Now that mouth masks largely cover our face, our hands must take over the lost facial expression. And for that we look best at the Italians. The ideal guide? ‘Speak Italian’ by artist Bruno Munari.
You see them in every Italian coffee bar and on every Italian square: fiercely gesticulating conversation partners. They don’t argue. And that fifth espresso or the aperitivo hour has little to do with it either. Italians simply talk with their mouths and their hands. Ghosts are just as important as words. And unfortunately also incomprehensible if you do not know the Italian (sign) language.
For example, if an Italian strokes the bottom of his chin with the top of his fingers, he says he doesn’t care. If he swipes his thumb from his ear to his chin, he thinks you made a clever comment. Indeed: understand who can understand.
That’s why the Italian artist made Bruno Munari (1907-1998) his ‘Supplemento al dizionario italiano’. This 1958 visual dictionary explains the fifty most common Italian gestures in Italian, English, French and German. Ideal for incomprehensible tourists like you and me.
At first, the booklet was not for sale, until the Muggiani Editore publishing house launched it in a slightly modified version in 1963. In 1999 there was another re-release, this time by Corraini. When the American Chronicle Books reissued it in 2005, they added a new title: ‘Speak Italian. The fine art of the gesture ‘.
Bruno Munari is without a doubt the most eclectic Italian artist-designer ever. An artistic and playful ‘uomo universalis’. Peter Pan meets Da Vinci. Picasso described him as ‘the new Leonardo’. Because besides being a painter and sculptor, Munari was also a graphic designer, photographer, filmmaker, textile designer, poet and teacher. He wrote dozens of (children’s) books, made advertising posters and designed countless utensils, from ashtrays to coffee machines, beds and toys. His productivity was enormous.
In the late 1920s, together with Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, he was one of the pivotal figures of the Italian Futurists. After WWII he broke with that movement because of the fascist connotations and chose the path of geometric abstraction. Famous from that period are Munari’s mobiles, which he called ‘macchine inutili’, or useless machines.
Call Munari an artist artist. Not only Picasso was a great admirer, almost every designer has his booklet ‘Design as art’ in the closet. However, he never gained the name recognition of fellow countrymen like Lucio Fontana or Michelangelo Pistoletto. This is wrong, because his work has been and continues to be exhibited worldwide: from the Venice Biennale to the New York MoMA. Throughout his life he continued to experiment, discover and ignore the prevailing rules. His playful oeuvre full of humor, imagination and inventiveness is contagious to this day.
We would not be surprised if a new edition of Munari’s sign booklet rolls off the presses soon. Because in corona times his sixty-year-old writing is suddenly relevant. We Belgians usually keep our limbs firmly under control when we talk. But now that we wear mouth masks en masse, we’d better wear some Italian gestures.
‘A gesture says more than a thousand words. And Italians are masters of this unspoken art. ‘
By covering our nose and mouth, more than half of our facial expressions are lost. And that’s a problem. Because we express our emotions mainly with our face. And much less with our posture or our gestures. Hanging corners of the mouth, a wide smile, a pout, trembling nostrils: all communication signals that your eyes and eyebrows cannot (completely) compensate for.
So if we want to understand each other properly this summer – and limit misunderstandings – we literally have to roll up our sleeves. Or as Munari puts it in his book: ‘A gesture says more than a thousand words. And Italians are masters of this unspoken art. ‘
Not that Munari invented hot water. The very first collection of gestures dates back to 1832. ‘La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano’ (Italian for: The mimicry of classical antiquity and the Neapolitan gestures) is the very first handbook on body language. It has 380 pages and was written by the Italian Canon Andrea de Jorio (1769-1851).
Among other things, he studied hand gestures on old vases, paintings, bas-reliefs and archaeological sites such as Pompeii. Jorio’s book has also been reissued several times and is still for sale. Munari also refers to it and uses some illustrations and insights from it, such as about the origin of these hand gestures.
They go back to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Centuries ago, these antique gestures were mainly used in Naples, not coincidentally an important city of the Ancient Greeks. But with the Neapolitans spreading over time all over Italy, gestures became part of the national language. Some even made it to a global scale. Just think of the thumb up or down: from the gladiators to Facebook.