Italian Hand Gestures

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by Stephen Drew, Improbable Research staff

Italian hand gestures fascinate scholars, who labor to classify the gestures and grasp their meanings.

Andrea de Jorio's Handy Classic

Detail from de Jorio's book. A typical scene of a boy and an adult woman communicating partially with hand gestures.

A book published in 1832 is in some sense a bible of Italian--- especially southern Italian---hand gestures:

La Mimica Degli Antichi Investigata nel Gestire Napoletano [The Body Language of the Ancients as Interpreted in Neapolitan Gesture], Andrea de Jorio, Naples, 1832.  

Eventually, someone translated de Jorio's work into English:

Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity, Andrea de Jorio, translated, with introduction and notes, by Adam Kendon, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2000, ISBN 0-253-33657-0.

Details from de Jorio's book: An assortment of hand gestures often displayed on or near with the head.

To a modern reader conversant with southern Italian hand gestures, the illustrations from La Mimica Degli Antichi Investigata nel Gestire Napoletano speak volumes. Scholars, though, are in some cases not filled with delight.

Giovanna Ceserani of Princeton University reviewed the translated version (in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review in 2003), summing up, in two peppy sentences, the value of the original:

To semioticians and the wider public de Jorio's interest in and claims on the gestures of the ancients are the less fascinating and often utterly puzzling pages of the book. Certainly, the place and importance of de Jorio's work for today's classical scholarship and practices remains arguably elusive.

Detail from de Jorio's book: A typical scene of Italian adults employing hand gestures.

Giovanna Ceserani is a scholar of classical literature. She does not specialize in hand gestures. Hand gesture philosophers have their own, different take.

Corbeill, the Hand Gesture Philosopher

Anthony Corbeill of the University of Kansas also reviewed the translated, edited edition. Writing in the journal Electronic Antiquity, in 2000, Corbeill speaks of:

the editor's conscious decision not to focus on the issue of ancient gesture, although this concern constitutes the raison d'être of de Jorio's original work.

Corbeill is a philosopher of Italian hand gesture, having authored a book:

Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, Anthony Corbeill, Princeton University Press, 2003.

One learns from Corbeill's book the importance, in ancient Rome, of the thumb:

In chapter 2 I [perform] a close analysis of one small component: the Roman thumb (pollex). By evaluating various aspects of this digit, from its etymological meaning to its everyday manifestations, I demonstrate how the Romans located in this single body part a notable source of power.

That close analysis builds on the also-close analysis presented in an earlier paper:

"Thumbs in Ancient Rome: 'Pollex' as Index," Anthony Corbeill, Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome, vol. 42, 1997, pp. 1--21.

Kendon, the Hand Gesture Philosopher

Detail from de Kendon's study: mano a borsa, in a conversation.

Adam Kendon, translator and editor of the English-language edition of Andrea de Jorio's classic 1832 work La Mimica Degli Antichi Investigata nel Gestire Napoletano, is another philosopher of Italian hand gestures. Much of his research and thought distilled into the study:

"Gestures as Illocutionary and Discourse Structure Markers in Southern Italian Conversation," Adam Kendon, Journal of Pragmatics, vol. 23, no. 3, 1995, pp. 247--79.

Much of that distillation appears in an evocative passage:

As we will see, of the gestural patterns described here, two are recognized by name among Italians. These are the mano a borsa, or "purse hand" and the mani giunte, "joined hands"---or "praying hands" as they are sometimes referred to in English. They have been described by writers on Italian gesture, including De Jorio (1979 [1832]), Munari (1963), Efron (1972 [1941]), Poggi (1983a), and Diadori (1990), as if they have well-understood meanings, and can be used on their own, as a substitute for speech.

Detail from de Kendon's study: mani giunte, in a conversation.

_____________________

This article is republished with permission from the July-August 2013 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues.

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I notice that while the examples are given reasonable-sounding Italian names, which are then translated harmlessly, the link between gesture and meaning is purposely vague. Could that be because some of the gestures are sexual or threatening in nature? I live in Toronto, which is largely Italian, and, while I don't speak that language, I can easily understand a threat or curse, or 'sexualism', from what I can see on the street. That's the real translation.
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