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The right impression: Concept of la bella figura entails appearance, behavior, manners


The Italian expression fare la bella figura may not be taught in classrooms but it is key to understanding some customs of Italian culture. It literally means to make a beautiful figure, but in terms we might recognize it means to put your best foot forward in everything you do. The concept covers everything from fashion and food to behavior and speech. It is the art of living well and goes beyond just making a good impression. It is reflected in how you treat others, how one dresses and the manner in which one speaks. It dictates the choice of food prepared for an event and how it is presented, or the choice of a gift and how it is wrapped. It is the art of living elegantly even with limited means.

A courtyard in Umbria showcases the pride of residents in their neighborhood. | ADOBE STOCK

Italians are known for their refined and elegant style. Italian fashion is famous the world over and Italians are no strangers to dressing to make a good impression. You will often see Italians lined up at bars in the morning for their breakfast expresso and pastry and may be surprised how many are “dressed to the nines” compared to our more casual style of dress. Evenings are another time when Italian fashion is on display as people head out to dinner or for an evening passegiatta. Others will be carefully dressed just to go out to run daily errands.

Older women who want to present a bella figura will choose clothing suitable for their age, and younger girls who care about their appearance will not wear sweatpants or items such as flip flops in public. Dressing fashionably doesn’t mean one needs to wear expensive clothing but clothing that is clean, fits well and is reflective of one’s personal style. Italians may not have substantial amounts of clothing or shoes in their closets but what they do have will be carefully chosen. They may buy just a few expensive items to pair with others and include stylish accents with their shoes or other accessories. They often wait to purchase items from well-known brands when the store’s hold their saldi or sales.

This showcase at Max Mara is a showstopper. | ADOBE STOCK

Personal grooming is also important. Women will pay special attention to their hair and skin, and those who wear makeup are a bit more subtle with the amount and colors they use. They do often choose a bold lipstick or bright nail color to offset the choice of less or no makeup. Italian men also take their grooming seriously, and their barbers are tasked with maintaining the style that best suits each client.

It’s not just the people who “dress up” to present themselves in the best way. In Italy’s famous cities and in smaller towns, pride is also on display throughout the streets and neighborhoods. While strolling through the avenues and smaller vie (streets) you will find numerous simple to elegant expressions of the citizens’ pride in their home and neighborhood. Flower boxes, from classic to artistic, will line the balconies, or pots of bountiful floral arrangements will be arranged by the doors, in front of the homes or around a small courtyard the neighbors may share. Stoops and walkways, often cobblestones, will be swept clean and you may even see local crafts or artwork adorning the exterior walls.

This elegant table awaits wedding guests at a villa in Tuscany. | ADOBE STOCK

While visiting Italy you are sure to notice some storefront displays that have been carefully designed to attract your attention. Take a look inside a pasticceria (pastry shop) and you will find the appetizing edibles artfully arranged not only in a colorful display but often in shapes or designs which draw the eye and entice you to enter. Clothing stores are also known for their carefully arranged interior displays on shelves and racks but also for their window arrangements that turn into a piece of temporary art in its own right.

Even an ordinary event like walking the dog is an occasion for dressing with style. | ADOBE STOCK

Experiencing the delights of Italian cuisine embodies not just the preparation of the food but also the presentation and taking the time to savor all that hard work! While those who work may have to rush through morning breakfast, they do try to take more time to enjoy lunch and dinner. Most Italians work longer hours than here in the United States. Workdays usually begin between 8 and 9 a.m. with a break between 1 to 2:30 p.m. Afternoon hours end around 6 p.m. However, those who are in the service industry may work longer hours, including on Saturdays. It’s common for those who work extended hours to take a riposo (rest time) to enjoy a more leisurely lunch. Italian law dictates a maximum of 40 hours per week or an average of 48 hours with overtime.

If employees live close to their jobs, they have the choice to go home to enjoy lunch, but others will head to nearby restaurants or bars. Whatever the case, lunch is a time to sit down and relax and enjoy their meal. If they choose to pick up something to go, they may often head to a nearby park to eat or meet up with friends.

Dinner is a much more relaxed atmosphere, either with family or friends. Whether it is homecooked or served in a restaurant, this is the time for Italians to savor their gastronomic choices, no matter how simple or elaborate. Of course, Sunday “dinners” at mid-day are the culmination of living well when the table setting and the company who may be invited are just as important as the dishes served. Meals for Italians are not just to feed the body but also the soul as they enjoy time with the family and invited company as well as honoring their culture and shared history.

Hosts for special events such as a party will take particular care with menu choices as well as with the table settings and decorations for the event. It is not enough that the food is exquisite but that everything is visually pleasing as well. As you can imagine, weddings will also be carefully “curated.” This is not just a celebration of a momentous occasion but a chance to show appreciation for those in attendance who have supported the bride and groom as they prepared for this memorable day.

For visitors to Italy, you can also present a bella figura by taking the time to learn and
use some of the language. Italians are a cordial
people and many of them speak English (or have some knowledge) so using a few phrases to show respect for their culture and language is much appreciated. Common phrases such as buon giorno, buona sera, per favore, grazie and prego are key phrases to learn.

Another key component to this concept of presenting oneself in the best manner is just that! Displaying le buone maniere (good manners) comes in a variety of choices in one’s daily life. An Italian mother will teach her children to behave properly in school, to listen to the teacher and get along with classmates. They will caution their children not to be maleducato (poorly educated). The expression doesn’t refer to a lack of education but more to incivility in their actions and words.

It’s all about the presentation and the taste! | ADOBE STOCK

This is a trait that applies as well to adults. One should speak politely without raising the voice or using vulgar words. One should always be on time, say please or thank you and show respect to elders and pregnant women or those with young children. When visiting churches or religious sites, women are expected to cover their shoulders while in a religious place and not to wear short dresses or shorts. Men should also be dressed in appropriate clothing and to take off hats when entering these sites.

The tradition of bella figura is not about a pretentious display of wealth but to showing an appreciation for life by living as well as you can and making thoughtful presentations in everything you do. There is a large disparity of income across the continent but even Italians who cannot afford more expensive goods can still enjoy everyday pleasures. Satisfaction and enjoyment can come from making and eating homemade pasta, gathering with family, relaxing with an apertivo or a cappuccino while watching people passing by on the street. It can also be meeting with friends in a beautiful park to enjoy a barbecue or a simple picnic with some wine and appetizers.

These are just a few examples of how Italians live to appreciate the simple things in life, and we can do the same! This custom is so ingrained in Italian society that it influences both public behavior and private beliefs. For Italians life is not just work, but something to be enjoyed and appreciated every day. Fare la bella figura is a tradition that truly embodies la dolce vita! 

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