"Might the term pococurante be a combination, then, of the Italian incurante: indifferent, uncaring and sprezzante?"

25 Oct 2016

Education: The French Connection Spotlight on Vocabulary: POCOCURANTE

Pococurante: 1. Italianism: blasé, indifferent, elitist; 2. proper noun: the name given to a rich Venetian patrician in Voltaire’s Candide

It fulfills a stereotype to describe a rich Venetian patrician the way Voltaire does in chapter 25 of his conte philosophique, Candide, available in translation here:

“After having refreshed himself, Candide walked into a large gallery, where he was struck with the sight of a fine collection of paintings.
“Pray,” said Candide, “by what master are the two first of these?”
“They are by Raphael,” answered the senator. “[…] I cannot say they please me: the coloring is dark and heavy; the figures do not swell nor come out enough; and the drapery is bad. […]
While dinner was being prepared Pococurante ordered a concert. Candide praised the music to the skies.
“This noise,” said the noble Venetian, “may amuse one for a little time, but if it were to last above half an hour, it would grow tiresome to everybody, though perhaps no one would care to [admit] it. […]
Dinner being served they sat down to table, and, after a hearty repast, returned to the library. Candide, observing Homer richly bound, commended the noble Venetian’s taste. […]
“Homer is no favorite of mine,” answered Pococurante, coolly, “I was made to believe once that I took a pleasure in reading him; but his continual repetitions of battles have all such a resemblance with each other; his gods that are forever in haste and bustle, without ever doing anything; his Helen, who is the cause of the war, and yet hardly acts in the whole performance; his Troy, that holds out so long, without being taken: in short, all these things together make the poem very insipid to me. […]
“But your excellency does not surely form the same opinion of Virgil?” said Candide.
“Why, I grant,” replied Pococurante, “that the second, third, fourth, and sixth books of his Aeneid, are excellent; but as for his pious Aeneas, his strong Cloanthus, his friendly Achates, his boy Ascanius, his silly king Latinus, his ill-bred Amata, his insipid Lavinia, and some other characters much in the same strain, I think there cannot in nature be anything more flat and disagreeable. I must confess I prefer Tasso far beyond him; nay, even that sleepy taleteller Ariosto.”

A bit harsh, perhaps. But not altogether unexpected.

By the early seventeenth century – when Voltaire was writing and the years during which Candide is set – Venice had not only grown into a powerful political empire (albeit by then in decline), but had also become an important center of wealth and commerce. Home to generations of royal families, aristocracy had proliferated from the High Middle Ages onward, creating a rich upper class benefiting from the best that money could buy — Pococurante’s gardens were “laid out in elegant taste, and adorned with fine marble statues; his palace was built after the most approved rules of architecture.” The city was rich with courtly life and artistic patronage; the cult of the elite extended beyond Venetians to urbane figures attracted to the city’s lavish promise of fame and fortune.

At the same time, its Carnival — the weeks of celebration leading up to the austerity of the Lenten period and a veritable institution since la Serenissima’s 1162 victory over Aquileia — had blossomed into what would become a hallmark of all Italian culture. More than the costumes and elaborate parties it promised, Carnival generated unexpected literary productivity within and even largely outside of Venice. The mid sixteenth century saw the birth of the commedia dell’arte — an unscripted form of theatre based on pre-established scenarios and stock characters — often set during the Carnival period and occasionally using Venice as its background. By the time Voltaire was writing, commedia dell’arte had enjoyed tremendous success, and its characters had been adopted by mainstream Italian playwrights for their theatrical productions.

One such character was Pantalone: a Venetian merchant known for his stinginess, overprotective nature toward his daughter — a common love interest in many commedia dell’arte plays — and frequent inability to complete elaborate plans he imagines for himself. Another was Dottor Balanzone, originally of Bologna – a presumptuous pedant. Voltaire would have known these characters, as Molière, a French playwright a generation older than he, had rendered one of them famous in France, where commedia dell’arte had traveled decades prior. And the practice of satirizing peoples and customs — of making “masks” of them, as commedia dell’arte set out (successfully) to do — is the very fulcrum of Voltaire’s allegorical work in Candide.

He also would have been familiar with a much earlier treatise on courtly culture and behaviour in Italy: Baldassare Castiglione’s Book of the Courtier, published in 1528. Indeed, as some scholars suggest, Candide and its lessons can be read as a parody of the world and values of Castiglione’s courtier, born into a family of wealth and prestige and raised to be the ideal gentleman.

The defining characteristic of Castiglione’s courtier is sprezzatura, or, most commonly put today, “engaged detachment.” The man of the court, who follows a strict code of etiquette, in addition to being elegant and poised, is above all a man of culture who knows the right thing to say and when to say it, in all social situations. He speaks eloquently and acts gracefully, never displaying the kind of over enthusiasm considered unbecoming of his rank. His every movement, every enunciation, is calculated and effortless, even when the task at hand might prove to be difficult to the average person, or the topic discussed nuanced and complex. Most importantly, he maintains such unnerving emotional detachment in his every social interaction that to those unfamiliar with the courtier’s code, he might, indeed, come across as casual and aloof.

But this sprezzatura, so central to the courtier’s demeanour, ceases to exist, from a lexical point of view, outside the confines of Castiglione’s treatise and beyond the Renaissance, save in literary circles. At its core, however, is the Italian verb disprezzare (appearing earlier as sprezzare): to disregard; scorn, and its corresponding adjective, sprezzante: snooty; superior.

Putting these elements together, then, is it not possible that Voltaire’s Signor Pococurante, in name and description, is a reflection of (and on) the caricature present in Commedia dell’arte’s stock characters — Dottor Balanzone’s superiority and Pantalone’s clumsiness —, and the perceived haughtiness of the courtier? Might the term pococurante be a combination, then, of the Italian incurante: indifferent, uncaring and sprezzante? What are readers to make of Signor Pococurante’s disdain of Italian, as well as classical authors? Is this a case of early campanilismo (love of one’s own city or city-state)? Or the perception, from outside Italy, of the Italian upper class’s inherent discrimination, even internally?

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