This year’s contestants at the Festival of the Ugly (Photo: Rebecca Brill)
In order to become a member of the World Association of Ugly People, you need to be assessed. In the clubhouse of the Association, known by locals as Club dei Brutti, the president, a stocky man named Gianni with a lopsided goatee, produces a card featuring the official Club dei Brutti ugliness rating system: non definita (undefined), insufficiente (insufficient), mediocre, buona (good), ottima (great), straordinaria (extraordinary). Gianni examines my face and body quickly but thoroughly. Then, on a membership card on which he has written my name, he checks off the box marked “insufficiente.” At first, I’m confused by this designation and the ranking system as a whole. I can’t tell whether insufficiente means I am insufficiently attractive (and therefore ugly) or insufficiently ugly (and therefore not eligible to join the organization). As it turns out it’s the latter. Gianni signs my card anyway, thereby designating me the 31,310 member of Club dei Brutti. “Time makes us all ugly,” he explains.
I have not really come to Piobbico, a small village between two mountains in central Italy, to join the organization. Rather, I’m here for Club dei Brutti’s annual Festival of the Ugly, where thousands of self-identified ugly people gather in the town square to celebrate ugliness and cast their votes for the club’s president. But it is hard to observe life in Piobbico, whose ties to the hundred-and-fifty-year-old organization are inextricable, without inadvertently becoming a participant. This is in part because Piobbico is small, in terms of both its geography and its population of just under two thousand. But the more time I spend here, the more I attribute this feeling of inherent involvement to something else about the village: a panoptic sense of being watched. The people in Piobbico look at each other: women hanging laundry call out to passersby from flung-open windows; men sit in front of bars in long rows rather than circles, ogling local women as they smoke; children shout “Ciao!” from their bicycles to people they appear not to know. (I realize that all of this sounds too picturesque to be true, but indeed, Piobbico feels like something straight out of an Elena Ferrante novel.) There is nowhere to hide here; no action goes unseen. To be in Piobbico is to be on display, to perform, to be known. I wonder how anyone stands it.
Legend has it that the president of Club dei Brutti is always the ugliest person in the village, but Massimiliano, a board member of Club dei Brutti and a longtime friend of Gianni, reveals to me that the president tends to be the person the villagers find the most entertaining. Gianni has held office of Club dei Brutti for eight years, and it is widely predicted he will win this year’s election. It’s easy to see why: he is loud and endlessly energetic, with the disposition of a borsch-belt comedian and a tendency to break into dance—a clumsy quasi jig—at random intervals.
However, I am constantly being reminded that Gianni is no Lele, the man who served as president of the Association for some thirty-odd years before his death in 2009 and who is one of the most revered figures in Piobbico’s history. People here don’t say Lele’s name so much as they sigh it; they sort of gaze into the distance when they mention him. Pictures of Lele, a diminutive man in a top hat, adorn every corner of the official Club dei Brutti clubhouse, a stately stone cottage along the town square. When pressed for detail about why Lele is so beloved, people reply nebulously. “He was just funny,” one man tells me. “Funny and generous.”
Masimilliano’s mother, an ebullient woman in a floral housedress whom I am instructed to call Nonna, provides more specifics, fondly reminiscing about Lele’s infamous pranks. As she rolls out pasta dough in preparation for Sunday lunch, she tells the story about how decades ago, villagers begged Lele for the secret ingredient to his famous polenta recipe and, feigning surrender, he listed a fake ingredient, confusing everyone about why their polenta tasted nothing like Lele’s. She also recalls an occasion on which Lele announced that he would be leading a parade by riding into town on horseback and instead arrived with a group of men standing on the back of a flatbed truck.
Lele’s pranks don’t strike me as pranks so much as intentional miscommunications of trivial information. At best, they are Dadaistic antijokes, and at worst, they are, well, stupid. Nonna tells another story about the time Lele announced that he was going to be interviewed on television, and so residents of Piobbico gathered in a bar to watch, anxiously anticipating his appearance. They waited for hours and hours, but Lele never appeared onscreen. When confronted the next day, Lele revealed he had made the whole thing up and that he had spent the night unceremoniously in his home.
Not being seen, hiding away: only here, in this village that watches so openly, could this be considered a punchline.
