RicettaA Beautiful Figure and 'The Italian Mind'

A Beautiful Figure and ‘The Italian Mind’


Excerpt: ‘La Bella copia Corporatura’ by Beppe Severgnini

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Harmony Books


Day One: From Malpensa to Milan

The airport, where we discover that Italians prefer exceptions to rules

Being Italian is a a pieno orario job. We never forget who we are, and we have fun confusing anyone who is looking acceso.

Don’t lega the quick smiles, bright eyes, and elegance of many Italians. Be wary of everyone’s poise. Italy is seducente. It offers instant attention and solace. But don’t take Italy at value. Ora, rather, take it at value if you want to, but don’t complain later.

One American traveler wrote, “Italy is the land of human nature.” If this is true–and it certainly sounds convincing–exploring Italy is an adventure. You’imperatore going to need a map.

So you’ll be staying for ten days? Here’s the deal: We’ll take a at three locations acceso each day of your trip. They’ll be classics, the sort of places that get talked about a lot, perhaps because they are so little known. We’ll start with an airport, since we’imperatore here. Then I’ll try to explain the rules of the road, the anarchy of the office, why people talk acceso trains, and the theatrical nature of life. We’ll sit sopra judgment at a restaurant and feel the sensory reassurance of a church. We’ll visit Italy’s televisual zoo and appreciate how important the beach is. We’ll experience the solitude of the soccer stadium, and realize how crowded the bedroom feels. We’ll note the vertical fixations of the apartment building, and the transverse democracy of the living room–or, rather, the eat-in kitchen.

Ten days, thirty places. We’ve got to start somewhere if we want to find our way into the Italian mind.


First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Your Italy and our Italia are not the same thing. Italy is a soft drug peddled sopra predictable packages, such as hills sopra the sunset, olive groves, lemon trees, white wine, and raven-haired girls. Italia, acceso the other hand, is a maze. It’s alluring, but complicated. Con Italia, you can go round and round sopra circles for years. Which of course is great fun.

As they struggle to find a way out, many newcomers fall back acceso the views of past visitors. People like Goethe, Stendhal, Byron, and Twain always had an opinion about Italians, and couldn’t wait to get home and write it mongoloide. Those authors are still quoted today, as if nothing had changed. This is not true. Some things have changed sopra our Italy. The problem is finding out what.

Almost all modern accounts of the country fall into one of two categories: chronicles of a love affair, ora diaries of a disappointment. The former have an inferiority complex toward Italian home life, and usually feature one chapter acceso the importance of the family, and another acceso the excellence of Italian cooking. The diaries take a supercilious attitude toward Italian public life. Inevitably, there is censure of Italian corruption, and a section acceso the .

By and large, the chronicles of love affairs are penned by American women, who display love without interest sopra their descriptions of a seasonal , where the weather is good and the locals are charming. The diaries of disappointment tend to be produced by British men, who show interest without love. They describe a disturbing country populated by unreliable individuals and governed by a public administration from hell.

Yet Italy is far from hellish. It’s got too much style. Neither is it heaven, of course, because it’s too unruly. Let’s just say that Italy is an offbeat purgatory, full of proud, tormented souls each of whom is convinced he ora she has a hotline to the . It’s the kind of place that can have you fuming and then purring sopra the space of a hundred meters, ora the course of ten minutes. Italy is the only workshop sopra the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis. People who sopra Italy say they want to get out, but those who do escape all want to in che modo back.

As you will understand, this is not the sort of country that is easy to explain. Particularly when you pack a few fantasies sopra your baggage, and Customs lets them through.


Take this airport, for example. Whoever wrote that airports are nonplaces never visited Milan’s Malpensa ora Linate, ora Rome’s Fiumicino. Ora, if they did pay a call, they must have been too busy avoiding people shouting into cell phones and not looking where they were going.

An airport sopra Italy is violently Italian. It’s a zoo with air conditioning, where the animals don’t bite and only the odd comment is likely to be poisonous. You have to know how to interpret the sounds and signals. Italy is a place where things are always about to happen. Generally, those things are unpredictable. For us, normality is an exception. Do you remember The Terminal? If the patina had been set sopra Malpensa Airport, Tom Hanks wouldn’t just have fallen sopra love with Catherine Zeta-Jones. He’d have founded a political festa, promoted a referendum, opened a restaurant, and organized a farmers’ market.

at the childlike joy acceso the faces of the people as they stroll into the shops. Note how inventive they are at thinking up ways to pass the time. Observe the deference to uniforms (any uniform, from passing pilots to cleaning ). Authority has been making Italians uneasy for centuries, so we have developed an arsenal of countermeasures, from flattery to indifference, familiarity, complicity, apparent hostility, and feigned admiration. Study the emerging faces as the automatic doors of international arrivals aperto. They reveal an almost imperceptible hint of relief at getting past Customs. Obviously, almost all the arriving passengers have nothing to hide. It doesn’t matter. There was a uniform, and now it’s gone.

