Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  This tale was also found in Naples (Basile, V, 3), Abruzzo, and Sicily.

  [>]. “The Turkey Hen” (La tacchina) from Di Francia, 10, Palmi, Calabria, told by Annunziata Palermo.

  The second part is the very widespread story about the woman with amputated hands (cf. my no. 71, “Olive”), but of the whole beginning—down to the marriage to the beggar girl—I found no other versions, not even partial ones. It is probably of recent tradition, with realistic episodes like the riot, the introduction of nineteenth-century figures such as the English lord (regarding the fate of this character in southern folklore, see note on my no. 158), and the supernatural exemplified only as the miracle worked by a saint. In the Calabrian text, the account of the miracle—the regaining of the amputated hands—was a bit too meager (just an encounter with St. Joseph, who causes a pond to appear and tells the woman to immerse her arms); I chose to follow the commonest version in Italy, with the babies slipping from the mother’s arms into the water and the course pursued from there on. St. Joseph’s verses are my own, but based on similar lines in a Tuscan version (Pitrè, T. II, 13).

  [>]. “The Three Chicory Gatherers” (Le tre raccoglitrici di cicoria) from Di Francia, 27, Palmi, Calabria, told by Annunziata Palermo.

  This is a variant of the Bluebeard type (see my no. 33), and I found such a cannibalistic folktale also in Tuscany, Abruzzo, and Sicily.

  [>]. “Beauty-with-the-Seven-Dresses” (La Bella dei Sett’abiti) from Di Francia, 23, Palmi, Calabria, told by Pasquale Di Francia.

  Although this tale belongs to the well-known group in Italy about the enchanted palace and the supernatural wife lost and magically recovered, it is quite rich in rare and original motifs, and also capriciously and elaborately incoherent (excepting the motif of the grass that revives the lizard, which is quite common).

  [>]. “Serpent King” (Il Re serpente) from Di Francia, 1, Palmi, Calabria, told by Di Francia’s sister, Teresa.

  Composed altogether of well-known motifs, this folktale is distinguished by its animalistic details in a vein either gothic or oriental, from the opening procession of lizards and snakes through the fields up to the queen, to the end of the tale where the enchanted palace is meticulously described with the gold animals that inhabit it. I omitted the episode in the Calabrian version of the flea-skin test, which is already familiar to the reader (see my no. 104); correctly guessing what it is, the snake marries the empress. In place of it I put the snake’s transformation into a man after sloughing off seven skins, as in various other versions—Tuscan, Campanian, Sicilian, and Piedmontese.

  [>]. “The Widow and the Brigand” (La vedova e il brigante) from Luigi Bruzzano (in La Calabria, VII [1894], nos. 2–5), Roccaforte, Calabria, in Greek dialect.

  The story of the mother of questionable morals who consorts with bandits or giants while her son is out hunting, and of her schemes to bring about her son’s death (and then of the son’s revenge) is one of the most pungent and obscure folktales circulating in Italy, apparently originating in Eastern Europe. It is also one of the most psychologically suggestive tales with its amoral mother. I followed a Greek version from Calabria, in which the theme is introduced directly, in the realistic setting of a poverty-stricken countryside where we see mother and son roaming in search of work, the son bringing down birds with his slingshot, and passing bandits tempting the widow. I ended the tale with the son’s revenge, omitting all the rest of his adventures which resemble those of “The Dragon with Seven Heads” and “The Three Dogs,” with three ferocious animals instead of the dogs. In other versions the mother is almost always a queen rather than a poor peasant; sometimes she gives birth in prison to a son who frees them both, whence the adventures begin.

  [>]. “The Crab with the Golden Eggs” (Il granchio dalle uova d’oro) from Luigi Bruzzano (in La Calabria, X [1897] nos. 1–3), Roccaforte, Calabria, in Greek dialect.

  Only in this Greek version from Calabria are the golden eggs laid by a crab instead of a bird, as in the oriental motif known throughout Italy and Europe. But is it really a crab? The original is contradictory: it first speaks of a crab (caridaci), then of a cockerel (puddhaci). The bricklayer fires on the crab, and it falls, still alive (I omitted this detail). Where I spoke of the shell and the claws, the original speaks of “the front half’ and the “back half.”

