Folk-Lore/Volume 27/Obituary/Giuseppe Pitrè
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Obituary of Giuseppe Pitrè
by Evelyn Martinengo Cesaresco
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The outward facts of Giuseppe Pitrè's life are soon told. He was seventeen when the great historical romance of the last century, the landing of Garibaldi at Marsala, brought new destinies to the "Isle of Fire." Pitrè took part in the revolution at Palermo which was crowned by the hero's entry, and he accompanied the deputation which went to Naples to present the Sicilian plebiscite to Victor Emmanuel. He had nothing more to do with politics till he was made a Senator in 1915. Politics, when not heroic, were not to his taste, but he did not shun the duties of a citizen in municipal affairs, in which his voice was always raised in favour of moral no less than of material progress; he was one of the first, for instance, to promote the Palermitan Society for the Protection of Animals. He had many opportunities of "arriving," as the phrase goes, especially after his devoted services during two cholera epidemics were rewarded by a medal, much to his surprise. But he chose a life of obscurity as a doctor in a poor quarter, giving his days to his profession, and his nights, or a great part of them, to his beloved studies.
One of the writers of the many biographical notices which have appeared in the Italian papers, said truly, "Pitrè became a folklorist as other people become great generals or saints—by vocation." Sprung from the acute and imaginative Sicilian people, acuteness and imagination joined to a "genius for taking pains" were the gifts which enabled him to accomplish his life's work. He succeeded in revealing the inmost soul of his race, not by a process of cold analysis, but by that other process which is summed up in the French proverb: "Aimer c'est comprendre." Severely critical in detecting the least trace of artificial manipulation in the material which came into his hands, he held that nothing that was genuine could be dismissed as unimportant; if you followed it to its roots, it contributed somehow to building the fabric, as varied, as eloquent, as one of those wonderful Sicilian churches where every stone speaks of history. In Pitre's twenty-five volumes of Sicilian folklore the soul of Sicily will live for ever. The Archivio delle Tradizioni Popolari which he edited with his friend Salomone Marino (who died a few days before his own death) became the pivot of folklore researches all over Italy, and may be said to have prevented them from dying out after the first enthusiasm aroused by the works of Tigri, Nigra, and other pioneers. Its publication was continued for thirty years in the face of all sorts of difficulties. Pitrè could not have done what he did for Sicilian folklore without a knowledge of the whole subject, which astonished even Professor Child, who was one of his warmest admirers. Added to this, he had great stores of general erudition acquired one hardly knows how, for he lived far away from museums and libraries, but he was helped by two things which, especially the last, are too often absent: a strong memory and a mental habit of scientific accuracy. What was most essential of all to his work, was his familiarity with every byway, every hidden corner in Sicilian history, every germ which went to form the people in whom the original stock was mixed with such extraordinarily various elements, Greek and Arab, Norman and French and Spanish, all of which left their traces in the bodies and minds, the passions and instincts of the Sicilian race—and in its folklore.
For a long while, though appreciated abroad, Pitrè was far from being a prophet in his own country. His fellow-citizens regarded him, if I am not mistaken, as slightly mad. Why, after a hard day's work in going his rounds among his patients, should he sit up half the night in writing down and setting in order those "childish things?" Why half ruin himself to get them printed? In Pitrè's case the gains of a doctor, that are not large at Palermo, were made the smaller by his refusal to take fees from those who could ill afford to give them. But whether mad or sane, the people of Palermo always loved him. It was the love that is never denied to him that loves. Of love Pitrè gave large draughts to his people, and in return they opened their inmost soul to him. He had an actual effluence of goodness. He could not bring himself to do what his conscience did not approve: thus, in spite of the exhortations of some eminent German professors, he would never allow the publication of a collection he had made for scholars of the undesirable part of popular traditions as it exists in the folklore of his native island. For this volume, and for this alone, he was offered a good sum of money, but in vain.
In the end his people discovered that they had a great man among them, and when honours were heaped on him in the last few years of his life, they were as much delighted as if they had been done to each of them severally. Those fortunate individuals who, like myself, many years before, had him for guide to the inexhaustible points of interest at Palermo, felt as if they were driving about with a royal personage, so universal was the salutation that greeted him. He witnessed the creation of a Chair of Demo-Psychology (as he preferred to call folklore) at the University of Palermo, of which he was, of course, appointed the first Professor. Thus the Science of Popular Traditions received academical recognition for the first time. It was the consecration of Pitre's labours. His other great desire, the constitution of an Ethnological Museum, was realised not long before he died. As previously stated, he was made a Senator in 1915, and on his visit to Rome to take his seat, everyone fêted him. Unhappily, his last years were clouded by losses which, with his affectionate disposition, he never got over: his only son, a promising young doctor, died from blood-poisoning, and his younger daughter perished with her new-born infant only a year after her marriage, in the Messina earthquake. I remember her as a beautiful child when I first knew Pitrè at Palermo in 1888. The blow almost overpowered him; he shut himself up in the little room she had occupied as a young girl, and remained for months prostrate with grief. At last he had the idea of privately printing as a memorial to her a little collection of tender and sweet swallow legends made by herself. This touching booklet he sent to a few friends, and I think the preparation of it was what brought him back to his own work, which he pursued till the day of his death without resting, though never with the old joy.
It is greatly to be wished that his surviving daughter, Signora Maria d'Alia Pitrè, who inherits much of his literary gift, would write his life. No one could do it so well.