Saturday, June 27, 2015


Vernacchio in Petronius' Satyricon?

Andrea de Jorio (1769-1851), Gesture in Naples and Gesture in Classical Antiquity, tr. Adam Kendon (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000), pp. 118-119:
10. Vernacchio.111 The mouth is inflated with air and held tightly closed; the hand, open, with palm facing downwards, is brought to the upper lip so that it is enclosed between the index finger and the thumb. With the fingers thus arranged on the upper lip, the mouth, already completely full of air, is compressed by a series of repeated blows. This forces the air out of the mouth with a series of noises which are given the name Vernacchio.

In particular, this gesture is used to make fun of those who sing, or who hold forth in some loud discourse of self interest or seriousness, or who talk boastfully, threatening now one, now the other (see Plate IV). Such behaviour is so insulting that it is scarcely used in Naples except by those who belong to the lowest classes of the population.

The idea of mockery, of offense, or rather of insult that is attached to it, derives from the similarity that the noises produced by this movement have with that which nature causes in expelling air closed in our viscera.(a) Since this sound has always been an affront, even if it is not directed to anyone, it is not surprising that a simple imitation of it, produced on purpose, is understood by anybody as an insult.

Was not this the Curtis Judaeis oppedere of Horace? 1.Sat.9.v.70.112 This rude gesture also has a diminutive form. This is done by simply placing the upper lip between the index and the thumb in the manner described, but without producing any noise with the mouth, even if it is full of air. With somewhat more difficulty and diligence, the same gesture in its complete form can be done in the following way.

11. Palm of the hand placed under the armpit of the opposite arm (see Plate IV). The hand is arranged so that, when compressed with violent blows given to it by the arm, because the air trapped them is pushed out by the force of the blows, it produces the same sound as that obtained by the mouth, but even more stridently. More emphasis is given to this gesture by lifting a little the leg corresponding to the arm that presses the hand. Even if just the first phase of this gesture is performed, it has the same meaning. This may be done simply by bringing a hand under the opposite armpit, and lifting the corresponding leg a little and adding, further, an ironic expression on the face. We have proof that the ancients knew of the present gesture (the original form is understood) in Petronius [Satyricon]. c. 117. Nec contentus maledictis (Encolpius), tollebat subinde altius pedem, et strepitu obscoeno simul atque odore viam implebat. (Not content with cursing, every so often he [Encolpius] lifted his right leg up and filled the road with obscene sounds and smells.' Trans. Sullivan 1986: 128).

111 Or 'Pernacchio' (D'Ascoli 1990).

(a) Vernacchio: sound that is made with the mouth similar to breaking wind in order to insult someone. Vocabolario Napoletano [Galiani 1789b, Tomo II, p. 184].

112 Vin tu curtis Iudais oppedere? "Would you affront the circumcised Jews?' (Fairclough 1926: 111). This is said by Aristius Fuscus, a friend who Horace happens to meet while he, Horace, is in the company of someone he wishes to be rid of. He hopes that Fuscus will save him by saying he has some private business with him. Fuscus says he does have something to tell him in private, but will not do it today, for it is the "thirtieth sabbath."
Plate IV, from the original La mimica degli antichi investigata nel gestire napoletano (Napoli: Dalla Stamperia e Cartiera del Fibreno, 1832):

De Jorio's comment on Plate IV (in Adam Kendon's translation, p. 418):
Two rash youths of the class of those who are often known as lazzaroni, wishing to make fun of the clothes of the two country people, old-fashioned to their way of thinking, make use of their usual rather indecent means of doing so, which they call vernacchio (see Beffegiare 'Joking, teasing' n. 10).

Both accompany the said insult with lifting a leg. This serves to make a closer imitation of the action that commonly is associated with the Vernacchio, and it is a sign of what, in the natural case, is discharged through the usual channel.
De Jorio's interpretation of the passage from Petronius is accepted by M.L. Wagner, "Über die Unterlagen der romanischen Phraseologie (im Anschluss an des Petronius' Satyricon)," Volkstum und Kultur der Romanen 6 (1933) 1-26 (at 7-8), and by Leo Spitzer, "Neapolitan pernacchia," Language 14.4 (October-December, 1938) 289 (where "Andrea de Torio" should be corrected to "Andrea de Jorio").

But I would raise two points in connection with the passage from Petronius. First (a minor point), Corax, not Encolpius, is the subject of the sentence "Nec contentus maledictis tollebat subinde altius pedem, et strepitu obscoeno simul atque odore viam implebat." Second, the words "atque odore" make it clear that Petronius is describing not an imitation of farting (the vernacchio), but actual farting. On the other hand, Giton's reaction to Corax's farting may in fact be an example of vernacchio:
ridebat contumaciam Giton et singulos crepitus eius pari clamore prosequebatur.
In Michael Heseltine's translation:
Giton laughed at his impudence and matched every noise he made.
The phrase "pari clamore" indicates that Giton, with his mouth, is imitating the actual farts of Corax.

In the movie L'Oro di Napoli, there is an amusing scene that features the vernacchio:
Thanks very much to Ian Jackson (and his wife Ann) for help with this post.


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