagine skill reaching such heights!”

Cook Ding laid down his knife and replied, “What I care about is the Way [dao], which goes beyond skill. When I first began cutting up oxen, all I could see was the ox itself. After three years I no longer saw the whole ox. And now – now I go at it by spirit and don’t look with my eyes.

Perception and understanding have come to a stop, and spirit moves where it wants. I go along with the natural makeup, strike in the big hollows, guide the knife through the big openings, and follow things as they are. So I never touch the smallest ligament or tendon, much less a main joint.”


We see how beauty in performance and seeming effortlessness are the result of “perception and understanding” coming to a stop, and the mind moving along with the natural makeup of the ox. The mind does not go against, but with the natural order of things. The butcher further remarks that he has not had to change his knife in nineteen years because he goes along with nature, not against it, in contrast to beginners who need a new knife every few months because they hack, or even more experienced cooks who require a new one every year.


Note that the butcher did not come to this high level of expertise because he cultivates himself (as Confucians would suggest). It is the opposite: he radically decultivates himself, going along with the natural makeup of the ox and, more cosmically significant, with nature itself.


In a similar vein, the French composer and music theorist Jean-Philippe Rameau (1683-1764) reflected on the practice of playing the harpsichord in 1724: “the aptitudes for which [playing the harpsichord] calls are natural to everyone – much like in walking, or, if you like, running.” The obstacles we face to natural playing are bad habits and mental blocks. A beginner’s fingers move too much, resulting in a stilted, contrived sound. But practice allows for decultivation, making the movement of fingers on the keyboard as natural as walking: “No great movement should be made where a lesser one will suffice.”


In the story of the swimmer, which appears in Book 19 of the Zhuangzi, Confucius sees a man dive into the water near a system of waterfalls, where the currents run so swift that “no fish or other water creature can swim in it.” He orders his disciples to line up on the bank and try to rescue him, thinking the man is trying to commit suicide. However, “after the man had gone a couple of hundred paces, he came out of the water and began to stroll on the embankment, his hair streaming down, singing a song.” Confucius is astounded and asks how the man was able to accomplish this feat:


I have no way [無道 wu dao]. I began with what I was used to, grew up with my nature, and let things come to completion with fate. I go under with the swirls and come out with the eddies, following along the way the water goes and never thinking about myself. That’s how I can stay afloat.


Note the details in this story: the man has long hair that streams down, rather than being tied up in a knot, indicating he is of lower class. He sings not in a ritual context, as the Confucians would require, but out of sheer, unadulterated joy. Confucius is the main Confucian sage but (in Zhuangzian fashion) cannot fathom how someone is able to make such a dive and come out alive. Rather than a specific affectation, the swimmer has “no way.” He exhibits the essence of sprezzatura in his graceful movements and his indifference to danger.




Flow theory provides us with a cognitive explanation for the experience of wuwei. Introduced in the 1970s by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1934–2021) and since corroborated by many findings in cognitive psychology, flow theory explains the specific feeling of “being in the zone” that we sometimes have when we perform skillful tasks, such as in sports, playing music, gaming, and many other domains of life. We can achieve such heights in the flow state due to a mental quietude: we allocate our mental resources to the task at hand and forget ourselves, our concern for ourselves; even basic bodily needs such as hunger can be forgotten in the flow state.


For the proto-Daoists, the admiration that effortlessness invokes in the viewer comes from a skill that lies beyond skill, which is achieved through mental emptiness. Connecting this with the concept of sprezzatura, we see that it is an honest signal. It is not pretense, or puffing yourself up, or fakery, as Roberto’s affected faux-nonchalant dance moves are. This makes sprezzatura unlike showiness. Showiness can take in the novice, but novice and expert alike can admire sprezzatura, whether in music, butchery, or swimming, and any other skillful domain of life. Self-forgetting opens the mind to the intrinsic beauty of skills we exhibit in the flow state.

For the proto-Daoists, the admiration that effortlessness invokes in the viewer comes from a skill that lies beyond skill, which is achieved through mental emptiness.


For the audience, the effect of sprezzatura is paradoxical: there is something deeply admirable and sublime in a figure skater or musician who is wholly absorbed in her skill, and who forgets herself. At the same time, we as the audience look at the performer, who has forgotten herself, with admiration. So, the forgetting of the self on the part of the performer is crucial for the phenomenological effect of the performer being wholly present, admirable, and wondrous, to her audience. As Dacher Keltner notes, cross-cultural studies indicate that other human beings are the primary targets of awe and wonder. We feel wonder at athletes, artists, and activists of great moral courage. This makes sprezzatura something worthy of pursuit: by achieving it, we can create beauty, sublimity, and joy in the people around us, as they delight in our performance.


