From what we’ve read, the concept of “La Bella Figura” underpins everything in Italy. Food. Art. Fashion. Architectural design. Personal appearance. Supposedly, the influence of this philosophy supports it all. This video certainly shows its influence in Italy.
Generally speaking, it is the idea of “putting your best foot forward,” which sounds funny now that I’m concentrating on it. I’ve never given much thought to the exact meaning of “putting your best foot forward”. So, now I’m trying to understand a foreign concept with an Italian name and a familiar one that I’ve taken for granted most of my life.
Once upon a time, it was believed that the left foot was the realm of the devil. You would strive to keep your right foot in the lead and step first with it. I happen to be left-handed, and I’ve heard the superstition surrounding that. Mothers would re-train their children if they were left-handed. Left-handed people were seen as objects of misfortune. So, the same rule would apply to the foot, I guess.
In the eighteenth century, it was thought that the legs of a man differed in shape, and that one leg was more appealing than the other. It was sort of like puffing out your chest to put the more favorable leg forward. Here’s an interesting fact about Michelangelo’s David, which you would find in Florence. The right hand is disproportionately larger than the right one. In the Middle Ages, it was said that David was “strong of hand”. Even then, lefties were getting a bad rap.
To “put your best foot forward” isn’t all bad. In my thinking, it seems closely aligned with some values that have made America great. And, I believe we can learn alot from it as we Americans are obsessed with the idea of living in the best country in the world.
“La Bella Figura” literally means “the beautiful figure”. The love of and the passion for beauty. Presentation is given careful thought. It is absolutely revered. Which is even why food is nearly worshiped.
I laugh as I think of this deeply held concept in light of the pending arrival of the Williams family. I’ve Google Imaged What Italian men wear and gulp, sorry guys. Doug is coming to town. The vision of Beast comes to my mind as the household utensils are giving him basic lessons in manners. Or Tarzan, as he discovers that Jane walks upright.
And as delicious as the food is in Italy, I don’t remember seeing many (if any at all) obese men. Trim. Athletic. This is what Google is showing me. But, then again maybe Google puts its best foot forward, too. So, the pressure is there to not be irrelevant once I land with a tubby belly and squishy arms.
I was obsessing about this one day when a friend of mine who lives in Milan as a student talked me down. He said not to think too much about the fashion end of it. Which made me wonder, “Is there a more behavioral side of la bella figura? Does it touch upon the heart? The way people treat one another or how they regard each other? Can it improve the quality of spiritual life if adhered to on the soul level?” The answer, I believe, is Yes.
Knowing how to graciously interact with people is something Americans are not known for when traveling through other nations. We are often seen as loud, talking to strangers, with exceptionally white teeth (see this fun article about how to spot an American). We draw alot of attention to ourselves, which is rude. But, if we live by la bella figura, we possess tact. We give thought to the things we do and say.
So, how might one make disciples in a country under the push of la bella figura? Should I rush out and spend my monthly missions wages on Gucci and Armani to be relevant? Do I need to wear a blazer to every espresso bar where I intend to make friends? Do I need to look like one of Michelangelo’s sculptures before I reach into the hearts of Italian university students? That seems unrealistic. It’s expensive enough to move there and raise a family of five. I don’t even want to think about how much more I would have to spend to keep up with the trendy Italian men.
I think our brand of la bella figura can be exhibited in spiritual ways. As bridge builders, we intend to show our passion for beauty. Only, the beauty we will see is that of the heart receiving love. We will look for and create beauty in conversations as we get to know the Italians. Actually, as we put our worst foot forward, showing our flaws, our humanness, we hope this will bring to the surface the beauty of authenticity. The overwhelming attraction of being genuine. And the breathtaking beauty of being vulnerable.
We don’t exactly intend on doing some holy pendulum swing to the opposite extreme, being the ugly stepchildren of Italy. But, we will take our cues from Scripture, as we believe it speaks on this subject:
“What matters is not your outer appearance – the styling of your hair, the jewelry you wear, the cut of your clothes – but your inner disposition.” –1 Peter 3:3-4
Certainly this way of living will make an impression on many who live under the pressure of la bella figura. In a way, through Christ, we will be redeeming this concept for his glory.