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Crossing the Stages:
The Production, Performance and Reception of Ancient Theater


Dorota Dutsch and Marco Temelini
Department of Classics
McGill University

Quintilian and the Illustrated Manuscripts of Terence: A Study of Hand Gestures in the Performance of Palliata

The Roman actor followed a strict dramatic code regarding the use of voice, hands and bodily gestures. In order to achieve the demanding task of expressing emotions through gesture, he needed the training of an athlete and a dancer (Cicero, De Orat. III 22.83 and 59.220). Distinct gestures were used by characters in both tragedies and comedies (Bieber, 1965). Unfortunately, no ancient treatise listing hand positions used by professional actors has been preserved. General essays regarding gesticulation by Plotius, Nigidius and Pliny, mentioned by Quintilian (Inst. XI 3.143), are lost.

Therefore, in our attempt to revive the theatrical code of hand gestures used in comoediae palliatae, we will look for evidence in images, texts of plays, and rhetorical treatises. This paper will examine a few positions prescribed by chironomia, that according to tradition were used in the performance of Terence's plays. Our choice of Terence is due to the existence of several sources concerning the use of gestures in the performance of his palliatae. The illustrated medieval manuscripts of Terence, the prototype of which antedated the extant copies by several centuries (cf. Leo, Jachmann), provide visual representations of actors. The attitudes of the figures in the miniatures display similarities with some of the hand gestures found on Pompeian wall paintings. Moreover, Donatus, who seems to have attached a great importance to chironomia, provides interesting data concerning the semiotics of gestures.

We will examine the miniatures in the Vaticanus and Parisinus manuscripts which both contain the six plays. The miniatures present striking features. The hands of the figures that appear in different scenes are often disproportionately large, as though to highlight for the reader the gesticulation appropriate in individual scenes. The gestures depicted in the manuscripts will be analyzed in the context of the scenes of Terence's plays. Thus, we will be able to specify what emotions and situations are usually marked by individual hand positions (e.g. those referred to by Donatus as gestus abituri, cogitantis, observantis, stomachantis, and others). This survey will furnish a code of the most frequently used gestures and their meanings.

Furthermore, we intend to compare the results of our search with Quintilian's discussion of gestures used by public speakers (Inst. XI 3.111 and 124). Quintilian does emphasize the difference between the delivery styles of an orator and that of an actor but he also advises his reader to imitate professional actors (XI 3.111 and 181). Thus he admits that the two performers used similar non-verbal means of persuasion to appeal to their respective audiences (cf. also Cicero De Orat. III 22.83). Following this line of evidence, we will point out similarities between the appearance and meaning of gestures depicted in the illustrations of Terence's plays and those described in Quintilian's repertoire. Although the affinities between Quintilian and the manuscripts are not as obvious as Weston (1903) argues, we intend to show that they are not merely superficial as Meier-Eichhorn (1989) has claimed more recently .

The hand positions represented in the miniatures, referred to by Donatus and described by Quintilian, are highly conventional. The similarities between them cannot be explained other than by the fact that they all descend from the same tradition of the use of gestures in performance. The positions prescribed by chironomia that will be examined are thus very likely to resemble the gestures used by Roman actors performing Terence's plays.


Selected Bibliography

Bieber, Margaretê. The History of the Greek and Roman Theater. Princeton, 1961.

Grant, John N. "G and the Miniatures of Terence," CQ 23 (1973) 88-103.

Jachmann, G. Die Geschichte des Terenztextes im Altertum. Basel, 1924.

Leo, Friedrich. "Die Ueberlieferungsgeschichte der terenzischen Komödien und der Commentar des Donatus," Rheinisches Museum für Philologie 38 (1883) 317-347.

Meier-Eichhorn, Ursula. Die Gestikulation in Quintilians Rhetorik. Frankfurt am Main, 1989.

Omont, Henri. Comédies de Térence. Reproduction des 151 dessins du manuscrit Latin 7899 de la Bibliothèque Nationale. Paris, 1905.

Weston, Karl. "The Illustrated Terence Manuscripts," HSCP 14 (1903) 37- 54.

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