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Italian Lessons: Gestures

“As I say to my foreign friends: being Italian is a full time job.”

How to define an average Italian?  In addition to “pizza, pasta and mandolin” and a thousand other clichés, we are recognized for the very high volume of our voice and our kinetic peculiarity of constant gesticulation. Even on a telephone, two out of two Italians gesticulate: the interlocutor blissfully unaware of our movements.

My first memory relating to gestures was during elementary school. I kept a secret diary noting my every emotion, like a diligent accountant. One day, while we were playing cards, Daniele, a child I liked so much, flipped the tip of my nose, brushing it from the bottom up. A baby Marcello Mastroianni! He knew exactly what he was doing, even at such an early age. I did not know it was the beginning of a succession of men like this – helplessly I shivered with joy.

In the evening I wanted an unequivocal explanation for this ‘miracle’, there must be a word for that gesture which had triggered so many emotions. being unable to ask the internet I turned to my mother, my personal Treccani encyclopedia. I replicated the gesture on her nose and she told me it was a friendly ‘pat’.

My 8-year-old obsession with the meaning of a gesture has persisted, and today, a graduate in communications, I find immense joy in that combination of word and gesture. It was during my years at university that I first came across Bruno Munari’s book, “supplement to the Italian dictionary“. 

All I will tell you about Bruno Munari is that he was a modern Leonardo da Vinci: one of the most eclectic and productive characters on the entire Italian cultural scene. I hope this has intrigued you, seek him out for yourself!  

In his book he investigates the many ways there are for expressing oneself without the use of words, by the use of hands, facial expressions and body postures. Simple and smooth, each gesture is accompanied by an explanatory photography. This is a book to enjoy looking at as well as reading.  

Munari’s book was an important discovery for me. Unfortunately, like so many great books, it is difficult to find. I bought a used copy and devoured it greedily in a day. I repeated each gesture and saw how in my daily life that gesture came out a little differently, I personalized it. It led me to reflect on how we forget that the primary goal of communicating is to make yourself understood and a gesture is sometimes worth a thousand words.

That whirl of hands that only we Italians know how to do. Those expressions taken to the extreme, sometimes becoming  grotesque, have allowed us to make ourselves understood wherever we go. They reveal the distinctive trait that every self-respecting human being carries with him: empathy. Every time an Italian speaks using a thousand gestures, their audience will observe and understand.

Today, worldwide, we send messages accompanied by emoticons, which are nothing more than symbols that help us describe our emotions. From 2020 there is the all-Italian emoticon, the emoji version of the best known Italian gesture: the “cuoppo” hand, (closed with the fingertips touching each other), which can be translated into: “What do you want?”, “What do you do? ”,“ What is it? ”.

Only a year earlier, in 2019, in a very entertaining TED Talk (available on YouTube) in Varese, Luca Vullo tackled the subject of our non-verbal language. This genius travelled the world visiting the major universities to talk about our most important cultural heritage. Moving to London he experienced an epiphany and became an ambassador of Italian gestures.

Also on YouTube is the video taken from the British comedian John Peter Sloan‘s Speak Now on Italian gestures. Sloan was passionate about Italy and had lived for some time in Menfi, Sicily where he died in May 2020.  He is remembered especially for his series of DVDs and books teaching English by using humor. He loved Italy so much that he founded two schools dedicated to teaching English with this exceptional method.

Thinking of the present, as we wear our masks, I realize that although gestures are useful, words are important! Nanni Moretti puts it so beautifully, saying that gestures must be integrated into the speech and add that little bit extra, like a sprinkling of Parmesan on a nice plate of pasta with sauce!