Rome, part 2: La bella figura

I am still trying to wrap my head around the concept of “fare bella figura.” It literally means “to make a beautiful figure,” but most people would translate it as “a good impression.” Truthfully, it’s a little of both—and it’s singularly Italian.

In order to possess a bella figura, you must look put-together. If you’re a woman, your hair is perfect. You have a fresh manicure and pedicure. Your clothes are stylish and flattering; your makeup is flawless. Your bag, shoes, and jewelry are coordinated and tasteful. Needless to say, you have exemplary posture as you make your way through the city streets. If you’re a man, you’re wearing a tailored suit, an impeccably pressed shirt, and polished dress shoes. Your grooming is likewise impressive. You’re fit and you smell good.

But this is just the most basic level of the bella figura, the surface clues to a more complex outlook on life. Deep down, it means appreciating good design—combining beauty and necessity in the most harmonious possible way. It means caring about detail and quality. It means having poise, being hospitable, and appreciating those qualities in others. It means hope—because you’re noticing beauty everywhere you look.

peace flag


Maybe it’s easier to explain easier to explain by using its opposite—the brutta figura. “Brutta” in Italian simply means ugly, but it comes from a Latin word meaning dull or stupid. The English “brute” likewise conveys vulgar animality, a lack of self-possession or sophistication. These are the qualities Italians find most unattractive.

As I slouch here typing in running shorts, a t-shirt, and sneakers, I feel quite brutta indeed. The casual American aesthetic simply doesn’t translate to Italy. They look at us in our jeans and sweatshirts and think we look like petulant, overgrown children. And we often do.

Sadly, the aspiration to “fare bella figura” is often utterly at odds with the imperatives of the urban traveler: comfort, practicality, packability. We’re doomed not to fit in, and not just because of poor fashion sense. It’s also a matter of comportment.

It’s impossible to speak Italian inexpressively, for one thing. Even if your grammar is perfectly okay, unless your voice swoops up and down and you gesticulate forcefully with every phrase, you will not be understood. The timid tourist doesn’t stand a chance. You just have to take a deep breath and charge ahead like you’re the life of the party. When in Rome.

Many visitors perceive Italians, Romans in particular, as arrogant. I suppose living in a breathtakingly gorgeous city with thousands of years of history can have that effect. The difference, however, between Roman entitlement and, say, Parisian hauteur is that the Romans invite you in.

And while appreciating what Rome has to offer (read: art and more art) is a relatively democratic endeavor, many of the city’s pleasures are even simpler. Take, for example, the water:

fountain on via giulia

head fountain


neptune in piazza navona

The original system of Roman aqueducts, while updated substantially in the Renaissance, is still in use. The water flows down from the hills, filters through volcanic rock as it passes underground, and rises to the surface through fountains all over the city, some of them just little spouts on street corners:

via del mattonato

water at the forum

It’s clean, cold, mineral-rich, abundant, and free to everyone—an engineering masterpiece and an amazingly civilizing force. Kind of explains that whole Roman Empire thing, doesn’t it?

Then there’s the way the past is constantly rubbing up against the present, making you feel like part of something ancient and magnificent. Exhibit A: at the top of the Via Veneto, the cars go rushing through the arched openings of the ancient city walls:

roman walls

Look a little closer, and what’s the corner called?

fellini sign

In America, do we name our swankiest streets after experimental film directors? Wouldn’t it be cool if we did?

Exhibit B: The Area Sacra, on the Largo di Torre Argentina, is the former site of the Theater of Pompey. It’s where Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.

area sacra

What to do with so venerable a place? How about turn it into a cat sanctuary?

cat sanctuary


Roman law dictates that all cats have a right to live out their full natural lives wherever they are born. The city’s strays—over 300,000 of them—are protected from cruelty and extermination. Silvia Viviano, a retired opera soprano, has led the initiative to provide them with more structured care (and opportunities for adoption) at the Area Sacra. There’s something wonderfully apt about all that kitty kindness at the site of one of the most notorious assassinations of all time.

