The AGIP petrol (gas) station bar at Chiffenti serves free tasty tit-bits from 5.30 PM on most days. If I’m there, I always try to fill my vehicle tank at around that time and then order a Campari soda, dig into the various culinary offerings and read the local papers freely available on the bar’s tables.
A couple of days ago I was looking through “Il Tirreno” there when I spotted a snippet about a surprise find in the Old Protestant cemetery in Bagni di Lucca. Prof. Marcello Cherubini, president of the Fondazione Michel de Montaigne, had re-discovered the tomb of a person whose eminence in the field of natural history must rank very close to that of Charles Darwin himself. Indeed, in 1883, Charles Valentine Riley, the American entomologist and artist, wrote: “No branch of natural science has more fully felt the beneficial impulse and stimulus of Darwin’s labours than entomology“.
Alexander Henry Haliday was an Irishman who laid the modern foundations of the science of entomology or the study of insects.
Frankly, I’d never heard of him before but digging deeper into the facts I realised what a pioneer he was.
Haliday was born at Holywood, Co. Down, Northern Ireland in 1807 and died at Lucca in 1870. He is particularly noted for his studies on the insect orders of Hymenoptera, Diptera and Thysanoptera, but he worked on all orders of insects and various fields of entomology.
Haliday, who was fluent in Italian from an early age thanks to having Italian relatives, the Pisani family, divided his life between Dublin and Lucca. With some entomologists, including Camillo Rondani and Adolfo Targioni Tozzetti, he founded the Italian Entomological Society. He was a member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Belfast Natural History Society and the Royal Entomological Society of London.
Haliday was one of the most distinguished natural scientists of the nineteenth century. His contributions were in the development of three areas: taxonomy, or species classification, synonymy (re-naming of species) and biology. He established new orders such as the thysanoptera (mostly bad insects who prey on plants and can transmit infectious diseases) and new families such Mymaridae and Ichneumonidae or Hymenoptera (which include good insects such as bees).
I am by no means a specialist in insects but clearly I realise Haliday was a very great person in his field. His extensive correspondence with British and continental entomologists is preserved in the library of the Royal Entomological Society and in the Hope Department Library of the Museum of Natural History, University of Oxford.
Insects don’t just mean cockroaches, scorpions, earwigs and all the other creepy-crawlies that infest our houses. They include some of the most beautiful (and useful) members of the animal kingdom such as butterflies, bees and dragonflies.
Hopefully, Haliday’s tomb, which is now in course of restoration, will return to its former glory. Examining it the other day I realised that the main problem was the way the iron railing surrounding it had broken the monument’s stone base in various parts.
It will be great to be able to read the tomb’s inscription more clearly and (for those not provided with a classical education) have a translation from Latin. From what I could remember of Latin it says how industrious Haliday was in expanding the field of knowledge in the natural sciences.
I would add that Haliday loved Italy and became one of that select band of people from the north of Europe who fitted in perfectly with their southern European companions. Evidently, his strict northern Irish upbringing was soon loosened up and he enjoyed every positive pleasure which Italy could offer including good company, good opera, good food and drink.
Haliday’s obituary includes this passage which aptly sums him up:
“He was our first entomologist. His ideas of classification and tabulation were so logical, his Latinity so classical, and his knowledge of whatever he touched so masterly that I fear we shall be long before we look upon his like again.”
Happily the bulk of Haliday’s insect collection is now in the National Museum of Ireland and can be viewed as we did when last in Dublin. (See http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/20494392?uid=3738296&uid=2&uid=4&sid=21104121723617 for more).
What an honour for Bagni di Lucca that this great man should find his last resting place here! May Entomologists (and non-entomologists) from all over the world now flock to this eminent Irishman’s tomb and pay homage to him for establishing the study of insects in modern terms.
If you wish to contribute to the restoration of tombs in Bagni di Lucca’s Protestant cemetery do contact Angela Amadei, the librarian, at the English church library at Bagni di Lucca. It’s worth doing this if you are paying tax in Italy as, under the ART BONUS scheme, you can get 65% of what you’ve paid within three years.
PS There is a lot more information about Haliday’s life at: