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 on 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 by linguists and others.

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.

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 major 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 in Bergamo mid-September 1898, showing paintings of Signorelli, Botticelli and Boltraffio one next to the other. In his view the paintings at the exposition were the source of the substitute names in the parapraxis. Swales dwells largely on the three paintings. The association of the name Boltraffio to the name Da Vinci, another hypothesis formulated by Swales (because Freud might have seen the statue of Boltraffio at the bottom of the Da Vinci monument on Piazza della Scala in Milan some days before his visit to Bergamo), is not further pursued by Swales. Although Freud visited Trafoi on the 8th of August 1898, Swales doubts whether Freud received a message on the suicide of one of his patients.

Freud neglected his own observation

Fresco of the Deeds of the Antichrist

Freud in his analysis did not use the fact that he remembered very well a picture of the painter in the lower left corner of one of the frescos. The picture, sort of a signature, was thus a third substitute to the forgotten name Signorelli. The "signature" can be interpreted as a reference to the Latin verb signare and this word, instead of Freud's signore, then leads to a simple analysis of the Signorelli parapraxis (Engels, 2006, p. 66-69). There seems to be no more need for the Bosnia-Hercegovina associations (Bo and Herr) Freud himself introduced. In the alternative to Freud's analysis the suicide message in Trafoi remains an important point to understand the parapraxis (this message being a blow to Freud's self-esteem). The occurrence of the Signorelli parapraxis during Freud's trip from Ragusa to Trebinje (in Herzegowina) is not questioned, as was done by Swales.

See also


  • 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.

External links

  • and find the dream at the bottom of page 104TrafoiKraepelin's 1906 monograph, search for