Some Recent Studies of the Sicilian People

To interpret his own country to itself, — what more beautiful work of patriotism can be undertaken by a literary man ! It is this which has been, more or less consciously, from the time of his boyhood, the ideal proposed to himself by Dr. Giuseppe Pitrè, the Palermitan folklorist and physician. For Sicily. — in these days so troubled and confused, — his subtle and luminous comment upon the past origins of its present conditions ought to avail greatly as a lesson in regard to its future.

This year Dr. Pitrè has crowned his labors by the publication of his Bibliografia delle Tradizioni Popolari dell’ Italia,1 — a magnificent work, and marvelous also as showing the vast extent and the scrupulous care of his researches in the comparative study of the traditions and customs of Sicily and of the Italian peninsula. Naturally, it is his own land that is the special ground of his observations; and indeed none could be more fertile and rich in material than the wild and beautiful island, from remote centuries desired by many nations, and conquered by them in turn. The Greeks, the Carthaginians, the Romans, the Saracens, the Normans, the Spaniards, the French, have contributed to form its present civilization ; and behind the record of their successive reigns appear hints of prehistoric occupation, written in the solemn illegibility of ruins, as those of Soltinto and Segesta, The Sicilian character, moulded in crises of conquest, may be fancifully likened to the lava of the island; plastic amid convulsive fires, then hardening to retain perdurably the impressions received.

Dr. Pitrè, perhaps more than any other folk - lorist, has the gift of intuitive and affectionate understanding of his country and his compatriots. In his quality of physician he enters into the homes of all sorts and classes of Sicilians, and possesses their entire confidence. During his medical visits he sees humanity off its guard, and is able to note emotions, beliefs, phrases, which in his hands are a whole treasury of precious documents. The volumes of his Biblioteca delle Tradizioni Popolari Siciliane illustrate every phase of life from birth to burial, describing the legends and songs, the customs and credences, the agriculture and notions concerning natural phenomena, the cries of venders and the voices of bells, the proverbs of the prudent and the jargon of the lawless. In course of the thirty years during which Dr. Pitrè has been collecting the notes for these studies, he has handled, in order to compare and illustrate his own researches, an immense mass of books, pamphlets, and special articles in periodicals.

The present Bibliografia is an admirably systematized index of all this material, comprising 6680 titles, which are furthermore arranged by classification under authors, pseudonyms, subjects of anonymous works, geographical location, and topics. Often a book is summarized briefly, or its contents referred to in a way to give especial aid to students, by sparing them time and fatigue. The result of Dr. Pitrè’s labors is a masterpiece of intelligent care ; and kindred praise is also merited by the work of the publishing house of Carlo Clausen of Palermo, that, throughout the course of the difficult and not materially remunerative toil of the great folk-lorist, has proved to him a constant and disinterested friendship.

Dr. Pitrè’s personality is in full accord with his genius and his studies. Fortune favored us with the opportunity to become acquainted with him in his native city during the past winter of 189394, when Sicily was proclaimed to be in a state of siege. Amid the excitement attendant on such a condition, the spirit of Dr. Pitrè, faithful patriot and friend of the people, burned with extreme brilliance. He would not hazard much expression in regard to the subject which occupied the thoughts of every one; he restrained his utterance, which if unbridled would have carried him too far in the way of impassioned eloquence. But in that little which he permitted himself to say much could be divined and comprehended. He well knew how hard is the case of the Sicilian proletariat, under the burden of the dead body of Bourbon traditions, impeded by a confused tangle of petty oppressions, of land rents, of local tariffs, of political rings for the distribution of town offices, — an underbrush which the axes that cut down the forest of the government of the strangers had not time to clear away. But neither is this remainder of the selva selvaggia to be burned off by fires kindled here and there by an ignorant populace.

All this Dr. Pitrè understood, and with his dark face flashing with emotion, he would repeat with his unforgettable southern emphasis, “ This state of siege is a Providence for Sicily, a real Providence ! ” He desired that the people should be saved from themselves, from their own half-savage natures in revolt stimulated by malcontents and demagogues.

