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.


p class=”initial”>No form of la mimica is too humble or familiar for inclusion in the book. (I was moved to discover that Nea-politans of 1832, in giving the finger, had the same choice of fingers—middle or pinkie—that we had in Oakland in 1960.) But de Jorio’s most ardent attention, his longest paragraphs, his prettiest details, are devoted to the complexity, the inflectedness of the hand language. Neapolitan mimica, he says, has a complete grammar. It can express time: past (“hand raised with palm turned towards the corresponding shoulder…and then thrust several times”), present, and future. It can specify person—I, you, they—and the sex of the person. Verb moods? Infinitive, imperative? La mimica can do it.

As for nouns and adjectives, they can be comparative, diminutive, superlative. Say you’re in the presence of one of “those who sing, or who hold forth in some loud discourse of self-interest or seriousness, or who talk boastfully,” and you want to express your scorn. What you need is the vernacchio, or raspberry. But that’s just the beginning. What is the degree of your scorn? If it’s moderate, you’ll want a reserved sort of raspberry. You fill your mouth with air, but you don’t expel it; you just hold it there for a little while and then swallow it. That’s the diminutive. If, on the other hand, you feel great scorn, you need the superlative, in which case you are advised to forget the mouth and transfer operations to the armpit: “Palm of the hand placed under the armpit of the opposite arm…. The hand is arranged so that, when compressed with violent blows given to it by the arm, because the air trapped there is pushed out by the force of the blows, it produces the same sound as that obtained by the mouth, but even more stridently.” If that’s not clear enough, de Jorio says, you can lift your leg at the same time. (He cites a precedent in Petronius.) Or you can choose from among the various standard procedures for adding emphasis to a gesture. If there’s a bench nearby, you can pummel it with your fists. Or you can stamp on the ground or raise your eyes to heaven. Alternatively, if you are holding something in your hands, you can hurl it violently into the air.1

That’s assuming, however, that the concept in question is not one of those that demands a wholly new form in the superlative. Threatening, for example. If all you want to say is “Yes, yes, continue conducting yourself in this bad manner and you will see what I will do to you,” then you’re going to need “head raised and bent forward several times, with the eyes narrowed and menacing.” If, however, the situation is more grave, if what you mean is “Wait, or give me time, so that a favorable occasion might turn up and then I will make you see if I know how to avenge myself for the wrong you do to me,” then “palm held facing downwards and oscillated slowly up and down” is the ticket.

Just as a single concept may branch out into many different gestures, so a gesture may have numerous different translations. The premier example is the mano cornuta, a sign so freighted with meaning that de Jorio takes thirty-six pages—the longest essay in the book—to get through it. The action is simple: “Index and little finger extended, the remaining middle and ring fingers folded and pressed on the thumb.” (See illustration on this page.) As for its meanings, I will confine myself to de Jorio’s main headings, with brief elucidations:

  1. Conjugal infidelity. Someone has been cuckolded, wears “horns.”
  2. Threat of extracting the eyes. If you aim the mano cornuta, palm down, at someone’s face, it means “I’m going to poke your eyes out.”
  3. Something of no value, as in “Non vale un corno,” “It’s not worth a horn.”

  4. Imprecation. De Jorio elaborates: “‘May you go crazy!,’ ‘May you despair!,’ ‘May you die!”‘

  5. Power. “This meaning has a very important place among our vulgar people,” de Jorio says. See item number 8, below.

  6. Pride, as in “Vieni ca te voglio rompere lle corna,” or “Come here, I want to break your horns.” See items number 5 and 8. This is about penises.

  7. Stopper. Ditto.

  8. Phallus. He finally says it, and then scolds us for our childishness in daring him to do so: “That the word corno is used among us in this sense will not cause any surprise.”

  9. Hardness in the physical sense, as in “This thing is hard like a horn.”

  10. Hardness in the moral sense, that is, unreasonableness.

  11. Nothing. “Someone who has no money, no food, no goods or utensils…may express himself by saying he hasn’t even a horn.”

  12. Amulet, against the evil eye.

The most important meaning is the last. The jettatura, or casting of the evil eye—an action, motivated by envy, that can dry up a cow’s milk, a man’s love—was actively feared in Naples in 1832 and is not altogether forgotten about in northern New Jersey today. The mano cornuta protects against it. You can direct it at the jettatore himself, but you probably shouldn’t, because you don’t want him to know that you know. So you aim it at the person you’re trying to protect from the jettatura. Or, if you’re in a place where a jettatore may have been operating, you can just make the mano cornuta and wave it around, like spraying for the West Nile virus. As you do so, however, de Jorio warns, you must contextualize it with the appropriate facial expression, so that you send the correct message. When your daughter is going to the dance in a new dress, you want your mano cornuta to be signaling “amulet” and not, for example, “I will poke your eyes out” or, God forbid, “phallus.”

