de Martino, Ernesto

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DE MARTINO, ERNESTO . An ethnologist and historian of religions, Ernesto de Martino (19081965) was born on December 1, 1908, in Naples, Italy, where he studied under Adolfo Omodeo, graduating with a degree in philosophy in 1932. His degree thesis, subsequently published, dealt with the historical and philological problem of the Eleusinian Gephyrismi (ritual injuries addressed to the goddess) and provides an important methodological introduction to the concept of religion. Clearly influenced by reading Das Heilige by Rudolf Otto, de Martino preferred to emphasize the choleric nature of the believer, overturning the German scholar's thesis and making it capable of being applied to relations with gods in polytheistic religions and spirits in animist religions. Attracted by the ideological stance of the regime, for several years de Martino worked on an essay interpreting Fascism as a historically convenient form of civil religion. However, the attempt was insubstantial and the work, still unpublished, was gradually rejected by the author. At this time, which we now call the "Neapolitan" period, lasting until 1935, de Martino fell under the spell of the personality and work of an archaeologist who was particularly open-minded concerning the ancient history of religions and who was disliked by both the regime and its intellectual opponents: Vittorio Macchioro, known for his Orphic interpretation of the frescoes in the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii and advocate of a theory of religion understood essentially as experience.

De Martino moved to Bari, where he became a history and philosophy teacher at a regio liceo. He almost immediately had the opportunity to become part of the philosopher Benedetto Croce's circle and to move in an anti-regime environment. He slowly distanced himself from Fascism completely, so that in 1941 he was one of the founders of the Liberal Socialist Party. Meanwhile, he had singled out religious ethnology as his main subject of study and edited the essays that made up his first book (Naturalismo e storicismo nell'etnologia, printed in the 1940s by Laterza) and formed the basis of the research that would in time develop into his most famous work, Il mondo magico. In the first book, which is primarily methodological, de Martino set out an idealistic theory of ethnology, perhaps in a negative rather than positive sense, refuting those theories that appeared least appropriate to the understanding of magical religious phenomena, such as the prelogical thought of Lucien Lévy-Bruhl and the Urreligion of Father Wilhelm Schmidt. If the criticism of the Viennese school (highly regarded in Italy) seems somewhat expected today and in line with that already put forward by Raffaele Pettazzoni, the dispute with Lévy-Bruhl would develop fruitfully, in that de Martino ended up making use of his insight regarding "magic participation," not just in sociological but in ontological terms.

After September 8, 1943, he was at Cotignola (near Ravenna) with the partisan adherents of the Partito d'Azione (Party of Action), and it was during the course of that year, the low point of European civilization, that the central theory upon which Il mondo magico was based took shape. Extensive study of parapsychology and psychopathology led him to reconsider radically the problem of magic in primitive societies, hitherto neglected or avoided by ethnologists; in particular, paragnomic powers were interpreted by de Martino as useful and vital tools in a culture in which the individual is unable to separate himself from the world around him and continually risks vanishing. In this dramatic scene, which is centered upon the crisis of "presence" (perhaps a translation of Heidegger's Dasein ), the sorcerer or shaman is someone who knows how to lose the presence voluntarily and regain it by ritual action, playing the part of actor and director in a collective drama, which allows the group to recover the energy that has been lost. Edited after the end of the war, the book was published in 1948, provoking discussion rather than agreement, but nonetheless marking the author as one of the leading postwar Italian intellectuals.