  [>]. “Nick Fish” (Cola Pesce) from Pitrè (Studi di leggende popolari in Sicilia e Nuova raccolta di leggende siciliane [vol. XXII of “Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari siciliane”], Turin 1904), Palermo, told by a sailor.

  This is the finest of the seventeen Sicilian popular versions of the famous legend of Nick Fish, published by Pitrè in an appendix to his detailed study. Among the scholars to write on the legend was Benedetto Croce. His article, “La leggenda di Niccolò Pesce,” based on a Neapolitan tradition, appeared in Giambattista Basile, III, (1885), no. 7, and was reprinted separately in Naples, 1885. A controversy ensued, and Pitrè and Arturo Graf expanded the study. The first literary mention of the legend is by a Provençal poet of the twelfth century, Raimon Jordon. A rich repertory of literary versions, including Schiller’s ballad, Der Taucher (“The Diver”), is to be found in the above-mentioned study by Pitrè. Regarding Nick Fish and Benedetto Croce, see Carlo Levi’s fine page in L’Orologio (pp. 343 ff.).

  [>]. “Gràttula-Beddàttula” from Pitrè, 42, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia, seventy-year-old seamstress of winter quilts.

  Of all the Italian variants of the famous “Cinderella,” the most colorful and Mediterranean is this tale about the date-palm trees, told by the great illiterate narrator of Palermo, Agatuzza Messia (see Introduction, pp. xxi-xxiv). There is no moralizing here as in Perrault and Grimm; all is one grand play of fantastic marvels. The Cinderella motif of the lost slipper is not retained in “Gràttula-Beddàttula,” but is found in all the other Italian versions.

  [>]. “Misfortune” (Sfortuna) from Pitrè, 86, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  One of the most touching southern folktales is this one about the girl pursued by her evil luck, which brings misfortune to herself and others. Contrary to the custom of ostracizing the bearer of ill-luck, one takes pity on her here, in the framework of an individual cult to Fate, to whom tribute is paid in the form of vows and petitions. Men are at the mercy of the erratic psychology of the Fates. Messia superbly sketches the character of the protagonist’s wicked and mad Fate. But the finest characters of Messia emerge from types like the charitable washerwoman, who is mistress of the Fates’ cult and viewed with affection. (If she refrains from telling the prince about Misfortune, it is to protect her from snares and in no wise indicates a dislike for the girl.) Note how the customary generality of folktales gives way to linguistic and technical precision when Messia speaks about the washerwoman’s work.

  [>]. “Pippina the Serpent” (La serpe Pippina) from Pitrè, 61, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  I saw versions compiled in Emilia (with the girl changed into an eel the first time she lays eyes on water), Tuscany (see my no. 64), Abruzzo, Calabria, and Sicily. But other versions are centered on my no. 101, which is quite similar.

  [>]. “Catherine the Wise” (Caterina la Sapiente) from Pitrè, 6, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  The intelligent woman, both cultured and honored, is frequent in Italian folklore. The present Sicilian popular version is far richer than the Neapolitan literary one by Basile (V, 6) and contains curious reminiscences of such medieval institutions as the “free school” and allusion to a pedagogy that we will call democratic, with equality between the sexes.

  [>]. “The Ismailian Merchant” (Il mercante ismaelita) from Pitrè, 100, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  Pitrè quotes as a source a Venetian edition (1555) of a popular romance (which is also a source of my no. 112). The story assumes biblical echoes in Agatuzza Messia’s narration: I refer to the threatened massacre of innocents and the strange mention of an “Ismailian” merchant. The emperor’s disclosur
e of the Golden Fleece beneath his rags is a grand bit of theater. His role, as he sadly roams the world questioning the planets, carries us into a vaguely Shakespearean atmosphere.

  [>]. “The Thieving Dove” (La colomba ladra) from Pitrè, 101, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  Widespread in all the South. Other versions in Campania, Calabria, Sicily, and Sardinia.

  [>]. “Dealer in Peas and Beans” (Padrón di ceci e fave) from Pitrè, 87, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  This is the story of Puss-in-Boots, but without cat, fox, or any other animal suggestive of wiles to obtain credit in the eyes of others. In the present story, the poor protagonist comes up with the maneuvers himself as he gives free rein to his imagination regarding the bean found on the ground. Only at the end does the bean change into a fairy (but such supernatural intervention is not really indispensable), and a poor soul’s dream of easy wealth becomes miraculous reality. Whereas in the cat story virtuous poverty and venturesome shrewdness collaborate as two distinct persons, the present tale combines them in a single character not nearly as appealing: he represents triumphant bluff, the dream of a poverty-stricken world devoid of prospects.

