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Sprezzatura: 50 Ways Italian Genius Shaped the World Paperback – October 2, 2001

4.5 out of 5 stars 33 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

"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."

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (October 2, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 038572019X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385720199
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (33 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #72,150 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By A Customer on May 11, 2002
Format: Paperback
Sprezzatura is a remarkable achievement. D'Epiro's and Pinkowish's tour of two thousand years of Italian history demonstrates the same "effortless mastery" they chronicle in the fascinating men and women who people their book.
The 50 essays are well chosen and cover the whole gamut of Italian genius - in art, in music, in science, in politics, in fashion...you name it. It's an excellent overview of Italy's contributions to world civilization that touches all the main bases. At the same time, it's a collection of self-contained essays, each a pleasure to read and each chock full of unexpected facts and anecdotes - the texture of history, or what I believe Ezra Pound called the "luminous detail."
Bottom line: Sprezzatura is learned and well-written - never dull or pedantic. Sure, the essays aren't all of the same quality. Some are merely very good, while most are superb. For anyone who knows Italy - its people and its history - Sprezzatura is a must. I've lived there, I've studied there, and I love this book. For anyone who doesn't know Italy but wants to, Sprezzatura is a must too. I can think of no better introduction.
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Exactly the type of book I was looking for: 50 short articles on interesting italians down through history. Each article is 6-7 pages, just enough depth to be interesting without so much detail as to become boring. Lots of different topics like art, architecture, politics, science, and religion. Plus a very fast, light, easy to read writing style. Just the right length to read one article on my lunch break. If I could make one change, I would have paid extra for the addition of some photos and illustrations. Lots of the people covered in the book were painters, sculptors, builders, etc. and as they say 'a picture is worth a thousand words'. Bottom-line: definitely worth the money and the time spent reading.
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Right away with this book, in chapter one, you know that you are in for a treat. Regarding the Roman calendar, the authors write: "In those days, (circa 700 B.C.) January and February didn't yet exist- at least in the calendar- since Roman farmers didn't have much fieldwork to do in that dead part of the year after the last crops had been harvested and stored. After a two month hiatus, the new year began in March with preparation of the ground for the next season's crop."Did you already know that? Then try this one from the chapter on Julius Caesar: "When he saw Brutus draw his dagger, Caesar covered his head with his purple toga and fell to the floor. 'Kai su teknon,' he said in Greek ('You, too, my child- and not Shakespeare's Latin 'Et tu, Brute?') before being stabbed in the groin by the man whose mother, Servilia, had been his favorite mistress. The dictator died at the base of Pompey's statue, bleeding from twenty-three wounds. Cicero wrote that he had 'feasted his eyes on the just death of a tyrant.'""Kai su teknon".....now that is something I never knew!!I think the above excerpts give you a pretty accurate feel for how the book is written. It is broken up into 50 chapters, each approximately 7 pages or so. You may not be interested in every single chapter, but I only found my mind wandering in 1 or 2. If you're a fairly well-read person you may already be familiar with some of the material, but I guarantee you'll still learn a lot from this book. The authors have done a great job of bringing together a lot of material on very different subjects and turning it into something coherent. And in just 7 pages per topic they have managed to present the essence of something without "dumbing it down". Not an easy thing to do!Read more ›
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If you know me, you know that I am very proud of my Italian heritage. I have often said if you take the 15th century contributions made by Florence to the western world they would rival, if not exceed, the contribution of some nations for all time. If one were to look at the entire history of Italy, you could see that the contributions are beyond any other nation.

As you can see, I have a great love for the land of my ancestors. I am passionately interested in the history of Italy as well as the culture. I have read multiple Italian histories. What I enjoyed about this book is that it provided a good survey of both.

The book is a good starting point for anyone interested in history. Each of the 50 chapters is a concise discussion of important contribution Italy has made to the world. It gives the reader a taste of interesting topics that they can then go on to research in more detail.

If there is any criticism that I could make of the book is that it is a summation. So, when the author describes the Roman contribution to architecture, he discusses architecture in general. This, however, is a minor criticism of the book. If one were to discuss all the contributions Italians have made to architecture, it would fill a book in and of itself. The same is true for each of the chapters. There are just too many contributions made by Italy to be discussed in detail by any one book.
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This book is indeed densely packed with details large and small about most of the major and some of the minor characters in the vast tapestry of Italian civilization. But surely not one of them can be irrelevant when the purpose of the volume is considered. We are promised an overview of the facility with which notable Italians, from Caesar to Lampedusa, have left their mark on the wider world of western culture, and that is exactly what the authors have provided. The facility of their prose nicely reflects the sprezzatura of their title. It conveys the numerous nuggets of information, all of which are needed to fill in the historical/biographical panorama, without strain and with clarity and precision. To have provided such an embarrassment of riches about so many diverse individuals, represents a very impressive work of sedulous research. The inclusion of some less celebrated characters, such as Malatesta and Aretino, D'Annunzio and Beccaria, as well as the giants we would expect to find, makes the work rather more interesting than otherwise. The reference to John Adams quoting Beccaria on the law during the Boston Massacre trial, is the kind of detail that one comes upon unexpectedly and relishes. The brief chapter on Italian makers of the violin and piano, and that on pioneer anatomists, are small but precious gems. If one comes to this well-researched and well-written book, looking for accurate detailed cameos of representative Italian genius, one will not be disappointed. It is a collection, not an exegesis, but no less valuable and enjoyable for that. In being such the book follows a noble if eccentric tradition that itself represents one of the accomplishments of the Italian scholar: the compilation of authorities on different topics, that was perhaps the most important vehicle for preserving what was known in academic and legal cirlces throughout the middle ages, and that made possible what we now call the Renaissance.
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