Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  [>]. “Master Francesco Sit-Down-and-Eat” (Mastro Francesco Siedi-e-mangia) from Pitrè, 127, Borgetto, Paimero, told by Francesca Leto.

  Salomone-Marino compiled this tale for Pitrè, giving it a moralistic-allegorical interpretation (with a quasi-Freudian overtone). But it stands out principally as a comedy of manners (resulting from the experience of girls serving in wealthy households), with contempt for the old sick lady and her fussy ways, and with the character of the town loafer so strikingly depicted.

  [>]. “The Marriage of a Queen and a Bandit” (Le nozze d’una Regina e d’un brigante) from Pitrè, 21, Polizzi-Generosa, Palermo.

  A few capital burlesque details are tacked onto the theme of wedding a bandit (see note on my no. 89) : the professor-husband, the seven-months’ offspring, and the old deaf woman. The power of the seven-months’ man is extraordinary; for instance, it is said that persons plagued with intermittent and stubborn fevers need only go to any man born after being carried only seven months and say to him instantly, “Settimu di Maria, fammi pastari lu friddu a mia!” and they will be cured.

  [>]. “The Seven Lamb Heads” (Le sette teste d’agnello) from Pitrè, 94, Ficarazzi, Palermo, told by Giuseppe Foria.

  This lies between the folktale and the character story: the miserly, whiny soul that delights more in complaining than in rejoicing, and whose little losses are never forgotten in the face of later gains. I chose the Ficarazzi variant because of the dialogue with the cat, in preference to a Calabrian one which nevertheless has a more pronounced moral, since it opposes the old woman’s stinginess to her niece’s generosity; the niece gives bread and fish to an old beggar (who is St. Joseph). But I did turn to the Calabrian version from Di Francia (8) for the meeting with the king in the woods and the ending with the beheading and the willow; and I used a Sicilian variant from Pitrè (89) for the old woman’s nagging during the banquet.

  [>]. “The Two Sea Merchants” (I due negozianti di mare) from Pitrè, 82, Palazzo-Adriano, Palermo.

  A tale combining elements of adventure and magic, as in certain ancient ballads.

  [>]. “Out in the World” (Sperso per il mondo) from Pitrè, 27, Salaparuta, Palermo, told by Antonio Loria.

  A masterpiece of Italian popular narrative. The traditional magic repertory boils down to the peasant’s actual experience: the search for work from farm to farm, his entering into bondage, the solidarity of the old animal, and the necessity for sacrificing him without a word of regret or pity. And the contest to win the princess is no longer equestrian, but a show of peasant strength in plowing a piece of land. Miracles can be none other than plants that spring up in haste, fruit out of season, or daylight prolonged through the intercession of the Sun, omnipotent lord and friend. I found no precise counterpart to the tale in its entirety. The type is found here and there in Europe and also in India.

  [>]. “A Boat Loaded with . . . ” (Un bastimento carico di . . . ) from Pitrè, 116, Salaparuta, Palermo, told by Calogero Fasulo.

  Several versions, literary and folk.

  [>]. “The King’s Son in the Henhouse” (Il figlio del Re nel pollato) from Pitrè, 32, Salaparuta, Palermo, told by Rosa Cascio La Giucca.

  Related to the most illustrious of all tales, “Amor and Psyche,” that is, the first purely fairy-tale narrative, a written version of which has come down to us in Apuleius’ Metamorphoses (second century A.D.). Scholars count seventy-one Italian oral variants of it.

  [>]. “The Mincing Princess” (La Reginotta smorfiosa) from Pitrè, 105, Erice, Sicily, told by eight-year-old Maria Curatolo.

  Told in the sixteenth century by Luigi Alamanni (almost exactly as it is here, with pomegranate seed and all) in the story about Blanche of Toulouse and the Count of Barcelona, in a solemn and precise style typical of a historian. But it is one of the oldest “romantic” stories in existence, and scholars seem to believe that it originated in the Italian Middle Ages. Basile came out with a very similar tale in the seventeenth century (IV, 10), except for the pomegranate seed. Other European popular versions (cf. Grimm, 52) attribute the princess’s objection to some physical feature of the suitor—often the twisted hair in his beard—as do almost all the other Italian versions I examined.

  [>]. “The Great Narbone” (Il Gran Narbone) from Pitrè, 77, Cianciana, Sicily, told by Master Vincenzo Restivo, shoemaker.

  See note on my no. 157.

  [>]. “Animal Talk and the Nosy Wife” (Il linguaggio degli animali e la moglie curiosa) from Pitrè, 282, Cianciana, Sicily, told by Rosario di Liberto, miner.

  An old oriental fable (“Story of the Ox and the Donkey with the Farmer” from The Arabian Nights) which assumes the tone of a peasant anecdote here with the nosy wife. Remarkable in this version are the calls between wolves and dogs in the night, with a sort of lawless complicity: “Oh, Brother Vitus!” “Yea, Brother Nick!”

  [>]. “The Calf with the Golden Horns” (Il vitellino con le coma d’oro) from Pitrè, 283, Casteltermini, Sicily, told by Dame Vicenza Giuliano, weaver.

  I found only childish and rudimentary versions of this folktale known throughout Europe (and related to my nos. 16 and 101). Here and there I introduced elements from other Italian versions (such as the verse) into the Sicilian original, and I toned down the cruelty of the ending.

  [>]. “The Captain and the General” (Il Capitano e il General) from Pitrè, 202, Casteltermini, Sicily, told by Agostino Vaccaro.

  An old Buddhist legend—Indian and Chinese—(with the husband buried alive, according to custom, with his dead wife) and directly absorbed into European folklore (cf. Grimm, 16) with various adaptations via the medieval exempla. In Sicily it became a barracks story in which the secret of success is linked to advancement in a military career.

