Illustrations from Vincenzo Requeno's Discovery of Chironomia (1797)

After “reviving the practice of painting with encaustic colored waxes” and having “revitalized the lost, ancient method for speaking at a distance with telegraphy”, the Spanish monk Vincenzo Requeno fixed his gaze on a new task in Scoperta della Chironomia (1797): reestablishing the “unknown and necessary” practice of communicating intelligibly with the hands.

According to Requeno, this gestural art was employed for two different audiences in Ancient Greece and Rome: on stage, as a method for expression, and in the forum, as a technique for calculation. Since emotions do not express themselves regularly — “burning passions . . . modify people’s bodies different” — Greek and Roman theater developed “a fixed and stable law of convention” that governed a performer’s hands. “Without the intelligence of this art it is impossible to understand the structure of the Greek tragedies, the strength attributed by the ancients to the gestures of their pantomime,and many historical passages of the ancient theater.” On the other hand, chironomia allowed orators in the Roman forum to practice a form of shorthand computation, which Requeno suspects has roots reaching back to “the heroic times of Greece”. Furthermore, since alphabetic letters can be mapped to numbers, he conjectures that it was once possible to spell out written composition rapidly across the fingers’ pads and joints. Like his predecessor John Bulwer, who drew upon a similar corpus of classical writers in an attempt to fashion a universal sign language, Requeno is haunted by the emotional registers that were lost when our modern hands became expressively arthritic.

The images below come from Requeno’s Appendix to Scoperta della Chironomia and offer techniques for signing both numbers and letters. He offers a blueprint for assigning the first eleven letters of the Italian alphabet to the left hand — gestures that could be mirrored with the right hand for communicating the rest of the alphabet — and concludes his treatise with a belief that ancient art forms might find new life if the proper gestures are employed. “By making use of the gestures of the Greeks, leaving aside their alphabet, we will be able today with golden simplicity to renew ancient art”.

For more on “digital” computation and memory, see Kensy Cooperrider’s essay, “Handy Mnemonics: The Five-Fingered Memory Machine”. For an English project contemporary to Requeno’s own, see Gilbert Austin’s Chironomia (1806), which attempted to create a rhetoric of gestures based off of the works of Cicero and Quintilian.

RightsUnderlying Work RightsPD Worldwide
Digital Copy Rights

No Additional Rights

  • No associated rights statement on Internet Archive . However, source confirmed by email no additional rights.
  • We offer this info as guidance only
DownloadDownloadRight click on image or see source for higher res versions
Affinities Cover

Imagery from this post is featured in
our special book of images created to celebrate 10 years of The Public Domain Review.

500+ images – 368 pages
Large format – Hardcover with inset image

Order Today