ElAnt v5n3 - REVIEWS - Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity

Volume 5, Number 3
November 2000

Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity by Andrea de Jorio,. Translated, with Introduction and Notes, by Adam Kendon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. ISBN 0-253-33657-0. Pp. cvii + 517. $49.95.

Anthony Corbeill
University of Kansas, Kansas, USA

This volume offers an annotated translation of Andrea de Jorio's 1832 treatise La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano ("The Body Language of the Ancients as Interpreted in Neapolitan Gesture"). The modification of emphasis in the translation of the title seems to be not solely a marketing move, but reflects 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. Nevertheless, despite this new (and somewhat misleading) title, Adam Kendon and Indiana University Press have made accessible to a wide audience an early and important investigation into the nature and importance of human body language.

Despite being nearly 170 years old, de Jorio's treatise still provides the most complete resource I know of for studying Italian gestures, being consistently more helpful than Bruno Munari's Supplemento al Dizionario Italiano (Milan 1963) or his Dizionario dei gesti italiani (Rome 1994). This continued relevance of La mimica provides further support for de Jorio's contention that gestures tend to remain stable over time and that therefore he could reconstruct ancient body language by closely observing Neapolitan contemporaries. As a source for the study of ancient gesture, however, La mimica lacks both the thoroughness and the systematizing confidence of Karl Sittl's still indispensable catalog, Die Gebärden der Griechen und Römer (Leipzig 1890). Nevertheless, de Jorio's work is still worth consulting and, as Kendon makes clear, his understanding of the complexity of gestural language is far more sophisticated and original than that of Sittl. And as a writer, he is infinitely more engaging.

Adam Kendon, an established scholar of non-verbal behavior, has provided an edition that invites favorable comparison with Paul Ekman's recent reissue of Darwin's The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (Oxford 1998). Each editor situates his treatise within a clear historical and intellectual context, thereby highlighting the unique achievement the original author has made in assessing the role of bodily expression in human communication. And, as with Darwin, de Jorio's observations continue to prove interesting, even when demonstrably wrong. Unlike Darwin's treatise, however, de Jorio's work has not received the attention it deserves. This is in part due to its rarity. Although Luigi Barzini exaggerates the facts in his encomium of the work--"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" ( The Italians [New York 1965] 67)--, the book is nevertheless found in the U.S. primarily on the shelves of the best research libraries. Yet even if one has had the good fortune of being able to borrow (or steal) a copy, until Kendon's edition the original work still offered a number of obstacles for the average classicist. In explaining meanings of gestures, de Jorio frequently provides phrases and imaginary dialogues in his contemporary Neapolitan dialect, not all of which he paraphrases or translates into standard Italian. Kendon has not only fully translated these passages, but he also includes in the text de Jorio's original Neapolitan versions. Furthermore, in the main body of the original edition, the author provided no illustrations of the many works of ancient art to which he refers, assuming that the reader has to hand catalogues of finds from the Bay of Naples area. Kendon remedies this to a large degree by adding seventeen figures to illustrate the ancient works upon which de Jorio concentrates most closely; moreover, when de Jorio's reference is to a contemporary sketch of an ancient work, Kendon reproduces the original sketch. Finally, as was typical for de Jorio's time, references to recent scholarship were truncated (and often inaccurate) in the original edition; these abbreviated citations have been fleshed out and corrected, and Kendon has added a bibliography of literary and scholarly sources used by de Jorio (494-503). This updating is not, however, complete. On most occasions, Kendon has not attempted the difficult (if not impossible) task of updating references to works of art; as a result, for the scholar wishing to see illustrations of pieces not provided by Kendon, it is necessary to have access to a library containing works of classical scholarship dating to as early as the seventeenth century.

