Amalia Signorelli, 1934 – 2017

The distinguished cultural anthropologist, Professor Amalia Signorelli, has died in Rome on the 25 October 2017, at the age of 83, following a short illness.  During her academic career, she published many important books and articles, trained hundreds of students and was widely consulted on a range of issues.  In the last few years, she became a TV celebrity, appearing on five different panel shows, well known and, mostly, appreciated for her trenchant criticism of the ruling elite from Silvio Berlusconi to Matteo Renzi.  She was also lauded for a blog she began writing in February 2014, for Il Fatto Quotidiano, a crowd-funded daily newspaper that refused to take the usual subvention from the state to cover the cost of newsprint. Her obituary in the online version of the paper drew 111 comments, all but two complimentary, praising her clarity of thought, her outspoken critiques and her beautiful Italian. 

The best Italian is said to be la lingua Toscana in bocca romana (the Tuscan language as spoken by Romans).  Amalia was a Roman, born and bred; she lived there all her life apart from a few years in Naples where she bought a flat in the most deeply traditional part of the city: SpaccaNapoli. Her language, both written and spoken, was indeed of the best.

Several recordings of her appearance on panel shows remain as memorials to the elegance and charm with which she demolished the arguments of her opponents.  ‘Non consiglio’ (no compromise) was the title of her regular column in Millennium (monthly launched by IFQ in 2016) and a fitting indication of the high standards she required of politicians, colleagues and students.  All her media appearances introduced her as l’antropologa (the Anthropologist), giving an extraordinary boost to the popular image of our discipline in Italy. 

A student of the famous ethnologist, Ernesto de Martino, Amalia did her first fieldwork as part of team directed by Tullio Seppilli, Angela Zucconi and the great de Martino himself, defending her thesis in1955. After several years as a school teacher in Calabria, Amalia worked for l'Ufficio studi dell'Istituto per lo sviluppo dell'edilizia sociale (Institute for the Development of Social Housing) before being offered a position in Anthropology at the University of Urbino where she taught from 1971 - 1977.  From 1978 she was Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Universita degli Studi di Napoli, Federico II where she also directed the Centre for Audio-visual Research on Popular Culture.  Her last post before retiring was as Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the Universita ‘La Sapienza’ in Rome. 

In addition, she was a Visiting Professor at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris and in the Department of Anthropology at Universidad Autònoma Metropolitana di Città del Messico, where she loved to visit. She also acted as a consultant on emigration to the European Union and the ILO. 

Through her many books and articles, Amalia served to clarify the processes of modernisation, cultural change, migration, the condition of women and the ever-present scourge of clientelism in the South of her country.  Her analyses were always based on her intimate knowledge of the world that she was describing and always with the interests of the poor, the dispossessed, the disadvantaged and oppressed at the forefront.  Not by chance, the music that she chose for her funeral began with the Internazionale

I met Amalia in 1972 when she was visiting the University of Sussex to find out more about Freddy Bailey, whose book, Stratagems and Spoils, she was translating.  I was a postgraduate student soon to go to southern Italy to do research for my D.Phil.  My supervisor thought it would be a good idea for us to meet.  We became instant friends.  When I needed intellectual companionship and somewhere to unwind every month or so, I would descend from the cold and foggy mountains of Abruzzo into the warmth of Rome and the warmth of Amalia’s hospitality and vivacity.  She always behaved as though the sack of Fucino potatoes I brought with me was the best gift in the world. 

Amalia Signorelli married Girolamo Mario D’Ayala in 1959. They divorced in 1976. She is survived by three children and three grandchildren.


Per forza o per frode: l’antropologia sociale e le regole della competizione politica,  Roma, Officina Editore.(1975)  introduction to and Translation of F.G. Bailey: Stratagems and Spoils: An Anthropology of Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 1969.

Scelte senza potere. Il rientro degli emigranti nelle zone dell'esodo, Roma, Officina Edizioni. 1977.

Chi può e chi aspetta. Giovani e  clientelismo in un'area interna del Mezzogiorno, Napoli, Liguori Editore. 1983.

The Reintegration of Second Generation Migrant and the Adult Migrant Return Porcess, Geneve, ILO. 1984.

With Mazzacane L., La ricerca demoantropologica nell'Italia Meridionale, Napoli, Opera Universitaria. 1984.

Antropologia urbana. Progettare e abitare: le contraddizioni dell'urban planning, Numero monografico de La Ricerca Folklorica, n. 20. 1989.

‘Territories: Les tifosi , l'équipe et la Cité’, in Ethnologiè francaise. Italia, regards d'anthropologues italiens, XXV, 3. 1994.

Movimenti di popolazione e trasformazioni culturali, in Barbagallo F. (a cura di), Storia dell'Italia Repubblicana, Torino, Einaudi. 1995.

Antropologia urbana. Introduzione alla ricerca in Italia, Milano, Guerini. 1996. Also in Spanish.

Migrazioni ed Incontri etnografici, Palermo, Sellerio Editore. 2006.

Antropologia culturale, Milano, Mc Grow Hill. 2007. 2nd edition 2011.

With Caniglia Rispoli C., La ricerca interdisciplinare tra antropologia urbana e urbanistica, Milano, Guerini Scientifica. 2008.

With Miranda A., Pensare e ripensare le migrazioni, Palermo, Sellerio. 2011.

With Panza V., Etnografia del tarantismo pugliese. I materiali della spedizione nel Salento del 1959, Roma, Argo. 2011.

Ernesto de Martino. Teoria antropologica e metodologia della ricerca, Roma, L'Asino d'oro Edizioni. 2015.

La vita al tempo della crisi, Torino, Einaudi. 2016.


Retired RAI Fellow. Affiliations include the University of Cape Town, and the University of the Western Cape, Centre for Policy Studies.


To cite this article:

WHITE, CAROLINE. 2017 'Amalia Signorelli, 1934 – 2017'. Obituaries. Royal Anthropological Institute, November 2017. (available on-line:


Link to relevant records by or concerning the listed person on the RAI’s bibliographic database Anthropological Index Online