The Italian hand gesture is a subject of amusement and confusion for the foreign traveller, both now and in the past. For this reason, there is an old dictionary of hand gestures produced in Naples in 1832 and taken up again in 1963 by designer Bruno Munari. This is available in anastatic reproduction from Corraini Editore, in whose Milan office I just happened to be last week. The funny thing is that I’d seen this book about a decade ago and had been on the lookout for it ever since.


Many of the hand gestures you’ll see if you flip through the book are international signs for simple things like “no” or “wait a moment”. So you might think “well I know all of these”. Reading the introduction, though, I learned that the book has a different historic value alongside the sociological or humorous one.

Back in 1832, Andrea de Jorio published 380 pages of text and 19 pages of hand-drawn line illustrations that intended to catalogue the Neapolitans’ use of hand gestures established by the Ancients (i.e. the Romans). Through the study of Roman texts and vases, he intended to show a direct lineage from the Romans to the Neapolitans, so what we have here is not a dictionary for foreigners (despite its claim) but pure propaganda!

The 60s edition by Munari is furnished with black and white photographs and dry explanations in four languages. This book makes a great gift or souvenir!

Here are a couple of photos of pages from the book.

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