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The Neapolitan Finger


I had heard about this book for years. The person who put the word out, at least in lay circles, was probably Luigi Barzini, in The Italians (1964). Praising his countrymen’s gift for talking with their hands, Barzini lamented that so little had been written on this subject. To his knowledge, only one person—Andrea de Jorio, a Neapolitan priest—had attempted a lexicon of Italian hand gestures, in an 1832 volume entitled La Mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano (“The Mimicry of Ancient People Interpreted Through the Gestures of Neapolitans”). Barzini offered a little sample:

Take the chapter headed “Rage, anger.” It lists ten principal ways of silently expressing such emotions. They are…(1) “biting one’s lips”; (2) “biting one’s hands and single fingers”; (3) “tearing one’s hair”; (4) “scratching one’s face”; (5) “firmly enclosing one’s fist in the other hand and rubbing it with such force that the joints crack”; (6) “gnashing one’s teeth with wide open lips”; (7) “moving one’s lips with a shuddering, nervous rhythm”; (8) “stamping the ground with violence”; (9) “beating palm against palm, as if to applaud, once or twice only, with force.” The only gesture not easily understood is number 10, “pretending to bite one’s elbows.” It is a pantomime of an Italian idiomatic saying. It means, in words, “I will do anything to avenge myself, even the impossible, of which biting my elbows is a hyperbolic example.”

Upon reading this, you felt that if you could not get hold of de Jorio’s book immediately, you would bite your elbows. But according to Barzini, the volume was unobtainable:

It is not included in bibliographies, encyclopedias, lists of rare books for sale, or catalogues of Italian libraries. It is unknown to specialists and scholars. The only copy I know of is in my hands. I stole it from the library of an old and unsuspecting English gentleman.

At the time when Barzini was writing, the book was indeed that rare, for reasons that have now been explained by Adam Kendon, an anthropologist specializing in gestural communication. Apparently, de Jorio’s thinking was out of step with that of most prior, and many contemporary, writers on gesture. With Rousseauvian logic, they sought in gesture a universal language, more primitive, more natural, than speech. He, by contrast, regarded gesture as the product of a specific culture—a local matter, notably a Neapolitan matter—and nothing in his discussion of it indicates that he found it more grunting or sincere than speech. So while he was occasionally cited by later nineteenth-century writers, he seems not to have been considered a central thinker. In the early twentieth century, his name receded further, for around that time the study of gesture itself was largely abandoned. Only in the last few decades, with the rise of semiotics, the study of signs, did de Jorio’s book float back into view, whereupon it seemed interestingly modern, not just in its culture-bound approach—de Jorio, says Kendon, was “the first ethnographer of gesture”—but, at points, in the subtlety of its discussion. Long before Saussure, de Jorio was discussing the inseparability of the signifiant and the signifié.

In 1964, the year when Barzini told us to abandon all hope of getting a copy, the book was republished for the first time, and in 1979 there was a reprinting of the first edition. But not until this year was de Jorio’s treatise brought out in English. The translation, the copious notes, and the long, helpful introduction are by Kendon. Retitled Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity, the book is part of Indiana University Press’s “Advances in Semiotics” series, and I’m sure it will be of use to semioticians. Meanwhile, it will benefit the rest of us too, as a source of wisdom and delight.


De Jorio was born on the island of Procida in the Bay of Naples in 1769—a time when, thanks to the excavations at Herculaneum and Pompeii, Naples had become the most important archeological site in all of Europe. A studious boy, he took orders at an early age; at thirty-six he was made a canon of the Cathedral of Naples. His true calling, however, was to the local industry, archaeology, and soon after taking up his post at the cathedral he assumed a more congenial one as a curator at the Royal Museum. Eventually, he wrote fifteen books on archaeology, books in which he paid particular attention to Greco-Italian vases and, in interpreting them, placed special emphasis on gesture.

De Jorio was of the realist persuasion. To him, the fact that these kraters and amphorae were two thousand years old and pictured Vulcan and Neptune, Priam and Achilles, did not mean that they weren’t about life, the same sort of life that was still being lived on the very ground where the vases had lain buried. So he looked carefully at the hand gestures on the vases, compared them to gestures being used on the streets of Naples, and came up with his conclusions: the nymph or god or warrior on that vase was angry or jealous or frightened, because that’s what the hands said. Neapolitans to whom de Jorio offered his interpretations were readily persuaded, he tells us. “On the other hand, to those who had been born in distant regions”—he means northern regions, for example, Germany, the great hatchery of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century archaeologists—“and who, on account of their cool and sluggish temperament, are rather unused to gesturing, these explanations seemed…without meaning.” Hence Gesture in Naples. De Jorio wrote the book, he says, to elucidate classical art and to enliven archaeology, by showing his contemporaries that ancient people, or at least the ancient Greeks who founded Naples, were like them.