This year, there are eleven candidates for president of Club dei Brutti, including, for the first time ever, two women. My favorite candidate is Anna, who evokes Liza Minnelli and has the habit of placing her palms on her large breasts and jiggling them boisterously. She tells me she wants to be president of Club dei Brutti because women are seldom allowed to be ugly. She wants to give the women of Piobbico permission to be comfortable with themselves in the way that men so often are. She tells me that she used to resent friends who insisted that she was beautiful, and that their lies about her appearance made her feel far more self-conscious than had they just admitted the truth. She adds that her sex life has been vastly improved by declaring her own ugliness; she feels less self-conscious, freer. She jiggles her bosom, as if to illustrate the point .
Many people I speak to in Piobbico, even those unaffiliated with Club dei Brutti, believe that they are ugly, though to me, the people here don’t seem uglier than anywhere else. To declare your own ugliness as a resident of Piobbico is, in a sense, to express pride in your heritage. The belief that Piobbicans are unusually ugly is centuries old, rooted in the village’s history of extreme poverty. People here were historically employed as lumberjacks and coal miners; with little to eat and limited exposure to sunlight, they were allegedly frail, pale, and unsightly. Until fairly recently, the village also had poor road conditions and transportation to the closest metropolis, Urbino, leaving Piobbicans with limited access to dental and medical care. Club dei Brutti was founded in 1879 as a matchmaking service; legend has it that Piobbico was overrun with single women, known colloquially as the “hundred ugly brides,” who had trouble attracting husbands. Fearing for their daughter’s futures, the brides’ fathers, with the support of the mayor, established Club dei Brutti so that ugly local women could meet equally ugly local men.
Centuries of hard work have destigmatized ugliness to the point that Piobbicans declare their ugliness cavalierly, as if the categorization were no more charged than that of having say, brown hair or blue eyes.
On election day, Anna prances around the village in a red tunic and matching headband and a red rose between her teeth. She kisses passersby on the cheek, staining their faces with red lipstick, and encourages them to vote for her. Most of the other candidates I speak to do not possess Anna’s zeal, despite the unofficial requirement of enthusiasm for election. A solemn man with sad calflike eyes, whose formerly beer-colored hair has earned him the moniker of Birra, and who ironically owns the village’s wine bar, can barely produce a sentence, let alone look me in the eyes, during our interview. When I ask him why he wants to be president of the club, he tells me, “Just because,” and looks at the ground sadly. Similarly, the owner of Piobbico’s sole tobacco shop, dubbed Biscotto for his paunchy build, seems shockingly unenthusiastic about his candidacy, as though it is something that has simply happened to him. On election day, these two men stand with the other candidates on the stage overlooking the town square, but while Gianni and Anna frolic about and engage the crowd, they—along with most of the other candidates—stand still, as though waiting for the whole thing to be over. I wonder if announcing their candidacy was simply a way of announcing their personhood.
When I tell a friend about Gianni’s categorization of me as insufficiente, the friend laughs. Later, I learn that the friend misinterpreted my anecdote and was under the impression that Gianni had declared me insufficiente on the whole, as in, generally insufficient as a person. The more time I spend in Piobbico, the more I wonder whether to be insufficiently ugly is to be less than human, unregistered, not part of the club. Here, to be ugly is to be part of something larger than yourself, to own the town’s heritage, to want to be seen. I think about this during the festival, where at its various events—including a raucous celebration of polenta (the village’s signature dish) and a poorly attended dance party—I retreat into corners and lean against walls scribbling in my notebook, which I hold up to my face like a screen.
On the final day of the festival, the president of the club is announced. After a long concert from the winner of a prize called the No-Belle, which each year honors an Italian singer for his or her unconventional look, and a strange pageant of scantily clad teenage girls who have been dubbed the most beautiful in Piobbico, the mayor, along with the priest, stands on a balcony overlooking the town square and addresses the crowd. He thanks everyone for coming. He recites a prayer. Then, a smoke machine goes off. If the smoke is white, I have been told, the incumbent has been reelected, and if the smoke is black, a new president of Club dei Brutti will take office. Only after this ritual is the name of the president announced over the loudspeaker. Earlier, this may have seemed ornate to me, or redundant, but by this point, I understand. It is insufficient to simply say it; nothing is real until it is visible. The smoke machine blows white.
Rebecca Brill is pursuing an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction at the University of Minnesota, where she is working on a collection of essays about ugliness. Her work has appeared in Lilith, Literary Hub, Entropy, and elsewhere. She runs the Susan Sontag’s Diary (@sontagdaily) Twitter account.
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