In 1947, meanwhile, de Martino moved to Rome. He did not manage to find a permanent university post (he only became a qualified university teacher in 1952), and he had to make do with high school teaching, something he found rather unsatisfying. To supplement the paltry salary and especially to maintain a leading position in the political and cultural life of the capital, he worked directly with the Rome office of the Einaudi publishing house, where liberal socialist and communist intellectuals were brought together and where he would establishalong with Cesare Pavese (19081950)a collection of ethnological and religious studies that were to go down in history as "La Collana Viola": this series would also contain irrational religious and ethnological classics (by Kerényi, Eliade, Jensen, Frobenius, and others), giving great offense to the supporters of Croce and the communists and rightly gaining de Martino a formidable intellectual reputation. All this took place at the very moment when, like many other politically committed scholars of his generation, he was beginning an intense, fervent period of militancy: for a time he joined the Socialist Party and traveled to Bari and Lecce, first in his role as commissar of the provincial federation and then as an inspector, experiencing at first hand the great land struggle of those years in the countryside of the South, or as he said in a much discussed essay of 1949, "the explosion of the lower-class people's world into history." Two literary works, along with his direct political experience, impelled him to see the south of Italy as an area in need of urgent study, to be wrested from the domain of folklore: Quaderni del carcere by Antonio Gramsci (18911937) and Cristo si è fermato a Eboli by Carlo Levi (19021975). In the former he found a conceptual framework that allowed him to set Marxism in a historical context, placing it within the structure of Italian cultural life, and of seeing religious belief and practice in southern Italy as the historical result of the interaction, not entirely contradictory, between the ruling and lower classes, between the Catholic Church and a core of pre-Christian traditions. In the work of Levi, on the other hand, he found a map of the spread of magic in the former Kingdom of Naples, an invaluable guide, enabling him to select places and subjects to study, according to a different perspective to meridionalist writing, which was more interested in aspects of material poverty than in forms of cultural poverty. This was a gap that would be closed to some extent with the work de Martino would carry out during the 1950s, specifically looking to set out a "religious history of the South."

Driven by the urgency of this project, which was also political, de Martino undertook a lengthy and substantial series of ethnological excursions into the world of magic described by Levi, seemingly not limited by time but restricted in terms of location, centered around the sassi (terminus technicus ) of Matera and delimited by the Naples of Croce. These expeditions were groundbreaking for several reasons: first, he was in charge of a team of trained professionals and experts in related disciplines (such as social work, psychiatry, parapsychology, ethnomusicology, sociology, and photography), but most of all because he was concerned about setting out the problem of the relationship between the subject and object of research. The most extensive of these field studies gave rise to and produced the greatest contributions to the religious history of the South that de Martino himself had begun to carry out: the 1952 expedition, organized to acquire information concerning Lucanian ceremonial magic, gave rise to the first part of Sud e magia (1959); the expeditions of 1953 to 1956, recording the funeral laments of Lucania, formed the basis of the ethnographic chapters of Morte e pianto rituale nel mondo antico (the largest and most detailed of de Martino's books, published in 1958 and winning the prestigious Premio Viareggio literary prize); while the 1959 expedition to Galatina, in Puglia, which was interested in gathering such information as still existed on the ancient "tarantula" rituals, formed the harsh starting point of Terra del rimorso (1961), the third and unfortunately final stage of this lay pilgrimage to places where mere existence itself is something of an endeavor. From these three works, the cultural institutions surveyed and studied, corroborated by historiographical case study, were given a sense of worth that previous folkloric research had neglected or even sometimes crushed.

The rapid transformation of the south of Italy as a result of the so-called economic miracle and the gradual withdrawal of de Martino from active politics (partly as a result of disillusion with the unself-critical position adopted by the Italian Communist Party after the events of 1956) are the most obvious reasons that led to the end of the meridionalist period begun in 1949. In 1958 the writer finally gained a university chair in Cagliari, and the following year he began to hold a course on the history of religions. At first he seemed to be concerned with collecting and revising the more theoretical essays that he had been writing in the meantime (in 1962 Furore simbolo valore was published), but contrary to what some thought he had not in fact ceased his research and was in fact already working on a magnum opus concerning cultural apocalypses, which was to represent a compendium of his philosophy. This work would remain largely unfinished, but from the preliminary notes (published posthumously in 1977 by Clara Gallini as La fine del mondo ), he was already embarked upon an intensive program to reestablish human sciences on the basis of an extremely detailed and careful indisciplinary study: the madness of the end of the world, the drama of the Christian apocalypse, the eschatological elements of Third World religions, the collapse of the bourgeoisie prophesied by Marxism, the "loss of the center" in the artistic expression of the twentieth century, are all themes that are analyzed throughout the respective texts (psychiatric, religious and historical, ethnological, philosophical, and literary) and return once again to that distinct contemporary sense of "ending," which the author interprets, at times ecumenically, as the "ontic" risk of losing forever the world as a cultural homeland. One of the means of salvation is ethnographic humanism, and it was this message, albeit not yet in complete detail, that the author found the time to convey. He was taken ill with a lung tumor and died in a Roman hospital on May 6, 1965.


