Carol King attempts to explain the Italian concept of the ‘bella figura’ and its evil twin, the ‘brutta figura’.

Anyone who has spent some time in Italy will realise that the country isn’t quite what it seems. I’m often reminded of the famous line in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘Something is rotten in Denmark’. Marcellus makes the observation shortly after Prince Hamlet leaves to follow a ghost, implying that all is not well in the country from the top down. Comparing a rotten Denmark to contemporary Italy may seem strange given that Italy is such a seductive place: it’s a country that flirts with you, teases you and appeals to all the senses. But such a magnificent show of coquetry isn’t effortless, it’s because Italy is a country where the ‘bella figura’, literally ‘beautiful figure’ meaning ‘good impression’, is extremely important. La bella figura is all about making a good impression and perhaps Italians know how to do so better than anyone else.

Making a good impression may be turning out for the Saturday night passeggiata with coiffeured hair, neatly pressed clothes with accessories that match down to the last detail and walking in high heels on cobbled streets with a sassy strut that wouldn’t be far out of place on the catwalk. It’s not just Italian women who strive for the bella figura, men do too, whether it’s a perfectly trimmed beard, a crisp white shirt or the latest designer sunglasses, the most ordinary men of all ages want to make the best of themselves. Such pride in appearance makes for hours of entertaining people watching and is one of the reasons Italian fashion is second to none.

La Bella Figura

Yet the bella figura isn’t just about fashion, the effort that goes into giving a good impression is what Italians do to show all is well in their world and they are doing just fine in life – whether they are or not. It applies to generosity: Italians are warm hearted and giving, but sometimes that act of offering to pay for a coffee is as much about the person paying for it wanting to showing they have the money and largess to do so, as it is a gesture of kindness. Things have to look good too: items from cakes to ice cream are wrapped with care, there is little that doesn’t deserve the flourish of an added bow or a vendor’s golden sticker placed on it with pride. The country’s architecture and gardens reflect their owners’ wish to create a bella figura, which means Italy has some of the most outstanding buildings in the world. Italian cities are organised around squares where locals can gather to chat and show off, and where ideally the church, the town hall and the aristocratic palazzi are all located in their rightful pecking order to enhance the town’s civic pride, demonstrate its importance and suggest an air of harmonious community. Italians pay attention to details large and small all for the sake of the “bella figura”. A student doing well in examination makes his/her family and school proud...”ha fatto una bella figura” or “ha fatto un figurone”! In sum, the bella figura is knowing how to behave and be in any situation to look good: the famous Italian sense of cool.

La Bella Figura

This can make for a pleasant life, but only superficially because the desire to avoid making a bad impression, a ‘brutta figura’, or ‘ugly figure’, is paramount. A brutta figura could be doing something that reflects poorly on your family: bad mouthing or complaining about a family member in public, even if it’s with some valid reason, is frowned upon and makes for a brutta figura. Equally, it could be inviting someone to dinner or a function that’s ill organised, or it’s when a politician makes a gaffe that reflects poorly on ‘la patria’ and embarrasses the nation in front of the rest of the world.

What’s tricky is when the desire to have a bella figura means people are too embarrassed to make a mistake. For example, Italians may be able to speak English but often are too afraid to open their mouths and have a conversation in case they fumble over their words. Yet anyone knows that to learn to speak a language is a process of trial, error and occasional funny moments when someone uses the wrong word, pronounces something in an incomprehensible fashion, and so on. Such reticence to make mistakes also strangles innovation in a country that has been traditionally known for its creativity: who wants to try something new and face the brutta figura of failure? Like the Japanese, Italians do not want to lose face.

More worryingly, it means that problems are skirted over, ignored and in some instances, their existence simply denied. Former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s inability to deliver bad news to voters who loved their country meant that often he only said what people wanted to hear. When the level of Italy’s economic problems began to ring home to Italians some appeared shocked regarding their extent. Of course, householders may have noticed they were tightening their belts but that did not mean they would admit anything was wrong.

La Bella Figura
Berlusconi flashes the corna (horns) at a European Union summit in 2002. Una brutta figura...

It also means services can be a nightmare. Say you buy a pair of spectacles, discover they aren’t really what you wanted or were led to believe you were buying, so you return to the shop to see what can be done. Any suggestion to the optician that you may have been misled, albeit innocently, is guaranteed to cause fireworks and backtracking. The person you are dealing with will do anything to avoid losing face and making a brutta figura. As an aggrieved customer you’ll begin to doubt your sanity as the vendor does everything to wriggle out of any culpability and will do everything to make you feel that you have accused them unjustly of something. So the love of the bella figura can also lead to dodging responsibility. If you want to get the right spectacles you will have to tip toe around the person’s feelings, hope they feel sorry for you and give them the chance to make a good impression to resolve the dilemma. The trick is to appeal to the Italian desire to please, never hint at a lack of professionalism or any other characteristic deemed ugly.

So this is why I think of Hamlet, and when you come across something rotten in the state of Italy, best to pretend it’s not. If you want to maintain your bella figura opt to give an Italian a chance to come up smelling of roses and make a good impression. Remember, Italy wants to be a beauty rather than a beast.