Exhibit C: West of the city limits, as you approach the Tyrrhenian Sea, you come across Ostia Antica, a stately ancient city dating from about 400 B.C. It’s like Pompeii without the stampeding crowds, and is remarkably well-preserved:

ostia antica

It’s so well-preserved, in fact, that the two thousand year-old amphitheater is still in use. When we were there, the place was being set up for a show later that night.


Who was playing? Sonic freaking Youth! That pretty much sums up the collision of past and present.

Maybe the most democratic of all Rome’s pleasures, however, is the food. The wine is literally cheaper than bottled water—very drinkable table wine, not vinegary swill. And even though fancy meals are great, there’s something to be said for excelling at the basics. Take the fruit market:

fruit market

Much of this luscious bounty is on its way to becoming gelato, which is maybe my favorite thing in the whole entire world.


Then there’s pizza, the essence of simplicity. You place your order; an entire pie is made to your specifications; ten minutes later, it’s on your plate.

pizzeria di san calisto

Can’t eat a whole one, you say? Don’t be so sure:


One of my favorite Italian sayings is “Mangia senza vergogna”—“Eat without shame.” It doesn’t exhort you to gluttony; it just means, hey, if you’re going to eat, then eat. Enjoy it. Acknowledge your appetites. Live. Our time is too precious to be hobbled by fear or doubt. Maybe it’s being able to claim our actions, to be comfortable in our own skins, that creates the bella figura, and the rest is just ornamental.

So let’s do it. Let’s hop on a plane, you and I, and go arm-in-arm down the street, talking and laughing and taking it all in.

via giulia

9 responses to “Rome, part 2: La bella figura”

  1. lane says:

    Italy is freakin’ amazing

  2. I wasn’t sure how you were going to top last week’s post, but you did it! As for your conclusion — are you kidding? Sign me up!

    I love it when you post, Rachel! More, more!

  3. Dave says:

    Great post — the text and photos really worked together. Maybe if we have a couple of Great Whatsit bake sales or something we can all take a trip to Rome and have you show us around.

  4. ssw says:

    I think I see career paths ($$$) in store for Ms. Berkowitz within the travel industry :)

  5. Tim Wager says:

    What a rich treat to go with my morning coffee!

    I’ll go to Italy with you whenever.

  6. Wayne says:

    Fantastico! I must move to Trastevere at the first possible moment. It will take me a while to develop the necessary bello figura though (it is especially hard when one likes to pack like Rick Steves). I did make spaghetti alla carbonara for the first time a few weeks ago, so I am practicing Mangia senza vergogna.

    I am amazed by how common and everyday breathtaking art and architecture is in European cities, especially in Italy. California has the Mediterranean climate, but needs more great public art (and more Vespas). Lane, the golden state needs you!

    Of related interest: While browsing at the bookstore I stumbled on the follow: “Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day”. It has a clever, if a little gimicky, premise: it is a travel guide for anyone who happens to be transported 1800 years back in time. It has nice illustrations for the Theater of Pompey and Pantheon as they appeared in the year 200, advice on the customs and manners of the local Romans, descriptions of the brothels, useful street Latin phrases, and so on.

  7. Rachel says:

    Wayne, that book sounds cool! And Dave, I’ll make some killer foccaccia for the bake sale if you’ll whip up a pie. Deal?

  8. Beth W says:

    Oh, I want to go too! Rachel, I really enjoyed your description of bella figura. Italy has been at the top of my list for a while now. There’s a high probability I’ll make it next year when my parents are living in London.

  9. brooke says:

    This was like a little mini vacation for me, thanks! I’ve never been particularly inclined to visit Rome — it’s on my list but not near the top — but this post is pushing it up a few places. I share Bryan’s enthusiasm for your conclusion. I’m packed and ready!