  [>]. “The Sultan with the Itch” (Il Balaliccbi con la rogna) from Pitrè, 69, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  Not so much a folktale as a tale of adventure, with certain geographical notions and, above all, a clear-cut idea of differences between one civilization and another, of relationships with the Moslem world, all of which is particularly characteristic of oral narrative in the South. Here Messia, who never set foot on a ship, gives vent to her marine fantasies.

  [>]. “The Wife Who Lived on Wind” (La sposa che viveva di vento) from Pitrè, 92, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  A tale that closes with a proverb—“And who should get the miser’s money in the end but the master swindler”—and which is marked by Messia’s rich taste for description.

  [>]. “Wormwood” (Erbabianca) from Pitrè, 73, Palermo.

  The boast about the wife’s fidelity, the bet with a swindler who brings in false proof of seduction, the adventurous ways the wife takes to prove her innocence—they are all elements of legends of chivalry (see the ballad, Madonna Elena, dating from the end of the fourteenth century) that subsequently pass into stories about merchants (as in Boccaccio, II, 9) and from there, through diverse versions, go all the way to Shakespeare, who drew on them for Cymbeline. This version stands out among the many popular ones because of its romantic details and strange denouement. The popular versions are very numerous in Northern, Central, and Southern Italy, and only Pitrès Sicilian compilation gives five of them (73–77), all excellent and included in my compilation (nos. 158, 159, 160, 176).

  [>]. “The King of Spain and the English Milord” (Il Re di Spagna e il Milord inglese) from Pitrè, 74, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  Out of the sententious speech of Messia and all her proverbs and expressions comes a romantic story starring a woman who exemplifies various virtues such as the Spanish or Moslem ideal of chastity typical of the sheltered woman, and intellectual and political bravura. Her mother-in-law, diametrically opposed to the cruelty represented by her counterparts in other tales, is the affective center of the narrative. There is also the English Milord, the equal in Southern folklore of all legendary kings—rather, he is superior to the kings because of his wealth—with a touch of romantic perversity. Another notable element is the pressure exercised by an ill-governed people toward solving difficulties. The surrounding geography is realistic: there is Spain, sister country of Sicily, and nineteenth-century Brazil, the empire to which men unjustly persecuted flee and make their fortune. Messia lets herself go in this tale, with all her flair for dramatic narration. One minute she is talking like a sailor; the next, her tone is very genteel. I translated quite faithfully, adding no touches of my own, except the red tassel at the conclusion.

  [>]. “The Bejeweled Boot” (Lo stivale ingioiellato) from Pitrè, 75, Palermo, told by Rosa Brusca, a forty-five-year-old blind woman.

  This is a subcategory of the slandered wife (or sister) type, common to Europe (cf. Afanas’ev’s “The Merchant’s Slandered Daughter”).

  [>]. “The Left-Hand Squire” (Il Bracciere di mano manca) from Pitrè, 76, Palermo, “from a woman to whom Messia told it.”

  Regarding the Sicilian popular storyteller’s conception of the court of kings and court ethics, see my remarks in the Introduction, p. xxxi. These ethics gave rise to the present version of the famous tale supposedly featuring Pier delle Vigne, as transmitted by Jacopo d’Acqui in Latin, with verse in Piedmontese dialect. D’Ancona observes, “The image of the vine must have come from attributing this adventure to Frederick the Second’s prime minister.” The story goes back farther (D’Ancona ascertained) and appears in Greek, Hebrew, and Arabic versions. It was also recounted by Brantôme (Vie des dames galantes, II), in reference to the Marquis of Pescara, with verses in Italian, which I followed in part, in preference to the frequently altered lines in the popular versions.

  [>]. “Rosemary” (Rosmarina) from Pitrè, 37, Palermo, told by a woman.

  Another folktale about the plant-woman. This one repeats “The Mulberry,” one of Basile’s finest Neapolitan tales (I, 2), with a few additional details such as the watering with milk and the prince’s flute-playing. The girl’s dancing to the flute music is the only thing I added, but a dance rhythm is already in the Palermo original.

