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Who knew the train would fly off of the tracks? It seemed age-old determination threaded in the fabric of Italian American culture would be enough to keep everyone en route. Then again, emigrating to the free world was never supposed to be easy.

The Italian immigrant experience at the beginning of the 20th century reflected a host of concerns, the sum of which is often described with the phrase “bella figura” (literally “beautiful face”). It is a type of beauty for which our countrymen long, a value and overarching priority aimed at securing a better life for yourself and children by putting your best face forward, always.

As Italian families said farewell to relatives, gathered their brood, and crossed the Atlantic, they faced new, energizing prospects. Between the years 1900 and 1914, more than 3.5 million men, women, and children traveled this route. Crowded ships carried families, mostly from the southern region, to America’s promising shores. Through each trial—-there were many—-these fervent, emotional, and warmhearted men and women, with a strong love for food, music, and especially for family, carried the doctrine of bella figura in their hearts.

Going Public

After the Great Depression, first- and second-generation Italians started to dot America’s media landscape. A number of celebrities—-from Frank Sinatra to Sophia Loren to Joe Di Maggio—-introduced Americans to the cose all’italiana (qualities of being Italian). Of course, not everyone appreciated these qualities, which necessitated anti-defamation leagues such as the Order of the Sons of Italy, an organization for which my great-grandfather labored until his dying day. As Italians were making a name for themselves, the bella figura was going public.

In his classic book, The Italians, Luigi Barzini explains the importance of public image for the Italian.

Reading facial expressions is an important art in Italy, to be learned in childhood, perhaps more important for survival than the art of reading print. Spoken words may be sometimes at variance with the grimaces that accompany them. The words should then be overlooked. Only the face counts (61).

Anyone raised in an Italian home understands precisely what Barzini is describing. We look at the face, and we see the man—-which, by the way, is why Italians are conflicted when they visit places like London. I recently experienced this firsthand. The notorious impassivity of the English is often interpreted as conclusive evidence of their coldness. We reason that as people willingly withhold warmth and emotion they must be bereft of such qualities. It’s terribly unfair, but perception is taken as reality. This, by the way, is how bella figura works.

As the decades unfolded into the 1970s, the Italian persona acquired wider exposure. Celebrities such as Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, and John Travolta took the bella figura in new directions. One thinks for instance of Travolta’s character, Tony Manero, in Saturday Night Fever. Such personality, charm, lazy English, and carefully engineered hair style transformed the so called “Guido”—-previously a pejorative appellation describing the Italian American working class—-into a celebrity. In fact, you might point to a classic scene in which this development occurred. It was at the dinner table when Tony’s unemployed and choleric father slaps him on the head. Tony yelps with melodrama exclaiming, “Watch the hair! You know, I work on my hair a long time. And you hit it. He hits the hair.” With this scene the bella figura turned a corner.

Since Tony Manero, the disco-dancing culture of Guidos, (and their feminine counterpart, called “Guidettes”), has reached its third generation. Children of the 1970s, inspired by Travolta and the Bee Gees, were the first generation. Following in their footsteps, but losing the platform shoes was the second generation (of which I was a card-carrying member in the 1980s. Any Guido from Long Island will have likewise frequented nightclubs such as Images, Avanti, and Metro 700). And now we are in the third generation, which can be summed up with two words: Jersey Shore. If Tony Manero turned bella figura in a different direction, then MTV’s reality television program, with its devotion to tanned skin, manicured nails, and tweezed eyebrows, has steered it off the tracks and toward a train wreck.

Vanity Fair

The role of Guido in Italian American culture has emerged as a highly contested debate among scholars. In fact, they have been debating the issue for 20 years. In 1991, professor Donald Tricarico, a sociologist at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, published an essay “Guido: Fashioning an Italian-American Youth Style” in The Journal of Ethnic Studies. In January 2010, the John D. Calandra Italian American Institute invited Professor Tricarico to lead a colloquium on his research. The event was entitled, Guido: An Italian American Youth Style. Some in the Italian American community objected to the Calandra Institute holding the event at all, seeing it as a “legitimation” of the guido lifestyle and a support for MTV.

