Bella Figura: Understanding Italian Communication in Local and Transatlantic Contexts
Book Chapter or Section
Bella figura—beautiful figure—is an idiomatic expression used to reflect every part of Italian life. The phrase appears in travel books and in transnational business guides to describe Italian customs, in sociological research to describe the national characteristics of Italians, and in popular culture to depict thematic constructs and stereotypes, such as the Mafia, romance, and la dolce vita. Scholarly research on bella figura indicates its significance in Italian civilization, yet it remains one of the most elusive concepts to translate. Among the various interpretations and references from foreigners and Italians there is not a single definition that captures the complexity of bella figura as a cultural phenomenon. There is also little explanation of the term, its usage, or its effects on Italians who have migrated to other countries. Gadamerian hermeneutics offers an explanation for how bella figura functions as a frame of reference for understanding Italian culture and identity, which does not disappear or fuse when Italians interact with people from different countries but instead takes on an interpretive dimension that is continually integrating new information into the subconscious structures of the mind.
In sum, bella figura is a sense-making process, and requires a pragmatic know-how of Italian communication (verbal and nonverbal). From this perspective, bella figura is prestructure by which Italians and some Italian migrants understand and interpret their linguistically mediated and historical world. This distinction changes the concept bella figura from a simple facade to a dynamic interplay among ever-changing interpretations and symbolic interactions. The exploration of bella figura is relevant to understanding Italian communication on both local and transnational levels.