The more thorough became our familiarity with Palermo, the more Dr. Pitrè appeared to us its representative and primo cittadino. In the hours which he so generously devoted to explaining to us the historic associations of certain places and edifices in Palermo, he evoked with power the spirits of the past and bade them speak sooth. Indeed, Dr. Pitrè might be an Arabian mage, with his intensely black and piercing eyes, his dark masses of hair and heard sparkling with silver, his rapid, gliding motion, his picturesque and courteous speech, the eloquence of his sensitive shoulders and fine, nervous hands. All the past of Sicily is as if present to him, because he is completely penetrated with the sense of its survival in the conditions of to-day; and the lessons received by us from his enthusiastic erudition will remain indelible in their brilliant strokes of first intention, as if from an etcher’s needle.

It may not have been inopportune to describe a little the personality of Dr. Pitrè, which adds so much prestige to his work, before offering a very brief outline of his writings. The first excursion of his genius in the way that it was afterward to pursue was in the year 1858, when, a schoolboy of seventeen years, he began to interest himself in comparing Giusti’s collection of Tuscan proverbs with the proverbial sayings of Sicily, of which he knew by heart a great number. In connection with this Dr. Pitrè recalls a striking story.

In 1866, after some years of collating Sicilian proverbs, he had obtained more than eight thousand examples, written on slips of paper. These were kept in a room in the neighborhood of the Church of San Francesco di Paola, at that time a suburb of Palermo. On the 15th of September of that year, the people of the city and its environs made one of their instinctive insurrections, without clearly knowing the reason why ; and it was rumored that San Francesco di Paola was to be assaulted. The young Pitrè hastened to his home within the city gates, leaving his proverbs to their fate ; which would have been that of all philosophy in times of war, if he had not soon returned to find them, and, aided by his brother, bear them away from danger, crawling on hands and knees in order to avoid the bullets which rained from the Porta Maequeda upon the few soldiers defending the Piazza Ruggiero Settimo. “ The words still sound terrible to me,” Dr. Pitrè records, “ which, when we hazarded to cross that Street, were shouted to us by an officer : ‘ Go on! If you fall, that is your own affair ! ’ ”

The young folk-lorist had received his baptism of fire.

His collection of Sicilian proverbs, afterward augmented to the number of thirteen thousand, and compared with nearly seventeen thousand from the other dialects of Italy, as well as with Latin and Biblical citations, forms part of the series of volumes of the Biblioteca delle Tradizioni Siciliane.

In 1882, Dr. Pitrè devised the scheme of publishing the Archivio per lo Studio delle Tradizioni Popolari, the pioneer of all the journals of folk-lore, which he still continues to edit with the aid of his longtime friend and colleague, Dr. SalomoneMarino. Of course the present Bibliografia indexes all the articles which have appeared in this periodical. A supplementary volume will record books and articles, of various nationalities, which were received by Dr. Pitrè too late to be included in the body of the work.

Next to a prolonged stay in the island, — which sojourn should moreover be fortunate, as was ours, in occasions to gain the friendliness of the people and have access to their daily life, — there is no way to know one’s Sicily so well as by the reading of the Biblioteca of Dr. Pitrè. It is an infinite comment upon the spirit and manners of the country. The first two volumes of the series are devoted to an essay upon Sicilian poetry, with nearly eleven hundred examples of the lyrics and legends of the people,— which appears a logical starting-point for the study of the folk-lore of the island, when we remember that the origins of the Italian language were in the troubadour court of Frederic II. at Palermo.

(In parenthesis, very subdued, may be murmured a heresy , —a poor thing, but our own. — to the effect that if Dante had been Sicilian instead of Tuscan, the vulgate of Italy, evoked by him from the chaos of dialects and the darkness of the dead Latin, would have attained much sooner to the efficacy, force, and plasticity which it now goes seeking by a more liberal policy of acceptance of provincial idioms, provided these be adjudged useful and not ill constructed. What Hellenic forms, what Oriental color, are in the speech of Sicily and of Calabria! Compared to their eagle cries or nightingale throbs, — this always under privilege of a pagan in presence of the worship of the Toscaneggiamento, — the pure Tuscan locution, with its pretty redundancies and suave preciosities, sounds like the warbling of linnets in a bush !)

Italian poetry, then, began in Sicily ; and there is a current song of the peasants that boasts, “ Whoever wants poetry, let him come to Sicily, for she bears the banner of victory; of songs we have a hundred thousand.”

