Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  [>]. “Nero and Bertha” (Nerone e Berta) from Zanazzo, 417, Rome.

  This little tale serves as an explanation for two popular sayings at once: that of the old woman who wept for Nero, and “times aren’t what they used to be.”

  [>]. “The Love of the Three Pomegranates” (L’amore delle tre melagrane [Bianca-come-il-latte-rossa-come-il-sangue]) from Finamore, 54, Montenero-domo, Abruzzo, told by the illiterate Domenica Rossi.

  As far as this being apparently one of the few folktales that can be called distinctly Italian, I refer the reader to my remarks on it in the Introduction (p. xxviii). Italy in any case saw the first literary version of it, “The Three Lemons,” by Basile (V, 9), with its plot of metamorphoses like a baroque flourish. Carlo Gozzi transposed the tale for Commedia dell’Arte masques in his Love of the Three Oranges. The many popular versions are in large part faithful to the tradition that inspired Basile. In the Abruzzese version I followed, among forty other Italian versions, the fruits containing the girls consist of a walnut, a hazelnut, and a chestnut; elsewhere they are watermelons, lemons, oranges, apples, pomegranates, or melangole (which means in some places “oranges,” in others “bitter oranges”). I took the pomegranates, as in a Pisan version (Comparetti, 11), because they were already at the end of the present Abruzzese version as metamorphoses of the dove (this last part, which I find in various southern versions, is not in Basile), and I wanted to make a cycle of transformations that ended as it began. For the verses interspersed in the text, I drew on different versions, a Campanian one in particular (Amalfi, 9, Avellino); but the first (Giovanottino dalle labbra d’oro, etc.) are Umbrian, from Spoleto (Prato, p. 28).

  [>]. “Joseph Ciufolo, Tiller-Flutist” (Giuseppe Ciufolo che se non zappava suonava lo zufolo) from De Nino, 62, Sulmona, Abruzzo.

  The medieval legend about the grateful dead man, which appears in a French poem of the thirteenth century, Richars li biaus, and then in Novellino and in Straparola, is here told with a tiller in place of the noble protagonist, peasant rather than knightly prowesses, and a beggar instead of the mysterious savior-knight.

  [>]. “Bella Venezia” (La Bella Venezia) from De Nino, 50, Lama dei Peligni and other villages of Abruzzo.

  The folktale about Snow White in Southern Italy puts bandits in place of the dwarfs that figure in the Grimms’ classic version. And quite often in the rest of Italy also, the envious mother or stepmother is not a queen but an innkeeper, as in the Abruzzese version of “Bella Venezia,” which differs from the best-known versions in having no magic looking glass for the stepmother to ask if anyone exists lovelier than herself; but the question comes up in the course of the chitchat of the travelers who stop at the inn. The dwarfs appear only in a version from Piedmont and another from Calabria, probably as late literary acquisitions, since dwarfs are practically nonexistent in Italian oral tradition. Northern and Tuscan versions are often devoid of both bandits and dwarfs, thus lacking the tale’s most suggestive element.

  [>]. “The Mangy One” (Il tignoso) from Finamore, 17, San Eusanio del Sangro, Abruzzo.

  It is probably medieval and Nordic in tradition, and I have chosen to give it a melancholy tone perhaps not so evident in the original from Abruzzo, but which nevertheless results from the circumstances, as if the diabolical apparition at the outset cast a shadow over the entire story, including its loves and victories.

  [>]. “The Wildwood King” (Il Re selvatico) from Finamore, 19, San Eusanio del Sangro, Abruzzo, told by an illiterate man of the people.

  The touching figure of this misanthrope, half-ogre and half-king-in-exile, who keeps to the woods and shelters the abandoned girl, lends a gentle touch to this obscure southern tale. In other versions, the wildwood king (or hairy man) asks to be killed and cut up in pieces and buried in the various rooms of the house. He is a figure indeed worthy of ethnological speculations; we merely emphasize his manner of a dethroned cannibal, of a defeatist Esau.

  [>]. “Mandorlinfiore” from Finamore, 71, Atri, Abruzzo.

  This Abruzzese version of the widespread medieval story about the predestined man stands out with its opening dramatization of a superstition centering around the birth of a child.

  [>]. “The Three Blind Queens” (Le tre Regine cieche) from De Nino, 51, Canzano Peligno and elsewhere in Abruzzo.

  Nonchalant and cruel, but never cynical.

  [>]. “Hunchback Wryneck Hobbler” (Gobba, zoppa e collotorto) from De Nino, 70, Acciano and elsewhere in Abruzzo.

