La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind

La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind

by Beppe Severgnini

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Join the bestselling author of Ciao, America! on a lively tour of modern Italy that takes you behind the seductive face it puts on for visitors—la bella figura—and highlights its maddening, paradoxical true self
You won’t need luggage for this hypothetical and hilarious trip into the hearts and minds of Beppe Severgnini’s fellow Italians. In fact, Beppe would prefer if you left behind the baggage his crafty and elegant countrymen have smuggled into your subconscious. To get to his Italia, you’ll need to forget about your idealized notions of Italy. Although La Bella Figura will take you to legendary cities and scenic regions, your real destinations are the places where Italians are at their best, worst, and most authentic:

The highway: in America, a red light has only one possible interpretation—Stop! An Italian red light doesn’t warn or order you as much as provide an invitation for reflection.

The airport: where Italians prove that one of their virtues (an appreciation for beauty) is really a vice. Who cares if the beautiful girls hawking cell phones in airport kiosks stick you with an outdated model? That’s the price of gazing upon perfection.

The small town: which demonstrates the Italian genius for pleasant living: “a congenial barber . . . a well-stocked newsstand . . . professionally made coffee and a proper pizza; bell towers we can recognize in the distance, and people with a kind word and a smile for everyone.”

The chaos of the roads, the anarchy of the office, the theatrical spirit of the hypermarkets, and garrulous train journeys; the sensory reassurance of a church and the importance of the beach; the solitude of the soccer stadium and the crowded Italian bedroom; the vertical fixations of the apartment building and the horizontal democracy of the eat-in kitchen. As you venture to these and many other locations rooted in the Italian psyche, you realize that Beppe has become your Dante and shown you a country that “has too much style to be hell” but is “too disorderly to be heaven.”
Ten days, thirty places. From north to south. From food to politics. From saintliness to sexuality. This ironic, methodical, and sentimental examination will help you understand why Italy—as Beppe says—“can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters or ten minutes.”

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307486875
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 11/12/2008
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 215,323
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

beppe severgnini is a columnist for Italy’s largest circulation daily newspaper Corriere della Sera and covered Italy for The Economist from 1993 to 2003. He is the author of the international bestseller Ciao, America! He lives with his family in Crema, on the outskirts of Milan.

Read an Excerpt

La Bella Figura

By Beppe Severgnini

Random House

Beppe Severgnini
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0767914392

Chapter One


Day One: From Malpensa to Milan

The airport, where we discover that Italians prefer exceptions to rules

Being Italian is a full-time job. We never forget who we are, and we have fun confusing anyone who is looking on.

Don't trust the quick smiles, bright eyes, and elegance of many Italians. Be wary of everyone's poise. Italy is sexy. It offers instant attention and solace. But don't take Italy at face value. Or, rather, take it at face value if you want to, but don't complain later.

One American traveler wrote, "Italy is the land of human nature." If this is true-and it certainly sounds convincing-exploring Italy is an adventure. You're going to need a map.

So you'll be staying for ten days? Here's the deal: We'll take a look at three locations on each day of your trip. They'll be classics, the sort of places that get talked about a lot, perhaps because they are so little known. We'll start with an airport, since we're here. Then I'll try to explain the rules of the road, the anarchy of the office, why people talk on trains, and the theatrical nature of hotel life. We'll sit in judgment at a restaurant and feel the sensory reassurance of a church. We'll visit Italy's televisual zoo and appreciate how important the beach is. We'll experience the solitude of thesoccer stadium, and realize how crowded the bedroom feels. We'll note the vertical fixations of the apartment building, and the transverse democracy of the living room-or, rather, the eat-in kitchen.

Ten days, thirty places. We've got to start somewhere if we want to find our way into the Italian mind.


First of all, let's get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages, such as hills in the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. It's alluring, but complicated. In Italia, you can go round and round in circles for years. Which of course is great fun.

As they struggle to find a way out, many newcomers fall back on the views of past visitors. People like Goethe, Stendhal, Byron, and Twain always had an opinion about Italians, and couldn't wait to get home and write it down. Those authors are still quoted today, as if nothing had changed. This is not true. Some things have changed in our Italy. The problem is finding out what.

Almost all modern accounts of the country fall into one of two categories: chronicles of a love affair, or diaries of a disappointment. The former have an inferiority complex toward Italian home life, and usually feature one chapter on the importance of the family, and another on the excellence of Italian cooking. The diaries take a supercilious attitude toward Italian public life. Inevitably, there is censure of Italian corruption, and a section on the Mafia.

