BMCR 2009.06.03

La comunicazione non verbale nella Grecia antica. Gli schemata nella danza, nell’arte, nella vita. Universale Bollati Boringhieri 560

, La comunicazione non verbale nella Grecia antica. Gli schemata nella danza, nell'arte, nella vita. Universale Bollati Boringhieri 560. Torino: Bollati Boringhieri, 2008. 416. ISBN 9788833918969. €20.00 (pb).

Maria Luisa Catoni, a researcher at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (Italy), first published this book in 2005.1 It has now been reissued with a preface by Salvattore Settis (pp. vii-xi), a 2008 “Postilla” (pp. 11-15, mainly on mirror neurons), and final indexes of names and quoted passages. The title does not, however, do full justice to what Catoni offers, namely a thoroughly researched study on the uses of the word σχῆμα, drawing mainly on sources from the fifth and fourth centuries BC.2

The first chapter (pp. 19-71) deals with the scientific uses of this term. In geometry, two traditions concurred: in the first, sponsored by Aristotle, the Stoics, Euclid, Heron of Alexandria and Proclus, schema is understood as a geometrical figure (i.e. what is contained within one or several limits), while Plato and Posidonius used the term to mean the limit itself. Schemata were also the representations of the identity of numbers through polyhedra, especially among the Pythagoreans. In astronomy, the term defined the shape of the cosmic bodies and often appeared in the theory of the correspondence of the five elements with regular polyhedra. Schema, meaning both ‘volume, shape’ and ‘outline’, always denotes specificity, despite the theoretical difficulties involved in its definition, and its different semantic spheres are all related to the visualization of objects and their mimesis.

Chapter Two (pp. 72-123) studies the presence of schema in all types of human interaction. A schema is any feature which classifies an object or person, providing an idea about its nature. This implies an understanding of the superficial figure (physiognomic traits, clothing, gesturality) and the inner being (ethical values, social standing, origin) as two sides of the same coin, in direct relationship or in opposition when external appearance is faked. The schema consists of mobile (e.g. clothing), fixed (e.g. the shape of the head), and semi-mobile (e.g. the way of walking) elements. The possibility of manipulating external components explains its occurrence in any context related to disguise, as in the phrase “assume the schema of”, and is used to contrast with the fixed, crystallized character of the inner being, as made evident in the figurative arts and analysed by doctors when diagnosing patients.

Chapter Three (pp. 124-261) addresses the topics suggested by the subtitle of the book “Gli schema nella danza, nell’arte, nella vita”. Schema means, quasi-technically, ‘a figure or posture in dancing’, in which sense it admits a plural form ( σχήματα). It was probably through dance-related contexts that schema came to mean ‘gesture’, since dancing would have played a crucial role in the visual fixation of body movements to convey both ethe and pathe. The schemata would have thus become shared elements of all sorts of visual expression (dance, sculpture, painting, social etiquette and ritual performance), and their semantic density and adaptability would have guaranteed their mobility from one context or medium to another. Their joint presence in dance and painting explains the creation of a standard vocabulary of iconographic formulae which is valid in any kind of visual interactions. Judgement based on schemata was in fact systematized in treatises of physiognomy, which were devoted to analysis of the information provided by the outline of the body and transitory gestures and expressions.

In ancient texts devoted to the study of works of art, critical judgement focuses on the style and techniques used in their making, but also on the rendering of the schemata, meaning the posture and gestures of the bodies, what these convey, and comparison with other representations of the same topic in the artistic tradition. Schemata also applies to the physical behaviour of citizens in their social interactions. Catoni analyses the importance of the word in the context of the tension between appearance and reality in fifth and fourth century Athenian society: the authentic schema illustrates values and opinions, while the counterfeit one is manipulated by individuals to present a certain image of themselves or to make political and social propaganda out of certain values. In the latter context schematizein means to ‘feign’, and there is a dissociation between schema and ethos.

In his Cratylus, Plato uses the term schema when discussing the problem of mimesis, and associates dynamic mimesis (imitation involving the body) and the static mimesis of portraits. According to Plato, each entity ( pragma) is provided with schema and phone, and many also possess chroma. In combination with chroma, schema is the static outline (the design in terms of paintings), but in combination with phone it means gesture, posture or schema in dance. Catoni believes that the intermediate context where the meaning of schema bifurcates is dance, because it combines the static qualities of painting and sculpture and the dynamic ones of movement and impersonation through gestures.

Chapter Four (pp. 262-317)3 considers Plato’s opinions on art, cautioning against the paratactic analysis of his passages on art, since most of these occur in comparisons with other mimetic arts, especially poetry. In general the philosopher is not interested in the technical aspects of art, but in its social impact: mimetic arts are examined in the public context of the polis, which explains why paintings should represent good ethe. As a result of his focus on the ethical and paideutic aims of the technai, Plato puts all artists under the surveillance of the philosopher, but this comes into conflict with the progressive professionalization of the technai and their increasing autonomy in relation to ethical concerns and concentration on sheer mimesis. This new attitude crystallizes in the fourth century with the appearance of new themes and iconographic schemes, as well as new interpretations of traditional topics. Catoni reviews the representations of the death of a woman in childbirth, Amazonomachies, resting Heracles, and the introduction of new deities and personifications, and concludes that the schemata gradually lose importance: artists prefer to demonstrate their technical execution ( ἐργασία) and do not pay so much attention to the variation of motifs and canons, and the careful rendering of details in search of an appearance of realism. By the fourth century schemata are no longer so central in public life, an attitude which is inconceivable in Plato’s ideal world.

The only significant criticism of this book lies in the fact that the topics covered do not mirror the promises of the title. It is undeniable that those looking for a study on non-verbal communication in the ancient world would do better to read any of the books already published on the subject.4 Apart from this, Catoni succeeds in presenting a comprehensive overview of what the ancient Greeks meant by schema. Particularly commendable is the author’s integration of information gathered from all kinds of literary sources to form a complete picture of the interdisciplinary uses of this term. It is a pity that she did not include a general conclusion, which would have brought together all her lines of thought and further integrated the different chapters.

This book makes an important contribution to studies of the origins of Greek technical vocabulary, and provides a model for future studies of ancient semantics. Reading it will teach specialists in scenic arts much about references to gesture and movement in comic and tragic texts, and the “Indice dei passi citati” is a helpful tool for locating comments on theatrical passages. Art historians, too, will find the book a reliable introduction to ancient texts on art subjects, in particular Plato.


1. Schemata: comunicazione non verbale nella Grecia antica, Pisa 2005.

2. In this respect, it may be compared with M. S. Celentano et al. (eds.), Skhèma / Figura. Formes et figures chez les Anciens. Rhétorique, philosophie, littérature, Paris 2004, to which Catoni contributed a paper.

3. Here Catoni takes up the theme of a previous paper: M. L. Catoni, “Quale arte per il tempo di Platone?”, in S. Settis (a cura di), I greci. Storia cultura arte società. 2. Una storia greca. II Definizione, Torino 1997, 1013-1060.

4. E.g. D. Lateiner, Sardonic Smile. Nonverbal Behaviour in Homeric Epic, Ann Arbor 1995; A. L. Boegehold, When a Gesture was Expected: A Selection of Examples from Archaic and Classical Greek Literature, Princeton 1999; A. Corbeill, Nature Embodied: Gesture in Ancient Rome, Princeton – Oxford 2004.