Publication Date

March 9, 2023

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Professional Life, Teaching & Learning


  • Europe
  • United States


Teaching Methods

In my junior year of college, I sat in the dark lecture hall of my High Renaissance Art course at the College of the Holy Cross. The slide projector hummed with a dull whir as Professor Alison Fleming narrated. She moved acrobatically from slide to slide, describing the artistic, historical, and cultural significance of each image. I furiously took down notes, hanging on her every word. With a shutter of the slide carousel, she revealed Raphael’s 1504 Marriage of the Virgin, which depicted a young Joseph standing in an unassuming, nonchalant posture—quite the shift from the more rigid portrayals of the stiff, older Joseph that dominated medieval art. “Class, this painting is the embodiment of sprezzatura,” Fleming said, slipping into an Italian accent, and the word bounced around the room.

Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin

Raphael’s Marriage of the Virgin (1504) provided an unforgettable example of sprezzatura when Vanessa R. Corcoran was an undergraduate student. ©Pinacoteca di Brera, Milano

As Fleming explained, in his 1528 treatise The Book of the Courtier, Baldassare Castiglione defined sprezzatura as “a certain nonchalance, so as to conceal all art and make whatever one does or says appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.” In short, sprezzatura is making the difficult look easy. The ability to portray nonchalance was an essential quality for a Renaissance courtier who sought to impress his audience through his grace and excellence. Fleming went on to explain that this was a significant characteristic of Renaissance art and literature.

I immediately loved this concept. To me, Fleming personified this idea too: she was always put together, wearing bright dresses accessorized with delicate scarves. While some professors droned on in their lectures, she told illuminating stories, from memory, about artists and images that I can still recall nearly 20 years later.

For years after that class, sprezzatura stayed with me, along with my fascination with the Middle Ages and Renaissance. I went to graduate school at the Catholic University of America, where I pursued a PhD in medieval history and embraced sprezzatura. During those years, I got into marathon running, and qualifying for the Boston Marathon on only my second attempt, I was told, “You must be a natural.”

Sprezzatura is making the difficult look easy.

But despite finding success in my new hobby, I felt I was failing. The dissertation process was a bumpy one, filled with challenges that brought me to the height (or low) of anxiety. But my professors had no idea that my mind was filled with intrusive thoughts and self-doubt. On the surface, it seemed my life was going well. I was newly married, we got a dog, and distance running was an enjoyable hobby. “Running really seems to keep you on track (pun intended),” my professors said. “Keep doing what you’re doing—it’s working. You have it figured out.” But underneath the seemingly put together exterior, I was a mess.

Only recently did I learn how well I had covered up my mental health struggles behind the illusion of sprezzatura. In my memoir, It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint: My Road to the Marathon and PhD (2022), I offered explicit details about my anxiety that I had kept largely to myself. My loved ones had been left largely in the dark. “We didn’t know it was that bad,” they all said, clearly hurt that they were finding out from a book instead of while I struggled years ago. But I just couldn’t say it when I was in my dark place. I had wanted everyone to think that these difficult things were somehow easy to me.

Once I completed my dissertation and graduated, I regained my confidence. Chalking it up to “grad school problems,” I thought I had figured out how to manage my anxiety and be more open about when I was struggling. Yet the last few years showed me I hadn’t gotten past sprezzatura.

I gave birth to my daughter Lucy in May 2020, during that first uncertain and scary wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Other than the fear that I’d contract this unknown disease, I was fortunate to have a smooth pregnancy and delivery, even during lockdown. I returned to work 10 weeks later at Georgetown University, working remotely as an advising dean in our living room with Lucy on my lap. Eager to prove that I could work while caring for an infant, I smiled through Zoom meetings, highlighting Lucy’s cute moments while I advised students on managing remote learning during a global pandemic and racial reckoning. My appointment calendar quickly filled up with student meetings: my advisees were so lost during the pandemic and wanted not just guidance but virtual companionship. I raced to be fast with emails, showing that I was able to keep up with the relentless pace of my inbox. While breastfeeding, I gripped my phone, typing out emails. Using dictation tools, I could play with Lucy on the floor and respond to students at the same time. On runs, I brought Lucy in the jogging stroller and took phone calls on my earbuds, desperate to get outside but also to keep up with the high volume of work requests. As much as I was trying to soak up the extra time with my new daughter, I was often distracted: one eye on Lucy and the other on the computer. I had become hyperoptimized to a fault, to my own detriment.