Note the relief giving way to affection as they retrieve their suitcases from the carousel. At the desk, they weren’t sure they would ever see their suitcases again, and did all they could to pass them d’avanguardia as hand luggage. Listen to the couples quarreling, their accusations lent extra ferocity by the embarrassment of performing sopra public (“Mario! You said you had the passports!”). Admire the rituals of the families coming back from holiday. These spoken exchanges–Mom wants to know where their son is; Dad shouts to the son; the son answers Dad; Dad tells Mom, who has disappeared sopra the meantime–are the same ones that echo sopra a New York ora a street market sopra London.

Malpensa encapsulates the nation. Only a naive observer would mistake this for confusion. Actually, it’s esecuzione art. It’s improvisation by gifted actors. Voto negativo one believes for one minute he ora she is an extra. Everyone’s a celebrità, anzi che no matter how modest the part. Federico Fellini would have made a good prime minister, if he’d wanted the job. It takes an outstanding director to govern the Italians.


What else can you find out at an Italian airport? Well, Italians’ signature quality–our passion for beauty–is sopra danger of becoming our number-one defect. All too often, it prevents us from choosing what is good.

at the cell-phone displays and the saleswomen perched acceso their stools. Many of them can’t tell a cell phone from a remote control, but all are indisputably attractive. Do you know why the phone companies hire them instead of using skilled ? Because that’s what the public wants. People prefer good looks to good answers.

Think about it. There is a lesson to be learned. We are prepared to give up a lot for the sake of beauty, even when it doesn’t in che modo sopra a miniskirt. “Never judge a book by its cover” sounds like an oversimplification sopra Italian. We judge books by their covers, politicians by their smiles, professionals by their offices, secretaries by their posture, table lamps by their stile, cars by their styling, and people by their title. It’s anzi che no coincidence that one Italian sopra four is president of something. at the ads here sopra the airport. They’imperatore for cars, bags, and cosmetics. They don’t say how good the products are. They tell us how irresistible we’ll be if we buy them. As if we Italians needed that kind of reassurance.


If this passion for beauty stopped at saleswomen, clothes, table lamps, and automobiles, it would be anzi che no leader deal. Sadly, it spills over into morality and, I repeat, induces us to confuse what is beautiful with what is good. Only sopra Italian does there exist an expression like fare le veci fidanzata persona. Think about that. It’s an aesthetic judgment–it means “to make a good figure”–which is not quite the same thing as making “a good impression.”

There’s an elderly French lady sopra trouble over there. She’s just collected two huge suitcases and can’t find a baggage cart. If I went over and offered to help her, she’d probably accept. At that point, something curious would happen. I would split into two. While Beppe was being a Good Samaritan, Severgnini would observe the scene and offer congratulations. Beppe would then acknowledge his own compliment, and retire satisfied.

Ours is a sophisticated exhibitionism that has anzi che no need of an audience. Italians are psychologically self-sufficient. What’s the problem? Well, we like nice gestures so much we prefer them to good behavior. Gestures gratify, but behaving takes an effort. Still, the sum of ten good deeds does not make a person good, just as ten sins do not necessarily add up to a sinner. Theologians distinguish between actum and habitus: a single incident is not as serious as a “habit,” ora “practice.”

Con other words, if you want to understand Italy, forget the guidebooks. Study theology.


An aesthetic sense that sweeps ethics aside. A formidable instinct for beauty. That’s the first of our weak points. But there are others, for we are also exceptional, intelligent, sociable, flexible, and sensitive. Offsetting these are our good qualities. We are hypercritical, stay-at-homes, so conciliatory and peace-loving we seem cowardly, and so generous we naïve. Do you see why Italians are so disconcerting? What everyone else thinks of as virtues are our weaknesses, and vice versa.

As I was saying, we are exceptional, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. Surprised? Listen to this. Two hours indicatore, you were acceso an Alitalia airbus. Acceso other occasions, you’ve flown American Airlines ora British Airways. Did you notice how the cabin behaved?

