La Bella Figura: An Insider
By Beppe Severgnini, translated by Giles Watson. For a book that is described on the jacket as “hysterical” this holds precious few laughs
Reviewed by Helena Frith-Powell
In Italy, it’s not what you know or who you know that counts: it is how you look. Italy is the world’s most beautiful country and the people are expected to look good, too. Silvio Berlusconi may not have been the most glamorous leader in the world, but he is probably the only one to leave office with more hair than he started with.
In Rome, most male taxi drivers over 50 – if they have any hair – dye it a rather strange shade of blue-black. My Italian father, while he doesn’t dye his hair, wears linen suits and a panama hat. He is so worried that people might take him for a grandfather (he is 84) that he insists that my children call him “uncle”. This sort of behaviour is not frowned upon in Italy, it is positively encouraged.
Beppe Severgnini, for 10 years the Economist’s man in Italy, promises to explore the cult of la bella figura and to expose the reality of life in Italy beneath the veneer. He takes us on a 10-day tour of 30 places, covering topics such as food, politics, driving and mobile phones.
There are some good observations, such as when he is describing Italy through the eyes of foreigners, and says that it is “fascinating, if perturbing. Brits, Yanks, Germans and Scandinavians gaze on it with rare suspicion, as if they were staring at a woman who is too good-looking to be true”. Or when he talks about the image we have of Italians and their mobile phones. “If the French or Germans were to shut their eyes and think of Italy, they wouldn’t see the Colosseum. They’d see a guy talking to himself in the street with one hand over his ear.”
However, some of Severgnini’s writing is convoluted and, in parts, fairly incomprehensible. This is the passage that introduces us to Rome. “In Prati, there aren’t any ‘meadows’, which is what prati means. The district’s ramrod straight streets and tall houses between the Tiber and the Vatican take up very little space in the guidebooks but Prati is fascinating, as Rome always is when it agrees to act normally.” What?
This book holds few surprises for anyone who knows Italy well. Severgnini tells us how important the family is, and that only foreigners drink cappuccinos after 10 o’clock in the morning. This is hardly news. Sometimes the book is positively misleading. “The Tuscan countryside is beautiful but unforgiving,” he tells us. “It rejects intimacy. You can paint all the watercolours you like but Tuscany’s not a place for picnics.” I am not sure that Tony Blair or Lucy Honeychurch from A Room with a View would agree. I was also surprised to learn that, unlike in Italy, by 5pm offices in London “look like a cattery after someone has fired a gunshot”. Not any office I’ve ever worked in.
His tone is often hectoring and tedious. A bit like an Economist editorial. One of those that says: “GDP growth 2%, but inflation 8%? Pull your finger out, Uganda.” Moreover, if your basic premise is that most people’s view of a subject is wrong, and you know better, then you need to come up with some pretty startling stuff. At no stage does Severgnini explain the origins or the importance of la bella figura. I was waiting for revelations, insight and humour. Especially humour. For a book that is described on the jacket as “hysterical” it holds precious few laughs. Come on Severgnini, pull your finger out.
LA BELLA FIGURA: An Insider’s Guide to the Italian Mind by Beppe Severgnini, translated by Giles Watson
Hodder £16.99 pp288
Buy the book hereat the offer price of £15.29 (inc p&p)
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019