Another scholar who has been part of the conversation is Fred Gardaphe, distinguished professor of Italian American studies at Queens College. His insights have been helpful in explicating the ironic dimensions of the Guido phenomenon. In his recent book, From Wiseguys to Wise Men, Gardaphe quotes Gloria Nardini, who says that bella figura is “a central metaphor of Italian life.” This is our thesis. In this vein Gardaphe is quoted in Time as saying, “The major key to Italian American culture is something called ‘bella figura.’ It basically means, to put on a show so people don’t know the real you,” he said. “If you’re poor, you make them think you’re rich. If you’re rich, you make them think you’re poor.” For an immigrant people emerging from a history of foreign conquerors and the lack of a nation-state until 1870 [when Italy underwent reunification],” he says, “It’s all about protection.”

Gardaphe’s emphasis on the importance of “protection” is shared by other cultural exegetes. John Gilmore, long-time pastor in Sicily, develops the same theme in his book Five Million Islands. Gilmore quotes the famous novelist and lover of Italy, Norman Lewis, as saying, “The climate for many of those [immigrant] Sicilians that remain is one in which the familiar ‘Omertà’ [code of silence of conduct] has slowly deepened into a real and paralyzing fear, which has finally penetrated the Sicilian sub-conscious.”

Such fear and longing for protection, according to psychologists, is the engine room of Italian eccentricity; it is also the driving impulse of bella figura. At its best, this impulse gives us the dramatic and artistic beauty for which Italians are famous: arches of prosciutti and mortadelle hanging from ceilings with old world charm, elevated melodies of opera, cannoli, and Napoletani to rival the grandeur of the Sistine Chapel, smiling faces and warm, expressive gesticulation. It also gives us a culture that asks little more from life than a dark tan, six-pack of abs, and pressed laundry, and the erotic advantages that such qualities are thought to afford.

The Beautiful Face

Part of the challenge currently facing sociologists is determining who has the right to define a positive portrayal of Italian American identity. In other words, who is to say that the Guido persona is any less legitimate or noble than the alternatives? In such a non-foundational world, devoting one’s life to such banalities as “GTL” (gym, tanning, and laundry) is just as respectable as being a tailor, chef, or a priest. No one is in a position to argue otherwise. However, I would like to suggest that such epistemological relativism is precisely where these sociologists let the side down.

What if there is an objective criterion for evaluating the merits of Italian American culture, a standard that enjoys widespread acceptance. How wonderful it would be if such an authority spanned the generations, including geography, gender, socio-economic status, and the vagaries of culture. How marvelous to have a benchmark that has stood the test of time, even from centuries of intellectual scrutiny by the brightest thinkers the world over. Something lifted up as truth while at the same time lying beneath our feet as the reliable foundation upon which to build human identity. Thankfully, there is such a source: the text of Holy Scripture.

How can a religious relic like the Bible possibly speak in a meaningful way to the question of Italian American identity? Well, if that is how one poses the question, it is unlikely that he or she will acquire any insight. Such a biased view militates against intellectual honesty and is nothing more than fundamentalism in disguise. Thankfully, there are fewer people thinking so narrowly these days. Even among the irreligious, the Bible is at least recognized as a repository of wisdom.

Scripture has a great deal to say about bella figura. The theme of God’s glorious face runs through the warp and woof of redemptive history, perhaps most notably in the Aaronic blessing of Judaism: “The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace (Num 6:24-26). Not only does this motif describe God’s beauty, but it also designates his promise of redemption (Matt 17:2; Mk 9:2; cf. Ex 34:29).

Of all the biblical references to face in the New Testament, there is one that stands out as particularly relevant to the question of identity. I recently had the privilege of expositing this text in Rome at Breccia di Roma in a message titled La Bella Figura di Christi (The Beautiful Face of Christ). Here is the leading edge of the passage:

For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor 4:5-6)

From this text I explained to my Roman friends that appreciating the beauty of Christ and following him by faith is in no way antithetical to Italian identity. In fact, it is just the opposite. Because God is the source of everything that is glorious about Italian culture—-the vocal cords for singing, hands for masonry, feet for dancing, and hearts for passion and romance—-it is in the life of God that such qualities realize their fullest potential.

Where exactly do we apprehend this life? Saint Paul says it is in the “face of Jesus Christ.” The history of Christian thought, in the tradition of Augustine and Aquinas, describes it in terms of “beatific vision.” Here in relationship to God through the living Christ—-the One who died and rose victoriously out of death—-God satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart by providing justification, purpose, moral sensibility, and beauty. Jesus the Christ is the telos of every culture, the firm ground for human flourishing, and the criterion for measuring what is virtuous and true. He is La Bella Figura.

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