Signorelli parapraxis  

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Signorelli parapraxis represents the first and best known example of a parapraxis and its analysis in Freud's The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. The parapraxis centers around a word finding problem and the production of substitutes. Freud couldn't recall the name (Signorelli) of the painter of the Orvieto frescos and produced as substitutes the names of two painters Botticelli and Boltraffio. Freud's analysis shows what associative processes had linked Signorelli to Botticelli and Boltraffio. The analysis has been criticised, not only by linguists.


Botticelli - Boltraffio - Trafoi

One important ingredient in Freud's analysis was the North-Italian village Trafoi where he received the message of the suicide of one of his patients, struggling with sexual problems. Without Trafoi the substitute Boltraffio rhyming to it would be incomprehensible. Freud links Trafoi to the theme 'death and sexuality', a theme preceding the word finding problem in a conversation Freud had during a trip by train through Bosnia-Herzegowina.

The second important ingredient in Freud's analysis is the extraction of an Italian word signor from the forgotten name Signorelli. Herr, the German counterpart of Signor, is then linked to Herzegowina and the word Herr occurring, as Freud tells us, in the conversation.

Freud denies the relevance of the content of the frescos. Nevertheless psychoanalysts have pursued their investigations particularly into this direction, finding however no new explanation of the parapraxis. Jacques Lacan suggested that the parapraxis may be an act of self-forgetting. This lead some analysts to point to the fact that the name Signorelli alliterates with Freud's first name Sigmund.

Trafoi in Kraepelin's dream

The first critique to Freud came from Emil Kraepelin, who in a postscript to his 1906 monograph on language disturbances in dreams, relates a dream involving Trafoi. The dream centers around a neologism Trafei, which Kraepelin links to Trafoi. The dream may be seen as an implicit critique on Freud's analysis. Italian trofei is associated to Trafei in the same way as Trafoi (cf. van Ooijen, 1996) and clarifies Kraepelin's dream. The meaning of trofei reads in German Siegeszeichen (victory-signs) and this German word together with Latin signum clearly links to Freud's first name (Engels, 2006, p. 22-24).

Sebastiano Timpanaro

In The Freudian Slip Sebastiano Timpanaro discusses Freud's analysis in chapter 6 "Love and Death at Orvieto." (p. 63-81). He in fact doubts, that the name Boltraffio would have played a mayor role during the parapraxis, as he states: "Boltraffio is a Schlimbesserung [that is a substitute worse than another substitute]" and adds "the correction goes astray because of incapacity to localize the fault."(p. 71). He calls Botticelli an "involuntary banalization" and Boltraffio "a semi-conscious disimproved correction."(p. 75). As to the Signor-element in Freud's analysis he puts: "The immediate equivalence Signore= Herr is one thing, the extraction of signor from Signorelli and of Her(r) from Herzegowina is another."

Swales' investigation

Peter Swales (2003) investigated the historical data and states that Freud probably visited an exposition of Italian masters, showing paintings of Signorelli, Botticelli and Boltraffio one close to the other. In his view the paintings at the exposition were the source of the substitute names in the parapraxis. He questions Freud's explanation of the parapraxis.

Freud neglected his own observation

Engels (2006, p. 66-69) points out, that Freud in his analysis did not use the fact, that he remembered very well a picture of the painter in the left lower corner of one of the frescos (see: Fresco of the Deeds of the Antichrist). The picture, sort of a signature, was thus a third substitute. Engels then interprets the signature of Signorelli as a reference to the Italian verb signare and uses this word, in stead of signore, to obtain a very simple analysis of the Signorelli parapraxis. There seems to be no more need for the Bosnia-Herzegowina associations Freud himself introduced. Moreover Engels' result complies with Swales' findings.


  • Engels, Huub (2006). Emil Kraepelins Traumsprache 1908-1926. ISBN 978-90-6464-060-5
  • Timpanaro, S. (1976). The Freudian Slip: Psychoanalysis and Textual Criticism. London: NLB.
  • Swales, P. (2003). Freud, Death and Sexual Pleasures. On the Psychical Mechanism of Dr. Sigm. Freud. Arc de Cercle, 1, 4-74.

Further reading

  • Molnar, M. (1994). Reading the Look. In Sander, Gilman, Birmele, Geller & Greenberg (ed.): Reading Freud's Reading. pp. 77-90. New York: Oxford.
  • Ooijen, B. van. (1996). Vowel mutability and lexical selection in English: Evidence from a word reconstruction task. Memory & Cognition, 24, 573-583. Ooijen shows that in word reconstruction tasks e.g. the non-word kebra is more readily substituted by cobra than by zebra. This is what is meant by 'vowel mutability.'
  • Owens, M.E. (2004). Forgetting Signorelli: Monstruous Visions of the Resurrection of the Dead. Muse: scholarly journals online.

See also

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Signorelli parapraxis" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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