Bella (or Brutta) figura means: Looking Good (or Bad) in the eyes of society.
This is an extremely powerful concept in the Italian Culture where everybody is subject to and judged by the “Social eye”.
An example of this concept may be the following.
In 2000, Fiat Auto was collapsing because of persistent poor sales and inability to penetrate the global markets and it was on the verge to be sold to the then Daimler-Chrysler group for 13 Billion USD.
This would have required Gianni Agnelli to admit his failure as the entrepreneur who inherited the company from his grand-dad. Selling to Daimler-Chrysler would also have meant thousands of blue-collar jobs to be erased overnight in his home-town, Torino.
In other words, to sell the Company, even if it would have yielded 13 Billion USD for the shareholders of a quickly declining company, would have been for l’Avvocato (“The Lawyer”, Gianni Agnelli’s nickname) a terrible “Brutta Figura” and, as Vanity Fair once commented: “This is the classic term for just about the worst crime an Italian can commit: looking bad in the eyes of society. Agnelli knew that the sale of a 100-year-old Italian car-maker to the Germans would have made him appear treasonous.”
To keep the Company and save it together with thousands of jobs at home would have been a “Bella Figura”, regardless of the price to be paid in order to achieve it.
Naturally, Gianni Agnelli opted not to sell “at all cost”.
The company shed 10 Billion USD of its value in the following 3 years (a bloodbath for the shareholders who lost 75% of their investment) and the whole “extended” Agnelli family’s stake in the company was virtually pulverized in order to save the Company (of the 80+ members of the extended Agnelli & Nasi families, only John Elkann remained with a substantial control stake) but, thanks to the Bella Figura,their face in front of society was saved.