The porticoes march on like soldiers—columns of pale stone and red plaster over brick. The terrazzo rolls out for miles, a great expanse of sparkling sidewalk, rising and falling like swells in a rough sea. On the ground lie the patterns of antiquity: a Greek key motif in ochre, an intricate bargello of ebony. Overhead, fat angels and a playground Virgin soar—gilded, exalted—restored to polychromatic wonder. Walkers in the city don’t much talk about the architectural details. What they care about are the shoes.
Stroll the arcades of the Piazza Maggiore and watch the fancy-dress ladies peering into windows, wearing stenciled ankle straps in bronze-patinated calf. The feet are animated! Shop the oval-shaped Piazza Cavour with the pretty girls in green lizard patchwork pumps. The heels are talking! The moody streets of via Zamboni like it darker: vamps in spike motorcycle boots with nickel-plated hardware that could shift gears at any moment. And stop to smoke a cigarette. Or drink a glass of wine. Soles tip. Soles tap. They shuffle against rough marble. They go clip-clop on smooth mosaic. Soles echo and boom—sound reverberating down the arcades—thundering their arrival in the center of town.
In the fall any businessman with quattro soldi—four lire to put together—kicks off the season by slipping into custom brogues with squared-off toes. Fine footwear isn’t just a woman’s game. Two-tone man leather—toffee and cream, with contrasting stitching—looks right against faded walls. Shoes follow seasons and they’re also coordinated with activities. There are morning cappuccino shoes. There are afternoon loafers to buy groceries. Cesare Paciotti makes designer trainers just to work out in at the gym. And because Bologna is a medieval stage set
of a town, complete with ancient gates and battle ramparts, doing the passeggiata, or stroll, in centro, can make you feel like a conqueror—if you’re wearing the right footgear.
If it is spring in Riccione, the style capital of the riviera romagnola and the Hamptons of Greater Bologna, then we are talking about sandals. But not the crystal-beaded sandals that say skipping across beach sands and flirting with boys. No. Those are saved for August, when feet are tanned, toes are buffed smooth, and a single cord of sparkling leather—on the right figa—can make a man’s heart leap with desire.
In early May ragazzi want something simple. Here is a figata—a beautiful thing—that stops traffic: a suede bikini in fringe and feathers. And what is a figa, you ask, if you don’t speak Italian or haven’t spent the better part of a decade, as I have, watching men watching women negotiate cobblestones or race mint green Vespas in short skirts and heels while boys hiss “fiii . . .” through their teeth? It’s a matter of genitalia. The masculine version of the word, figo, is also used and is just as misleading. For what is macho about the breed of musclemen who, at least at the beach club where I go, get their eyebrows waxed as well as their bikini lines?
Long ago, figo and its female equivalent, figa, lost their literal meanings: penis and vagina, respectively. Today they stand for virtually anything that is hip or desirable. A fire-engine-red
superbike, made by the company that I help run, is figo. So is a silver Ferrari 360 Modena. Sprinkling your conversation with choice dialect, like socc’mel, “blow me” in Bolognese, is considered very cool, very figo to the people in this part of the world. The funny thing about figa, and the Italian male’s obsession with it, is that the term isn’t considered vulgar except when hurled at a statuesque beauty who refuses to acknowledge the chorus of compliments that comes her way while wandering the water’s edge in a g-string. “Figa di legno,” an Italian will mutter under his breath, “wooden pussy,” as if the frustrated insult had the power to ignite a failed flirtation into the blaze of erotic possibility.
On the first Saturday of the summer, I am decompressing with a flute of prosecco and my best friend, Daniele, a pure-blooded Bolognese with a foot fetish. This isn’t Capri, where the fancy Americans congregate. It’s not the costa azzurra, where the Milanese fashion crowd flocks. This is Italy’s eastern, Adriatic coast—a Fellini-esque circus of trendy exaggeration and trashy excess—where bolognesi go to embrace modernity without the weight of monuments or masterpieces. On my feet are ninety-nine-cent flip-flops. I’m not obliged to follow all of the rules. I’m American.
A serious figa with sky-high Sergio Rossi sandals begins her slow, sensual giro from the bar toward the water. She is not made of wood. Her summer cashmere pareo comes on and off again, exposing large natural breasts with dark erect nipples. “Wow!” She couldn’t be more perfect! Her pareo doubles as a head wrap, halter, and finally a sarong. The garment is flipped and unfurled in a choreographed ballet that moves from chaise to cabana before an admiring audience of beach cognoscenti.
All eyes, men’s, women’s, and the appraising gaze of Daniele, who knows the product range of Sergio Rossi the way a connoisseur knows dry, dramatic Barbaresco, are upon her. The particular sandal in question, with leather laces that wind halfway to the knee and cork platform heels, is referred to here as alla
schiava. “I’m a slave to Rossi!” he declares, breathless, “Sai . . .”
“They cost 425 euro for the pair on via Ceccarini,” I remind him. “We saw them yesterday.”
“For me it’s always like the first time,” he says dreamily, watching her work the boardwalk. “He is a master.”
“The man does seem to know what to do with feet,” I answer, putting down my Herald Tribune for just a second.
“I hope he doesn’t ruin it!” pronounces Daniele, suddenly indignant. He is referring to my lunch last week with the CEO of Gucci, who told me he was going to buy the Bologna-based company.
“Have you seen the toes?” I ask.
“Like well-manicured rosebuds.”
One has to admire the high sandal in summer. It stretches the calf. Elongates the line of the leg. Gets a pretty girl around town and aficionados—like Daniele—aroused. At the beach, Italian men also appreciate the color white and they know a good tan when they see one. The paradox of the very darkest, all-over suntan on the whitest woman creates the perfect backdrop for designer pelle—skin longing for skin. The mix is a combustible hormonal cocktail, a shot of summer Viagra for young Italians who can tell the difference between real crocodile and pressed leather at five hundred paces.
A new girl walks by, who we think is our housemate, Nicoletta, incognito. Dark as chocolate, thin as an After-Eight dinner mint, she slides rhinestone-encrusted sunglasses down her nose and looks out at the sea of sleek, oiled, leering ragazzini. If you were with us at the beach that summer, you’d know the model name of the wraparound aviators rimmed in brushed gold that I’m talking about (“Dior Flash”). Every girl had them—even a barmaid like Nicoletta.
Nearby, each pyrotechnic gesture is watched, evaluated, priced in the bagni—beach clubs with evocative names of mythical personae like Ettore and various states of desire: Paradise, Ecstasy, Hedonism. These beach clubs, even the simple ones like Luca, are never referred to by their names, but rather by their numbers. To further complicate matters, each bagno has its own restaurant, which has yet another name, and usually a different owner. You eat skewers of fresh local shrimp or calamari and delicate tortilla-like piadine “da Nello” or “da Carlo” . . . at Nicky’s, at Charlie’s. The menus are standard. The addition of cherry tomatoes to a plate of spaghetti with baby clams makes for news.
On Nicoletta’s feet is something truly noteworthy: a pair of the latest Gucci slides, box-fresh, with the gold horse bits and house pattern. “Minchia!” Daniele has no idea where she found the money to buy them.
Excerpted from Fast Company by David M. Gross. Copyright © 2007 by David M. Gross. Published in May 2007 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.