A Girl Abroad: Italian Landscapes & Bella Figura

Published by The Style Line, August 2016

Marche Italy Sunflowers

When we arrived at Casa Celeste, the fields surrounding the house were bare. The russet earth was freshly ploughed, a neat linear pattern disappearing into the distance until the furrowed lines touched – even in the business of farming, this obsessive craftsmanship could only be Italian. We lazily wondered what was growing there. Potatoes or corn, I thought, having grown up near a farm that grew potatoes and corn, the realms of my imagination not stretching further into agricultural variety.

The garden was in a similar state of springtime suspense, rose buds still tight like fists, lavender twiggy and sparse. The wildflowers happily grew, though, and I kept stalks of nigella in a pesto jar on the table for the first month of our being here. The more I get to know our neighbours, the more I realise that Italians would never decorate their home with wildflowers. Wildflowers are weeds, and do not represent a respectable home. A vase of roses would be more suitable within a culture engrained with bella figura.

The idea of bella figura means many things in Italy. It translates to ‘beautiful figure’ but is understood as projecting a good image and keeping up appearances. The opposite is brutta figura; the expression ‘fare une brutta figura’ means to show oneself up.

In a country where the police uniforms are designed by Armani, dressing well is a natural inclination – though its not about wealth. It’s important to understand that bella figura is not about what you’ve got, but what you project.

In the words of Miuccia Prada: “What you wear is how you present yourself to the world, especially today, when human contacts are so quick. Fashion is instant language.”

It extends beyond fashion, of course. Good manners and reputation are equally important. It’s just as much about keeping your house and garden pristine to appear respectable to the neighbours; when Hitler visited Italy, Mussolini added grand frontages to buildings on the outskirts of Rome to make the city appear wealthier. In parallel, a vase of roses placed on the dining table appear to dinner guests as if they are always there.

Soon, thousands of green shoots appeared in the surrounding fields, growing quickly day by day. To say the house is surrounded by farmer’s fields is no overstatement – to reach the house, we veer slightly off a narrow country road and park next to a stream. We cross a bridge on foot, which is little more than a plank of wood and some rope, and walk uphill for 10 minutes on a path which cuts through the fields. The casa is at the top of the hill, far from any main road and ensconced in farmland.

At the beginning of July, we realised what the farmer was growing. Sunflowers! We were soon to be surrounded by hills of bright yellow, stretching as far as the eye can see.

As we’ve learned from the Italians, first impressions count. As the sunflowers bloomed, their big heads smiling through our bedroom window, the landscape of Marche was quite breathtaking. Bella figura, indeed. With that in mind, I’ll get my best dress out for this evening’s passeggiata.

If you’d like to see the Italian sunflower fields yourself, visit Marche, Tuscany or Umbria in the last week of June or during the first two weeks of July. Keep in mind that they bloom earlier nearer the sea. At higher elevations as we are, they are at their best mid-July.