Because of the curious phenomenon of the coincident and equal development of the cultured and of the popular poetry of Sicily, the task of separating them is extremely difficult; and many acute critics have erred therein, confused by the clever literary imitations of the songs of the people. Here Dr. Pitrè’s intuition and tact have greatly availed him. From the lips of the peasants he has noted the genuine Sicilian lyrics, imposing in their abundance and variety : love and hatred, jealousy and reconciliation, parting and death, lullabies and the ingenuous and often fantastic invocations of religion, history, and legend, all find their large expression in poetry.

Not less plenteous and characteristic is the collection of popular tales which fill four volumes of the Biblioteca. They have been already somewhat illustrated for American readers by Professor Crane’s charming book of Italian folktales,2 so that little need be said here, except to note the vivid imagination and the extraordinary spiritedness of their manner of telling. They touch the Arabian Nights on the one hand, and the legends of Hellas on the other, yet always preserving the popular tonality. Among them are various anecdotes familiar to laughers in all languages, and attributed to the chief wit of the time and place in which they happen to be related, be he Dante or Sydney Smith, or, in Sicily, the unconscious humorist, Giufà the simpleton.

A volume containing a stud of the religious festivals and spectacles in Sicily throws light upon the bizarre superstitions, the touching devotion and faith, the survivals of the pagan spirit, and the natural and pure religion that mingle inextricably in the Sicilian credences and forms of worship.

In four other volumes are recorded the traditions of the secular existence; which, however, are constantly interwoven with the observances of the Church or with the whims of superstition. What a phantasmagoria of common things taking color from the most improbable fancies and practices ! What strange ideas concerning omens and auguries, the intervention of the saiuts and of the souls in purgatory ! The personnel of the Greek and Roman mythology survives to-day in Sicily, baptized or banned, as the case may be. The bountiful Demeter, mother of corn, is still adored as the Madonna del Carmine in her ancient fields of Enna (now Castrogiovanni), and the finest of the wheat is offered upon her altar. Certain saints have assumed the record, more or less revised and corrected, of gods and demigods. Sant’ Agata wove and raveled the web of Penelope ; the mysterious divinities of the household, the Lares of the Etruscans, perhaps the Deæ Matres of the Romans, appear as the often beneficent, always capricious Donne di Fuorn ; sylvan spirits haunt the nut-trees; the siren sings on the rocks of the coast; Fate and Death in person are to he met in the roads. Infinite is the imagination that gives to the Sicilian view of existence a constant illusion and a marvelous coloring. The real is always supplemented and rendered significant by the purely ideal, which causes the most surprisingcontrasts in sentiment and in practice.

A very interesting task of Dr. Pitrè’s may be noted here, — the commission given to him by the National Italian Exposition, held at Palermo in 1891-92, to prepare a Sicilian ethnological exhibit, which by his care was made to comprise several thousand objects belonging to the manners and customs of the people. Nothing was admitted which was not of traditional as well as of present use. Many of the articles loaned were, after the close of the exhibition, returned to tlieir proprietors; but enough remained of those owned by or ceded to Dr. Pitrè to form an instructive and not meagre museum; which he had the goodness to show and explain to us. It is lodged in a storeroom not far from the Porta Carini, — an unpretentious theatre, indeed, for the object lesson upon Sicily brilliantly pronounced there one morning by Dr. Pitrè to an audience very small in number, but in inverse proportion attentive and grateful. A pamphlet at this moment near our hand records the exhibit, illustrating with careful woodcuts the text concerning the costumes, the vehicles, the implements of agricultural and of domestic use, the amulets and charms, the popular art as applied to the painting of ex votos or to the scenes of the Carlovingian legend, the children’s toys, and the curious forms of loaves and sweets suggested by fancy, or more often by devotional tradition.

Though the titles of Dr. Pitrè’s separate publications upon folk-lore amount to no less than two hundred and twenty in number, these brochures and journalistic articles are mostly reprinted in the volumes of the Biblioteca, which, with the exhibition catalogue and the great Bibliografia, represents the career of the Sicilian patriot and man of letters, who has worked always without subsidies or patronage of any sort, spending in the cause of folk-lore the slender gains of medical practice (not a little of which is gratuitous among the poor). For many years he was hindered by ignorant and envious opposition ; he was called a fool, and a waster of time and of ink, by persons who later have fully recanted their error, and testified their admiration of his constancy and wisdom. Still in the prime of his powers and in the full impetus of work, he enjoys his due reward in the popular esteem, and in the personally expressed appreciation on the part of the king and queen of Italy.

