Every embarrassing experience in my first two weeks in Florence was due to my ignorance of la bella figura. My cultural education as to why I should never wear pajamas to the breakfast table taught me more about American values than Italian.
In America, la bella figura is construed as a superficial habitude that explains why Italian men wear scarves and nice shoes and Italian women are immaculately manicured, but, in Italy, la bella figura is less a phrase and more a philosophy on life.
The Huffington Post hinted at the broader implications of this famous Italian phrase in a recently published an article entitled “7 Things Americans Can Learn from Italians”:
“The idea of maintaining a bella figura is more like the idea of maintaining a good public image…more than just looking good, it’s a way of life that emphasizes aesthetics and good behavior.”
The reason why Italians pay so much attention to aesthetics and good behavior as compared to the United States is unclear, but it is clear that subscribing to la bella figura as a way of life rather than as an exercise means changing perspectives on identity in addition to buying a new pair of shoes.
At Stanford, we emphasize individuality and try to stand out among the crowd by loudly proclaiming our tastes and preferences. We answer the question, “Who are you?” by listing various groups we belong to: our ethnicity, religion, sports teams we follow, and our hometown.
We wear our personalities on the outside, while Italians keep theirs within. On campus, our clothing is an exhibition of identity: hipster and preppie come with their own silhouettes and fabrics. Wearing brand names is considered vulgar in Florence, while in the States, even our athletic wear comes with logos.
In the States, we value self-expression over fitting in, so much so that academic success requires acting upon the belief that your opinions are worth other people’s time. In Italy, tests are oral, and the way you dress for your interview becomes a platform for your responses.
La bella figura is like that moment in Milk where Harvey Milk decides to put on a suit and shave off his beard before running for office a second time. He sacrifices self-expression in the hope that fashionably average outfits will provide a neutral-colored background for his opinions to take the main stage.
In Florence, it is virtually impossible to make assumptions about a person’s likes and dislikes from their outfits. Following the philosophy of la bella figura means valuing conversation in a new way.
On campus, we say, “She looks like someone I want to be friends with,” usually meaning that her clothing choice describes a compatible or somehow intriguing personality.
In Florence, the same phrase would more likely be used in the negative. “I don’t want to be friends with her,” if she wore pants with holes in them and hadn’t brushed her hair. Fare bella figura defines respecting others in aesthetic terms on top of the expected politeness and etiquette.
Taking the time to do your hair before walking to school means prioritizing beauty over personal desires (one might say needs) such as more sleep and last minute studying.
In his novel La Bella Figura: An Insider’s Guide to the Italian Mind, writer and journalist Beppe Severgnini points out the negative side of championing a single conception of beauty:
“If this passion for beauty stopped at saleswomen, clothes, table lamps and cars, it would be no big deal. Sadly, it spills over into morality and… induces us to confuse what is beautiful with what is good.”
Yet there is uncontested beauty in the slow pace of life in Florence, due in large part to the philosophy of la bella figura.
La bella figura means patience for the enjoyment of life. Doing your hair takes time, but the streets are more appealing filled with beautiful hairstyles.
La bella figura also means everything in moderation. The slow food movement began in Italy. Italians do not eat or drink alone, or while walking to an appointment. Food is better enjoyed with company.
For me – a native Californian who buys most of her clothes at thrift stores or REI – fare bella figura means not just leaving my bomber jacket at home, but also slowing down. Rather than rushing to graduate and then to live, la bella figura means including the present moment in our concept of life.
Reade Levinson is currently studying abroad in Florence. This piece is the first in her column which will discuss ‘Perspectives from Abroad’.