BMCR 2003.03.34

Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity. A Translation of La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano with introduction and notes by Adam Kendon. First published in 2000

, , Gesture in Naples and gesture in classical antiquity : a translation of La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano, Gestural expression of the ancients in the light of Neapolitan gesturing. Advances in semiotics. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000. cvii, 517 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm. ISBN 0253336570 $24.95 (pb).

Andrea de Jorio’s 1832 La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano systematically illustrates Neapolitan gestures, claiming at the same time their continuity with gestures of classical antiquity. The book has long held the status of a strange gem, beloved by its few readers but talked about well beyond this restricted sphere. The work has recently been granted a new and expanded life by two Italian editions — in 1964 and 19791 — followed by its first translation into English by Adam Kendon in 2000. The 2002 paperback reprint of Kendon’s translation, under review here, confirms the interest in the re-emergence of de Jorio’s book after a 150-year gap following its first appearance. Scholars of folklore and especially semioticians have been the main force behind this renewed interest in de Jorio’s work, and the book is appropriately published in the Advances in Semiotics Series. Kendon himself is a specialist and promoter of the new sub-field of gesture studies and the co-founder in 2001 of the periodical Gesture, the first dedicated exclusively to the subject. His interest in de Jorio is motivated and sustained by very specific expertise. Among the wider public the excitement about de Jorio’s Mimica — already kindled by Luigi Barzini’s praise of the book in his 1964 Italians — primarily focuses on the work’s engagement with folklore by its vivid rendition of Neapolitan life and gestures. 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.2 Kendon’s edition, however, offers willing classicists both a delightful read and the opportunity to reconsider some less well-trod paths in the history of the discipline.

De Jorio (1769-1851) was a canon and, from 1811 until health failed him in his old age, museum conservator for the painted vases gallery in the Real Museo Borbonico (now the Museo Archeologico Nazionale) in Naples. In the latter capacity, he guided visitors through the museum’s antiquities, as attested by many travelers’ accounts. He put to further use his expertise by writing prolifically on the ancient history and remains of the region: of his 19 publications listed by Kendon all but one concern antiquities and most of them are fashioned as guides. He wrote on ancient vases, Pompeii and its papyri, Pozzuoli and Cumae, Christian catacombs and methods to excavate tombs. He wrote for tourists and scholars alike, a mixed readership that suggests how long professional archaeology was in the making. De Jorio inhabited this shady territory with ease and inventiveness, his publications ranging wide both in topics and models. For example, one of his most successful works, the 1823 Viaggio di Enea all’Inferno ed agli Elisii secondo Virgilio — translated into English in 1829 — takes the reader around the area of Cumae identifying sites of the sixth book of the Aeneid embedded in the modern topography. For Virgil’s verses de Jorio makes use of a contemporary Neapolitan translation, supposedly truer in spirit to the original than an Italian one. At the other end of the spectrum, his 1825 Officina dei Papiri, dedicated to the papyri rolls discovered in Herculaneum, remained a reference work for scholars until the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It has been reprinted in 1998 in recognition of the value of information it carries about what the papyri looked like upon discovery and how they were treated and preserved.3

Of his wide output the Mimica is undoubtedly de Jorio’s most famous work and his boldest conception. Neapolitans talking with hands and their body language were a well-established topos in foreigners’ descriptions, providing also subject matter for the locally produced bambocciate, picturesque souvenir paintings that sold well to tourists. De Jorio picks up the topos but dissects it by writing a thorough, systematic explanation of Neapolitan gestures, densely interspersed with references to classical antiquity. In the introduction de Jorio recounts that the project took shape as he realized, while taking ‘ultramontane’ (that is to say foreign) visitors around the museum, how effective it was to draw on examples from modern Neapolitan gesturing in order to elucidate depictions on painted vases and Pompeian wall-paintings. The aim of the work is three-fold: to illustrate the connection between ancient and modern gesture, something that he believes should be useful to archaeologists in their research; to show that the ancients were living people like today’s, which should increase interest in antiquity; to demonstrate the Neapolitan common people’s richness in “natural philosophy, talent and spirit”, contrary to the prejudices of foreign visitors. The introduction proceeds to describe de Jorio’s method and his theories on gestures, to explain the arrangement of the book and to offer suggestions on how to make use of it to understand ancient images. The main text constitutes over a hundred entries of gestures, alphabetically arranged, each carefully described, interpreted and commented upon. There follow twelve plates of bambocciate that are not, de Jorio claims, the stereotypical productions sold to tourists on the streets of Naples, but rather life-like: every scene is full of characters caught in gesturing and de Jorio’s accompanying text explains each gesture, forming a rich narrative description. The same approach applies to two plates featuring scenes from ancient vases. Two final plates depict a series of isolated hand gestures that are illustrated in the main text.

