The phrase ‘fare la bella figura’ is commonly used to describe the supposed (often true, though stereotypes are unfair) Italian preoccupation with keeping up appearances. It translates literally as ‘making a beautiful figure’ or more accurately as ‘making a good impression’. It is not, as is often assumed, simply to do with how you dress, or just looking good. It is also about how you behave and the kind of impression you leave on other people, particularly in public. The last thing you want to do is to ‘fare la brutta figura’, or ‘make an ugly figure’. In English, we’d translate this as ‘making a bad impression’.
In fact, these translations may not be so accurate, since we typically use the ‘impression’ phrases in English to talk about meeting people for the first time. We might say we made a good impression on an interview, for instance. However, the Italian ‘fare la bella/brutta figura’ could refer to someone doing something which leaves either a good or bad effect on their reputation amongst people they know.
What I find interesting are the uses of the Italian words for ‘beautiful’ (bella) and ‘ugly’ (brutta) in place of the much more simple English words ‘good’ and ‘bad’. In the Italian version, it is not enough to make a good impression–you must make a beautiful one. The word ‘bella’ is often used to describe many things that are positive in nature. For example, “Che bella notizia!” to mean “What good/great news!”, or “È stata una bella vacanza” to mean “It was a good/nice holiday.” Again, beautiful means good.
By the by, it’s quite unlikely anyone would say “Oh, it was such a beautiful holiday” in English. Besides, it’s doubtful if the sentence is even meaningful.
Talking about the opposite side, you cannot simply say that someone (or even you) has made a bad impression–it must have been an ugly one. We can use the same examples again: “Che brutta notizia!” to mean “What bad/awful news!”, or “È stata una brutta vacanza” to mean “It was a bad/awful holiday.” Here, ugly means bad.
The Italian language is in some sense showing a nice (beautiful?!) equivalence here by saying that good things are beautiful and bad things are ugly.
Thank you to “italianlandscapes” over on Tumblr who mentioned that the phrase “fare la bella/brutta figura” is quite often used with the indefinite article ‘una’, so “fare una brutta figura”. I was actually debating which one to use when writing the post as I’ve heard both being used. Also, you could use the ‘bella’ version sarcastically. For instance, “Mi hai proprio fatto fare una bella figura!” could mean “You’ve really showed me up!” or “You’ve really made me embarrass myself!”.