  This folktale, so precise, rational, and moralistic as to resemble a literary creation, was apparently collected only in Abruzzo. A rare instance in folklore: the witch or evil sorceress, who is condemned in the end to be tarred and burned, escapes, and the narrator seems to be on her side. I just barely accentuated the literary character, at the outset.

  [>]. “One-Eye” (Occhio-in-fronte) from De Nino, 61, Pratola Peligna and elsewhere in Abruzzo.

  The myth of Ulysses and Polyphemus has remained in Italian oral tradition as a separate tale of fear. Ulysses’s companions are friars in this version which De Nino collected here and there in Abruzzo (and in Apulia and Sicily); in other Abruzzese versions they are shepherds, students, or beggars. The end, with the ring, is common to all the Abruzzese versions and also to the strange Pisan transposition that is the source of my no. 76. We can say that the story tends to preserve its mythical elements in localities of shepherds; thus it is also found in the mountainous areas of Lombardy.

  [>]. “The False Grandmother” (La finta nonna) from De Nino, 12, Bugnara, San Sebastiano, and elsewhere in Abruzzo.

  Like the version from Garda, this is one of the rare popular versions collected in Italy of “Little Red Riding Hood” (see note on my no. 26). It presents all the characteristics of children’s tales in the popular tradition: cruelty, mention of bodily needs, and a rigmarole of questions and answers. A realistic detail: the house is a real peasant house, with only one bed, and the barn on the ground floor.

  [>]. “Frankie-Boy’s Trade” (L’arte di Franceschiello) from Finamore, 24, San Eusanio del Sangro, Abruzzo, told by an illiterate man of the people.

  Another tale of bets with the thief, differing from the one about the “treasure of King Rhampsinitus” (cf. my no. 17) but nevertheless widespread in Europe (compare with Grimm no. 192 and Afanas’ev’s “The Thief’). Here we are in the climate of artful bandits, of cattle stealing, of mortmain.

  [>]. “Shining Fish” (Pesce lucente) from De Nino, io, Sulmona and elsewhere in Abruzzo.

  Found also in The Arabian Nights, but so varied as to lead one to believe we are here dealing with an independent tradition.

  [>]. “Miss North Wind and Mr. Zephyr” (La Borea e il Favonio) from Francesco Montuori (in Rivista delle Tradizioni popolari, Rome, I [1894], p. 761), Pesche, Molise.

  A meteorological fable slightly suspect of literary influence.

  [>]. “The Palace Mouse and the Garden Mouse” (Il sorcio di palazzo e il sorcio d’orto) from Eugenio Cirese (Tempo d’allora, figure, storie e proverbi in Molise dialect, Campobasso, 1939), Campobasso, Molise.

  This classical theme (see Horace, Satires, II, 6, vs. 79–117) already handled by eighteenth-century Italian authors, appears here in a vivid variant, the work of a writer in Molise dialect, but of unquestionable popular extraction.

  [>]. “The Moor’s Bones” (Le ossa del moro) from Corazzini, 5, Benevento, Campania.

  A cruel folktale of oriental origin, rather widespread in Italy as in all of Europe. I combined the Benevento version with others, especially one from Abruzzo (Finamore, 7, Ortona a Mare).

  [>]. “The Chicken Laundress” (La gallina lavandaia) from D’Amato, 6, Avellino, Campania.

  A curious tale that very well constitutes a type in itself, notwithstanding affinities here and there with “The Prince Who Married a Frog,” “Rosemary,” the “Cinderella” type, and the “Dove Girl” type.

  [>]. “Crack, Crook, and Hook” (Cricche, Crocche e Manico d’Uncino)
from Amalfi, 13, Avellino, Campania.

  We have already come across “Cric” and “Croc” [Crack and Crook] as names of famous thieves in Piedmont (see my no. 17). Here is another story about the brazenness of robbers, which I take from the above version, since it has its own Neapolitan vitality, although the source could be a school book by a Tuscan author (Gradi, p. 105).

  [>]. “First Sword and Last Broom” (La prima spada e l’ultima scopa) from Vicenzo della Sala (in the journal Giambattista Basile, Naples, I [1883] no. 1, pp. 2–3), Naples.

  Among the variants of “Fanta-Ghirò the Beautiful” (my no. 69), this tale is connected to the Neapolitan tradition of Basile (III, 6) both in its bourgeois ambience and in the disgrace experienced over having only daughters and no sons. The enchanted filly plays an important role in the original (a theme developed in my no. 75). For the sake of variety, I made the filly a silent counselor here, and I expanded the episodes on the road, which were very sketchy in the original.

