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2.8 out of 5 stars
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on 9 August 2010
Beppe Severgnini is an author as comfortable in English as he is in his native Italian. This is a highly readable mini-travelogue , highlighting all of the places in Italy that a Briton would consider as a holiday destination and embellishing it with colourful stories of the locals, while selecting the best of civic traditions as well as those of the wider sense of "Italianess". The observations seek to bring out the best of the Italians and those that could be deemed to be " curious/eccentric" are treated with sympathy and humour, but above all they are tailored to an english speaking and in particular, a British audience.
Clearly, he has a fondness for his adoopted country (he lived in the UK for several years) and its citizens and you get the feeling that working on it was a labour of love. highly recommended
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on 23 October 2007
I thought that this book was aimed at people like me....If so this book is not just off target but out of the stadium!

If you have had any experience of Italy, or read books by Tobias Jones, Tim Parks or Joe McGinniss etc. I would save your cash.

The author uses the book as an excuse in delivering elaborate rhetoric - in an impressive use of language (English). Rather like a rower with one oar this doesn't get us anywhere much...

To give an example... the fact that many Italians do not regard traffic signals with too much seriousness is worthy of much comment. Is there anyone with any interest in Italy that does not know this already?

Need I say more?
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on 22 August 2011
I bought this book as a fun read during my travels to Tuscany but ultimately gave up on it so that I could get on and enjoy my holiday in beautiful surroundings that bore little resemblance to those described by the author. I found the writing smug and cynical and, in some places, so repetitive that I thought there had been copy and paste errors. As with other authors who stereotype entire regions (Bill Bryson, Peter Mayle), Severgnini's claims that "all people in Milan do this" and "all buildings in Tuscany are like this" didn't square with the experiences I was having on my travels. This is the only review I've written for a book I haven't finished, so perhaps it is not entirely a fair one; however, the sun is shining in Italy and, despite the assertion that no one drinks a cappuccino in the afternoon, I think I'll go and do just that.
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on 10 March 2011
Neither very enlightening nor very funny, this book does NOT do what it says on the tin. Yes, it's written in an easy and lightweight style, but it seemed to me to be empty of anything really revelatory or thought-provoking about its subject. Although it is framed as a 'journey' through Italy, it does little to evoke or describe the differences in temperament or landscape in the regions of the country. This book was full of the kinds of generalisation about Italy that I might have expected from a non-native, but seemed pretty unforgivable from an Italian writer. For anyone who wants to understand the complexities of Italy in a much more informed and nuanced way, I would recommend giving this little book a miss and trying Tobias Jones's "The Dark Heart of Italy".
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on 23 February 2008
While this book claims to be a "hilarious tour of Italy", and that it covers "thirty places in ten days", and while its table of contents contains titles such as "day two: in Milan", "Day seven: in Naples", "Day eight: in Sardinia", giving the impression that the author is covering all these places, the content barely contains ANYTHING at all related to them, suggesting the author has not left his seat nor even had the grace to research his destinations in "google earth".

At the start of every chapter supposed to cover one destination or the other, the author sometimes mentions a few very general things about it, without any "commitment" to a concrete description of anything, and, after which, he launches into talking about topics such as cars parked in a certain way, how italians regard this or that, italian attitudes and beliefs towards something or the other, etc..etc.. The repetition of the name of a specific destination in the first pages of "its relevant chapter" seems to serve the sole purpose of make-believe that the author is talking about that particular destination, while he is, in fact, talking about very general things that could apply anywhere in Italy!

The fact is, this book is NOT about any of the destinations it promises to portray, it is about the author's view of Italians. Why he packaged the book as to pretend it tours the country north to south, is open to conjecture. My guess would have been, "either he is not very clear in the head, or, he is deliberately misleading"; however, reading on the back cover that he has worked as a columnist for places like the newspaper "corriere della sera" and "the economist" eliminates the "not-clear-in-the-head" bit. He is simply misleading. His book is the equivalent, in the writing world, of the "tourist menu", which, anyone who has been a tourist knows, is usually a rip-off.

Had the author been HONEST about his intentions and not pretended the book was something it wasn't, I'd have given it two stars. Apparently, the "tour of Italy" pitch held the promise to sell more. That such a "tour" did not exist, did not seem to perturb his conscience one bit, apparently, he trusts his own powers of bluff too much and the intelligence of the readers too little to believe that they will actually notice there was no tour.

Taking inspiration from his writing, in his referencing of certain practices as manifestations of "the italian mentality", I'd venture to say that his bluff is probably testimony to the magnitude of his mother's faith in him, and how that affected his faculties of judgement with regards to everybody else. Or, maybe there is no inflated faith in his own powers, but that he just doesn't care, as long as the book sells. Certainly writing headings that promise coverage of all the mouth-watering destinations of Italy would sell, and, who cares that the product does not deliver once the money is had?

