“Confidence is a strategy, not an emotion.”
Can two words be worth a thousand pictures? Perhaps so!
For Florence Program participant Jennifer Halbman, the phrase “bella figura” — along with a bit of advice from Machiavelli — provided a multitude of insights into Italian culture and everyday life in Florence, and helped make Italy a place she’d go back to “in a heartbeat.”
A senior at Lawrence University majoring in Art History and Studio Art, Jennifer studied and wrote a paper about “bella figura” for one of her courses on the Florence Program. She presented this essay, which is based on the paper, and the accompanying photos at ACM’s 50th Anniversary Off-Campus Study Student Symposium.
By Jennifer Halbman
When we think of Italy, we commonly think about the romantic canals of Venice, ruins of Rome and the Duomo of Florence. We also probably can hear that wonderful phrase “ciao bella!” — especially if we’re women. Today, I’d like to explain the difference between Ciao Bella! And Bella Figura.
Bella figura is a term that really only makes sense in Italian. If you try to translate it, you get “beautiful figure” or some sense of making a good impression. I would often hear my host mother, Gabriella chastise with the warning “fa bella figura!” Make a beautiful figure? It sounds like what I do in art class.
Jennifer on the streets of Florence in her two euro skirt and top
Bella figura is a cultural concept that is strongly connected to the past. In Castiglioni’s Book of the Courtier, in order to perform bella figura, a courtier needed to be beautiful and talented while avoiding seeming false or incurring the envy of others. Machiavelli suggests that the ideal prince be cunning and able to act appropriately in any situation. Machiavelli also points out that in order to not be taken advantage of, one can not be good all the time but rather choose wisely when to be bad. Both suggest that presenting oneself well includes a bit of performance and an ability to adapt to any situation.
Through a number of experiences during my time in Florence, Italy, I learned that Bella Figura was another way of living which incorporated the beauty, behaviors, and unpredictability of Italian culture.
I arrived in Florence in late August. It was at least 90 degrees outside, and my luggage was still somewhere on a plane to Rome. It took us an hour to find the hostel because only some street corners have signs and names in Florence. That week I bought a two euro skirt and top which I washed in the bathroom sink. My luggage didn’t arrive for a few weeks. At first, I found this incredibly frustrating. Then Janet, the program director and professor, explained to me that since the airport workers don’t believe in working a minute past five p.m., my luggage probably hadn’t even been sorted yet. I can’t say I found this comforting, but in retrospect, is it really fair to have workers stay late just to get me my luggage? Plus, I felt like I fit in a bit better, even wearing the bargain clothing.
Over four months, I learned better how to not look like such a tourist. At this point, I should mention that bella figura also has an opposite — brutta figura. Without being able to commit brutta figura, we’d never know when we were making bella figura. I learned the hard way that brutta figura is also tied to Italy’s history. One day I wore my favorite sunny yellow t-shirt around town and couldn’t figure out why I was getting such strange looks on the street. Turns out, yellow was the color of women of ill-repute dating back to the Renaissance. Even though today the color doesn’t mean anything specific, it still carries a certain stigma.
Here, we’re taught that how we dress and what we carry are accents to our personality. In Italy, your clothing is part of how you carry yourself and how you use your facial expressions. It becomes part of the performance that you make for the world everyday. This is bella figura — balancing your looks, personality and manners to seem at ease and natural.
Otto (the dog) greeted my roommate and I everyday. Otto knew a lot about Bella figura. Let me explain. Otto wouldn’t come up to us for at least a week. He was wary of us, and kept a business like manner since we were clearly strangers. Here, when meeting a stranger, we often are expected to make small talk and act like instant friends in order to make the best impression. In our jobs and running errands, we work really hard to be friendly to strangers in order to not be judged. Bella figura is all about judging, and Italians judge people instantly, according to Beppe Severnini in his book on the subject. The odd thing is, when everyone is used to being judged, no one takes it personally when it happens, and I found that in general people were much more comfortable in themselves in Italy.
Gabriella and Nino
My host parents, Gabriella and Nino, were fabulous examples of the various ways bella figura functions in people. For a simple example, when I took this picture, Nino had me wait until he had moved the wine bottle just so, so that it would be perfectly framed. Unlike I was used to with Americans though, they didn’t fuss about their hair, or their smiles, or their clothing. This is what bella figura is about though — you want to look as if beauty comes naturally to you.
Gabriella gave me some of the best examples of bella figura. She owned one pair of Ferragamo shoes which she had had for years and only wore on the appropriate occasion. When she dressed up to go to lunch at a friend’s, we would tell her how wonderful she looked and she would thanks us but brush off the comment as nonsense. She knew when to be forceful and when to be gentle. She also had Machiavellian tact. One night my roommate and I had an unfortunate mishap with buses and keys, and ended up needing to wake the family late. We didn’t get yelled at, but we also didn’t get breakfast the next day. By the time we saw Gabriella after classes the following afternoon, all three of us had so many apologies to make that everything was resolved easily! This ability to behave well in all situations is again another manifestation of bella figura.
The city of Florence is beautiful and ugly all at once. This combination is nothing like we see in the states, with chunks of cities being derelict while others prosper. It was more that parts of it were old and parts were new. Some parts, like store fronts and shops, were stunningly decorated, while others, like offices and such, didn’t need to be gorgeous. Window displays often were one of the best depictions of bella figura. Here, window displays are used to display merchandise to encourage people to buy it. In Italy, window displays are often times as elaborate and beautiful as the Renaissance churches next door. They are beautiful to display the artistry of the vendor, not to sell the goods.
We tend to think that placing much value on visual beauty implies vanity or falseness. In Italy, art is fully integrated with culture. We keep so much of our art sectioned off in art museums, but in Italy, art can not be sectioned. Beauty is not just something the elite contemplate, but something that traditionally implied goodness and even sacredness. Remember my experiences with yellow? Beauty is like that too. Being beautiful doesn’t necessarily equal good, but the two ideas are closely linked throughout Italy’s history.
Authority also must follow the rules of bella figura. Influential politicians are also the ones who own TV channels and winning sports teams. Carabiniere, or street policemen are the most attractive people you can see. They walk with sprezzatura, which is another concept similar to bella figura. Sprezzatura means grace or ease without effort. When you see the carabiniere on the street, it’s as if they’re just perfect like that naturally. You don’t think about how they woke up early to do their hair or iron their uniforms, they’re just easily gorgeous.
So, what have I done differently since I’ve returned? Well, first of all, I can no longer control my facial expressions. Instead, I let them be honest and reflect the situation because it would be brutta figura to let someone believe I was happy when I was upset. Second, I’ve learned that confidence is a strategy, not an emotion. Machiavelli was actually the one who taught me this and it has immensely impacted how I interact with others. And finally, bella figura taught me about love. I learned that truly loving a place isn’t about romance but about being able to accept the necessity of opposites. You can hate it one moment, love it the next, but you still know you’d return in a heartbeat.