  [>]. “Mrs. Fox and Mr. Wolf’ (Comare Volpe e Compare Lupo) from Benedetto Croce (in Giambattista Basile, Naples, I, no. 6 [15 July 1883}), Naples.

  I give this little animal fable in homage to Benedetto Croce’s early enthusiasm as a collector of Neapolitan popular traditions. In the first issues of the journal Giambattista Basile, we come across quite a few little tales, ballads, and traditions compiled by him.

  [>]. “The Five Scapegraces” (I cinque scapestrati) from Pellizzari, p. 89, Maglie, Apulia.

  The story of the extraordinary companions is told by Basile in a very lively tale (III, 8), which is quite similar to this folk version, even down to their names, with foot race and all. It probably spreads from Basile over Europe (it is essentially the same as Grimm no. 71).

  [>]. “Ari-Ari, Donkey, Donkey, Money, Money!” (Ari-ari, ciuco mio, butta danari!) from Pellizzari, p. 19, Maglie, Apulia.

  One of the liveliest Italian versions of this very widespread narrative with a taste for hunger, tavern deceptions, and family quarrels. Versions all over Italy.

  [>]. “The School of Salamanca” (La scuola della Salamanca) from Pellizzari, p. 111, Spongano, Apulia.

  The folktale about the sorcerer’s pupil is of Indian origin, and in all truth seems to come to us from a world so conversant with marvels as to be able to represent the most arbitrary metamorphoses with the swiftness and rhythm of a ballet. The widespread Italian tradition is gay and rich and has its oldest testimony in a highly entertaining story by Straparola (VIII, 5). The Apulian version I followed has a medieval tint, with its initial recall of the famous university of Salamanca. Concerning the transformations, I took account of other versions, especially a Lucanian one (Comparetti, 63), mainly for the sake of the rhythm.

  [>]. “The Tale of the Cats” (La fiaba dei gatti) from Pellizzari, p. 37, Maglie, Apulia.

  The story of the two sisters, tale of kindness, sometimes presents in place of the verminous witch (see my no. 95) a community of cats, a type of perfect society, industrious and just. Other versions are found all over Italy.

  [>]. “Chick” (Pulcino) from Pellizzari, p. 53, Maglie, Apulia.

  Perrault’s “petit-Poucet” and the Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel” have here become the far too numerous progeny of an Apulian peasant in times of famine; at the head of them is a hunchback, traditionally shrewd and lucky. I made the crowns worn by the ogre’s children into crowns of flowers, as in the striking Bolognese version (Coronedi, 17).

  [>]. “The Slave Mother” (La madre schiava) from Pellizzari, p. 127, Maglie, Apulia.

  This is not a folktale, but a “sad romance” in the oral tradition with a happy fairy-tale ending, and it belongs to the particular category of stories predominant in maritime localities, especially in the South, about Turkish pirates and abductions. This tale has its own particular tone of sorrow: the person kidnapped is not a youth or maiden, but a mother. In popular narratives, compensation for suffering usually comes before the end of youth; here a woman suffers and grows old before a happy solution is reached. The story also brings to mind another popular variety—the discovery of treasure. The narrative stands out in its realism and wealth of local color. There is, moreover, a suggestion of a Bourgeois Gentilhomme situation when the country family takes up residence in the city of Naples.

  [>]. “The Siren Wife” (La sposa sirena) from Gigli, 5, Taranto.

  Giuseppe Gigli translated the folktales he compiled into a lyrical Italian which overshadowed the spirit in which they were originally narrated. Consequently his text is the least suited to a project like mine. I was nevertheless charmed by the unusual characteristics of this tale (the return to the classical tradition of Sirens, the motif of the adulteress’s reinstatement), and I attempted to retell the story in a simpler language. Considering these successive touches determined by varying tastes, who can say how far we may be from the original popular spirit, if indeed the tale is of popular origin? Let us therefore accept this tale with more reserve than the others, as far as its “popularity” goes. I composed all the lines of the Sirens’ songs. The fairy and the rescued wife fly off at the end of the original on a broom; as I found no other instance of flying brooms in Italian folklore, I replaced the broom with an eagle.

  [>]. “The Princesses Wed to the First Passers-By” (Le Principesse maritate al primo che passa) from Comparetti, 20, Potenza, Lucania; from Lombardi, 23, Santo Stefano d’Aspromonte, Calabria, told by the late Crea Domenico, charcoal burner; and from Pitrè, 16, Casteltermini, Sicily, told by Vicenzo Midulla, sulfur miner.