On the eastern coast of Sicily are the scenes of the studies of rustic life by the eminent novelists Signor G. Verga and Signor L. Capuana. These two resemble each other closely in their theory of art and in the main qualities of their work ; so that it is less by means of generalities than by particulars that criticism can differentiate them. Their recent volumes of short stories — Verga’s Don Candeloro 3 and Capuana’s Le Puesane 4 — were published very nearly at the same time. With all respect to the more famous author of Cavalleria Rusticana, it may be frankly said that just now Signor Capuana appears to he doing the better work. They both have great and well-recognized merits. We are not aware whether many American readers are acquainted with the writings of Capuana, but cisatlantic attention has been widely directed to Verga as represented by the libretto of Mascagni’s volcanic opera, and by the humane and beautiful novel, the Malavoglia (translated under title of The House by the Medlar Tree). Both authors are professed realists ; they have studied with much care the manners and locutions of their region, the province of Catania, even to the particulars and the prejudices of the “ bell-towerism ” of their respective towns.

At their best they are very good indeed ; so much so that it was easy to condone the rather dogmatic rhapsody with which the American edition of the Malavoglia was introduced by Mr. Howells, who perhaps had not read certain others of Signor Verga’s writings ; and he was quite right in admiring that one. For indeed the Malavoglia is a masterpiece in its honest sympathy with the humble fisher folk of Aci Trezza, showing the little village as a real microcosm.

In the more limited bounds of a short sketch, Signor Capuana is great when he tells about the “ Tabbùtu,” the coffin bought at a bargain, and adapted as a receptacle for nuts pending its funereal serviceableness. He appears a Sicilian Dickens who portrays the old Don Stellario and his maiden sister Donna Salvatrice. with their incredible niggardliness, their fear of thieves, their dull, warped affections, in the atmosphere of the smoke-stained, disordered, cobwebby house, two fingers thick with dust, and exhaling the musty odors of decay.

But the defects of the writings of Signor Yerga and of Signor Capuana are not those of their qualities, except in so far as they are inseparable from the theories of art rather consciously proposed to themselves by these novelists. Their fault, their very great fault, is literary absenteeism. They have acted upon the proverbial paradox that “ the longest way round is the shortest way home : ” they have gone to Paris in order to look at their Sicily ; they have absorbed the studies made by M. Zola to the end of becoming acquainted with their own fellowtownsmen. They have not neglected to note Sicilian details of places, customs, superstitions, sayings; they have transferred types, often with admirable efficacy. But they have remained too far away to impart to their stories the odor of the Sicilian soil, the breath of antique romance which breathes there like the perfumes of the zàgara. (One likes the pretty Sicilian word, of Arab strain, which means inclusively the flowerage of the lemon, the orange, the citron, and all their golden kindred.)

Signor Yerga and Signor Capuana, yet always asserting their aim to be that of interpreting the Sicilian character and manners, have adopted as their means a predetermined and emphatic tone of Gallicism, than which nothing could he more discordant with the temperament of Sicily. France, for causes easily understood, has never possessed the sympathies of the Sicilian people ; instead, its name suggests to them ideas of distrust and enmity. It appears almost like a betrayal, this use of the French lorgnette of M. Zola, in the hands of Sicilian observers of their compatriots. This lens, let us he aware, — especially if we aspire to the large art of true realism in fiction, not being merely “ lovers of ignoble realities,” as Flaubert said, — this lens, then, has the perverse property of magnifying disproportionately all that is vicious, squalid, base ; and of minifying to the vanishing point those ideal satisfactions of which, however poor or vague they may be, no conscious life is quite deprived.

The disciples of the school of M. Zola mistake tlie exceptions for the rule : they photograph monstrosities ; they insist upon the sordid accidents of life as the whole and final meaning of the earth and of its creatures ; they would deny to humanity that little gleam of inward poetry — none the worse if this remain unformulated — which illumines and comforts the personality of every one.