By and large, the chronicles of love affairs are penned by American women, who display love without interest in their descriptions of a seasonal Eden, where the weather is good and the locals are charming. The diaries of disappointment tend to be produced by British men, who show interest without love. They describe a disturbing country populated by unreliable individuals and governed by a public administration from hell.

Yet Italy is far from hellish. It's got too much style. Neither is it heaven, of course, because it's too unruly. Let's just say that Italy is an offbeat purgatory, full of proud, tormented souls each of whom is convinced he or she has a hotline to the boss. It's the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring in the space of a hundred meters, or the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis. People who live in Italy say they want to get out, but those who do escape all want to come back.

As you will understand, this is not the sort of country that is easy to explain. Particularly when you pack a few fantasies in your baggage, and Customs lets them through.


Take this airport, for example. Whoever wrote that airports are nonplaces never visited Milan's Malpensa or Linate, or Rome's Fiumicino. Or, if they did pay a call, they must have been too busy avoiding people shouting into cell phones and not looking where they were going.

An airport in Italy is violently Italian. It's a zoo with air conditioning, where the animals don't bite and only the odd comment is likely to be poisonous. You have to know how to interpret the sounds and signals. Italy is a place where things are always about to happen. Generally, those things are unpredictable. For us, normality is an exception. Do you remember The Terminal? If the film had been set in Malpensa Airport, Tom Hanks wouldn't just have fallen in love with Catherine Zeta-Jones. He'd have founded a political party, promoted a referendum, opened a restaurant, and organized a farmers' market.

Look at the childlike joy on the faces of the people as they stroll into the shops. Note how inventive they are at thinking up ways to pass the time. Observe the deference to uniforms (any uniform, from passing pilots to cleaning staff). Authority has been making Italians uneasy for centuries, so we have developed an arsenal of countermeasures, from flattery to indifference, familiarity, complicity, apparent hostility, and feigned admiration. Study the emerging faces as the automatic doors of international arrivals open. They reveal an almost imperceptible hint of relief at getting past Customs. Obviously, almost all the arriving passengers have nothing to hide. It doesn't matter. There was a uniform, and now it's gone.

Note the relief giving way to affection as they retrieve their suitcases from the carousel. At the check-in desk, they weren't sure they would ever see their suitcases again, and did all they could to pass them off as hand luggage. Listen to the couples quarreling, their accusations lent extra ferocity by the embarrassment of performing in public ("Mario! You said you had the passports!"). Admire the rituals of the families coming back from holiday. These spoken exchanges-Mom wants to know where their son is; Dad shouts to the son; the son answers Dad; Dad tells Mom, who has disappeared in the meantime-are the same ones that echo in a New York hotel or a street market in London.

Malpensa encapsulates the nation. Only a naive observer would mistake this for confusion. Actually, it's performance art. It's improvisation by gifted actors. No one believes for one minute he or she is an extra. Everyone's a star, no matter how modest the part. Federico Fellini would have made a good prime minister, if he'd wanted the job. It takes an outstanding director to govern the Italians.


What else can you find out at an Italian airport? Well, Italians' signature quality-our passion for beauty-is in danger of becoming our number-one defect. All too often, it prevents us from choosing what is good.

Look at the cell-phone displays and the saleswomen perched on their stools. Many of them can't tell a cell phone from a remote control, but all are indisputably attractive. Do you know why the phone companies hire them instead of using skilled staff? Because that's what the public wants. People prefer good looks to good answers.

Think about it. There is a lesson to be learned. We are prepared to give up a lot for the sake of beauty, even when it doesn't come in a miniskirt. "Never judge a book by its cover" sounds like an oversimplification in Italian. We judge books by their covers, politicians by their smiles, professionals by their offices, secretaries by their posture, table lamps by their design, cars by their styling, and people by their title. It's no coincidence that one Italian in four is president of something. Look at the ads here in the airport. They're for cars, bags, and cosmetics. They don't say how good the products are. They tell us how irresistible we'll be if we buy them. As if we Italians needed that kind of reassurance.


If this passion for beauty stopped at saleswomen, clothes, table lamps, and automobiles, it would be no big deal. Sadly, it spills over into morality and, I repeat, induces us to confuse what is beautiful with what is good. Only in Italian does there exist an expression like fare bella figura. Think about that. It's an aesthetic judgment-it means "to make a good figure"-which is not quite the same thing as making "a good impression."

