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,…

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