There is also an ethical dimension to this: as we saw, in Zhuangzi’s butcher and swimmer and in Mary Burwell’s lutenist, the practitioner refuses to be identified with their performance, thus overcoming the self-centeredness that often accompanies achievement. The lute performance is not enhanced by superfluous showiness, grand gestures, and exaggerated facial expressions. Instead, the body just makes the natural movements that come with the performance. Burwell grants that your body and your face will naturally be somewhat affected by the music you play. But she cautions the player to focus on the music foremost and resist any theatricality. What is central for the early modern lutenist is the music itself and how it stirs the affects of the listener. In contemporary image-based, branding society, this presents a very different model of excellence. However, here lurks (yet another!) paradox as the contemporary aesthetic of cool can be traced back to Renaissance sprezzatura (as Tom Cochrane notes).

Fig 3 Johannes Vermeer’s Guitarist (1672) shows the ease and grace of a young woman playing the baroque guitar with the characteristic hand positions of the time (Source: Wikimedia commons).


A second motivation for the pursuit of sprezzatura is that it can help us to find a unique sense of creativity through situational, imperfect means. Early modern musical instruments such as the theorbo or harpsichord were not as technologically developed as, say, a modern Steinway grand piano is. Moreover, the human body is also imperfect. Our voice has a different timbre and mood in different registers. The way we hold a bow for a viola da gamba or a violin is constrained by the anatomy of the wrist and arm. Baroque music, unlike later music, fully acknowledges these limitations. For example, on the baroque lute and related instruments, we know that if you strike the string each time anew, the tone is louder than if you merely put a finger on the string while it still resonates. As you can see in this Allemande from Giovanni Zamboni’s tenth Sonata (published in 1718), the little arcs tell you not to strike the note again but to slur, that is to simply pull off or strike the string with a finger of the left hand (Fig. 4). This style of play results in light-hearted, quick runs that would otherwise sound heavy and stilted. As an instrumentalist who performs in a historically informed way, I try to find solutions to playing a tablature that require the least amount of work (e.g., avoiding repositioning of hands on the fret board) and that take advantage of the features of anatomy and gravity, as well as the peculiarities of the instrument (in my case, the Renaissance lute and the archlute).

Fig. 4 Tablature for Giovanni Zamboni's Allemande for his 10th Sonata (1718). A note for contemporary guitarists: this is Italian tablature; you need to read it upside down compared to modern tablature, i.e., the highest-sounding strings are at the bottom of the system.


This is very unlike 19th-century virtuosos who sought to overcome their physical limitations, perhaps most aptly demonstrated by composer and pianist Robert Schumann, who ruined his fingers by attempting to stretch them beyond their limits and weakening his tendons. As Peter Croton points out in his discussion of baroque musical practice on the lute and theorbo, Baroque musicians sought to work with the inherent limitations of their instruments and their physical bodies, and thus achieve sprezzatura.


For example, the internal dynamics of Renaissance and Baroque lute music maintain an alteration between “good” (strong) and “bad” (weak) notes, where good notes tend to be plucked with the middle finger and bad notes by the index. Given that the index is weaker than the middle finger, a difference in timbre arises spontaneously. To smooth out these differences as a musician is to miss out on one of the great tools of rhetorical playing. In a similar vein, Renaissance and Baroque musicians played on imperfect instruments that whisper when played softly and groan when played loudly (as you can hear in the difference between the viola da gamba and the contemporary cello). Rather than trying to smooth out these natural dynamics through technique or changes in instrument design, contemporary historically-inspired musicians take advantage of these physical acoustic properties to heighten the rhetorical effect and the emotional salience of their music.




This way of doing things, of not going against the grain, may explain why sprezzatura appears so natural. For, as we have seen in European early modern musical practice, the way to achieve sprezzatura is not to try to bend instruments to do things beyond their reach, nor to cultivate our human physical limitations away.

When we achieve wuwei in skilled performance, we deliberately submit ourselves to our environment and to the limitations of our bodies – we place our actions rather than ourselves center stage. 


We achieve an overall pleasing effect when we are in harmony with our physical constraints. When we achieve wuwei in skilled performance, we deliberately submit ourselves to our environment and to the limitations of our bodies – we place our actions rather than ourselves center stage. We can say that sprezzatura presents a philosophy of life, an approach to our environment and our surroundings that acknowledges our bodily imperfections and our situatedness, and that yet enables us to achieve through non-action and mental stillness a kind of perfection that our audience can delight in and enjoy. Sometimes the beauty and wonder we bring into the world has more to do with our non-action than with our action.


Many thanks to Alexander Douglas, Dan McHugh, Nathan Oseroff-Spicer, and Johan De Smedt for their comments to an earlier version of this piece.


Helen De Cruz holds the Danforth Chair in the Humanities at Saint Louis University. Her main areas of specialization are philosophy of cognitive science and philosophy of religion. In addition, she has published work in general philosophy of science, epistemology, aesthetics, and metaphilosophy.


From The Philosopher, vol. 111, no. 2 ("Where is Public Philosophy Going?").

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