An Uncanny Sprezzatura

2012_43233_161806Sprezzatura is an Italian word introduced by Baldassare Castiglione in The Book of the Courtier, where it is defined as “a certain nonchalance”:

I have found a universal rule . . . valid above all others in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is, to avoid any kind of affectation as though it were a rough and dangerous reef; and (to coin a new word, perhaps), to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says seem effortless, and almost unpremeditated.” (Javitch, Daniel. ed. The Book of the Courtier, 2002; as quoted in Wikipedia, Sprezzatura)

The book addressed the topic of what constitutes an ideal Renaissance gentleman, and sprezzatura appears amongst one of the most important, if not the most important, rhetorical device the courtier needs. Castiglione appropriates from Cicero the notion of artful artlessness(1), an appearance of effortless mastery that is attained only by costly, concentrated effort and unremitting labour.

A certain sprezzatura might be what robots need to bridge the so-called uncanny valley and get into our circle of empathy(2). The uncanny valley models the hypothesized emotional response of human subjects (affinity) to the anthropomorphism (human likeness) of an entity –a robot (See Figure 1).

Figure 1: The Uncanny Valley, Masahiro Mori 1970

The term was coined by the robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970, when he noticed that, in “climbing toward the goal of” making robots appear human, our affinity for them increases until we come to the uncanny valley, the region of negative emotional response towards robots that seem “almost human”.

Mori explains how movement amplifies the emotional response by amplifying the peaks and valleys that define the uncanny valley, as shown also in the Figure 1. For example, when an industrial robot is switched on and begins to move its gripper like a human hand, we start to feel a certain level of affinity for it. Conversely, when a prosthetic hand that is near the bottom of the uncanny valley starts to move, our sensation of eeriness intensifies. Death can be regarded as a movement from the second peak (healthy person) to the bottom of the uncanny valley (corpse)

The uncanny is familiar, yet strange, and it often creates cognitive dissonance due to the paradoxical nature of being attracted and repulsed by an object at the same time. This cognitive dissonance often leads to an outright rejection of the “uncanny” object. As dissimulation or artfulness, sprezzatura, like irony, is inherently ambiguous and equivocal(3). However, it seems to be the kind of ambiguity that, instead of dissonance, produces harmony and stimulates empathy.

Clearly, we are on weird terrain when trying to define and measure the essence of human nature.


Featured Image: Roberto Pinetta, Nonchalance

(1) David M. Posner, The Performance of Nobility in Early Modern European Literature. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1999

(2) Jaron Lanier, “You are not a Gadget“, Vintage 2011

(2) Victoria Kahn, “Humanism and the Resistance to Theory.” Rhetoric and Hermeneutics in Our Time: A Reader, ed. by Walter Jost and Michael J. Hyde. Yale Univ. Press, 1997


  1. Grazie per aver scelto l’immagine della mia opera NONCHALANCE, però dovete farmi la cortesia di correggere il mio cognome, che non è PINETA, bensì PINETTA. Cari saluti


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s