To date (2003) there is still no systematic and comprehensive biography of de Martino. Scholars should refer to: Giuseppe Galasso, "Ernesto de Martino," in Croce, Gramsci e altri storici (Milan, 1969); and Mario Gandini, "Ernesto de Martino. Nota bio-bibliografica," in Uomo e Cultura 10 (1972). There are useful items also in: Andrea Binazzi, "Ernesto de Martino," in Belfagor 196 (1969); Clara Gallini, in his introduction to La fine del mondo (Turin, 1977); and Ricardo Di Donato, ed., La contraddizione felice? Ernesto de Martino e gli altri (Pisa, 1990). Further information can be found in his correspondence with Cesare Pavese in La collana viola, edited by Pietro Angelini (Turin, 1991) with Pietro Secchia in Compagni e amici, edited by Ricardo Di Donato (Florence, 1993) and Renato Boccassino in Una vicinanza discreta, edited by Francesco Pompeo, (Rome, 1996). See also the profile by Vittorio Lanternari in the Dizionario biografico degli italiani, vol. 38 (Rome, 1990) and by the same author, La mia alleanza con E. de Martino (Naples, 1997).

A catalog of the works of de Martino, which is almost complete, has been edited by Mario Gandini and Silvio Previtera for l'Associazione Internazionale E. de Martino (Rome, 1995). In addition to the works referred to in the article, the following should be noted: "Angoscia territoriale e riscatto culturale nel mito Achilpa delle origini," in Studie Materiali di Storia delle Religioni 23 (19511952); "Fenomenologia religiosa e storicismo assoluto," in Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni 2425 (1954); "Storicismo e irrazionalismo nella storia delle religioni," in Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni 28 (1957); and Magia e civiltà (Milan, 1962). In 1995 the publisher Argo (Lecce) began a collection of the unpublished works of de Martino, and a large number of unpublished works can also be found in the author's personal archive, maintained by Vittoria De Palma and deposited with the aforementioned Associazione Internazionale E. de Martino.

The vast majority of critical work on de Martino is posthumous. Here we will only mention those works that form an essential starting point: Benedetto Croce, "Intorno al 'magismo' come età storica," in Filosofia e storiografia (Bari, 1949); Enzo Paci, Il nulla e il problema dell'uomo (Turin, 1950); Renato Solmi, "E. De Martino e il problema delle categorie," Il Mulino 7 (1952); Cesare Cases, in his introduction to the edition of Mondo magico (Turin, 1973); Pietro Clemente, "Morte e pianto rituale. Riflessioni su un lavoro di E. De Martino," Annali della Facoltà di lettere e filosofia dell'Università di Siena 4 (1983); Pier Giorgio Solinas, "Idealismo, marxismo, strutturalismo," in L'antropologia italiana. Un secolo di storia, edited by A. R. Leone (Bari, 1985); Placido and Maria Cherchi, Ernesto de Martino. Dalla crisi della presenza alla comunità (Naples, 1987); Carlo Ginzburg, "Momigliano e De Martino," in Rivista storica italiana 100 (1988); Ricardo Di Donato, "Preistoria di Ernesto De Martino," Studi storici 1 (1989); Giuseppe Giarrizzo, "Note su Ernesto de Martino," Archivio storico di cultura 8 (1995); Ernesto de Martino nella cultura europea, edited by Clara Gallini and Marcello Massenzio (Naples, 1997); Silvia Mancini, Postscript to the French edition of Mondo magico (Paris, 1999); and Gennaro Sasso, Ernesto de Martino fra religione e filosofia (Naples, 2001). Numerous journals, such as Studi e Materiali di Storia delle Religioni 51 (1985) and La ricerca folklorica 13 (1986), have devoted whole issues to de Martino.

Pietro Angelini (2005)

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de Martino, Ernesto

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