"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, July 13, 2015

Bella Figura–The Art Of Looking Good And How It Is Disappearing

At its core bella figura is presentation…how to look good, to carry oneself,  to make the best possible impression in all things at all times. Bella figura means attention to image, visual beauty and presentation…but it is also all about knowing how to properly and graciously interact with others. Bella figura is all about good manners, tact and gentility.

Albert Della Fiore always looked good. His suits were silk and hand-tailored. His shoes were from Italy made from the softest leather and crafted with style.  His ties were simple but elegant; and his white shirts were of the finest linen. His socks of the thinnest combed wool and his cufflinks engraved gold.

He shaved carefully, edging his mustache to a sharp trim, finishing his sideburns with a straight razor, and slapping on just a touch of cologne.

Albert’s teeth were white and straight, cleaned and aligned by the best cosmetic dentist in New Brighton; his hair – hard to cut and even except by any except the most practiced barber – was combed straight back to accentuate its natural wave.  His nails were manicured, his posture straight, his shoulders back and confident, and his smile bright and sincere.

He kissed his wife goodbye, and left for his office.  He looked great.

Bella figura II


Albert Della Fiore always looked great.  Even in most leisure moments, he was dressed properly – soft calfskin moccasins with no socks, linen trousers, and an open silk shirt. Whether on the back patio with friends, serving drinks in the sitting room, or simply relaxing with his grandchildren, he was always well-turned out.

Albert’s car was a new, dark green Jaguar. His lawn was always as tonsured and manicured as he was.  The flowering bushes along the front of the house were shaped and full. The hedges by the road were tonsured, full and trimmed.

He was a gracious host, a charming squire, and a polite, and respectful guest.  Even informal dinners were graced with Baccarat crystal, Christofle silver, and white linen tablecloths and napkins.  He lit candles for every meal, served wine from the finest Irish crystal decanters, and planned his menus as much for their presentation as for their fresh ingredients and remarkable preparation.

Bella Figura


Albert was now in his early seventies and although he had slowed down some – less work, fewer social events, less travel, and more reading – he never lost his sense of bella figura. It was what defined him.  He knew exactly the impression he made on people – one of a gentleman, an exquisite dresser, courtly and polite, and a generous friend, guest, and colleague.

This is not to say that Albert Della Fiore was all outward show and appearance and that nothing more substantial lived beneath Armani and St. Laurent.  On the contrary, Albert was an intelligent, thoughtful character of ability.  It had all to do with a finely-attuned sense of elegance, fineness, and simple sophistication which did best without conflict.

If he had ever been asked Albert would not have been able to put this into words.  Bella figura came too naturally, too instinctively for him to articulate it or even to register its importance.  It was second nature.

He came by it naturally.  His father had come from Italy along with thousands of other Italians at the turn of the century, but his emigration had less to do with need than opportunity.  The Della Fiores were wealthy Florentine merchants, and although never of such prominence as the Rothschilds or the descendants of Vittorio Emmanuelle, the family was respected, especially for their patronage of the arts and letters.  Albert’s grandfather made quite a reputation among the Italian aristocracy at the time, for as their fortunes dwindled, his increased, and he invested thousands in securing great works of the Italian patrimony from foreign sale or disrepair. 

Image result for painting florence cityscape renaissance


His wife’s literary salons were famous.  Anyone who was anyone in the literary world of Florence attended her weekly sessions in the Prizzi Palace, the Renaissance maison particulière that had been their home since long before Garibaldi.

While most of the Della Fiore family remained in Florence, Giuseppe, the brother of the family patriarch was determined to go to America.  He, of all the Della Fiores, had the best business sense, and while his brother and sister-in-law were cultivating the arts, he was developing financial skills which would be essential on Wall Street.  The Rothschilds had a banking establishment there, and he was assured of a job.  So, in 1898 he set sail from Naples, first class, on the Gattopardo, a steamship on which one thousand-four-hundred-ninety-four Neapolitan peasants were crowded below-decks.

Albert was born in 1920 in New York; and thanks to his Italian pedigree and his father’s generous contribution to Columbia University for the Della Fiore Theatre and Auditorium, Albert matriculated and spent four happy years there before joining his father at the Rothschild Bank of Verona on Wall Street. After meeting his wife, the daughter of the wealthy Boston Lodge family, they moved to New Brighton where he took over the Chairmanship of the Bank of Boston.

