“Ecco il fico” — Barbarossa, the fig, the bite, the thumb, and the mule

The phrase “Ecco il fico” has a particularly ripe meaning, writes Rob Chirico in the Strong Language blog:

Frederick

Frederick

The year was 1162 when he returned and easily subdued the revolt. According to the chronicler Giambattista Gelli, Frederick [Frederick the First, Holy Roman emperor, also known as “Barbarossa”] got them back for the mule debacle, and then some: “The Emperor, justly incensed, urged the besieged [citizens] to yield, which they at last did… he received them with mercy upon this condition: that every person who desired to live should, with their teeth, take a fig out of the genitals of a [she] mule.” That is to say, Barbarossa gave the ringleaders a choice of being hanged (or beheaded), or saving themselves by presenting a fig to the executioner as a token of ransom. The fly in the ointment, so to speak, was that the fig had been stuck in the ass of the Empress’s ass—er, mule. The prisoner had to extract it with his teeth. He would then bring it to the executioner saying, “Ecco il fico” (translated as “Here is the fig”—but you knew that). If that was not punishment enough, he then had to replace the fig in the mule’s fundament to be ready for extraction by the next miscreant.

Chirico explains this as background for understanding a particular hand gesture:

for decades the incident was used to humiliate and insult the Milanese. You’ve seen it. The precise form is to make a fist with your thumb thrust out between the index and middle fingers and bite the thumb. The exact name of the gesture is known as “making the fig.” It was already a widespread insult in Shakespeare’s time, as he used it in Act I, Scene I of Romeo and Juliet.

The thumb-biting hand gesture has variants, used in various parts of the world.

The Romeo and Juliet incident, which may or may not be quite as described here, is accompanied by this statement: “No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir.” It can play out in different ways, at the option of the director of the play. This video shows some of the ways:

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