This is worse than a "tourist menu", it is the equivalent of ordering a plate and get something completely different in its place, only after having paid in advance with no money back guarrantee.

Then, a word to his "sense of humour": it is SO forced that it can easily bring about adverse side-effects to the reader. Had the author let go of what seems like a compulsion to be funny, maybe he'd have actually managed to hit on something funny every now and then, as it is, there is nothing at all "natural" about his "humour", you can feel the effort reeking off his lines, an effort that is infectious and exhausting, resulting in the very opposite effect of what natural humour would have produced. There is a very clear self-consciousness about his "jokes", you could almost see between the lines the words "see how funny I am? See how smart I am?" (Yet another symptom of the power of MAMMA's faith in her son?)

The most annoying bit, however, was an alleged "letter from Britain" on the last pages of this book, supposedly from "British friends" with whom the author "toured those ten days", and who are making remarks about all the gems of insight and wisdom he imparted upon them throughout "the tour". By some fascinating "coincidence", both the writing style of his "British friends" and "their" sense of humour are the exact laboured ones as his, even the range of vocabulary and expressions are the same...hmmmm.... readers are not supposed to notice that either...

Ah well, I guess it all fits now, imaginary friends go on imaginary tours, which we, in turn, are supposed to imagine...

The book's intended market are italian airport shops, promising a "piece of Italy" to visitors who crave more, but where what they actually get is the worst of what Italy sometimes offers its countless lovers, the "no-promises-shall-be-kept" bit.
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on 12 June 2011
What we have here is a book that lacks discipline and a strong editor. There are some good points, but they are lost in a cacophony of words. It seems padded, repetitive and unfocused, and I found myself quickly putting it down every few pages. That was not a good sign.

There is also a certain smugness that is not endearing. "Yes, we do that, but we're just like that, we're Italian" doesn't explain WHY Italians think the way the do and what influences them to think that way. It's too cutesy where it should be insightful.

As others have said, take any book by Tim Parks and you'll find an insightful account of both Italy and Italians, delivered in an extremely well written and rewarding style.
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on 3 February 2017
Lots of crap reviews & i totally understand why, because unless you're Italian, Part italian or someone whose spent a lot of time with Italians it must seem boring instead of very interesting & quite funny. This is not a travelogue but an insight into the bowl of spaghetti that is the Italian mind!!
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on 20 March 2014
... if you already have a copy of Severgnini's "An Italian In Italy". It's the same book, whose original title was "La testa degli Italiani". Sharp practice by the publishers.(Hodder).
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on 18 July 2009
La bella figura is an interesting book and severgnini a good writer. However, as many books of this type, it is outdated and does not reflect everyday life for a poor italian. As usual the view of the middle class is given. All the difficulties the elderly, disabled and even mums with prams are not shown and a rosy picture is painted
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on 24 February 2014
Every so often since the 1990s the journalist Beppe Severgnini publishes a volume of his latest destination he has lived and worked in, and has it translated into various tongues. La Bella Figura (2008), a 10 day journey inside the Italian mind and down the length of his home land, is in its present format quite different. It is aimed at English speaking Italophiles wishing plausible answers to complex questions, something a self proclaimed Italian Anglophile feels he can provide.

It is an attempt to demonstrate that the foreigner's image of Italy is very different from the real Italia of the natives. In a nutshell, "Italy is a soft drug peddled in predictable packages such as hills in the sunset, olive groves and raven haired girls. Italia, on the other hand, is a maze. In Italia you go round and round in circles for years. Which, of course, is great fun."

Excellent start and intention: it is much more than pizza, Mafia, corruption of public administration, Berlusconi and his bunga bunga parties, and of over paid football and film stars clad in Armani, Ferragamo, Dolce & Gabbana, as featured in the columns of world press.

Though focusing on certain key tourist hot spots since the past Grand Tours of the rich: Milan, Florence and Tuscany, Rome, and Naples, Severgnini's ten chapter day tome is not a traditional tourist guide. As in earlier works he uses a day or a place to examine and explain customs, habits, behaviours and mannerisms of his people: the noise in an Italian airport, at stadia, the purpose of long distance rail travel, the innuendoes of night life, the language and unwritten rules of headlights and motoring, the Italian piazza, the garden - ie where Italians act in public as animals at the zoo, and then compares that with the closed, private world of the changing bambini-less Italian family, and introduces us to "mammismo", mother-fixated over-grown children, a unique sacrosanct national institution, which recently Cristina Odone of the Telegraph (17.02.14), an Italian living in the UK, sagely distinguished with our less developed, mild version of "mummy's boy" . Severgnini also takes one to less known areas: the island of Sardinia, and to his own much loved home town of Crema, close to Milan, to emphasize that Italia is still a young nation of 100 different, distinct, and very proud centres, proud of their histories, where the NGA should know that the warm hearted barber and friendly kiosk attendant might still be more reliable sources of local events and gossip than expensive satellite surveillance equipment.

