Italian barbers, such as this shop in Syracuse that dates to 1895, have a history that goes back to the time of Ancient Rome, when a shaved face distinguished free men from slaves. "Il barbiere" is also a social space, where men can talk freely in a male-only setting.
Sicily – Fact Check

"La bella figura" is about more than appearances

Photo by Jurjen Drenth

Sicily – Fact Check "La bella figura" is about more than appearances

Although not limited to Sicily, maintaining a bella figura – making a good impression – runs very deep among the islanders.

Karen Glaser
Karen Glaser Travel Writer

It explains why even quite ordinary Sicilian homes often have two bathrooms: one for everyday family use, and a pristine hotel-esque chamber for guests, featuring ironed towels, gleaming bottles of perfume and folded toilet paper.

It explains why if, like my friends Marcello and Simona – who were engaged for 12 years before actually getting married and paid for everything themselves – you cannot afford lavish nuptials, you save for years until you can. It explains why if you do not have the wherewithal to buy the happy couple an expensive gift, you decline the invitation to their wedding rather than suffer the ignominy of bringing a modest present. And it explains why if your Armani sunglasses are last season, let alone last century, you should think twice about wearing them to that wedding.

On Marcello’s and Simona’s big day, my fellow wedding guest and geologist Aurelio Garbato says la bella figura is about more than appearances. He says there is a moral dimension to this phenomenon and that it can be traced back to the ancient Greeks who once conquered and governed the biggest island in the Mediterranean.

“They gave us the idea of kaloskagathos, of beauty and goodness being the same thing. If you say someone is beautiful in Sicily it isn’t only a physical judgment, it is often an ethical one too. We don’t really use the words good or bad to describe people and their actions, we say ‘bello’ or ‘brutto’ (beautiful or ugly). Our yardstick is beauty and the concept encompasses dignity, decorum and righteousness as well as looking lovely.”

I am not sure you can attribute the mindset of a modern populace to an ancient people who left these arid shores more than 2,000 years ago. Greek rule was followed by Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Norman and Spanish invasions, among others, and Sicilians often cite these successive conquests of their strategically placed island as explanations for various cultural phenomena such as: ostentation (reason: the excesses of 18th century Spanish rule; and patriarchy (reason: Arab conservatism).

But although I think the collective race memory argument is sometimes overstated by Sicilians, there is no doubt that this bride and bridegroom believe they have done the right thing by waiting until they could afford to host what is certainly the most glittering and glamorous wedding I have ever attended. They have achieved kaloskagathos.

With her Dolce & Gabbana lace bridal gown trailing the marble floor of the 15th-century frescoed palazzo the couple has hired for the reception, Simona says simply: “We have made our families very proud and very happy. What could be more important than that?”

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