This unhealthy pace continued throughout my daughter’s first year. When spring came in 2021, I often brought a large blanket to the open field across the street from our house. A few blocks and the clouds in the sky were enough to captivate 10-month-old Lucy’s attention. The vaccine was on its way, and with fresh air, the promise of normalcy loomed. But I wasn’t just sitting with Lucy. Using my phone as a hot spot, I tried to knock out projects on my laptop while Lucy was occupied. One of my closest friends, whom I’ll call Ana, often said, “You’re making this all look so easy—how are you doing this?” I always thanked her for the compliment but shrugged off the question. My husband (whose job remained in person), often said proudly, “You’re showing that you really can do it all.” And it became my mantra—I can do it all. Or at least that’s how it appeared. I had happy moments with Lucy, but under the surface, my mind was constantly spinning.

What I wasn’t telling anyone about, or showing on Zoom calls, was the exhaustion. And it was a pandemic—everyone was exhausted and working around the clock. Emails poured in at all hours of the day (and night), and colleagues’ quick replies made me want to try to keep up. I was grateful that my colleagues had covered my work while I was on maternity leave, but I didn’t want them to think I wasn’t able to manage the workload as a new mom. I was determined to look as if this was totally normal: working from home, caring for a newborn, and navigating the pandemic, all without losing my mind. Yet the facade was cracking and I was barely staying afloat.

Then it was Ana’s turn to have a baby, and she asked me how I managed to do it all. The truth was: I wasn’t. By using sprezzatura—by acting as if I was managing this high-wire balancing act without a safety net—I had failed Ana as a friend. I had misrepresented what it meant to be a working mother. My facade made it so that when her daughter arrived, Ana had a false sense of what to expect, all because I had concealed how much I was struggling and instead pretended to be “doing it all.”

Instead of chasing effortlessness, now I’m pursuing grit.

I needed to be more honest with my friends and family, especially when I was struggling. How could I do better? When someone asked how everything was going, was I going to politely respond “fine” and smile, lying through my teeth? No. Parenting, working, living through these “uncertain times” (at this point, the only certainty is the relentless unpredictability) is unmistakably difficult. To pretend otherwise would be disingenuous not to just myself but to all those who are also stuck in a spiral of self-doubt and insecurity.

So I have decided to ditch sprezzatura for another aspirational goal. Instead of chasing effortlessness, now I’m pursuing grit. I found inspiration in psychologist Angela Duckworth’s 2018 book, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. Duckworth has spent her academic career researching resilience, and in discussing how grit can be a positive component of one’s ethos, Duckworth noted, “Nobody wants to show you the hours and hours of becoming. They’d rather show the highlight of what they’ve become.”

Don’t tell that to Emil Zátopek, the 1952 Czech Olympian who competed in the 5,000-meter, 10,000-meter, and marathon events. The greatest runners are usually lauded for graceful technique, with loping styles like a gazelle, but not Zátopek. His running style was distinct not for its beauty but for how painful it looked. He breathed heavily, and his face was often twisted in pain. When asked about why he looked so miserable, he said, “It isn’t gymnastics or figure skating, you know”—alluding to the fact that form is not judged, just the ability to finish first. He was physically and mentally gritty, and that perseverance earned him the extraordinary hat trick of three gold medals in a single Olympic Game: the only distance runner to accomplish such a feat.

Zátopek never hesitated to reveal his discomfort, supporting Duckworth’s idea that “being gritty doesn’t mean not showing pain or pretending everything is OK. In fact, when you look at healthy and successful and giving people, they are extraordinarily meta-cognitive. . . . That ability to reflect on yourself is signature to grit.”

Like Zátopek, I’m a gritty runner. My breathing is often labored (certainly compared to my running partner—I always say she’s the pretty one and I’m the gritty one), and my stride doesn’t look effortless. But my grittiness gets me to the finish line and reminds me that this isn’t always easy to do.

In the filtered world of social media, where images are posed and edited to the extent that they no longer reflect reality, it’s easy to see how sprezzatura can flourish today. But as a parent, adviser, and teacher, I’d rather show my grit and be authentic in the moments of difficulty.

There is still a lot I find fascinating about the Renaissance. But sprezzatura is no longer something I aspire to. In the classroom, on my runs, and at home, I’m chasing grit.

Vanessa R. Corcoran is an advising dean and adjunct professor at Georgetown University. She tweets @VRCinDC.

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