How much an artist is to be blamed, or, on the contrary, pitied, for “ seeing ugly ” is another question. It may be an affair partly of temperament, partly of a willful pose of pessimism. At all events, the opposite disposition of view is worth cultivating, especially for the sect of realists who like to declare themselves the ardent friends of the poor humanity whose nature they do not at all flatter in their art! In effect, they protest against injuries by means of insults. One distrusts, somehow, the philanthropists who court disillusion, and as eagerly announce it.

Perhaps for Signor Yerga and Signor Capuana absence has been able to chill somewhat their appreciation of their fellow-countrymen. There is a sort of familiarity which, proverbially, breeds contempt ; but there is also that familiarity which is impelled by good will toward its object, and whose result is intelligent sympathy. An important difference between the writings of these novelists and those of Dr. Pitrè is that for the fonmer the Sicilian people are like so many models who stand before the artist, amid the technicalities or the blague which may be the atmosphere of his studio; while for Dr. Pitrè the proletariat is ignorant, unfortunate, sometimes criminal, but always to be dealt with fairly, studied in a spirit of kindly philosophy, in order to make it comprehended by the Italy of which it is part.

In turning the pages of the present volumes, it is noticed that Signor Capuana has secured a tone of unity for his group of sketches by confining them to stories of peasant life. Among these emerge the Tabbùtu, already praised ; Tre Colombe ed Una Fava, not too finely sifted, but veritable comedy ; Lo Sciancato and Quacquarà, in which the pathos of a fixed idea is raised to a truly poetic height; Gli Scavi di Mastro Rocco, diggings inexhaustible of figurines of the goddess Ceres ; and, most dramatic of all, the Assise, with its piteous heroine, half-unconscious cause of the tremendous passions that had whirled so tragically around her.

The sketches of Signor Verga are found to be less Sicilian, both in conception and in language, than those of Signor Capuana. Verga has absorbed the French sentiment and idiom until his style has become to no slight degree denationalized. In adherence to bis theories of realism he sometimes misses the point of his own story. Don Camleloro, for example, is the narrative of the career of a manager of a theatre of marionettes, — a type peculiarly Sicilian, and essentially comic in the seriousness, anything but ignoble, with which it takes itself. One could wish that Signor Verga had chosen to set forth the guild of marionette managers with the dignified selfesteem, the solemn artistic convictions, the improbable ideals of chivalry, which are the badge of all their tribe (and in which, indeed. Don Camleloro is not altogether lacking), instead of making prominent the vulgar escapades of the prodigal daughter Violante.

Paggio Fernando is another sketch of life behind the scenes of the minor drama, and is very good in its provincial atmosphere. La Serata della Diva is a sophisticated impression of the more ambitious coulisses ; also II Tramonto di Venere has nothing to do in this galère of rustic types. Signor Verga depicts with considerable truth and humor various figures from the populations of the convents, in these days becoming extinct in Italy. Epopea Spiceiola is a grim fragment of war as seen by an old peasant, who cannot give himself a reason for the carnage and the disorders, ignorant of the purpose of the conflict, viewing it all divested of illusion, only an inhuman horror and pity.

There are many admirable qualities and brilliant passages in these two volumes of Sicilian stories ; but it is not possible to commend them as a whole, or to indorse them as a just characterization of the people of Sicily. If only Signor Verga and Signor Capuana would decide to unite themselves with Dr. Pitrè in filial and sincere studies of their mother country, honoring her in her traditions and in her language, — and this ought not to be difficult for either of them, surely not for the author of the Malavoglia, — what characteristic, illuminating, sympathetic fiction they could create! It is such a dreary business, that of certain realists who advertise themselves as chiropodists of the feet of clay of the image of humanity, never raising their eyes to regard its head of gold.

  1. Bibliografia delle Tradizioni Popolari dell’ Italia. Compilata da GIUSEPPE PITRÈ. Con tre Indici Speciali. Torino — Palermo : Carlo Clausen. 1894.
  2. Italian Popular Tales. By T. F. Crane. Boston and New York : Houghton, Mifflin & Co.
  3. Don Candeloro e Ci. Di G. VERGA. Milano : Treves. 1894.
  4. Le Paesane. Di L. CAPUANA. Catania: Niccolò Giannotta. 1894.