Associated with beauty and making a good impression, the concept of bella figura lives on in Italian culture. Everybody is subject to judgement by the “social eye”, which is not always unproblematic. 

Early morning in Milano. In an almost empty café an older man stands by the bar drinking his espresso. He talks vividly with the barista, almost stereotypically making big gestures with his hands. The barista tiredly nods along whilst taking out clean cups from the small dishwasher. My italian is not good enough to understand his every word, but I catch one thing which he constantly repeats: someone has made brutta figura. This is the opposite of the Italian concept of bella figura, which roughly translates to “keeping up appearances” or “making a good impression”. The phenomenon is often described with a focus on physical appearances, but identifies so much more in Italian culture.

In Europe’s fashion capital Milan, our conventional concept of beauty is easily found. The presence of design and art is seen at every corner of the city. Inside the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart, students carry expensive designer bags and wear stylish coats. However, for Italian economy student Francesca Sisto bella figura is about more than just beauty. “It’s about making a good impression to people you meet. You want your first impression to be good. It’s not just about the way you look, but also about the way you behave and act in order to leave a good impression”, she says.

Kamin Mohammadi is the author of the book Bella Figura: How to Live, Love and Eat the Italian Way. She describes her take on the cultural phenomenon being “so much about beauty. Beauty as such an almost revered thing. How I write about it in my book might not be the traditional way of looking at it, but for me it’s about embracing the beauty and seeking it out in every aspect of your life.”

The Italian way?

Francesca Sisto argues that bella figura is very present in Italy, and unique to the country. “It’s a cultural thing your family passes onto you. One of the most common things mothers tell their children is ‘Non farmi fare brutta figura!’, which means ‘Don’t make me a bad impression’. Behave in a proper way and be good”, she explains.

Kamin Mohammadi agrees that it’s about showing your best face to the world, but that almost all cultures have different versions of it. “I’m Iranian and we definitely have a lot of that in my culture as well, although we don’t have a word for it as such. It’s not really unusual”, she says.

The power to repress

Italians that have read my book say that the bella figura is not all positive and about beauty, but that it can also be something very negative”, Kamin Mohammadi explains. The idea that you always have to put on your best face can be repressive to many Italians.

Women can be a larger target to the repression, dictating both appearance and behavior. This is a big problem in modern Italian culture according to the author. “You literally cannot see a woman on television, even if she’s a journalist, a politician or a very serious thinker, who is not completely redone. Who isn’t trying to conform to a dictated way of being”, Kamin Mohammadi says. If you don’t make a typical bella figura, you might be subject to alienation in Italian culture.

Francesca Sisto also points out differences within Italy, between the north and the south. “In the south you feel it more than in the north. You have smaller cities where everybody knows each other and each other’s family, so people are more concerned about showing a bella figura”, she says.

Individualist and conformist

Bella figura can inhibit a culture of high individualism, something which we often find in other corners of Europe. “Northern European or Anglo-Saxon culture is often times all about me, me, me, which is really great in some aspects, however, I can see that we sometimes go a little bit too far in that. Italy is a funny case as it is very individualistic but also extremely conformist. Italians can go ‘haha’ and not pay taxes, but also look at you like you’re crazy if you take off your winter coat before the 1st of May. They’re a curious mixture”, she says.