"Everyone knows the difficulty of things that are exquisite and well done," the Renaissance philosopher Baldassare Castiglione once remarked. "So to have facility in such things gives rise to the greatest wonder." Italians call that artful facility sprezzatura,
a term, Peter d'Epiro and Mary Desmond Pinkowish maintain, that well describes the nation's genius.
They have reason to celebrate: Italy, after all, has exerted an influence in world affairs and culture all out of proportion to its size and population, and has done so for hundreds of years. Among the authors' subjects are the navigators Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, and Giovanni Verrazano, whose transoceanic voyages changed the course of world history; Andrea Palladio, the architect whose theories have guided designers and builders to the present day; Claudio Monteverdi, whom the authors call "the father of modern music," who gave the world not only fine operas but also the modern orchestra; Enzo Ferrari, the great automaker; Roberto Rossellini, the often overlooked pioneer of New Wave cinema; and the anonymous Roman engineers who built aqueducts, sewers, and roads that still stand today.
Though short on interpretation (d'Epiro and Pinkowish offer little insight into why Italy should have produced such an abundance of inventive, often daring men--and women, though only a few figure in their pages), this anecdotal collection of biographical sketches is a pleasing entertainment for admirers of all things Italian. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
In the early 16th century, Count Baldassare Castiglione penned his famous Book of the Courtier, synthesizing the ideals of the medieval courtly gentleman with the new "Renaissance man." Above all, the courtier should exhibit the qualities of grace and sprezzatura, which D'Epiro and Pinkowish accurately describe as "an assumed air of doing difficult things with an effortless mastery and an air of nonchalance." In 50 bite-sized chapters that are as delicious as they are short, D'Epiro and Pinkowish (What Are the Seven Wonders of the World?) take readers through a whirlwind tour of 25 centuries of culture and history on the Italian peninsula. From the calendar and Roman law to the Montessori method and Enrico Fermi, readers can delight in the defeats and accomplishments of a most varied group of men and women. Most books extolling the Italians conveniently delete the dark side of Italian history; this one honestly leaves in many of the more brutal details. The writing is engaging, and the authors' lively and descriptive style almost compensates for a lack of illustrations. One of the book's great merits is that it will surely stimulate readers to return to their Ovid, Livy, Dante and Boccaccio; in addition, one can gain greater appreciation for such masterpieces as Rossellini's Rome, Open City and Giuseppe Di Lampedusa's The Leopard. Although the authors only hint at it, sprezzatura is anything but effortless: mastery of any skill requires more perspiration than inspiration. Or, as D'Epiro and Pinkowish point out, the "social mask," or the "disjunction between appearance and reality," is "the very patina of civilization."
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