There's an elderly French lady in trouble over there. She's just collected two huge suitcases and can't find a baggage cart. If I went over and offered to help her, she'd probably accept. At that point, something curious would happen. I would split into two. While Beppe was being a Good Samaritan, Severgnini would observe the scene and offer congratulations. Beppe would then acknowledge his own compliment, and retire satisfied.

Ours is a sophisticated exhibitionism that has no need of an audience. Italians are psychologically self-sufficient. What's the problem? Well, we like nice gestures so much we prefer them to good behavior. Gestures gratify, but behaving takes an effort. Still, the sum of ten good deeds does not make a person good, just as ten sins do not necessarily add up to a sinner. Theologians distinguish between actum and habitus: a single incident is not as serious as a "habit," or "practice."
In other words, if you want to understand Italy, forget the guidebooks. Study theology.


An aesthetic sense that sweeps ethics aside. A formidable instinct for beauty. That's the first of our weak points. But there are others, for we are also exceptional, intelligent, sociable, flexible, and sensitive. Offsetting these are our good qualities. We are hypercritical, stay-at-homes, so conciliatory and peace-loving we seem cowardly, and so generous we look naïve. Do you see why Italians are so disconcerting? What everyone else thinks of as virtues are our weaknesses, and vice versa.

As I was saying, we are exceptional, and that's not necessarily a good thing. Surprised? Listen to this. Two hours ago, you were on an Alitalia airbus. On other occasions, you've flown American Airlines or British Airways. Did you notice how the cabin staff behaved?

The Italian flight attendant sometimes takes her job title literally-the plane flies, she just attends. But she's always pleasant, elegant, and ladylike, so much so that she can appear intimidating. I remember one flight from Milan to New York. The Alitalia attendant, an attractive brunette from Naples, was strutting up and down like a model on a catwalk thirty thousand feet above the ground. The man sitting next to me glanced at her and asked me, "Do you think I might be able to get another coffee?" "Why ask me? Ask her," I replied, nodding in the direction of the flight attendant. "How can I ask Sophia Loren for a coffee?" he whimpered. He was right. The good-looking attendant was putting on a fashion show in the sky, and no one dared to interrupt.

But then take a British flight attendant. You wouldn't mistake her for a model. She'll have very little makeup, and no jewelry. Often she is robustly built, and until recently would be sporting one of those little round hats that you only see on British cabin staff and New Jersey ice-cream vendors. Her heels are low, and her shoes are "sensible," as they say in New York. Alitalia crews wear emerald green. British Airways has improbable combinations of red, white, and blue, or a mayonnaise-cum-apricot shade that nature felt no need to invent. The British woman is attentive, though. She comes back again and again, smiling all the time. She waits until your mouth is full, swoops on you from behind, and beams "Is everything all right?"

Then something happens. Let's say you spill your coffee on your pants. At that point, the two personalities undergo an abrupt transformation that-you've guessed it-sums up the respective national characters.

The British attendant stiffens. You have deviated from the pattern; you have done something you shouldn't have. All of a sudden, her inner nanny emerges. She doesn't say she's annoyed, but she lets you know.

The attractive Italian also undergoes a change. In an emergency, her detachment disappears. At times of crisis, what emerges is her inner mom, sister, confidante, friend, and lover. She takes off her jacket and actually helps you. Weak at, if not openly irritated by, routine administration, she comes into her own in exceptional circumstances that allow her to bring her personal skills to bear. Where did the ice goddess go? She melted. In her place is a smiling woman who is trying to be helpful.

Do you think some people might be tempted to spill their coffee on purpose the next time they fly Alitalia? Could be. A gorgeous Italian is worth a minor scalding.


OK, let's go. Are you ready for the Italian jungle?

The highway, or the psychopathology of the stoplight

People say we're intelligent. It's true. The problem is that we want to be intelligent all the time. Foreigners' jaws drop at the incessant brainwaves, the constant flow of imagination, and the alternate bursts of perception and perfectionism. They are stunned by the fireworks display that is the Italian mind. Now, you can astound the English once an hour, the Americans every thirty minutes, and the French on the quarter-hour, but you can't amaze everyone every three minutes-it's upsetting for them. That's why in Italy rules are not obeyed as they are elsewhere. We think it's an insult to our intelligence to comply with a regulation. Obedience is boring. We want to think about it. We want to decide whether a particular law applies to our specific case. In that place, at that time.

