Hollywood would have you believe otherwise, but there is little celebrity to be found in anthropology research. Which was just fine with Hugo G. Nutini, the University of Pittsburgh professor of Mesoamerican studies who was far more curious about the lives of others than the story of his own.
"Hugo was very shy" about self-promotion and university politics, said Roland Armando Alum, a former student to Mr. Nutini and, later, a colleague. "He didn't think his life was very interesting."
But it was. Italian by birth, Chilean by upbringing, Mexicophile by training, American by choice, fluent in eight languages, Mr. Nutini spent five decades at Pitt -- and many holidays, summer breaks and sabbatical semesters in Mexico. By the time of his planned retirement in June 2013, he was one of the giants in his field of study.
"Nutini knows Mexico better than any [other] anthropologist," Henry Selby, a Mesoamerican studies professor at the University of Texas, once said.
Mr. Nutini died Friday after a battle with cancer. He was 84, and spent his last days in Veracruz, Mexico, his family said.
His parents emigrated from Florence, Italy, to southern Chile, settling on a cattle and horse ranch that employed indigenous Mapuche Indians. In this setting, Mr. Nutini was raised and home-schooled, learning the Mapuche language, as well as Latin and French. By 18, he was in the Chilean Naval Academy, winning medals as a world-class intermediate distance runner and earning his first of several degrees, including one in civil engineering. He also studied philosophy at Harvard -- a period that was interrupted by his service in the Korean War with U.S. forces -- and UCLA, then shifted disciplines to anthropology, completing his dissertation in 1962 with the University of California.
His engineering background eventually informed his disposition toward cultural studies.
"He was one of the very few anthropologists in the U.S. who had formal training in the philosophy of science," Mr. Alum said. "So he really blended both fields."
Mr. Nutini was hired at Pitt in 1963, at a time when universities across the country were expanding their social studies programs, splitting anthropology into a discipline apart from sociology. He was one of the original members of Pitt's Center for Latin American Studies, which was created the next year.
"He loved Pitt," said his eldest son, Jean-Pierre Nutini of Pittsburgh. "He did a lot for Pitt. [And] Pitt did a lot for him."
As the field evolved, so did his range of studies. He studied the Mexican aristocracy, in an era when anthropologists did not study the bourgeoisie. He wrote about Mexican folk sorcery and the story of tlahuelpuchi, a vampire-witch that feasted on infants. He studied the importance of "fictive kinship" -- the sacramental, ritualistic relationships between nonkin (think godmothers and godfathers, in Catholicism). When he died, he was writing about rural Mexico's drift away from the Catholic church and toward Protestantism.
In all, he published hundreds of papers and more than a dozen books.
"He was an icon," said Kathleen Musante DeWalt, director of Pitt's Center for Latin American Studies. And while he was not a historian by training, by nature of his professional longevity, he watched it happen.
"He was a witness to the fast pace at which Mexican society has been changing" in the last five decades, Mr. Alum said.
Controversially, shortly after his Pitt tenure began, he was tapped to be a consultant on a short-lived U.S. Army effort called "Project Camelot." Purportedly, the project was about predicting Cold War conflict between hostile nations, but in reality, the Army was also interested in training revolutionaries in counterinsurgency techniques, starting with Chile, according to accounts of the project. When sociology and anthropology professors caught wind, they charged the Army with social engineering, and Chile condemned the effort as "Yankee espionage" dressed in bad science. After the project was spiked in 1965, Mr. Nutini was persona non grata in Chile, his childhood home.
As for Hollywood, Mr. Nutini never found -- nor wanted -- any Indiana Jones-style notoriety for his historical expertise. But he did, in the 1950s, coach Hollywood actors in Italian and Spanish style and diction while studying philosophy at UCLA.
In addition to Jean-Pierre, Mr. Nutini, who lived in Squirrel Hill until two months ago, is survived by his wife of 44 years, Jean Forbes Nutini; sons Christian of Pittsburgh and Alexis of Philadelphia; his grandchildren Christian, Aleksander, Kai and Desi; and four great-grandchildren. A memorial is to be held in Pittsburgh, on a date to be determined. Correspondence may be mailed to: 1205 Shady Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15232.
Bill Toland: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2625.