It's an old and well-established stereotype that Italians gesticulate wildly whenever they talk. This is entrenched enough in western culture that it is sometimes used to communicate that a character is indeed Italian — if you have an Italian character (or a character with Italian origins) and you want to point it out clearly, you're probably going to have them gesticulate every time they say something relevant.
While often exaggerated in fiction, this is not just a stereotype, and it is a fairly common practice in Italian culture to accompany speech with various gestures and hand and arm movements. This isn't strictly Italian, though, the custom being common around the Mediterranean (Greeks, Lebanese, Spaniards and Egyptians are all widely noted for their fondness for gesticulation), owing to a long history of trade and other interaction between peoples who speak different languages (gestures can get a message across well even with the most limited of speech). However, note that, besides the fact that movies wildly exaggerate the whole thing, many Italians don't actually gesticulate any more or less than anyone else; needless to say, this trope tends to annoy them quite a lot.
This is a common theme in Italian comedies, and of course in virtually any movie about the Italian Mafia.
Not necessarily related to Signed Language.
- Averted in Gunslinger Girl where the mannerisms of the cyborg girls and their handlers resemble Japanese reserve rather than Italian expresssiveness.
- Justified in the Miraculous Ladybug fanfic La Befana as It Should Have Been: Lila starts gesticulating wildly specifically when she goes "unleashing her hammy side" for the sake of properly underscoring the explanation of how ridiculous the villain's name sounds to an Italian.note
- The main character of Eat, Pray, Love is told that Italian is spoken with the hands.
- In Inglorious Basterds, the three American soldiers who have to impersonate Italians (without speaking a word of it) at a Nazi party punctuate every sentence with arm gestures. The guy they're trying to fool isn't (primarily because of his own mastery of the language), but goes along with the act since it's so funny.
- One of the aliens in the bowling alley in Men in Black 3 does a chin flick despite not having one at the moment while being questioned.
- In Napoléon, somebody at the war council held by the forces defending Toulon (which is described by the intertitles as "a veritable Tower of Babel" — five languages are spoken: English, German, Spanish, Italian, and French) laments:
"Italians speak with their hands."
- There's a joke on the varied warnings against talking to bus drivers. The joke says that, in Italy, the warning says not to talk to the driver because they need their hands to drive.
- How do you silence an Italian? Bind his hands. (Truth in Television, as two Italians talking can be observed trying to restrain each other's gesticulating hands to ensure that they get a turn to talk.)
- What do you call an Italian amputee? Speech-impaired.
- A platoon of allied troops captured an Italian soldier during World War 2. They restrained him to a chair and interrogated him for hours, asking about deployments, weaponry etc. He just kept quiet during the whole interrogation, no matter what they threatened him with. Eventually they gave up, thinking that this is an extraordinarily tough and dedicated soldier, and untied him from the chair. However, as soon as he was free to move, he immediately told them everything they needed to know while gesticulating wildly.
- A variation has the Italian soldier be captured alongside a Japanese and a Nazi soldier. The Nazi claims that his superior Aryan genetics will allow him to withstand interrogation without cracking. The Japanese soldier claims his Undying Loyalty to the Emperor will give him the strength to withstand interrogation without cracking. The Italian is scared shitless and says he's going to tell them everything he knows immediately. After all three of the interrogations, the Italian is the only one not to crack. The other two are very impressed, since they thought he was just going to tell them everything. The Italian responds, "I wanted to, but they tied my hands to the chair!"
- Earth (The Book), on the development of verbal language:
As our larynxes descended, we were able to make sounds with our mouths in new and far more expressive ways. Verbal language soon overtook physical gesturing as the primary means of communication for all human beings except Italians.
- Dave Barry's Only Travel Guide You'll Ever Need claims that the Dutch speak "Dutch, English, French, German, Flemish and Frantic Arm Gestures".
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The very first time Percy spots siblings Bianca and Nico di Angelo from across a room, he notes they're doing this. However, it doesn't seem to be a habit (neither of them are ever mentioned to do it again) and might only have been because they were arguing.
- This happens in the "Italian Class" sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus. When the Italians taking the class speak on their own, they gesture while talking.
- Look Around You has one video end with "In the next program, we will look at: Italians". Showing a man with electrodes all over his body and yes, gesticulating wildly.
- It is part of the OTT stereotype that Captain Bertorelli does this a lot in 'Allo 'Allo!.
- Desperate Housewives: Bree Hodge gesticulates while trying to impress some Italian clients of her catering agency.
- The Beverly Hillbillies: Jethro was dating an Italian woman and claimed he knew Italian because he could make the gesture pictured.
- In a Saturday Night Live sketch, January Jones as a House Wife from The '50s advises viewers that if Italians come to your party, give them enough space to talk with their hands.
- During their trip to Italy on I Love Lucy, Lucy assures Ethel that she knows enough Italian to get by, by demonstrating the different hand gestures she's learned—including the ones for "wonderful", "who knows?", and "get me a large pizza". The latter gesture is then used by two different Italians later in the episode.
- The 12 Guido Days of Christmas has item #10 being "ten new hand gestures".
- The meme Philosoraptor once contained the question, "If an Italian is missing an arm, can we say he has speech impediment"?
- This video is about Italian gestures as seen by the English.
- In the Shopkins webseries, Gino Gelati, being an Italian Tour team Shopkin, accentuates his speech with hand gestures, turning his nub-like hands into simply-defined fingers to emphasize them.
- Vinny of Vinesauce has a "Vinetalian" Twitch emote poking fun at his Italian heritage, which depicts a hand gesture.
- The Simpsons: This is quite common for Italian and pseudo-Italian characters such as Chef Luigi Risotto and, on a lesser grade, Fat Tony and the rest of the Springfield mafia. When getting kicked out of Fat Tony's mob by Tony's son Michael, Homer asks "Can I still talk with my hands?" and Michael tells him he can't.
Legs: What are you doing? I talk with that hand!
- This trope occurs every time an Italian character appears in Family Guy. It was itself directly parodied when Peter grew a mustache and thought he could speak Italian — by speaking gibberish and gesticulating.
- Miraculous Ladybug:
- Lila Rossi accentuates her hamminess with some spectacular gesticulation — or, as Volpina, her flute.
- Marinette and her father are noted for some spectacular gesticulation, and season 2 reveals that Marinette's maternal grandmother is actually Italian — and much hammier and showy than them.
- Fugget About It posits that this came about due to everyone being too afraid to talk aloud around the Mafia.
- In Italy itself, Southern Italians (and especially Neapolitans) are the ones said to be gesticulating, unlike Central and Northern Italians. Also, some gestures vary from zone to zone.
- A linguist once wrote that if extraterrestrials were to come to Earth and watch two Sicilian men talking to each other, it would likely assume it was a gestural language with sounds added for emphasis.
- In Argentina, there has been a massive cultural influence from Italian immigrants, including food and language. Gesture language included, and to this date a lot of Italian hand gestures have been adopted.
- The late Justice Antonin Scalia (who was of Sicilian ancestry and quite proud of it) of the U.S. Supreme Court, when asked to respond to his many critics, famously cupped his hand under his chin and flicked it toward the questioner. Many news outlets reported this to mean "fuck off", but Scalia claimed the gesture is actually used in Sicilian culture to mean "I couldn't care less".