Gold and the Italian Identity

Why is it so important? And, really, why do all Italians care?

Written by Alexandra Chipperfield, under supervision of Dr. Gaoheng Zhang.

Taking a few steps in any of Italy’s historical downtowns, or centri storici, you are immediately welcomed to the many picturesque piazze (city squares) and vie (streets): each unique and captivating in their own beauty, they offer visitors ample opportunities to experience the Italian lifestyle. As a tourist you can experience the beautiful palazzi (palaces) and cathedrals, the typical local daily fruit and vegetable markets, or choose to immerse yourself in the country’s rich culinary culture by visiting its many gourmet restaurants. While absorbing Italy’s day-to-day cultural practices as a visitor, you will undoubtedly become aware of the importance Italians place on fashion. Yet, what you might find more surprising is the tremendous attention paid to high-quality gold. The tourist will notice the infatuation with gold almost immediately while taking a stroll on any one of Italy’s famous high fashion shopping streets, which are lined with high-end boutiques that feature the most opulent gold pieces. In fact, you will find all the major jewellery houses as well as an abundance of family-owned stores, devoted to the highest level of Italian craftsmanship.                     

Italians’ love for fine gold is exemplified by their attention to artisanal craftsmanship, and by their devotion to choosing gold at the finest gioiellerie, or jewelry stores. Italians exhibit visible pride when adorning the most elaborate high-quality gold pieces. When it comes to Italians, gold purity is deemed so significant that 18 karats is the minimum standard found in stores! Interestingly, this emphasis on superior gold is translated in English-speaking Italian diaspora communities in North America. Exploring the origins of why gold is so pivotal to Italian identity, and capturing the context of its widespread prevalence, will help us understand why and how Italians are so passionate about gold!

Italians’ desire to display jewellery of quality gold stems from the days of ancient Rome, and significantly grew during the Italian Renaissance, when the expectation of presenting beauty and pride was an important facet of social and cultural life. Today, the expression fare bella figura, or to cut a beautiful figure in the best light possible in public, captures this important Italian custom. Italians strive to make a good impression by presenting themselves in the most fashionable way possible to emit personal respect and prestige. Children are taught early on by their parents and grandparents that presenting yourself in a fine manner is emblematic for projecting an impression of success. Arguably, the notion of fare bella figura goes hand-in-hand with the social relevance given to gold in Italy today. It is common, in-fact almost habitual, that Italians seek to own and wear the most opulent gold jewellery pieces that they can afford to showcase their overall personal presentation and social status. 

This fixation on gold resonates with people with Italian identities more broadly. Rather than a geographic-specific attribute restricted to the Italian peninsular, it can be seen as more consistent with Italian identity in general, including diasporic and migrant Italians and people with Italian ancestry. Many residents from Italian communities in many North American cities display a similar desire for high-quality gold, despite living more than 5,000 miles away from Italy. In fact, like in the motherland, the stores will typically only sell 18 karat gold.  

Intriguingly, in the same manner as in Italy, the fare bella figura philosophy may also provide a possible explanation as to why gold is so important in North American diasporic communities. Those living in Italian-prevalent communities today may have left their native land and migrated, or may have been born in North America and belong to the so-called second- or third-generation Italian families. Yet it appears that the notion of fare bella figura upholds. For example, critics Laura Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra explain that for working-class migrants gold objects served to directly link generations of Italian Americans with their relatives in Italy.1 For more recently arrived migrants who are skilled workers, the motivation behind possessing high-quality gold pieces might lie in the fact that such objects match their well-positioned status, and their desire for maintaining their innate sense of fashion. 

While fare bella figura undoubtedly remains socially relevant in North American communities, the reason why this social custom continues to be so ingrained is more difficult to understand. According to Gudrun Held, the art of fare bella figura is not only considered a cornerstone to the Italian way of life, but it also regulates Italian identity in its everyday interaction. It is “an inherent part of Italian culture.”2

References:
  1.  “Introduction: Rebooting Italian America” in New Italian Migrations to the United States edited by Laura E. Ruberto and Joseph Sciorra, 2017, p. 11.
  2.  “Is the Italian figura just a facet of face? Comparative remarks on two socio-pragmatic key-concepts and their explanatory force for intercultural approaches” in New Ways to Face and (Im)politeness by Gudrun Held, 2016, p. 7.

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