First posted January 3, 2013
“[La bella figura] basically means that you don’t want others, be they strangers or friends, to have a negative impression of you. …. they must always think you are the tops. This means bringing for example, cookies to someone’s house if you’re invited over for just coffee…that’s putting on a bella figura. It means kids always saying please, thank you and not being wild when visiting others … this is bella figura. It means helping or offering your help to neighbours even if they don’t ask for it…that is bella figura.” Expats in Italy
I believe that anyone who lives in or visits Italy experiences la bella figura in one way or another. Perhaps the only exception to this might be those who, after landing in Rome or Milan take a taxi to the most North American or British style hotel their travel agent could book for them, eat only in the hotel restaurant, and take guided tours of the most famous sites. Then, they cab it back to the airport, fly home and tell their friends about their wonderful or not-so-wonderful holiday in Italy. Yet even these people may have been touched by la bella figura (even though they haven’t realized it) in their dealings with the hotel staff, the taxi driver, and the tour guide. It’s a shame that these tourists don’t understand the concept of la bella figura as they most certainly make “la brutta figura” – a bad impression. These are the tourists that you can hear saying things like “This pizza/coffee/pasta isn’t like what we get back home in Chicago/Toronto/Manchester!” How sad to come to Italy and not make the most of the experience. Once, when we were visiting Roma, outside the Colosseum, we saw a group of Americans who were being guarded on all sides by what were obviously members of the secret service. I have no idea who these people were but I thought to myself what a restricted view of Italy these people will go home with!
“I definately see most people doing their best to be kind, thoughtful, gracious, polite, and helpful.” Expats in Italy
My husband, my daughter and I have all been grateful recipients of la bella figura. In 2010 we visited Nick’s family in Sicily.
We drove a windy road up to Capizzi and went into the town hall where Mimma, Nick’s cousin, worked as the town clerk. This started a wonderful, whirlwind day. We were introduced to the mayor of Capizzi, treated to a delicious seven course meal with family members that Nick had never heard of before. We were toured around the town and visited all the churches, saw the home that Nick’s dad had grown up in, and were invited into the homes of distant relatives. He was surrounded by people who came to tell him that they remembered his father or his mother from 55 years before. And every person treated us with kindness, delight, and joy. We felt completely and totally welcomed.
Nick and I are active members of Couchsurfing. In 2010, we couchsurfed our way from Sicilia to Milano. We were welcomed into so many homes and treated to so many wonderful experiences. In Agrigento, Marilena and her mother, Giovanna, took us to the family farm where we picked fruit fresh off the trees.
In Catania, Nello toured us through museums and took us to a jazz concert and later we picked bananas in his garden with his father.
In Puglia, Elena and Paolo put us up in a beautiful trullo and included us in their community and celebrations for their son’s birthday. Luca, who hosted us in his house in Padua, gave us one of our best days in Italy, touring us through all the wonderful backstreets of Venice. And Matteo in Bergamo treated us to an evening of laughter with his friends in a pub way out in the middle of farmers’ fields. And Pino opened the door to his small Roman apartment to six couchsurfers. Nick and I slept on his balcony under the Lazio sky and loved every second of it! Every host we had went out of their way to make our stay with them memorable. Each, in his or her own way, was the embodiment of la bella figura.
Last summer, in Cianciana, we witnessed la bella figura every day. In the evenings, people dressed their best and did passeggiata (a slow stroll) up and down the main street. Bars placed tables and chairs on the sidewalks and they were filled all night as the visitors and Ciancianese alike watched the unofficial parade fill the street. More than once we were invited for coffee or a drink because in Cianciana they say, “the visitor never pays”.
Over and over the people in Cianciana treated us with grace, kindness and helpfulness. When we told our friends and coworkers in Canada that we were planning on buying and renovating a house in Sicily, so many of them told us we were crazy and that we would be cheated out of our hard earned money. Instead we found a realtor and a contractor who were honest and transparent in all their dealings with us.
Please don’t misunderstand me. There are things that that are annoying and frustrating in Sicily too. When Nick and I made our bank account we had to sign a stack of papers at least an inch thick. As I mentioned in several earlier posts, driving can be hair-raising. Gas is ridiculously expensive. People crowd together on beaches and yell back and forth. But for every difficult moment there are ten joyful ones.
Researching and writing this post has been a real learning experience. Nick and I have been such grateful recipients of la bella figura that we both want to make sure we make la bella figura ourselves.
Comments from the original post:
I think when people forget about belle or brutte figure is when the true bella figura comes out, ironically enough. If things are done only to show a good face then it can seem false, but my best experiences in Italy and Sicily have been when people show kindness for no other reason than kindness’ sake. That’s the true bella figura, and is one of the reasons that Italy now has such a firm hold on my heart.
That and the fantastic food, of course. 😉
I totally agree with you. The very best of la bella figura that we have experienced has come directly from the heart. And ditto on the food! 🙂
We are among very, very kind people. I too often, though, see the ugly side of this phenomenon, which relies heavily on appearance over substance. It can e frustrating at times and is so foreign to me that it makes integration impossible!
Have you read the book, La Bella Figura by Beppe Servegnini? He does a great job explaining the concept, IMHO.
Ps. Thanks for the visit and comment on my blog. I’m a teacher/librarian who loves Italy too 🙂
I guess we have been lucky so far and have not experienced much of the negative aspects of la bella figura. I read Severgnini’s book as background to this post. BTW, are you working as a teacher-librarian in Italy?
“che figura!” (ie che brutta figura)… is something you don’t want to hear, when someone says that, you’ve done something really embarassing in the eyes of an Italian.
On the other hand, if you go to someone’s house, you always bring the best gift you can (nice biscuits, chocolates, cake from a good patisserie shop, flowers, good wine) in order to make a “bella figura” – a good impression which will stay with your friends. Your two posts have been very well research and I have enjoyed reading them. ciao Diane!
Thanks! I enjoyed doing the research. It gave me a little more insight into the Italian mind – something I will continue to need to develop if Nick and I are going to spend so much of our lives in Sicily!