In this discursive dictionary of gestures, linear reading is complicated by recurrent cross-reference. One is often referred from one entry to another as well as to images in the plates and in other works — de Jorio could have made great use of hypertext! For example, the entry ‘pregnancy’ ( gravidanza) lists two possible gestures: “hand lift up the skirt a little in front of the belly” and “arms extended forward, forming a circle, with the fingertips in contact in the directions of the belly”. The first imitates what happens to a woman’s dress when pregnant (de Jorio specifies that a man performing the gesture should lift the part of clothes covering his paunch) and the second the belly protuberance itself. For the first gesture de Jorio further refers to the plate “The bride enters her husband’s house for the first time”. Here the mother-in-law who is welcoming the bride performs the pregnancy gesture with the left hand to wish offspring. Meanwhile she adjusts the other hand to a well-wishing mano-in-fica (the amulet ‘fig’ hand). The other six figures in the scene, from the newlyweds to the hunchback, all gesture and thus provide material for de Jorio’s narrative description of the scene. The second gesture for pregnancy is cross-referenced to the entry ’embrace’ ( abbracciare), of which it constitutes one of nine meanings, along with love and friendship but also dominance, possession, superiority, victory. The variations depend on contexts, proxemics and changes in the positioning of the hands and arms. The Neapolitan tarantella dance, de Jorio notes, includes a movement based on this gesture, expressing the intention of a dancer to embrace another. De Jorio further refers to a depiction of a dancer in Dempster’s De Etruria Regali (1723) in order to exemplify the gesture in antiquity. Finally de Jorio remarks that when the gesture is directed towards the belly of a man rather than a woman, it denotes not pregnancy, but excessive eating or corpulence. From entry to entry and image to image, de Jorio guides the reader through vividly rendered scenes, to construct a virtual museum of gesture communication. This museum simile also accommodates de Jorio’s solution to his purported modesty in dealing with the abundant obscenities of gesture communication. He explains that in such instances he makes cross-reference either to other gestures or to classical references accessible only to the few in the know. This device has a close parallel in the creation in the Real Museo Borbonico in the 1820s of a secret room of restricted access that hosted ancient remains of pornographic character — an initiative soon reproduced by other European museums.

Kendon has done much more than merely translate de Jorio. He has carefully researched all his references both modern and ancient, and the resulting footnotes make the reading more accessible and satisfying. The 80-page long introduction stands as an independent essay. A shorter but informative first section — ‘the life, time and works of Andrea de Jorio’ — briefly illustrates his publications and his contributions as a ‘minor figure’ in the history of Neapolitan archaeology. The longer second and third sections concern the ‘content and context’ of the Mimica and its ‘doctrine’. Here Kendon moves into familiar territory: he delineates with great clarity the structure and content of the work and speaks of its originality. He competently and passionately engages with de Jorio’s insights, such as the crucial importance accorded to context and the novelty of attributing to gestures a linguistic structure, illustrating the grammar, rhetoric and pragmatics of gesture communication. Kendon convincingly presents de Jorio’s approach as relevant today and conveniently makes him a founding father of the new sub-field of gesture-studies. It is also clear that de Jorio’s engagement with the moderns is what interests Kendon most, while the references to classical gestures recede into the background.