In addition to these editorial matters, Kendon supplies a substantial introduction (xix-cvii) in which he discusses de Jorio's life and times and establishes how La mimica can justifiably be called, as the dust jacket proclaims, "the first book ever written which presents what is, in effect, an ethnographic study of gesture." Kendon locates de Jorio's originality in his desire to describe gestural expression for an explicitly defined group, with the result that de Jorio is able to identify gesture as a "culturally established communicative code" (xx) that recognizes, among other things, the importance of context to gesture, the relationship of physical form to meaning, the construction of a grammar of gesture (gestures are capable of having person, number, and tense), and the ability of gesture to adopt the modes and tropes of spoken language (metaphor, synecdoche, solipsisms, etc.). A comparison of this approach with Quintilian's discussion of gesture in Institutio oratoria 11.3 reveals the vastly different assumptions underlying each work. For Quintilian, gesture is a direct expression of nature written on the body, and can thereby be used by the astute observer to deduce social and moral worth from the way an individual uses body language. De Jorio, in contrast, recognizes that gestural expression can not only vary between cultures, but that there even exist "dialectical" variations within a given society (17). These variations do not, however, fit into any predetermined pattern of "natural" and "unnatural" behavior. Kendon shows that these ideas represent a significant departure from previous studies of gesture, which concentrated on the ways in which gesture could reveal an individual's thought processes (lxv-lxx).

What is perhaps most significant for readers of Electronic Antiquity is that this groundbreaking ethnographic study was not originally intended as a guide to nineteenth-century Neapolitan gesture, but as a primer for explicating Greek and Roman art. De Jorio, a cleric and Canon of the Cathedral of Naples, was also an archaeologist and curator of the Reale Museo Borbonico in Naples (which was to become the core of the current Museo Archeologico Nazionale) and author of over a dozen books and monographs on Greek and Roman antiquity (titles listed by Kendon on 491-493). Kendon's introduction combines biographical data with an account of the development of archaeology in the Bay of Naples region from the mid-eighteenth century to the publication of La mimica in 1832. The international attention and subsequent tourism instigated by the sensational finds in this area inform de Jorio's underlying impetus for undertaking his study: if he can demonstrate a direct connection between the ancients and his contemporary Neapolitans, he can dispel the popular misconception of scholars "born in distant regions" that "our low people are lacking in natural philosophy, in talent, in spirit" (10). This need to compose an apologia explains de Jorio's tendency to insert antiquity into his discussion whenever possible, even in contexts of questionable relevance. For example, in discussing gestures that express disdain by imitating farting noises (the "raspberry" produced by the mouth, or the hand placed in the armpit and rapidly compressed; 118-119) he cites Encolpius's abusive but literal fart at Satyricon 117; or when discussing the familiar Italian gesture for beauty (thumb and index finger lightly grazing the cheeks in a downward motion until the tips of the two fingers touch at the chin), he cites Winckelmann to support his suggestion that this sign is intended to describe the oval form of the face as the ideal among the Greeks (121). Sittl, disdaining de Jorio's "patriotic zeal" at moments like these, refuses to list La mimica among serious treatments of ancient gesture (4-5). The decision was unfortunate for this man "born in distant regions," since sometimes de Jorio's observations hit the mark, for example in his argument that the ubiquitous Italian gesture of mano a borsa was also used in antiquity ("fingers extended and joined in a point, turned upwards;" 129-134) or in his insistence on the significance of horns--both literal and symbolic "horns"--as an apotropaic device in antiquity (138-173).

More important than what de Jorio does say is what he doesn't. For those studying gesture in antiquity, La mimica provides a handy reference work for identifying ancient gestures not considered by de Jorio, just as the author had predicted (xiv-xv). I have myself consulted with profit La mimica to explain the meaning of thumb gestures among the Romans ("Thumbs in Ancient Rome: pollex as Index," Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome 42 [1997] 61-81) and his well-organized discussion of gestures of "Attention/Meditation" has helped me in my own investigations of gestures expressing sorrow and grief.

While aware of the indispensability of gestures, de Jorio also stresses the potential danger of their being misunderstood or seen by the wrong eyes, a circumstance that should be familiar to readers of Tacitus and Suetonius. Let me quote at length from his discussion of "Derision, Ridicule" in order to convey the flavor and vividness that characterizes de Jorio's text. This particular passage discusses one of four variations of the still familiar "Shanghai gesture" (thumb to nose, with remaining fingers vertically extended and often wagging):

