Bella Figura … A Strong Influence in the Italian Culture
By Gina Biancardi
Italy is a country where the bella figura – making a good impression – is extremely important. But for those outside of Italy, it’s hard to grasp because it can mean many things: from emphasizing outward visual beauty and aesthetics, to exhibiting proper behavior and etiquette, to always striving for perfection. But always, at its core, is passing the test of judgment by the “social eye.”
Being the best you can be is complementary to a country that is revered for beauty in art, architecture, landscaping, fashion, cars, and more. That’s the obvious. An Italian man in a meticulously coordinated suit while riding his bicycle to work; a woman resembling a runway model while buying milk at the local market; a table setting, skillfully choreographed from linens to china to chargers; a store window dressed like a work of art; a beautifully wrapped gift.
But not-so-obvious is how strong the bella figura is hard-wired into the Italian DNA, sometimes to their detriment. An Italian may publicly exude great confidence in unfamiliar territory, but inside he/she is quietly panicking. Setting the bar really high inhibits the ability to learn new things for fear of making a ‘brutta figura’ (bad impression). An Italian would rather avoid learning a new language than be embarrassed while fumbling through new sounds and syllables.
And there’s a gray area too, my friends! For example, making a reservation at a favorite restaurant for friends, and also paying the tab in advance. Though done in good faith, it could be misconstrued as being a “show-off.” Also, most often a brutta figura crime is committed inadvertently, but it’s still subject to high penalties. Showing up a day late to a dinner party will get you at least five years in prison, even if not by the dinner hosts, for sure by your spouse – it happened to me!
For those who did not grow up with bella figura as a household name, the idea seems a little off. But for Italians who live it, looking good and feeling good while also presenting the best you can be socially and intellectually, goes hand in hand with the essence of what it means to be Italian.
The Italian Cultural Foundation at Casa Belvedere is a not-for-profit organization that celebrates everything Italian by sharing stories such as this, and offering exceptional public programs: Language and cooking classes; art and photo exhibits; film festivals; opera luncheons and casino nights; Italian car shows and fashion shows; live concerts and theatrical performances; guest chef experiences and wine tastings; bocce and bingo (tombola); and much more. Casa Belvedere (house with a beautiful view) has established itself as a vibrant and buzzing cultural center in New York City. For more information, visit casa-belvedere.org.