But he had another purpose too. Naples was a mecca not just for archaeologists but for all manner of foreigners—it was a required stop on the Grand Tour—and the tourists sent back vivid reports. At the same time, with the rise of romantic nationalism, many Italian writers were showing a new interest in the folklore, the folk life, of Naples. Out of these sources, high and low, there emerged a standardized portrait of the city as a place where small, nut-brown people, smelling of garlic and lemons, mended their nets, threatened each other with knives, made love, and danced the tarantella, all in full view of the public.

This notion, cousin to nineteenth-century Orientalism, gave birth to a considerable art and entertainment industry. Books, lithographs, operas, ballets chronicled the salty doings among the basso popolo of Naples. The fashion aroused mixed feelings in educated Neapolitans, and Gesture in Naples partakes of such feelings. On the one hand, its five hundred pages of boisterous Neapolitan street theater constitute a shining instance of the stereotype. On the other hand, the book is a defense of the Neapolitans against the condescension of foreigners. At one point, de Jorio unburdens himself on the subject of writers who, having ridden a carriage through his city, think they know the people:

Some of these writers are too quick to accuse our populace of a lack of reserve in their domestic doings. In Naples, they say, everything is done in the street. But please, why not take into account the open heart of the Neapolitans, their gregarious character, their celebration of friendship and finally the sweetness of the climate? Our populace, furthermore, lives with but one or two rooms per family (not to speak of the guests willingly admitted)…. This narrow locale forms the anteroom, the bedroom and sometimes the dining room of the low people; the street must then be considered by them as the galleria of their apartment. Therefore, if…writers wished to be just towards our common people, they should say, rather: The Neapolitans do everything in their house.

Throughout the book, de Jorio praises the Neapolitans’ “exquisite delicacies” of mind, their “grace and fineness of spirit”—high-class virtues—and his evidence is their hand language. Of course, it didn’t hurt his argument that he was comparing his townspeople’s gestural iconography to that of ancient vase-painting, so noble, so esteemed by Germans, and using it to interpret and humanize that art. As Katharine Hepburn is supposed to have said of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, “He gave her class; she gave him sex.”


The structure of the book is unassuming—an ABC. Amore, dolore, odore, orrore: so de Jorio goes, essay by mini-essay, down the scales of human thought and feeling. The first order of business is just to show us the gestures. He includes some drawings, but not that many, and unlike gestures, drawings do not move, so he has to rely largely on words. He does very well with them. Under “deception,” for example, here are your options:

  1. The fingers are put between the cravat and the neck, and are moved so that the neck is rubbed repeatedly with the back of the fingers….

  2. The thumb and index finger take hold of the cravat at some point and pull it away from the neck a little….

  3. Fingers brought close to the cravat….

  4. Mouth open and the right hand directed to it, with the fingers drawn together in a point.

If you carefully perform these actions, you will soon find that you are doing something you have seen Sophia Loren do in a movie.

After describing the gesture, de Jorio addresses its logic. All gesture, he believes, is figurative; it makes pictures. That’s why it’s so interesting—more interesting, he implies, than language, which is almost wholly abstract. Some gestures are easy to read. (In “deception” numbers 1 through 3, for example, the necktie is being loosened so that the throat can accommodate the great wad of lies that the person is being asked to swallow. See figure 9 in the illustration on page 48.) Others are harder, but de Jorio always offers some reading, however speculative. Who would have thought that praying hands meant anything more than prayer? De Jorio. By pressing our hands together in this way, he proposes, we are saying to the Lord, “Here are my hands,…they are rendered useless, I have no power myself…; therefore I have recourse to your efforts, protect me, etc.”

Having described and interpreted the gesture, de Jorio moves on to the archaeological material. He tells us which room to go to in the Royal Museum (now the National Museum of Archaeology), or which page to turn to in the writings of his colleagues, to see a vase where someone is performing the same gesture, for the same reason. He has also trawled most of ancient literature, and he tells us where, in Pliny, Petronius, Apuleius, Quintilian, Terence, Juvenal, Horace, Seneca, and on and on, we can find reference to the gesture under consideration. I must confess that these discussions of the link between Neapolitan mimica and ancient art—which, according to de Jorio, is the chief subject of his book—are the only parts that bored me. Perhaps if I too could walk us through the rooms of the National Museum (Kendon gives us updated room numbers—take this book if you’re going to Naples), I would feel the appropriate excitement. Like others of de Jorio’s writings, Gesture in Naples is in some measure a guidebook, and guidebooks don’t always make for armchair reading. Furthermore, the archaeological discussions are the sections where de Jorio is arguing with Germans, a task which did not relax him. Soon, however, he lays down the vases and returns to the streets, where he finds more gestures to show us and, invoking Horace’s principle of utile dulci, or mixing pleasure with instruction, tells us little stories about how hypothetical Neapolitans—Tizio and Cajo, Carmonsina and Celeste—would use them.

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