7. With the hand held edgewise and the fingers open, the tip of the thumb is merely brought close to the nose. When it is prudent not to show the gesture in full, one may pretend to scratch the nose with the tip of the thumb, or to touch it for some other reason, at the same time giving some indication of oscillating the fingers. It may be noted that these two signs, as well as the other sign described in n. 1 [a facial expression of derision], are sometimes performed in such a way as to hide the offence of it from most of the company, for it is very easy to confuse them with other gestures that are natural and innocent. For example, the face disposed in the manner described in n. 1 can be changed in an instant to an expression that denotes attention. The hands described in n. 6 and n. 7, lifting them a little higher, and raising the index higher than the thumb, the gesture of derision can be passed off as if it belongs to the class of those expressing attention. With such transformations, if someone were to reprove the gesturer for having mocked Tizio, he can reply "Never was I doing such a thing! … I was looking attentively at it, just as I am doing now!" (See Attenzione, n. 3 'Attention'). Further, using No. 7, without raising his hand, he will reply: "What are you saying? I have been scratching the tip of my nose/the chin," or something similar. (116)

This passage is typical in the care with which de Jorio distinguishes different gestures, both through careful description and extensive cross-referencing within his text.

De Jorio concludes his work by offering a series of applications for his earlier observations. Sixteen plates, commissioned by the author for his project, depict type scenes from Neapolitan life--a wandering singer before a restless crowd, a water seller plying his trade, a new bride being introduced to her husband's home, a game of mora, etc. (401-468). Prominent gesticulation characterizes each illustration. De Jorio leads the reader, now equipped with the proper gestural vocabulary, through imaginative reconstructions of how the movements of the participants reveal the circumstances behind each scene. In so doing, he provides complete dialogues of what the gestures indicate each of the actors would be saying. This exposition most clearly reveals de Jorio's principal claim that familiarity with gesture is essential for a complete understanding of a culture's daily activities.

Kendon's translation is consistently clear and accurate, capturing the author's engaging directness, patriotic zeal, and flights of digressive charm. As a result, this new edition and translation certainly makes La mimica more accessible for scholars working on ancient gesture, but the results are still not quite ideal. Kendon states explicitly in his Introduction that his primary interest in de Jorio's scholarship does not include the representation of gesture in ancient art (xxiv n.5). This lack of interest is unfortunately reflected in a corresponding lack of care and consistency in treating ancient art and texts. Although occasionally clarifying some of de Jorio's citations of ancient authors, Kendon often uses unusual references. In quoting a line from Plautus's Bacchides, for example, de Jorio uses the convention, typical for his time, of citing simply by act and scene; in the editorial note on the passage, Kendon further specifies the quotation not by citing the now conventional line number, but by providing the page numbers in the Loeb edition. Furthermore, when Kendon cites a Latin text, there is a good chance it will contain errors of spelling or citation (this Plautus passage, for example, is printed as capui prurii, perii for caput prurit, perii [de Jorio, here as elsewhere, has the correct citation]). Similar sloppiness attends the citing of ancient names. One Terence character appears in three forms in the book--as Chremes (129), Cremete (308, note a) and Chremese (316, note c)--and similar fluctuation attends Davus/Davo and Apuleius/Apulieus. In general, the numerous typographical errors (I stopped counting at fifty) mar the obvious care that Kendon put into other aspects of this edition. To conclude with a classicist's quibble: although Kendon has very helpfully added a bibliography of the precise editions of ancient authors that de Jorio used and has listed the page numbers on which these authorities are cited, an Index locorum of Greek and Roman texts would have greatly added to the value of the work.

The service Kendon has provided for the study of gesture and the history of scholarship is to be commended. He has made accessible to a wide readership the pleasures of de Jorio's research and has provided those already familiar with the text with a wealth of information concerning the author's cultural milieu. Indeed, I derived the greatest pleasure from this book at those moments when de Jorio vividly recreates episodes taking place on the streets of nineteenth-century Naples. In his discussion of the gesture signifying that an event has taken place in the past ("Hand raised with the palm turned towards the corresponding shoulder … and then thrust backwards several times;" 312), de Jorio momentarily becomes uneasy as he considers a metaphorical meaning of the gesture. "From the false idea that the past is something useless," he observes, the gesture has come to signify useless information. The researches of de Jorio and the editing of Kendon have offered fine testimony, for this reviewer at least, that such an association is misconceived.