In the Comments Policy, I’ve urged you to keep la bella figura in mind when posting comments. I should explain what I mean when invoking this quintessentially Italian trait.
La bella figura is one of the most widely known of Italian expressions – and also one of the most misunderstood.
The Italian phrase fare bella figura is translated literally as “to make a beautiful figure.” Hence, the common understanding follows that bella figura refers only to one’s appearance – an immaculately clothed woman strolling through Piazza Navona with a stylish hat and lovely posture, for example. Yes, appearance is part of it, but bella figura is so much more.
Let’s review the elements, shall we?
Appearance is the starting point. It’s impossible to present a bella figura if not properly groomed. That doesn’t mean you need the latest Prada outfit. A casual pink cotton shirt and khaki pants are perfectly acceptable as long as they are neat, with the shirt tucked smartly into the pants.
And the rest of your appearance needs to match – Shoes not rundown or needing a polish, nails groomed, hair coiffed and in place.
I remember visiting Milan shortly after moving to Paris. I had been working really hard, without time to get my hair trimmed. To be clear, my hair was a stringy mess. My father-in-law Luciano took one look at me and asked, “Ma, non ci sono parrucchieri a Parigi?!” Or,
“Aren’t there hairdressers in Paris?!”
This was his humorous and not-so-subtle way to tell me to fai attenzione, or pay attention – I was not presenting a bella figura.
Like father like son. My husband Lorenzo has quite a list of appearance-related standards, one might call them rules. They include:
- Match colors properly (no brown shoes with blue pants, don’t dress as if the closet light has burned out).
- Bermudas at the seaside, not in the city.
- Flip flops ONLY on the beach or in the shower. PERIOD.
(Content and formatting courtesy of Lorenzo)
As you see from these examples, the essence of being bella figura in appearance is to be proper, and to dress appropriately to the occasion.
Behaving in a refined manner and showing proper etiquette are essential to la bella figura. This includes treating others with the proper level of formality depending on your relationship with them, and using the correct form of address – “tu” [you] for informal encounters, “lei” [you] for formal. (If you’ve never studied Italian or other Romance languages, you can ignore this last bit.)
This expectation of formality with shopkeepers and other acquaintances can be difficult for Americans, since we are used to becoming first name friends and behaving casually with virtually anyone we’re introduced to, immediately. Not in Italy.
We need look no farther for guidance than to our friend Stanley Tucci. He was the epitome of proper decorum in Searching for Italy. Do you remember when the couple in Florence recognized Tucci, excitedly, as he was seeking out the ancient wine windows? Tucci stepped back and bowed in deference to them, and was almost shy in his modesty. Throughout the show, whenever entering someone’s home, or kitchen, Tucci would always stop and ask “Permesso?” or “May I come in?” While asking permission may be a formality, it shows respect before walking in.
Social life in Italy is filled with these sorts of details concerning proper decorum: Remembering people on their birthdays, and always asking how their families are. Remembering to offer a caffè to a person who offered one on a previous occasion.
You can discover more of these details in the many, many books covering the topic of la bella figura. Here is just a sampling of my favorites:
What I find most interesting in these books is how the authors describe the third aspect of la bella figura, which I’ll call Performance.
La bella figura has a performative quality. That performance is about projecting your desired image to others, one that displays your assumed, or hoped-for, social status. “Everything must be made to sparkle,” writes Luigi Barzini in The Italians, one of the best books written on Italian identity and culture.
My friend Jill, who wrote the splendid A Survival Guide to Milan, talks about this aspect of bella figura under the heading “Look like A Winner”:
“Wherever you are on the slope [of social standing] act like you’re at the top. Show every sign of success you can and don’t let any frailty show. Exhibit good taste, traditionality, self-sufficiency, devotion to your family and general disinterest in strangers. Don’t be taken in by anyone, be in control, cultivate other winners and look good.”
4) TOURISTS AND LA BRUTTA FIGURA
Tourists merit their own discussion, since they often display behavior that is the opposite of bella figura. In other words, they fare brutta figura, or literally, make an ugly figure.
Such behavior, depending on its severity, will elicit a reaction from Italians somewhere along this scale: Bemused tolerance for more innocuous infractions, since after all tourists can’t be expected to know all the rules, to intolerance and disgust for awful behavior that in most cases tourists would never do in their own home towns.
Here’s a short list:
- Ordering cappuccino after dinner (bemused tolerance)
- Wearing casual clothes in a formal setting (bemused tolerance unless egregious)
- Getting drunk and being loud and vulgar in the streets (disgust)
- Jumping into the Trevi fountain or the Venice canals (total disgust and a fine, if caught)
Remember that first trip to Milan I made with Janet? When I was nothing but a tourist, unaware of these rules?
I was a lover of Missoni, so it was a thrill to stop by their flagship store, located then on Via Montenapoleone 1.
Dressed in my favorite Missoni sweater-dress (still in my closet), I stepped into the front window alongside the mannequins for a photo. Che brutta figura! I’m lucky not to have been arrested.
5) ANYTHING ELSE?
It’s worth noting in conclusion, that you don’t just turn la bella figura on or off. As Nardini wrote in Che Bella Figura!,
“Bella figura is not a sometime thing – not a showing off which is controlled by certain circumstances. Rather, it is a deeper, more constant construction performed all the time, mostly as a matter of course.”
Oh, Just One Last Thing – It’s appropriate that the featured image today comes from Rome, since if you dig into the history of la bella figura with the help of these books, you can trace the roots of these social rules centuries ago to the Roman Empire.
This discussion started with the Comments Policy. So let me close with this: Please, please keep posting your fantastic comments – it’s such a joy to read them! ALSO, please feel free to post comments in Italian for the other Italians reading STARVING FOR ITALY!
Until next time, alla prossima volta, A. S. Furbetta.
For More Information
The books pictured above are available from their publishers as follows: Che Bella Figura! by Ruth Nardini (1999), available at State University of New York Press; The Italians by Luigi Barzini (1996 Touchstone Books reprint), available at Simon & Schuster; La Bella Figura, by Beppe Severgnini (translated by Giles Watson, published by Crown, 2007), available at Penguin Random House. Or your favorite bookseller.
Unfortunately, Jill Stainforth’s classic book, A Survival Guide to Milan (1989) – essential reading for all newcomers to Milan, foreign or Italian, when we lived there – is out of print. You’ll need to be lucky with ebay or other used book vendors to snag a copy.
In researching this post, I stumbled upon Bella Figura Publications. By coincidence, I own two of their lovely books about Venice, Dreaming of Venice (2014) and Dreaming of Venice Architecture (2016). I recommend.
As a long-time fan of Missoni knitwear, you can imagine my excitement when the Missonis invited Stanley Tucci to dine at their house in Searching for Italy (the Milan episode)! In the process of verifying my memory that the Missoni store used to be on the main fashion street Via Montenapoleone in Milan, I uncovered a number of fun articles about Missoni history and early days. The flagship Missoni store is now located at Via Sant’Andrea, corner of Via Bagutta.
The Postcard of Rome shows detail from the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) in Piazza Navona. The fountain was designed in 1651 by Gian Lorenzo Bernini for Pope Innocent X, whose family palace, the Palazzo Pamphili, faced onto the piazza.
Links are provided to sites for further information, but are not intended as an endorsement of any site’s services.
Postcard of Rome
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