Bella Figura and Brutta Figura: It's Why We Do What We Do

As I look back on my upbringing, my parents brought over from Italy the typical immigrant characteristics you learn about consistently in books, movies, documentaries, such as hard work, sacrifice, love of family etc. While all of those were and are a consistent and important in our story, I want to share today about what I believe to be the most influential of ALL the concepts we lived by: “La Brutta “and “La Bella” Figura! Translated they simply mean Bad Impression and Great Impression.

My parents tended to use the negative with me. I can still hear my mom’s voice and stare as she said: Roberto… Ti raccomando, non fare la brutta figura! Now that I think of it, I did the same with my kids: “Don’t do anything to embarrass the family!

Italy is a country where the ‘bella figura’, meaning ‘good impression’, is extremely important. La bella figura is all about making a good impression and perhaps Italians know how to do so better than anyone else. What is the motivation? The bella figura is about the effort that goes into giving a good impression. It is what Italians do to show all is well in their world and they are doing just fine in life – whether they are or not. It applies to generosity: Italians are warm hearted and giving, but sometimes that act of offering to pay for a coffee is as much about the person paying for it wanting to show they have the money and largess to do so, as it is a gesture of kindness. Things must look good too: items from cakes to ice cream are wrapped with care, there is little that doesn’t deserve the flourish of an added bow or a vendor’s golden sticker placed on it with pride.

Let me list for you a couple of examples that were motivated/dictated by the brutta or bella figura:

Dressing Up for Church. Going to church in jeans, sweats or sneakers may have been an option for my friends. Not for us.

Our Home, Yard & Garden. My parents took great pride in the fact that they were able to buy a home with some land. There was never anything left outside or in the grass overnight, always neat, and clean. Our garden fed us all year round. As for the inside of the house, my mother kept it SPOTLESS. Not just for us but in case anyone stopped over to see us. We had PRIDE!

Food & Drink: There is a reason that Italians always have too much food when you go to their picnics or dinners . That reason is they are trying to make sure they make a good impression.

The importance of appearance and a good impression – the bella figura –cannot be overstated in Italian culture. It is tied strongly to reputation and even honor, as outdated as that sounds. To see this in more modern-day terms, the next time you’re in Italy, look around you. People and places are very well keptcarefully tended to down to the last detail. Even driving through the any countryside, you will notice how every square foot of land is planted with flowers, or how something as ordinary as the driveway is a study in art and architecture. Your clothes, accessories, how well you clean and organize your home or store, or offices all take part in creating the bella figura.