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Italy's Beautiful Obsession

In a land where even the plumbers are chic, the quest for physical perfection above all else is changing the way the nation eats and plays.

August 04, 2003|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — In this land where beauty is an obligation and a time-consuming chore, it's difficult to be ugly.

"Italians are overwhelmed by narcissism," complains an exasperated Telesforo Iacobelli, who organized the Ugly Club -- Club dei Brutti -- to give, as he puts it, a voice to the unattractive.

They are a distinct minority.

It is here, after all, where female garbage collectors sweep Rome's cobblestoned streets wearing immaculate makeup and chic hairstyles worthy of fashion models, and where your plumber arrives dressed better than many American business executives.

It is here that the use of cellular phones as fashion accessories began, and where you have to look hard to find an obese youth. And it is here where even in withering summer heat, men and women, perfectly pedicured, meticulously manicured, toned and tanned, seem not to sweat.

Worship of beauty has, of course, been at the heart of Italian art and culture for centuries. But today, the quest to be beautiful is changing the way Italians eat and play, and mass media are changing the very definition of what beauty is.

The plump Italian ideal of years ago has been replaced with an emphasis on staying youthful and thin. Consequently, lunches of boiled vegetables are replacing plates of pasta in many restaurants.

Gyms work overtime, and "aesthetic medicine" to prevent wrinkles and combat cellulite is no longer the purview of the rich and famous; the most humble store clerk gets her nips and shots during a break. Nor is it the purview of women; more and more men are seeking help to look great.

With these very modern pursuits of diet and body-sculpting, Italians are in fact carrying on the time-honored tradition of the bella figura: presenting the best possible appearance at all times and at any cost.

The concept of bella figura, of making a good impression, underpins nearly every aspect of Italian society. It starts with the physical and superficial but goes beyond. It governs behavior, language, customs; it directs the etiquette of business dealings and the machinations of politics.

"It's strutting your stuff, putting on the dog, looking good, and it carries over into everything," said Gloria Nardini, a writer who lectures on contemporary Italian culture at Florence's Institute of Fine and Liberal Arts at Palazzo Rucellai. "Italians tend to think of it as something their grandmothers did, not something [they] pay attention to now. But they do.

"The bella figura is the public performance," she said, "and it is deeply ingrained in Italians."

Nardini, who has found scholarly references to the bella figura dating back to the 1400s, said it also forms the basis for codes of honor that reign strong throughout the Mediterranean where Romans colonized -- but especially so in Italy.

Maintaining the honor of the family, ensuring that its members always appear honorable, is paramount. Dishonoring the family, bringing about public shame, is the opposite of bella -- it is the brutta figura.

But bella figura can also give way to hypocrisy and dishonesty: the compliment paid falsely, the promises made cavalierly and insincerely, all for the sake of appearance and in the desire to curry favor.

The concept of bella figura goes a long way in explaining Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, both how he operates and why Italians support him.

Berlusconi, Italy's richest man and one of the most powerful billionaires on the planet, wears the finest suits, is perpetually tanned and surrounded by a beautiful wife and family. He speaks with great flourish and fanfare -- even though what he sometimes says would probably lead to the downfall of a less adept politician, or one held more accountable.

Sociologist Franco Ferrarotti said Italy's obsession with appearance allows political leaders to ignore substance in favor of style.

"Ethics become aesthetics: You no longer have ethical problems, only aesthetical ones," he said. "Morality -- a set of rules -- no longer exists, only morale -- how you feel today."

Berlusconi has made some doozies of diplomatic gaffes recently, but unless he brings major embarrassment to Italy, he is not likely to suffer domestically, analysts say. So far, any embarrassment has been minimal. To the contrary, his flamboyance is approved of because it raises Italy's profile on the world stage.

"It functions wonderfully in terms of political power if you know how to make a bella figura," Ferrarotti said. "You are likely to win consensus, to smile at people. They smile back at you even if they don't have reason to smile or be smiled at. The political discourse becomes an exchange of special feelings irrespective of issues at hand."

The television stations that earned Berlusconi part of his vast fortune have helped reshape the very ideal of beauty in Italy. Blond models are as buxom as they are ubiquitous, but they're thin. On Berlusconi's flagship channel, the saucy American soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" is repackaged, dubbed and titled, merely, "Beautiful."

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