Una Bella Figura! When you hear that and think of all things Italian – is Sophia Loren the first thing that comes to your mind or Gina Lollobridgida? Boy did I date myself with those references. Italian fashion, furniture design and architecture are known the world over for their beauty and grace. But is the phrase Bella Figura really just – hey that’s pretty?
My good pal Diana went to a New York University – ‘One Day University’ and attended a program presented by Prof. Joseph Luzzi from Bard College on Italian culture, past and present. I googled him and his headshot is gorgeous. Diana said he was a great presenter. That says to me he not only talked about Una Bella Figura but sure as hell represents it.
Today, Diana and I chatted about the premise and Dr. Luzzi’s explanations. It made me think that you all should get into the conversation too. Just what is una bella figura? It simply means “beautiful figure” but it goes way beyond that. When one ha una bella figura one is concerned about making a good impression. Sure dressing well, having a great haircut and walking like the world is your runway is part of it. But the concept goes far beyond that. It is showing the world that your life is wonderful whether it is or not. You know, I really believe, that when I think my life is wonderful it is – I mean who wants to think their life is crap?
My Grandparents were peasant farmers but managed to have a charcoal portrait done. I grew up seeing this and didn’t know how poor they really had been until I started asking questions about Italy. Bella figura!
The conversation with Diana also made me think of my dad. “Johnny G” as he liked to call himself could and would talk to anyone. Even if he was having a bad month, he would still pick up the tab in a restaurant. He made sure his clothes were cleaned and pressed. Poppo wanted to present a good impression – albeit his way – to the women of the world and the world at large. He never complained in public – unless he was ridiculing a Republican. When he died I found a file full of copies of parking tickets and traffic violations in other people’s names. Folks thought that he was incredibly powerful. He could even “fix” their traffic tickets. Johnny G smiled and pocketed the tickets. “No problems.” He did fix them. He paid the fines. Now he aveva una bella figura!
I love Wednesdays! That is market day in Pontelandolfo. The trucks come zapping in really early in the morning. Truck sides flap down and goods fly up. Every Wednesday is like a mini festa with purpose. You can find everything from baby chicks to faux designer purses. Shoppers meander past the goods, chat and of course stop for un caffè. Everyone looks great! Nice outfits, good shoes, combed hair. The first time I went, I rolled down the hill to the piazza sans make-up and not dressed for success. You know – just like I go to Wegman’s for groceries in New Jersey. I always say that I need to look good for me and then somehow I figure I don’t care about me and don’t bother. In Italy I do bother. Make-up goes on every morning – before I leave the house. Sweat pants are for the house only! You know, when I try to look terrific I feel terrific and my day just seems to work out better. This might be the real reason for una bella figura.
Una Bella Figura – butcher paper with panache!
One of the many things I love about Italy is the attention to eye-pleasing detail. The smallest shops – from the macelleria, pasticceria to giolelliera – in Pontelandolfo all practically gift wrap their goods. When I go to the macelleria my chicken is elegantly placed on not just plain old brown or white paper but butcher paper embossed with a design and held shut with colored twine. All those yummy sweet goodies from the pasticceria are placed on a golden tray, protected by a golden cardboard arch and wrapped in cellophane. It is almost too pretty to unwrap and eat – OK that was a bold faced lie – we unwrap and eat the pastries immediately. I bought my niece a purse at the giolelliera – which is a jewelry shop but sells cute accessories too. It seems – unless you shop at an open air market – all purses come with their own cloth bag. I was happy to go home with that, when the clerk put the purse in the cloth bag and the whole thing in a shiny purple bag, added gold ribbon and a gold sticker with the store’s name. That too is making a good impression – una bella figura.
When a young person does well in school or makes the family proud by doing something special, I’ve heard the child ha fatto una bella figura. Bella figura also means knowing how to behave in any situation. I swear I think Italian children have cuteness and behaving inserted in their DNA. We eat out a lot and in Italy children are welcome in all restaurants from the linen and crystal spots to the smallest osterias. They actually sit in the chairs, engage in conversation and eat. Sure, they get up and run around a bit too but without the screaming and whining I hear in the USA.
When I think of the young men and women of Pontelandolfo I think of young women who can wear glamorous spike heels and still wend their way casually over cobblestones. Women with university educations who dress in the height of fashion to sit in the local bar and understand that having one or two great outfits is all one really needs. Men who take their T-shirts to the local seamstress to have them custom fit and look elegant even after working in the vineyard. I have never seen a young person sipping a cappuccino in public, dressed in flannel pajama pants and a sweatshirt. Everyone cares about the way they dress and look in public. People are proud of who they are and share that pride through the way they dress and how they act. It is simply a part of life.
The world certainly looks better to me when folks have una bella figura!