The same care must be exercised with the mano in fica, or “figs” (“hand as a fist with the point of the thumb interposed between the middle finger and the index finger so that it sticks out”—see illustration on this page), a sign immortalized by the cutthroat Vanni Fucci in Dante’s Inferno. The mano in fica means three very different things. First, like the mano cornuta, it is a protection against the evil eye, but more effective, in de Jorio’s opinion. Second, it may be used as an insult, the equivalent, de Jorio says, of “go take a walk.” (This is the sense in which Vanni Fucci uses it—on God!—and its meaning in Dante’s time, as in modern times, was stronger than our “go take a walk.”) Finally, the mano in fica may be employed as an obscene invitation. Your face must indicate which of these meanings you intend. To make an obscene invitation you will want “a joyful, gay, or mild expression.” To deliver an insult, you need an “indignant, vindictive, or violent expression.”

This is by no means the end of it. De Jorio tells us how to position our feet, how to twirl our moustaches, how to do our eyes: sparkling or non. He teaches us how to produce figures of speech, rhetorical flourishes—periphrasis, metonymy, synecdoche, catachresis, antonomasia, you name it. He shows us how to do one-hand combinations, not just “Tizio is worn out from working so hard” (thumb drawn across the forehead; see gesture number 6 in the illustration on page 48), but “Tizio is worn out from working so hard at his thieveries” (thumb drawn across forehead while the remaining fingers fold down sequentially, in gesture of theft). He tells us how to conceal the mano cornuta from a jettatore. If your husband is nearby, you can put your hand in his pocket and then make the sign. Or if you are serving food to the jettatore, you can make the horns with the fingers that are under the plate. Aim them right at her, along with the ziti. Kill two birds with one stone.


As the complications blossom and multiply, you realize that la mimica is not an amplification of speech, which is the way most of us think of it. The relation between speech and gesture is something to which de Jorio does not give enough space (nor does Kendon in his introduction), but in many parts of the book it is clear that his people are gesturing in silence. For example, there is an unintentionally hilarious passage in which de Jorio tells us that if there is no gesture for what we need to say, that’s the time to use periphrasis, or circumlocution. Suppose a man wants to tell his friend that someone they know is mortally ill. There is no one sign for “mortally ill.” So the man

will first express “Robustness” and follow this with a gesture for “Past.” Then he will denote the present (see Ora, “Now”), adding to it a gesture for “Negative.” This will be followed by a gesture denoting the near future (see Domani, “Tomorrow”), and finally he will make the gesture expressing “Death.”

Why, instead of making six gestures, involving three time planes and three medical conditions, this man does not just open his mouth and say “Vito is dying” is never explained. In trying to account for the efflorescence of gestural communication in Naples, Kendon in his introduction tells us that there were circumstances in which nineteenth-century Neapolitans were forced to talk with their hands—for example, in communicating from balcony to balcony or when the streets were too noisy to make oneself heard. This, however, does not seem sufficient to explain the development of an entire, hyper-inflected hand-talk whose grammar and syntax often depart from the Italian language as radically as Chinese ideograms.

The unavoidable conclusion is that just as French cooking is more than a way of keeping French people from dying of hunger, so Neapolitan gesturing is not just—or even chiefly—a way of imparting information. It is an art, practiced for art’s sake. De Jorio almost says as much. Commenting on the “mortally ill” periphrasis, he points out that while virtuoso gesturing of this sort conveys a message, it may also be done “simply as a matter of style, extending one’s description so as to lengthen the conversation and to liven up the company.” So it’s not as though the Neapolitans use their hands because they lack the words. Forget words! What they need is this other language, involving performance and drama and their bodies.

Hence the beauty of the book. Just as Tizio thinks he’s telling Cajo what happened to Celeste last Tuesday but in fact is expressing his personality and making his life more interesting, so de Jorio, while he says and believes that he is helping archaeologists interpret ancient vases, is actually creating a form of theater. That is what you take away from the book: scene after scene of Neapolitan life—or, as it seems, life. One man tells another that their friend is dying, and in the process has a good time, shows off his gestural chops. A third man asks a fourth man, “That guy they killed last night? Was he hanged [thumb and index finger, with tips pointing upward, squeeze the upper part of the neck] or strangled [entire hand squeezing the upper part of the neck]?” “Strangled,” says his companion. Carmonsina, who has a “correspondence” with Tizio, is trying to relay to him a message, which involves lifting her right hand to her shoulder. Whoops, Celeste sees this, whereupon Carmonsina pretends that she is having a problem with her shoulder: “My dear, see what there is on top of this shoulder that is bothering me; perhaps my kerchief has got rumpled under my dress or perhaps there is an insect?” Others, seeking to add emphasis to their gestures, beat their fists on benches and throw objects into the air. Still others engage in the twelve kinds of whistling: “amorous call,” “warning,” “secret insinuation,” or “as a way of charming babies,” to name only four.


