The words Italy and style are synonymous. Just think the Vespa, Ferrari and Versace. And if Italian style and grace is what you’re after, look no further than Sophia Loren. She is the epitome of the elegant Italian donna matura (mature woman). The Italian philosophy which emphasises beauty, style and grace is called ‘la bella figura’ or ‘the beautiful figure’. The Italians have been creating beauty for a long time so it’s a way of life for them. But, for Italians ‘la bella figura’ is more than beauty, style and grace. It is also about behaving well. Il Galateo or ‘The rules of polite behaviour’, is a book written during the renaissance period. Popular throughout Europe, it was a manual for behaving with courtesy, dressing with elegance and respect for others.
Galateo: The Rules of Polite Behavior (Il Galateo, overo de ‘costume) by Florentine Giovanni Della Casa (1503–56) was published in Venice in 1558. A lively guide to what one should do and avoid in ordinary social life, this influential courtesy book of the Renaissance explores subjects such as dress, table manners, and conversation. It became so popular that the title, which refers to the name of one of the author’s distinguished friends, entered into the Italian language. To “not know the Galateo” means to be impolite, crude, and awkward in polite society.
Il Galateo is said to have been the foundation for the etiquette manuals we know today and that through it, the Italians taught the rest of the world how to behave. Italians today talk about Il Galateo at the table – not only good manners, but the appropriate way to set the table; the giving of gifts and flowers; and even how to dress. As a manual or guide to acting Italian in Italy, it is still relevant today.
The etiquette of flowers or Il Galateo dei fiori
Flowers are a thoughtful gift but the wrong flower for the occasion could be embarrassing for you and the recipient. Italians are superstitious and there is symbolism attached to colour and type of flower. Take care in your choice and you’ll be rewarded with sincere appreciation and thanks.
A few suggestions:
- Huge bunches are generally not in good taste. It’s better to give a small bouquet chosen with care
- Chrysanthemums are only for funerals
- Orchids are the perfect gift for important occasions
- Roses signify love and passion
- Yellow flowers to your boyfriend are a symbol of betrayal
- A single flower such as a rose is only given to someone you love
- For a man, flowers such as tulips or roses in bright colours are ideal
Il Galateo at the table
For a dinner party, an elegant table set with a clean tablecloth, the right number of glasses, napkins and cutlery and a beautiful centrepiece will impress your Italian guests. However, Il galateo means that there are a few other basic rules to be obeyed.
A few considerations for the host and guests:
- Invite a compatible group of friends to ensure conviviality
- Take a small beautifully wrapped gift, flowers or chocolates for the host. Quality, not quantity is the key
- At the table don’t talk too loud, or too much
- Elbows are off the table but hands are always in sight
- Don’t start eating until everyone is ready
- Whilst at the table, mobile telephones should be silent and nowhere in sight
Italian style is hard to beat, but good manners (buone maniere) cost nothing. And when in Italy, act like an Italian!
Buon divertimento! …Isabella