Do you see that red light? It looks the same as any other red light anywhere in the world, but it's an Italian invention. It's not an order, as you might naively think. Nor is it a warning, as a superficial glance might suggest. It's actually an opportunity to reflect, and that reflection is hardly ever silly. Pointless, perhaps, but not silly.

When many Italians see a stoplight, their brain perceives no prohibition (Red! Stop! Do not pass!). Instead, they see a stimulus. OK, then. What kind of red is it? A pedestrian red? But it's seven in the morning. There are no pedestrians about this early. That means it's a negotiable red; it's a "not-quite-red." So we can go. Or is it a red at an intersection? What kind of intersection? You can see what's coming here, and the road is clear. So it's not a red, it's an "almost red," a "relative red." What do we do? We think about it for a bit, then we go.

And what if it's a red at a dangerous intersection with traffic you can't see arriving at high speed? What kind of question is that? We stop, of course, and wait for the green light.


Excerpted from La Bella Figura by Beppe Severgnini Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

From Malpensa to Milan
The airport, where we discover that Italians prefer exceptions to rules     1
The highway, or the psychopathology of the stoplight     9
The hotel, where singular people are not content with a double room     13
In Milan
The restaurant, one way of sitting in judgment     21
The store, the field of lost battles     33
The nightspot, where foxes turn into peacocks     38
Still in Milan
The condominium, a vertical space for oblique obsessions     45
The eat-in kitchen, the nerve center of domestic counterespionage     50
The bedroom, the bathroom, and how hard it is to find a space of your own     58
Toward Tuscany
The train, where many talk, few listen, and everyone understands     65
The museum, beautiful women on the walls     71
Television, where the Semi-Undressed Signorina acquires a cloak of significance     76
In Tuscany
The countryside, where we show that Italians are the world's leading manufacturers of emotions     85
The Italian piazza, a tool with more cutting edges than a Swiss-army knife     93
The window, framing fantasies that are sometimes cut short by a shutter     102
In Rome
The bank, a confrontation of confidence and cold feet     109
The office, the opera house of orderly anarchy     117
The shopping mall, a taste of America delivered to your door     125
In Naples
The sidewalk, or on collective individualism     133
The automobile, and fumbling on the fold-down seats     138
The travel agency, where the nation flexes its flippancy and pampers its patriotism     146
In Sardinia
The waterfront, the convoluted charm of a liquid frontier     253
The beach, a bare outline     153
The garden, seclusion in bloom     165
In Crema
The barber, the newsstand, and the town as lifebelt     173
The monument. And yet it moves     178
School, the workshop where shared memories are made     185
From Crema to Malpensa, by Way of San Siro
The church, where we will ruminate on the moral menu     191
The stadium, notes on social gastroenterology     193
The horizon. In other words, give us back Columbus     204
Epilogue: A Letter from America     211
Acknowledgments     219

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La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 13 reviews.
BudaBaby on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Severgnini supposes that there is a difference between your Italy and his Italia. Key to understanding the real Italia is understanding the Italian psyche. Funny, and well-thought-out, but don't take it too seriously as how "Italians really are."
Seajack on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really liked the author's "Ciao, America!" quite a bit, so got a hold of this one on Italy. Interesting approach of covering national sociological observations and regional differences together, rather than treating the latter separately.
Oreillynsf on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Mildly entertaining tongue in cheek exploration of Italians and Italian life.
parkinglady01 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The book by Beppe (and I love to say his name) was the most helpful guidebook I could have possibly read in preparation for my trip to Italy. This guidebook was extremely informative: all the dos and don¿ts for your trip abroad. For example, do not order a cappuccino after 10:30 am ¿ not only will you make the restaurant mad, but apparently they don¿t serve it after that time regardless ¿ so don¿t be asking them to make it ¿special¿ for you. I would definitely recommend reading this book to anyone travelling to Italy, whether for a romantic getaway or for an extended period of time ¿ read this book on the long plane ride, and you¿ll be sure to earn the respect of the locals.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Perfect antidote to the ubiquitous political negativity surrounding us. His style is similar to Dave Barry and is able to i Introduce the reader to a stunning range of societal evolution with exemplary tolerance, He reads like the father in the  Film a few years ago (Beautiful Life ) who creatively interprets life as a joyous game, never sinister. His writing is a  model not only of touring/traveling but of inclusiveness, of universal acceptance, Worth the read for its heraldry of  how  to how to live beyond paranoia, really really alive to the fragrance of roses, in Italy or anywhere.
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