As early as the 14th century, la bella figura formed the basis of codes of honour, thought to have been introduced by the Romans to the countries they colonised: the honour of the family, group or state was paramount, and bad behaviour dishonoured all. Since then the concept has grown to encompass much more, and in Italy it has become an all-pervading philosophy.
In essence, la bella figura is the art of making a good impression, whether privately or in public: for the rich, this can sometimes even be seen as the desire to be publicly envied; for the poor, it is about maintaining dignity in the face of poverty. Although la bella figura may start with the physical, it has extended to cover and govern taste, behaviour, etiquette, language, business deals and politics. It has become a way of life, and is virtually an eleventh commandment for Italians: "thou shalt give a beguiling outward impression in all that you do in this world".
Italians have always worshipped beauty, and throughout the centuries have led the world in art and culture, in painting, sculpture, architecture, design and fashion. Today, in a personal sense, Italians seek beauty for themselves, toning their bodies so that they can look their best at all times, and indeed at any cost. Although we may have a generalised inner picture of plump Roman matrone and chubby tenors, most Italians these days are very conscious of how they look, and gyms, health clubs and medical facilities for "aesthetic medicine" (plastic surgery to you and me) are proliferating.
Food to the Italians is not, however, about looking good; it has always been about tasting good, and giving the maximum satisfaction to the palate, about eating for pleasure. Serving a huge spread at parties, with truffles and porcini, is the modern equivalent of the Ancient Roman bella figura, where forbidden delicacies such as larks’ tongues were offered.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Gennaro tells a poignant story about his childhood: apparently Gennaro’s mother used to make the family go without much food throughout the week so that she could put on a splendid spread on Sunday. Today, however, the new bella figura, so far as food is concerned, is turning to more controlled, more careful eating: many restaurants now have menus that reflect the desire of their clients to eat less, and instead of a primi (pasta or risotto) and a secondo piatto (main course), Italian lunchers are choosing steamed vegetables, green salads and yoghurt. It is said that Italians are now amongst the slimmest people in Europe.
Everyone the world over wants to make a good impression on others, but the idea has become extraordinarily ingrained in the Italian consciousness. This might be the result of Italy’s history: for a long time the regions now merged into the country were subjected to successive foreign conquests, and years of hardship. I think la bella figura evolved as a form of protective armour, an assertion of individuality in the face of an uncomfortable reality. Put on a show so that no-one ever gets to see or understand the real you.
In its more positive aspects, la bella figura is an expression of personal and national pride. In its more negative aspects, la bella figura reveals a rather sad superficiality: for instance, many people who flock to Portofino – the billionaire resort of the Ligurian Riviera – do so because they want to pretend, and often have to mortgage themselves to hire the finest car or yacht to feed their fantasies. In a similar vein, Italy’s erstwhile prime minister, a laughing stock to the rest of Europe, did not embarrass most Italians: his flamboyance kept the country on the world stage. Such behaviour could be said to be the very essence of la bella figura, which is basically all about showing off...