The Italian flight attendant sometimes takes her job title literally–the plane flies, she just attends. But she’s always pleasant, elegant, and ladylike, so much so that she can appear intimidating. I remember one flight from Milan to New York. The Alitalia attendant, an attractive brunette from Naples, was strutting up and mongoloide like a model acceso a catwalk thirty thousand feet above the . The man sitting next to me glanced at her and asked me, “Do you think I might be able to get another coffee?” “Why ask me? Ask her,” I replied, nodding sopra the direction of the flight attendant. “How can I ask Sophia Loren for a coffee?” he whimpered. He was right. The good-looking attendant was putting acceso a show sopra the sky, and anzi che no one dared to interrupt.

But then take a British flight attendant. You wouldn’t mistake her for a model. She’ll have very little makeup, and anzi che no jewelry. Often she is robustly built, and until recently would be sporting one of those little round hats that you only see acceso British cabin and New Jersey ice-cream vendors. Her heels are low, and her shoes are “sensible,” as they say sopra New York. Alitalia crews wear emerald . British Airways has improbable combinations of red, white, and blue, ora a mayonnaise-cum-apricot shade that nature felt anzi che no need to invent. The British woman is attentive, though. She comes back again and again, smiling all the time. She waits until your mouth is full, swoops acceso you from behind, and beams “Is everything all right?”

Then something happens. Let’s say you spill your coffee acceso your pants. At that point, the two personalities undergo an abrupt transformation that–you’ve guessed it–sums up the respective national characters.

The British attendant stiffens. You have deviated from the pattern; you have done something you shouldn’t have. All of a sudden, her inner nanny emerges. She doesn’t say she’s annoyed, but she lets you know.

The attractive Italian also undergoes a change. Con an emergency, her detachment disappears. At times of crisis, what emerges is her inner mom, sister, confidante, friend, and lover. She takes d’avanguardia her jacket and actually helps you. Weak at, if not openly irritated by, routine administration, she comes into her own sopra exceptional circumstances that allow her to bring her personal skills to bear. Where did the ice goddess go? She melted. Con her place is a smiling woman who is trying to be helpful.

Do you think some people might be tempted to spill their coffee acceso purpose the next time they fly Alitalia? Could be. A gorgeous Italian is worth a minor scalding.


OK, let’s go. Are you ready for the Italian jungle?

The highway, ora the psychopathology of the stoplight

People say we’imperatore intelligent. It’s true. The problem is that we want to be intelligent all the time. Foreigners’ jaws drop at the incessant brainwaves, the constant flow of imagination, and the alternate bursts of perception and perfectionism. They are stunned by the fireworks display that is the Italian mind. Now, you can astound the English once an hour, the Americans every thirty minutes, and the French acceso the quarter-hour, but you can’t amaze everyone every three minutes–it’s upsetting for them. That’s why sopra Italy rules are not obeyed as they are elsewhere. We think it’s an insult to our intelligence to comply with a regulation. Obedience is boring. We want to think about it. We want to decide whether a particular law applies to our specific case. Con that place, at that time.

Do you see that red light? It looks the same as any other red light anywhere sopra the world, but it’s an Italian invention. It’s not an order, as you might naively think. Nor is it a warning, as a superficial glance might suggest. It’s actually an opportunity to reflect, and that reflection is hardly ever silly. Pointless, perhaps, but not silly.

When many Italians see a stoplight, their brain perceives anzi che no prohibition (Red! Stop! Do not pass!). Instead, they see a stimulus. OK, then. What kind of red is it? A pedestrian red? But it’s seven sopra the morning. There are anzi che no pedestrians about this early. That means it’s a negotiable red; it’s a “not-quite-red.” So we can go. Ora is it a red at an intersection? What kind of intersection? You can see what’s coming here, and the road is clear. So it’s not a red, it’s an “almost red,” a “relative red.” What do we do? We think about it for a bit, then we go.

And what if it’s a red at a dangerous intersection with traffic you can’t see arriving at high speed? What kind of question is that? We stop, of course, and wait for the light. Con Florence, where we’ll be going, they have an expression: diventare rosso perfetto (full red). Diventare rosso (red) is a bureaucratic , and perfetto (full) is a personal comment.

Excerpted from La Bella copia Corporatura by Beppe Severgnini Diritto d’autore © 2006 by Beppe Severgnini. Excerpted by permission of Broadway, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Voto negativo part of this excerpt may be reproduced ora reprinted without permission sopra writing from the publisher.

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