The handshake through history


Institutional Communication Service

20 April 2020

In a short video, Professor Annick Paternoster of the Institute of Italian Studies retraces the history of the handshake and its many symbolic meanings over time. 

Considered as a ritual to seal alliances by the ancient Greeks, the handshake as a form of greeting only appeared with the French Revolution. After the bows of the Ancient regime, which is know to have been a particularly stratified society in which the vertical movement of the body expresses submission, the republican etiquette promoted the handshake as a symbol of equality, since it involves only a perfectly horizontal body movement. In the nineteenth century, the handshake belonged to the rural world, where it was used to mark the sealing of a deal. In bourgeois circles, on the other hand, it was customary to greet each other with nods of the head, bows, or by taking off the hat. The handshake remains something of secondary importance, probably because it requires physical contact. At cultural gatherings, the handshake was subject to special rules: only the woman offers her hand to the man, and when she decides to do so, it is a confidential gesture that expresses closeness. This positive association between handshake and cordiality anticipates its future popularity.

To find out more, Paternoster recommends the witty column by Mary Beard, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Cambridge, dedicated to the greetings of Greco-Roman antiquity:


The handshake through history