Fare una bella figura is to make a positive impression…. Bella figura is why Italians of both sexes will endure remarkable discomfort in the interest of keeping up appearances. Throughout the rest of the Mediterranean, from Spain to Israel, male workers cope with the summer heat by changing into short-sleeved shirts sometime around June. But in Italy….even as the temperatures climb toward 40 degrees Celsius in late July, the sort of Italians who wear a suit or jacket and trousers to work remain stubbornly - and willingly – imprisoned in shirts that allow them to shoot their cuffs. Look down and you will probably see that they are also wearing heavy leather shoes (because they keep their shape) and long socks (because one of the worst sartorial gaffes you can commit in Italy is to reveal an expanse of flesh between sock and trouser hem). The women, meanwhile, will very likely be wearing clinging tops and figure-hugging skirts or trousers. Like the men, they cannot be comfortable. But they feel they are facendo una bella figura, and that matters more than mere comfort.
observations: John Hooper worked as a foreign correspondent in Italy for many years, and there is a small tradition of such workers writing about their perceptions at the end of their time. I like to read these books: they often contain very good accounts of the history and politics of the country concerned – this one certainly does. As a way of mugging up on a place in an accessible and helpful way, it can’t be faulted.
However I cannot be the only person who appreciates that, but really goes to the book in the hope of reading mean-minded and sharp jokes about stereotypes – and The Italians has that in spades too. And really, I’m being unfair to say ‘mean-minded’ – Hooper obviously loved his time in Italy, and likes the Italians. And so his affectionate attempts to sum them up are particularly convincing, and he has certainly gone behind the stereotypes. Who would have thought that he would conclude that the Italians are very private, and don’t like dancing or casual clothes?
He says that Italians themselves ‘frequently remark that there is no word in their language for ‘accountability’’. The picture he draws of corruption and nepotism in Italy is fascinating, though he is always at pains to point out the obvious: that all countries have their own versions of what is and isn’t acceptable, none of us are perfect, and we can be terribly shocked by what happens in other places, while dismissing as trivial the sins of our own country.
The most interesting clothes point he makes concerns something unlikely: cheating in exams.
In lots of countries you could find an equivalent of the biliettini, tiny crib sheets that are hidden somewhere on the examinee’s person. But in Italy there is an item of clothing specially made for carrying them. It is called a cartucciera: a cotton garment resembling a cartridge belt (after which it is names), worn around the waist under normal clothing. Crib sheets on every subject likely to arise in the exam can be put in its pockets and discreetly extracted according to need.And here is a picture of one of them:
This is an excellent book, and one that really makes you feel you understand Italy better by the end of it. I liked it so much that it made me re-read a matching book by an Italian journalist who worked in the USA in the 1990s, for comparison purposes – more to come.
The top picture was taken in Italy by our favourite source, Perry Photography and used with her kind permission: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.