At the end Severgnini's British guests sent back an end of trip SWOT report split between the Italian positives and negatives: the strengths, "G"s for genius, guts, gusto, and generosity, and the weaknesses, "I"s, intelligence, intuition, intention, and intimacy: among which includes the country's refusal to change and drift towards modern innovative initiatives, such as e-commerce, and whenever they are accused of a vice rather than trying to remedy the fact they do nothing, justifying their failing as something not unique.

A country, the author notes, which proudly had Botticelli amongst its greats, has recently had Berlusconi, an industrialist who like a captain of a ship promised to lead his country into safe havens, but instead behaved like an African despot, made his life, and his own cabin comfortable, and left the rest to swim to the rocks or fight off the sharks.

Until his book appeared the people, like the dying Venetian maritime Republic in the eighteenth century, could fall back on living for the day, on good food, on hedonism at religious, sporting, and TV leg show carnivals, with the good weather keeping up the depressed spirits for eight months of the year. It was the same foreigners' mythical search for buried treasure of Italy and finding Italia; the hopes of the locals with the realities, discovering they are living in a hellish heaven, or of a hell colonised by angelic souls - Severgnini stops mid way to please the one and only, himself, as an "offbeat purgatory", and gets a laugh, too!

As an Italian, was the comment that going round the maze-like world a real fulfilling experience? Surely not. Maybe for a sociologist, or a journalist like himself it is diverting, because it is part of his bread and butter; it is also part of the self, Italian me first, syndrome, that he criticises about Berlusconi, and admits it is rare when Italians come together as one - when the Azzurri beat the best on the soccer field, or when with "uncivil civic spirit" motorists flash their headlights to warn others that the police are around the corner making checks.

A book can be praised / criticized for what it has, just as it can for what it leaves out. It was commented, even if in passing, that Italians are not racist. They have realised almost after 40 years that they can be patriotic and nationalists, without being Fascists. Even before the world financial crisis racism and chauvinism were slowly moving their ugly heads above the parapet, and since the growth of youth unemployment feelings have hardened. The image of the young Italian on the front cover, confidently lying across his Vespa like a Greek god, is now a little dated.

True, one or two generations ago Italians exported immigrants, but the country has never witnessed, much less experienced a multi-coloured invasion as they have had in the last 15 years of different coloured faces (Africans, Chinese, and Indians), whites (Albanians, Macedonians, Rumanians), and nomads (Roms). In the case of the Chinese, not only are they replacing old local skilled artisans in the main shoe, clothes, leather workshops of Tuscany, manufacturing cheaper identical products, they are actually taking over shops in many main provincial centres, whereas lists of bankruptcies of small and medium companies, the traditional dynamic power of the economy, as well as suicides of failing local managers, have been doubling since 2010. Locals, as in Greece, are falling prey to frightened extremist voices; young graduates, like their unskilled grandparents, are now forced to take their chances by flying out to other lands.

In 2008 Severgnini believed Italy did not have a role model like Columbus leading all to a new promised land. Now that person may have appeared in a puff of smoke, as Pope Francis. It will, however, take more than a puff, a Francis, or a swallow to make a summer, or simply first having a will and then finding a way to change the vices of an ingenious, perfect, chosen race in order to fuse the vision of Italy with Italia. One past foreign visitor to the country, I recall, used to say he liked Italy, but pity about the Italians, as if he could distinguish the people from their culture.

Beppe Severgnini's words will inform the less informed outsiders. They won't convince all his people who may feel that as an Anglophile he is behaving like a smart alec, an Italophobe, and laughing at them at their expense. More so, as he knows what Italians are missing, he leaves one to guess his real preferences. Neither will he convince English speaking ex-pats in the know, much less those like the present reviewer with roots in the two countries.

As his previous volumes, La Bella Figura is well written, informative, a little over-witty in parts, and a little too harsh in others, but may leave the locals and those like myself asking was it a study of the country by an Italian, or the journey of one among the crowds of millions of Italians. It is, indeed, a face of millions, or the one and only right one. A good product makes a bella figura - the joy of all Italians, a poor one -the unmentionable brutta figura, is best forgotten.
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