Sicilian Sayings: Giuseppe Pitrè

I’ve always loved the folk wisdom of Sicily. I grew up hearing snippets of sayings from my Sicilian grandparents. When I was younger, I used to find them a little annoying, rudimentary and often with annoying sing-song rhymes.

But reflecting on what they said, I realised the wisdom they contained was valuable. The rhymes helped people to recall the lessons of past generations. A good learning practice because there are endless detti Siciliane. There is a saying for every occasion.

Italian folklorist and medical doctor Giuseppe Pitrè first recorded the complex nature of popular Sicilian wisdom in the early 20th century. Between 1871 and 1913, Pitrè, born in Palermo, compiled 25 volumes of the Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari Siciliane (Library of Sicilian popular traditions). Doctor Pitrè also published an extensive collection of Sicilian fairy tales and co-founded a journal documenting popular Italian practices and habits. His work gives us great insight into the ancient Sicilian culture which dates back to the bronze age.

Thanks to the tireless lifetime work of Giuseppe Pitrè, there is now an extensive written record of the ancient Sicilian culture that was once passed down orally from one generation to the next.

Sicilian sayings reflect the nature of the regional character of Sicily. Like any other famous saying, a proverb from Sicily is curt, to the point, at times funny or sassy and always brutally honest.

An aphorism in the hands of Sicily also becomes like a piece of poetry, filled with particular images, in a specific expression of creativity that expresses itself with its own unique energy, wit and precision. 

A Sicilian proverb echoes the intonations of the dialect, not only the words but the straightforward, honest and stoic way Sicilians approach life. A detto always has a clear sense of purpose, never wasting time nor mincing words.

Finding the right saying can sum up a situation, stimulate conversation, silence a critic or draw attention to a mistake. The folk wisdom of Sicily is an encyclopedia of dry wit, understanding, comedy and sarcasm.

Whenever I read a proverb, I hear my elderly neighbour’s cadences in every word. At times I feel as if I can hear my Sicilian Nonna whispering her wisdom through everyone.

I will share my favourites, which reflect the balance between wisdom, poetry, and the pure energy and joie de vie Sicilians have in their lives.

Today, I’ve chosen a detto that probably goes back to when Sicilian’s Sundays were spent in church, where everyone wore their best clothes to attend mass.

This little quip, most probably aimed at overly flirtatious or vain women, tells us: E’ inutile ca’intrizzi e fa cannola, u santu e’ di marmuru e non suda.

So literally: There’s no use curling your hair or getting dolled up; the saint’s made of marble and doesn’t sweat.

There are many possible interpretations of this proverb. It could be a way of reprimanding the vanity of getting dressed up for any special occasion, whether going to church or any other social event. There is no need to impress anyone; the saint’s in the church are made of marble, so they aren’t going to react to your charms. You are not going to impress anyone, so don’t be so superficial.

Of course, there is a more vulgar level to these words, referring to someone making sexual advances to someone else. Put simply; it’s useless to go after someone who isn’t interested; you’re not going to get any reaction.

Proverbs are often open to more than one interpretation. Also, the lyrical beauty of these sayings is best appreciated in the original dialect, especially when there is a rhyme. Some might argue that by translating them, you will lose this unique quality. 

Yet, I think you don’t need to necessarily conserve the rhyme, but it is the central image or concept that can be translated into English. My translations of these sayings will try to convey the heart of the meaning or gist of each phrase.

Sometimes the rhyme can be easily matched by an English version; other times, the metaphor of specific images and iconography creates the meaning.

Some sayings, even though they may not be the same word for word, but many Sicilian proverbs will have very close equivalents in English.

Pitrè collected some 13,000 proverbs into his library of work, organising them into 90 chapters, grouped by subject from daily habits to bad habits.

Often a proverb will give us insight into Sicilian culture; many reflect elements of the culture that no longer exist. For example, those sayings dedicated to nearly completely extinct Sicilian donkeys or others that reflect the limitations of life in the Sicily of past centuries.

Generally though, in Sicilian culture, proverbs are used to encourage healthy living habits, be weary of moral or ethical errors and generally used to encourage you to lead an honest and productive life. 

Many of the sayings are still used in everyday Sicilian conversation, which has kept them very much alive to this day.

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