Inspector Montalbano: the world of Italian hand gestures

Luca Zingaretti, who plays Inspector Montalbano, BBC4

With the nights drawing in and temperatures beginning to drop here in the UK, what a tonic BBC4’s Italian police drama Inspector Montalbano is proving to be.

I can swap grey, chilly London for the gorgeous sunlit laneways and Baroque churches of the fictional Sicilian town of Vigàta, and especially Montalbano’s beach-side apartment.

The TV series is unlike any British police procedural. And it’s different again from the highly stylised and dark Nordic offerings such as Wallander and The Killing.

It has a curiously dated feel – the opening credit sequence looks like it could have come from the  1970s or 80s. The characters are generally exaggerated – Commissario Montalbano is gruff but caring (and always seems to have attractive women trying to seduce him). He loves good food and wine. Women are either very attractive (and attracted to Montalbano) or worn-out middle-aged cleaners. There are no female police officers to be seen. Montalbano’s colleagues are effective but somewhat stereotypical and in one case (Caterella ) a simple-minded clown. Oh, and the plots are often diffuse.

So why watch it? For me, it’s a winning combination of stunning locations, loveable characters, and… hand gestures. I always knew that hand gestures were an important part of any Italian’s vocabulary but with this TV series I’ve become fascinated with how much can be said with your hands. The interplay of gestures between Montalbano and his colleagues is mesmerising.

Earlier this year, The New York Times published a piece titled: When Italians Chat, Hands and Fingers Do the Talking. It seems likely that exaggerated hand gestures probably first appeared in polyglot Naples where many different languages were used and gestures were a way of making sure people could understand one another. Flamboyant gestures also help to get you noticed.

Here’s a potted history of Italian hand gestures from the New York Times article:

In my research I also found a fascinating article on the website Brainpickings which looked at a vintage visual dictionary of Italian hand gestures by Bruno Munari. Here’s a lovely illustration:

Can you figure out what they mean? From left to right: money, past times, affirmation, stupid good, wait a moment, to walk backwards, to steal, horns (cuckhold), to ask for.

I’m definitely going to start sprinkling a few of these into my daily conversations.

I’ll leave you with a short montage of Inspector Montalbano in action – Ciao!


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