But de Jorio’s original title and his explicit claims beg the question of what to make of the use of classical antiquity in his work. It would be difficult to argue the relevance for today’s archaeology of de Jorio’s approach to ancient images. His attempts to interpret ancient vases scenes through gesture theory did not have a following, not surprisingly. For example, in a bacchic scene de Jorio also reads an ongoing fierce confrontation between two women because of the direction of their gaze and the posture of their hands. Still, de Jorio’s approach was not more far-fetched than many of his contemporaries; at the time, the vexed debate about how to interpret vase paintings had just moved into considering the images as depictions of myths rather than historical events. In the long dialectic between artistic expression and historical interpretation, de Jorio is a significant player, as Francis Haskell argued. Moreover, de Jorio’s claim of continuity between ancient and modern gestures and the resulting interest in the daily life of the ancients not only heralded folklore studies but also anthropological approaches to classical antiquity, as Alain Schnapp has pointed out.4 But beyond these genealogical inquiries de Jorio’s scholarly work deserves interest in its own right.

De Jorio’s insists that his work will be useful for ‘archaeologists’. When he was writing, this word had only recently entered common usage. For the first half of the nineteenth century the dominant definition of archaeology as a new academic, scientific, professional discipline was to be formulated by Eduard Gerhard — the mastermind and main promoter of the Instituto di Corrispondenza Archaeologica founded in Rome in 1829. On his first trip to Italy, Gerhard visited Naples and, of course, met de Jorio. He translated into German excerpts from de Jorio’s Metodo per rinvenire e frugare i sepolcri degli antichi (1824), a manual on excavation of ancient tombs. Correspondence in the archives of the Instituto (now the German Institute of Archaeology in Rome) attests how much Gerhard relied on de Jorio’s information for his own work on Greek vases. De Jorio was not only a ‘minor figure’ in Neapolitan archaeology but also a crucial interface between local and ‘ultramontane’ knowledge, a museum guide and a specialist of local antiquity who participated in the excitement of the new archaeology and quoted with reverence the ‘divine’ Winckelmann and up-to-date international scholarship. His contribution to Gerhard’s work shows how many threads and different voices actually make the history of archaeology, beyond the few that are constantly reiterated. This story is not explored in Kendon’s introduction and goes beyond the scope of his interest. But the extraordinary work that is the Mimica, a book that has attracted so much attention from various perspectives for well over a century, took shape in precisely this cultural environment. Even when Kendon admires de Jorio’s ability at close description, he is commenting on a tradition of antiquarian skills, soon to become that of the new archaeologists. The Mimica originates in the museum practices of a time of pervasive classical culture and contested geographical, cultural and disciplinary identities. Kendon’s translation offers to many readers in different scholarly fields the pleasures of this unique book, and those who are interested in the history of classics should be among his grateful beneficiaries.

Kendon’s style is certainly serviceable even if not capable of rendering de Jorio’s pompous but well-crafted prose. There are in the book various misspellings (many in the Italian, both in the text and in the bibliography) and a few mistakes (for example, in the scene described above the mother-in-law of the bride is called mother of the groom!). These stand in striking contrast to Kendon’s keen engagement with and love of the text and his commitment to the project. One hopes that future reprints will do more justice to both de Jorio and his translator.


1. A. de Jorio, La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano, with introduction by G. Cocchiara, Naples (1964) and A. de Jorio, La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano, anastic reprint of 1832 original edition, Bologna (1979).

2. For different responses to Kendon’s translation of the Mimica see the reviews by J. Acocella, The Neapolitan Finger, in The New York Review of Books, December 21, 2000, and G. Bowersock, Sign Language in The New Republic, April 9 & 16, 2001.

3. A. de Jorio, Officina de’ papiri, with introduction of M. Capasso, Naples (1998).

4. F. Haskell, History and its images, New Haven (1993) and A. Schnapp, ‘Antiquarian studies in Naples at the end of the eighteenth century. From comparative archaeology to comparative religion’, in G. Imbruglia ed., Naples in the eighteenth century: the birth and death of a nation state, Cambridge (2000), 154-166. Of much interest also Giancarlo Carabelli’s pages on de Jorio in his In the Image of Priapus, London (1996).