  [>]. “Lame Devil” (Diavolozoppo) from Pitrè, 54, Palermo, told by a blind man by the name of Giovanni Patuano.

  Machiavelli’s tale Belfagor comes from a popular tradition, as shown by the fact that Straparola also uses it (II, 4). I decided to give this Sicilian “Lame Devil” a more or less stylized translation which accents the rudimentary vitality of the narration.

  [>]. “Three Tales by Three Sons of Three Merchants” (I tre racconti dei tre figli dei tre mercanti) from Pitrè, 103, Palermo, told by Rosa Vàrrica.

  The frame, with the unresolved ending, is most often found in literary stories.

  [>]. “The Dove Girl” (La ragazza colomba) from Pitrè, 50, Palermo, told by a woman.

  The swan girl or dove girl, whose bird costume the hero takes away, thereby compelling her to remain a woman, is a universally known motif and often combines with the motif of the sorcerer’s servant who must climb a mountain of precious stones. I began with the Palermo version, showing the “lad who led a dog’s life” in search of work, and the Greek from the Levant. I departed from the text by having the boy go up the mountain, not on a winged horse, but in a horse’s hide carried upward by an eagle, as in other Southern versions (taking into special account one from Lucania—La Rocca, 9). I also borrowed the final episode of the invisible cloak, a very widespread motif, to make the plot complete.

  [>]. “Jesus and St. Peter in Sicily” (Gesu e San Pietro in Sicilia). Same type of legends as in the series, “Jesus and St. Peter in Friuli.” (See my no. 41.) St. Peter presents the same characteristics here as in the Friulian compilation—laziness and gluttony.

  I. “Stones to Bread” (Le pietre in pane) and II. “Put the old woman in the furnace” (La vecchia nel forno), from Pitr£, 123, Bagheria, Palermo, told by a certain Gargano.

  III. “A Tale the Robbers Tell” (Una leggenda che raccontano i ladri) from Pitrè, 121, Borgetto, Palermo.

  This tale is traditional among thieves, who claim to have received Jesus Christ’s blessing. Sending me a version from Santa Ninfa, the Honorable Antonino Destefani-Perez mentioned that his uncle was retained for a time by robbers who tried to convince him they were not as black as the world made them out to be, referring to God’s blessing of them in the gospel and also telling this little tale, by way of additional proof.

  IV. “Death Corked in the Bottle” (La morte nel fiasco) from Pitrè, 124. Palermo, told by Gioacchino Ferrara, butler in a Sicilian home.

  One of the many tales about death checkmated, in the frame of popular tradition reg
arding encounters with Jesus and the Apostles. In the original, the innkeeper bears the strange name of Accaciuni, meaning “cause,” and the story ends on the proverb, “No death without cause.”

  V. “St. Peter’s Mamma” (La mamma di San Pietro) from Pitrè, 126, Palermo, told by Agatuzza Messia.

  An illustrious popular legend, known in most of Europe (the oldest known literary version being a German poem of the fifteenth century).

  [>]. “The Barber’s Timepiece” (L’orologio del Barbiere) from Pitrè, 49, Borgetto, Palermo, told by Rosa Amari.

  “Who could possibly fail to see that this wonderful timepiece is the Sun?” writes the worthy compiler, Salomone-Marino. “And the Master who made it, the old man who wins everyone’s praise for his divine work, is none other than God. His creations reveal His existence. What wisdom is contained in this tale beneath its modest simplicity!” Modest simplicity? Although I do not always champion oral and popular poetry over literary poetry, here is truly a case where a miracle must be proclaimed: we are on the level of the great moments of allegorical poetry. And more striking than the symbolism—which is unquestionably interesting, along with the cultural and oracular importance of the sun—is the poetic interpenetration of metaphysical space and the human comedy in so precise and harmonious a construction, with a language so rich in invention, nobility, and characterization. Rosa Amari has turned out a little masterpiece, which I wished to include, although fully realizing that much is inevitably lost in translating from dialect a text that relies mainly on the spoken word (and the rustic assonance of those lines, “nearly all proverbial,” as Pitrè notes).

  [>]. “The Count’s Sister” (La sorella del Conte) from Pitrè, 7, Borgetto, Palermo, told by Francesca Leto.

  The most beautiful Italian folktale of love, in its finest popular version, so touchingly told that I should have liked to retain it just as it was, in dialect.

 
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