- la Bella Figura
Italy is a country in Southern Europe that mainly consists of a large peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea, with two major islands – Sicily and Sardinia. Its land neighbours France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia to the north, with the Alps stretching across the northern border. Italy is home to the epicentre of the Roman Empire, the hub of Catholicism and the birthplace of the Renaissance. It has a rich heritage in art, history, religion, cuisine, architecture and fashion. These cultural legacies have been deeply influential in defining Western cultural tradition. They continue to be romanticised across the globe, so much so that it can be hard for people to stop recalling clichéd ideas of Italians. Nevertheless, as one of the top 10 exporters in the world, Italy greatly benefits from its cultural products. Indeed, they have become a huge economic asset for the country. Italians have successfully subverted their national stereotypes into proud virtues. Italians themselves are commonly known for being flexible, confident and charming people. Their playful and lively communication style often gives Australians the impression that they are enthusiastic and appreciative of what life has to offer.
Local Patriotism (Campanilismo)
It took a long time for Italy’s separate states to unify compared to other European countries, and it has been a republic only since 1946. As such, the Italian population continues to be very provincial. People tend to identify themselves by their region, city, town, village or even their ‘quartiere’ (a district within a town). For example, a person from Siena in Tuscany may feel ‘Sienese’ whilst in Tuscany, but ‘Tuscan’ when they are anywhere else in Italy. Connection and loyalty to one’s township or locality is often stronger than one’s connection with Italy as a country. This is not to say Italians are unpatriotic – they are very proud of their nation. Indeed, Italians generally feel their Italian identity most intensely when overseas. However, nationalism is not typically a very strong motivating factor for the population. It is instead often overtaken by the overwhelming spirit of ‘campanilismo’.
Campanilismo describes Italian local patriotism. The word originates from the age-old rivalries between townships, represented in the saying “our bell tower (campanile) is taller than yours”. People’s pride and loyalty to their locality was symbolised in the bell tower for it was the generally the tallest building in the area. Today, Italians continue to feel a deep, loyal campanilismo, especially in those towns or villages that are populated by families that have lived in the region for generations. Some places even continue to display their township’s traditional coat of arms.
This local patriotism attitude arose out of a historic and mutual mistrust between Italy’s villages, towns and cities. Until 1860, they were divided as different states that were often at war or in competition with each other. They tended to be self-sufficient and independent, developing different cultural characteristics to their neighbouring provinces. Old local rivalries are now mostly spoken of in good humour. However, the cultural distinctions between different regions within Italy continue to be very noticeable in their dialects, cuisine, daily lifestyles and cultural traditions.
Sensitivities surrounding the Italian identity can arise in areas where past geopolitical changes have annexed regions and subsumed others into Italy. This is particularly noticeable around the northern region where Italy borders France, Switzerland, Austria and Slovenia. For example, the Italian province of Alto Adige (South Tyrol) was historically incorporated with the area of Tirol above it in Austria until World War I. Its citizens arguably share more cultural heritage with this northern region, having belonged to the German-speaking world for centuries. Today, more people in Alto Adige speak South Tyrolese German at home and in public than Italian, and their Germanic culture continues to thrive.
Also, there are approximately 530,000 Friulian speakers in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia that borders Austria and Slovenia, and many Italians living in the provinces of Trieste and Gorizia, bordering Slovenia speak Slovene (Minority Rights Group International, 2015). The largest linguistic minority is the Sardu speakers on the island of Sardinia, where an estimated 1.3 million people speak their local language in preference to Italian (Minority Rights Group International, 2015). It should be noted that while there is great linguistic diversity, many people are bilingual or even tri-lingual. They often speak their local regional dialect and standard Italian, as well as the language of the country their region borders.
Italians often talk of a social distinction between the north and south of the country. The north industrialised in the latter half of the 19th century and generally is perceived as being more modern, individualistic and business-minded. Meanwhile, the south (below Rome) remained largely agricultural and is often associated with traditional family-oriented values and a slower pace of life. Some of these characteristics are clear to see, while others are maintained in the stereotypes often associated with each region. The differences between the north and south also reflect the country's urban-rural divide. Most of Italy’s biggest metropolises (Rome, Venice, Milan and Florence) are found in the north, while the townships in the south are typically slightly smaller.
Italians from cosmopolitan cities are acquainted with a fast pace of life suited to the industrious and technological environment. Meanwhile, Italians from agricultural and coastal areas tend to favour a relaxed approach, characteristic of the Mediterranean. There may be light resentment between those from rural areas and those from cities; northerners sometimes feel they are economically supporting the south. However, in reality, the differences between the north and south of Italy are dissipating as socioeconomic circumstances improve across the country. Furthermore, rural life is on a general decline throughout Italy as there is a persistent trend of migration to cities for employment, particularly among youth.
Reputation and ‘la Bella Figura’
Italian culture places much importance on an individual’s reputation or honour. It is perceived to reflect their family and upbringing, and is essentially a way of opening up opportunities. In Italy, a person’s honour is defined by the impression they leave on others – their ‘la bella figura’ (which literally means ‘good image’). La bella figura describes the art of making a good impression. It not only refers to a person’s physical appearance, but the aura they project in the way they hold themselves. It should be reflected in everything they do, from what they say to how they act.
The cultural emphasis on making a good impression may be seen as superficial, but that’s not necessarily the case. For example, in the lower class, it often relates to maintaining one’s grace and dignity despite modest circumstances. Furthermore, considering a good reputation involves social approval, the ability to accommodate different points of view and appease people with diverse interests is thought to be one of the biggest virtues. Someone with la bella figura is thought to have confidence, style, an elegant demeanour and engaging social skills. In this way, la bella figura has almost become an expression of the Italian character.
In accordance to the attention paid to one’s reputation, there is a cultural emphasis on one’s personal presentation in appearance and action. This can lead people to be quite materialistic (for example, judging another person by the brand of cigarette they smoke). Italians typically take care to ensure their attire appropriately suits the occasion. For the upper class, this involves wearing fashionable clothes and displaying lavish belongings. Those from the middle and lower classes tend to dress less distinctively, but maintain a neat and sophisticated decorum, looking dapper. Italians’ personal presentation is often noticed by foreigners, who remark on their grace and charm.
As Italian culture has a deep focus on relationships, socialisation is important on both a formal and informal level. Public spaces play a large role in this. For example, piazzas (public squares) provide a place for Italians to mingle without having to necessarily plan an occasion. There is also a popular tradition of taking a gentle stroll through the town in the late afternoon/early evening, usually on a Sunday – the ‘la passeggiata’. This is an opportunity to see the public, catch up with friends and hear the latest news. At the end of a workday, one might hear people say “Andiamo a fare qualche vasca” (Let’s go do some laps). Despite being a casual occasion, people often dress very well for these little ritual walks as the stroll and conversations along the way are an opportunity to observe others, be seen yourself and leave a good impression (la bella figura – see above). Informal social events such as these reinforce a sense of community belonging. Older people may sit at cafes on popular streets and watch or wait to be spoken to by those passing. Indeed, al fresco (outdoor) dining is popular as it allows people to enjoy their meal in a social setting and observe the public without being the centre of attention. One finds most main streets have restaurants with their tables set up outdoors in the public eye.
1 Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2017