The Italians have a saying that I learned a few years back while visiting a priest friend in Rome—bella figura. Literally, bella figura means “beautiful figure,” and you see it everywhere you go in Italy. Italian men and women tend to dress well, and everything about their appearance seems to be put-together. They look good no matter what they are doing—their clothes fit, their hair is styled, and even if the men haven’t shaved in a couple days, the look is intentional, like a model—beautiful figures.
You also notice the bella figura when you go shopping. There’s a great little religious goods store just around the corner from St. Peter’s Square where I like to buy quality gifts for good friends when visiting Rome. It usually takes me five or ten minutes to figure out what I want to buy, but once I let the ladies who run the store know that I’ve decided on a few items, that’s when the real fun begins. The storeowners want to make my gifts look good. Pragmatism and efficiency are mocked by the bella figura, as the women literally spend as much time wrapping my gifts as I spent finding them. And when all the wrapping is done, my purchases are gently placed into a very fine looking bag with the store name written across it, so that I look good as I walk back to my hotel.
Of course, the bella figura is perhaps on display most when you go out for a meal. There is no early-bird special in Rome. Most good restaurants don’t start serving dinner until seven o’clock. To demand a restaurant to open early, or to rush through a meal is bad form, or manifests the very opposite of bella figura, which is brutta figura—“ugly figure.” Notice that bella figura is not just about physical appearance, but it also encompasses social behavior as well. The bella figura holds that there are some things that you simply don’t do because they go against what is aesthetically pleasing, culturally appropriate or socially acceptable. An example is in order.
Two years ago I joined four priest friends for the closing celebrations of The Year of the Priest in Rome. One night we were out to dinner and all of us ordered seafood pasta for our first plate. Now in Italy, Italians think it is brutta figura to put cheese on seafood—pasta with marinara or meat is not a problem, but for some reason they get irritated when you sprinkle parmesan cheese on seafood. When our seafood pasta arrived, I heard one of my priest friends (who puts cheese on everything) ask the waiter, in Italian, for some cheese. But here’s the kicker—my priest buddy assured the waiter that the cheese wasn’t for him, but for the Ugly American sitting across from him, which was me! Having lived in Rome for four years, my friend was willing to throw me under the bus so he wouldn’t look bad asking for cheese, even though he wanted the cheese for himself. He was concerned with his bella figura, but obviously not mine...