Chironomia is the art of using gesticulations or hand gestures to good effect in traditional rhetoric or oratory. Effective use of the hands, with or without the use of the voice, is a practice of great antiquity, which was developed and systematized by the Greeks and the Romans. Various gestures had conventionalized meanings which were commonly understood, either within certain class or professional groups, or broadly among dramatic and oratorical audiences.
Gilbert Austin was a well-known author on chironomia, in the preface to his book on the subject, Austin writes: ‘…it is a fact, that we do not possess from the ancients, nor yet from the labors of our own countrymen, any sufficiently detailed and precise precepts for the fifth division of the art of rhetoric, namely rhetorical delivery, called by the ancients ‘actio’ and ‘pronuntiatio.”
Austin observed that British orators were skilled in the first four divisions of rhetoric: inventio (discovery), dispositio (organization), elocutio (speaking style), and memoria (memory). However, the fifth division, pronuntiatio or delivery, was all but ignored. Delivery, which is often improperly referred to as elocution (elocutio), concerns the use of voice and gesture in an oration. Rather than study the art of delivery, orators trusted to the inspiration of the moment to guide their voices and gestures. Austin describes this as a reliance on ‘gestures imperfectly conceived…which will consequently be imperfectly executed.’
Chironomia is a treatise on the importance of good delivery. Good delivery, Austin notes, can ‘conceal in some degree the blemishes of the composition, or the matter delivered, and…add lustre to its beauties.’ In the first part of the book, Austin traces the study of the art of delivery from the classical world to the eighteenth century. The second part of the book is devoted to a description of the notation system Austin designed to teach students of rhetoric the management of gesture and voice. The system of notation is accompanied by a series of illustrations depicting positions of the feet, body, and hands.
Throughout ‘Chironomia,’ Austin instructs speakers to avoid the appearance of vulgarity or rusticity. Austin first developed the system of notation described in Chironomia at his school for privileged young men. Austin’s goal was to prepare his students for a life in the church or politics by training them to become better orators. Although Austin’s system was eventually dismissed as too rigidly prescriptive, ‘Chironomia’ was a highly influential book during the nineteenth century.
Discussing the need for a treatise on delivery, Austin writes ‘during my examination of modern writers, it has appeared to me, that, with little exception, they have neglected to pay due attention to the precepts and authority of the great and ancient masters.’ Austin remedies this oversight by compiling a collection of classical sources on the art of delivery. Austin was heavily influenced by Cicero and Quintilian. Cicero refers to action as the ‘language of the body’ and the art of delivery as ‘corporeal eloquence.’ Austin attributes to Quintilian the use of the word ‘chironomia’ to refer to the art of gesture.
Austin also cites Ludovicus Cressolius’s 1620 book ‘Vacationes Autumales sive de perfecta Oratoris, Actione, et Pronuntiatione’ and the work of Caussinus as influences. Despite their use of the term elocution for the art Austin calls delivery, Austin refers to Thomas Sheridan’s ‘Lectures on Elocution’ (1762) and John Walker’s ‘Elements of Elocution’ (1781) in his discussion of voice and countenance. Austin’s work would appear to be a direct descendant of John Bulwer’s book ‘Chirologia, or, The natural language of the hand’ which, when it was published in 1644, also included Bulwer’s work ‘Chironomia; or, The art of manual rhetoricke.’