p class=”initial”>Not all the anecdotes are of a comical nature, but many are, and I think this was de Jorio’s amulet against Biedermeier charm. How bad this book could have been! Nineteenth-century-genre-scene bad: quaint, sentimental, patronizing. It is the opposite: rough and funny and democratic, like Boccaccio or Chaucer. The achievement is the more remarkable in that Gesture in Naples avoids all but the most cursory reference to sex. In a book on Neapolitan gesture, not to speak of Greek vases, sex would seem an unexcludable topic, yet de Jorio, as a gentleman and a priest—and one who was writing for nonspecialist readers as well as scholars—felt he had to keep clear of it as well as he could. He is not prim, however. When he gets to the mano cornuta or the mano in fica, he simply says that there is an obscene meaning and that everyone knows it—which, in his day, everyone did. When, for scholars, he must indicate some specific sexual matter, he uses a little stratagem: he refers the reader to chapter and verse in an ancient text where that matter appears. Of course, Kendon, as a good modern editor, has looked up all these references and decoded them.2 So, despite de Jorio’s best efforts, his book now has dirty parts—the footnotes.

That the tone of Gesture in Naples is fresh and uncloying is owing of course to its author’s character—de Jorio was reportedly a debonair man, with an excellent sense of humor—and also to his scholarly purpose, which offsets any too-muchness about Cajo and Tizio with a corrective dryness. Furthermore, de Jorio chose what for him, clearly, was the ideal genre, the chatty treatise of the encyclopédistes, a form that fairly exhaled the intellectual freedoms of the period—curiosity, secularism, coffee-house vivacity. A good comparison volume is Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, which was published seven years before Gesture in Naples. Gesture in Naples is the better book, in my opinion. De Jorio is more objective, more an artist; we do not have to hear from him, as we do, quite often, from Brillat-Savarin, what a charming old fellow he is. But the technique is the same—a treatise, derived ultimately from Aristotle, but one which, in its modern life, is something else as well: a comedy, a letter, a love song. For Brillat-Savarin, the beloved was food. For de Jorio, it was the Neapolitans, the short, handsome Greeks who made the vases two millennia earlier and their descendants, the Greco-Italian people who, outside his window, were still telling the story pictured on the vases, saying with their hands everything that human beings needed to say.


With his curious mind, de Jorio would have been interested to see the transformations that Neapolitan mimica underwent in the New World. My mother-in-law, Cristina Acocella, was born in this country, and her mother was too, but the family came from Caserta, northeast of Naples. For a number of years after I joined her family, my mother-in-law told me nothing about Italian hand gestures, and I believe she avoided using them in my presence. I was not Italian. Eventually, however, she got older, and one day, when I was complaining to her about someone, she tore a piece of paper off the edge of the Daily News, wrote the person’s name on it, and disappeared into the kitchen. I followed her and found her putting the piece of paper in the freezer, in a plastic bag containing many similar strips. She wouldn’t let me look at the bag, but I sneaked down later and opened it. It contained maybe thirty or forty names: the neighbor who looked at my mother-in-law in an odd way when the new air conditioner was delivered, the girl who recommended to my sister-in-law the cream that made her face break out, the man who told my father-in-law that the Department of Motor Vehicles was open on Sunday, and so on.

In the years that followed, my mother-in-law and I had many discussions about her bag of names. “It’s primitive, Mom,” I would say. “What if people knew? And what if it works? You could be arrested.” “Don’t be silly,” she would say. “It’s not real. It’s just a game.” And then she would ask me to spell the name of the boy who was with her grandson when the latter fell off his bicycle. (She had no compunction about minors.) As she explained to me, she was not harming these people; she was just slowing them down, coagulating them, as it were. She was using the mano cornuta, sense number 12, modified by New World sanctions on magic and late-twentieth-century advances in refrigeration technology.

She died in August of 1987, and my father-in-law, who did not believe in the evil eye, undoubtedly cleaned out the freezer soon after. I have often wondered whether a certain number of people in the New York metropolitan area—maybe thirty or forty of them, with nothing in common except that they all, at one point, had dealings with our family—suddenly, in the late summer of 1987, experienced relief from difficulties they had had for years. One morning, as I imagine it, a stiffness in their joints eased up; a sort of fog in front of their eyes cleared. They smiled; they breathed deeply; they were ready for action. There is no way of knowing, but I have never felt safe since.

This Issue

December 21, 2000