Brain Pickings

The Fine Art of Italian Hand Gestures: A Vintage Visual Dictionary by Bruno Munari

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A pocket guide to Neapolitan nonverbal communication.

Somewhere between his seminal manifestos on design as art and his timelessly delightful children’s books, legendary Italian artist and graphic designer Bruno Munari made time for a number of idiosyncratic side projects. Among them is Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture (UK; public library) — a charming, quirky, minimalist guide to Italians’ expressive nonverbal communication originally published in 1958 as a supplement to the Italian dictionary, inspired by The Ancients’ Mimic Through the Neapolitan Gestures, the first collection of gestures made by Canon Andrea de Jorio in 1832. Unlike the hefty and sparsely illustrated 380-page original tome, however, Munari’s pocket-sized version features frugally descriptive text and ample, elegant black-and-white photographs of hand-gestures for everything from mundane activities like reading and writing to emotive expressions of praise and criticism.

In the short preface, Munari notes the globalization of nonverbal vernacular, as Neapolitan gestures begin being recognized worldwide and American imports like “OK” permeate Italian culture, then promises:

We have collected a good many gestures, leaving aside vulgar ones, in order to give an idea of their meaning to foreigners visiting Italy and as a supplement to an Italian dictionary.

Old Neapolitan gestures, from left to right: money, past times, affirmation, stupid, good, wait a moment, to walk backward, to steal, horns, to ask for.

Another illustrated page of the book of Canon Andrea de Jorio. Meaning of the gestures: silence, no, beauty, hunger, to mock, weariness, stupid, squint, to deceive, cunning.

Gestures of drinking and eating (from an old Neapolitan print)

'You make a mockery of the 'madam'!' (from an old Neapolitan print)

For a naughty twist, complement Speak Italian: The Fine Art of the Gesture with the surrealist chart of erotic hand signaling.

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