  The three kings of animal realms who marry three princesses and sisters and help their brother-in-law free a beautiful girl from a spell constitute a widespread Italian folk motif. It is found in a tale by Basile (IV, 3) containing animals like a hunting tapestry (and retold in German in the late eighteenth century by Musäus). In the three similar Southern versions I followed, the brothers-in-law are not animals, but men who have dominion over animals, like the swineherd and the fowler, or over the world of the dead, like the gravedigger.

  [>]. “Liombruno” from Comparetti, 41, Potenza, Lucania.

  The source is a Tuscan ballad of chivalry. Transplanted in Lucania, it has absorbed something of the somber religiosity of that region. The Bellissima istoria di Liombruno, in verse and dating from the end of the fourteenth century, is a complete story of human destiny, in the tradition of medieval romance: the birth ensuing from a vow to the Devil, rescue by a fairy, indoctrination in love and knighthood, homecoming and benefit for the parents, the joust of the unknown knight, the “boast,” loss of the beloved, and then a series of typical folktale motifs such as the seven pairs of iron shoes, the three magic objects for which thieves compete, the house of the winds.

  [>]. “Cannelora” from Comparetti, 46, Potenza, Lucania.

  This is essentially like the story of Fonzo and Canneloro in Basile (I, 9), with the addition of the episode of the quarreling gardeners and that of the fairy changed into a snake. There is no mention in the Lucanian version of furniture giving birth to other furniture (after swelling up—a detail I omitted); I took it from the similar story in the Pentameron (I, 9), making an exception to my rule to use only popular motifs, and no doubt it is Basile’s own invention. Both Basile’s opening and the Lucanian beginning of the tale are subtly or outright lascivious.

  [>]. “Filo d’Oro and Filomena” (Filo d’Oro e Filomena) from Comparetti, 33, Potenza, Lucania.

  This tale is of the same family as Amor and Psyche (cf. my no. 174). I named the girl Filomena myself (in the original text she has no name) and also specified Filo d’Oro’s transformations into a man with a beard, a man with whiskers, and a man with sideburns (the original simply says he assumed the form of another man). The mother who impedes the birth of the child until she puts her hands on her head repeats the myth of the birth of Hercules (a widespread motif in Sicily).

  [>]. “The Thirteen Bandits” (1 tredici briganti) from La Rocca, 6, Pisticci, Lucania.

  The mot
if of “Open sesame!” may be of modern literary origin, deriving from one of the most successful narratives of Galland’s Arabian Nights, “The Story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.” It now belongs to European folklore (it is also in Grimm no. 142) and often, as in this Lucanian version, takes on a strong regional character. In the widespread Italian tradition, no light is thrown on the slave Nirguaba who, in The Arabian Nights, plays a key role in the extermination of the thieves.

  [>]. “The Three Orphans” (I tre orfani) from Lombardi, 41, Tiriolo, Calabria.

  A religious allegory of rare beauty, with the mysterious simplicity of a rebus. Calabrian tales are often intertwined with Christian motifs, but nearly always as a distortion of an old pagan plot of magic. Here, on the contrary, we find only the rhythm of the magic tale, with everything converging into the composition of liturgical symbols. But the tale opens on a realistic note—the day laborer offering his services by means of the rather somber lines, “Whoever would have me as his helper,/Him do I want for a master!”

  [>]. “Sleeping Beauty and Her Children” (La bella addormentata ed i suoi figli) from R. de Leonardis (in La Calabria, VIII [1896], no. 12, p. 93), Rossano, Calabria.

  The Italian Sleeping Beauty is quite distinct from Perrault’s, since—like Basile’s Neapolitan tale about Sun, Moon, and Talia (V, 5)—it concentrates, above all, on what happens after the prince has found Beauty, and this succession of events is cruel beyond anything the French version hints of; it is indeed one of the crudest of all Italian folktales. Scholars attribute to this type rather late literary origins (as to the Grimms’ no. 50, “Hawthorn Blossom,” derived from Perrault), and as a matter of fact, nearly all the Italian popular versions, from Tuscany to Sicily, are like Basile, even down to the names of the characters. Thus, in the Calabrian version I followed, Sleeping Beauty bore the name Talia. I called her Carol, for the sake of assonance.

  [>]. “The Handmade King” (Il Reuccio fatto a mano) from Di Francia, 5, Palmi, Calabria, told by Concetta Basile; and from Lombardi, 13, Feroleto Antico, Calabria, told by Maria Muraca.

 
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