Theirs was a marriage made in a civilized heaven.  He, steeped in Italian manners and graciousness; and she brought up in a culture of Protestant simplicity and Anglo-Saxon reserved good taste, made the perfect couple. 

Image result for images mansions commonwealth avenue boston


New Brighton had changed dramatically over the years that the Della Fiores lived there.  The city was no different from any in Europe – the exclusive areas of the wealthy, well-born, and influential; and the tenement walkup neighborhoods of the working-class families who supplied the labor for New Brighton’s factories – but there had been a progressive encroachment of the exclusive West End where the Della Fiores lived.  It wasn’t so much a physical intrusion but a cultural one. The fact that dentists and low-end lawyers took over the homes vacated by the Booths, Trowbridges, and Moores, and reshaped their old libraries and studies into family and game rooms was only part of the problem.  What the wave of middle-class families brought was an indifference to English civility and European bella figura; and in so doing changed the West End forever.

“Good riddance”, said the newcomers who had worked their way up, finally escaped the ghettos of New Haven, Hartford, and Bridgeport, and moved into a neighborhood with cachet, white picket fences, petunias, and the Green Meadows Country Club.  Soon the West End became simply a higher-toned and whiter version of the East End – Puerto Rican, Polish, Hungarian, and Jamaican.

Golf course Fall

Albert had nothing against these newcomers, but as much as he saw himself as a tolerant and welcoming man, he simply could not get used to the….(here he always paused to search for the right word, something that would describe the loss of manners, class, breeding, and culture; but as always he had no luck)…crassness of it all.  What was there to celebrate about ‘diversity’? His bella figura had evolved over centuries of Italian noble courts.  Before unification the Kingdom of Sardinia, the Kingdom of Naples, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Duchy of Parma, the Duchy of Modena, the Duchy of Milan, and the Papal States, had all given high culture and aristocratic, civilized courtly life to their territories.  What then to make of this American hodge-podge? This populist free-for-all.  Where was Alexander Hamilton when we really needed him? Albert said.

Image result for image heraldry Duchy of Parma


Hamilton had always been one of Albert’s heroes, a Founding Father who was suspicious of popular democracy, worried about the excesses of an unschooled and uninformed electorate, and adamant about assuring an organ of government that was comprised of the well-born.

While Hamilton was worried about the political implications of creating a populist state, Albert saw only its legacy. Inclusion into the political mainstream and full participation in the electoral process was one thing; but the erosion of aristocratic cultural values was another entirely.

Image result for images alexander hamilton


For all the criticism of the old American nobility, Albert knew that the landed gentry was all that stood in the way of rampant materialism and low-brow culture.  A French friend of his, a descendant of a Crusader who was knighted by Phillip II on his return from the Holy Land, echoed these sentiments.  The French nobility was the embodiment and the protector of 1000 years of French history.  It was as much a guardian and defender of France as Roland was at Roncesvalles.  “Après moi, le déluge", said Louis XV. After the extinction of the aristocracy, France will be drowned.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of Albert Della Fiore was the disappearance of breeding and good manners. “Forget Hamilton. Where is Cary Grant when we need him most?”, he asked.

Image result for images cary grant in tuxedo


The days of fine china, linen, sterling silver, tuxedos, polite conversation, and sophisticated flirtation were indeed over. “How did it happen so fast?”, he wondered. “I remember going to Jekyll Island as a child with the Cranes and the Carnegies. Orchestras from New York and Boston played in the grand dining room, and tea was served on the verandah in the afternoon.  Mrs. Crane came with her personal retinue of twenty-five, evicted half the families from Chicago from the third floor, and forced her husband to build the Crane Cottage big enough for her and a retinue twice that size on the far lawn overlooking the river.”

Image result for images jekyll island club


“The End of An Era”, the New Brighton Herald headlined over its obituary of Alfred Della Fiore; but the editor was a man of Albert’s age and one of the few residents of the town who knew who Albert was and what exactly his era represented.  The rest of the city flipped to the back page, read the sports, and went about their business.

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