  [>]. “The Peacock Feather” (La penna di hu) from Pitrè, 79, Vallelunga, Sicily, told by Elisabetta Sanfratello, 55 years of age, maidservant.

  One of the most moving tales there is on the theme of sacrifice of the youngest. It exists all over Europe (Grimm 28, 57, 97) and in all of Italy as tale and ballad, and contains the melancholy of the laments that come from the reed pipe in which the soul of the slain boy resides. Such melancholy is already in the somber, ugly cry of the peacock, the bird created to be viewed, whose tail feathers contain the eyes of Argus. I followed this Sicilian version with an unhappy ending (no resurrection of the boy) which seems in keeping with the spirit of the tale. But I replaced the pipe made from a bone of the dead boy with a reed sprung from the grave, as in many other versions.

  [>]. “The Garden Witch” (La vecchia dell’orto) from Pitrè, 20, Vallelunga, Sicily, told by Elisabetta Sanfratello.

  Of all the variants of “Prezzemolina” (see note on my no. 86), this Sicilian one has the most unusual opening with the mushroom-ear, and that is why I include it in spite of the common childish plot that follows. (Of its narrator, Pitrè writes: “The sancta simplicitas of the poor in spirit is her particular gift and at the root of the narrative’s naïveté.”) The girl who is ashamed to say “I am still little” is my invention.

  [>]. “The Mouse with the Long Tail” (Il sorcetto con la coda che puzza) from Pitrè, 40, Caltanissetta, Sicily, told by little Maria Giuliano.

  Concerning the opening, see note on my no. 133. The plot is close to types where the supernatural spouse is lost and then found again.

  [>]. “The Two Cousins” (Le due engine) from Pitrè, 62, Noto, Sicily.

  Of a popular tradition that includes my nos. 2, 93, and 129.

  [>]. “The Two Muleteers” (I due compart mulattieri) from Pitrè, 65, Noto, Sicily.

  Of remote oriental origin (there are versions of it that go back 1,300 years), it also appears in compilations of the Grimms’ (no. 107) and Afanas’ev’s (“Honesty and Deceit”), but in versions less synthetic and forceful than those of the Italian tradition. There was no putting out of eyes in the Sicilian text, but I included the episode on the basis of almost all the other versions, as the story requires it, in my opinion. Many v
ersions mention witches gathering round a tree (the famous “walnut tree of Benevento”), but the motif is common to other folktales (cf. my no. 90, very similar to this one, and nos. 18 and 161).

  [>]. “Giovannuzza the Fox” (Lo volpe Giovannuzza) from Gonzenbach, 65, Catania, Sicily.

  Puss-in-Boots in Sicily is a fox (in Pitrè’s Palermo version, “la vurpi Giuvannuzza,” nickname of the fox in popular tradition); but the plot of the tale is closer to its Italian literary versions—Straparola, XI, 1 (the cat of Costantino Fortunato) and Basile, II, 4 (the cat of Gagliuso)—with the assisted man’s ingratitude toward the providential animal, a pessimistic ending that occurs in almost all the Italian versions, in contrast to Perrault’s. (The Catanian version I followed showed the fox pardoning the protagonist and thus a happy close, but this seemed unjustified, so I omitted the episode altogether.) For my transcription I also kept before my eyes Pitrè, 88, told by Angela Smiraglia, eighteen-year-old country girl.

  [>]. “The Child that Fed the Crucifix” (Il bambino che diede da mangiare al Crocifisso) from Gonzenbach, 86, Catania, Sicily.

  This is the widespread legend that came back into the limelight with the Spanish film, Marcelino, pan y vino. But this Sicilian version stands out from all the others with their excessive mysticism, thanks to its tone of popular and nonconformist religiosity as expressed in the child’s solidarity with Christ betrayed by man. The original attributes the child’s ignorance of Jesus and the church to his simplicity. For the sake of realism, I let it ensue from the characters’ isolation in the country, in a remote and desolate part of Sicily. The original also speaks of a second miracle worked by the child: he makes a rosary without ever having seen or heard of one.

  [>]. “Steward Truth” (Massaro Verità) from Gonzenbach, 8, Catania, Sicily.

  I followed Gonzenbach’s version, dressing it up with a few livelier passages from Pitrè’s Palermo version, 78. The story about the man who tries to lie, but with no success, is quite old. It appears in the Gesta Romanorum and Arabic compilations, but is especially striking in Straparola’s Bergamasque story (III, 5) about Travaglino the cowherd and the bull with the golden horns. The oral tradition is more forceful and supple.

  [>]. “The Foppish King” (Il Re vannesio) from Pitrè, 38, Acireale, Sicily.

  A strangely morbid popular tale with the king’s narcissism, his love and envy of the handsome prince, and the queen’s ritual to summon the prince by means of milk, basin, and golden balls.

  [>]. “The Princess with the Horns” (La Reginotta con le corna) from Pitrè, 28, Acireale, Sicily.

  This came down to us in a fifteenth-century ballad, but only in the present Sicilian version do I find the beginning with the three bricks and the boy’s eventual attempts to take his own life.

  [>]. “Giufà” from Pitrè, 190.

  The large cycle about the fool, even if we are not dealing with the folktale properly speaking, is too important in popular narrative, Italian included, to be omitted. It comes from the Arabic world and is appropriately set, subsequently, in Sicily, which must have heard it directly from the Arabs. The Arabic origin is seen in the very name of the protagonist—Giufà, the fool for whom everything turns out well.

  I. “Giufà and the Plaster Statue” (Giufà e la statua di gesso) Casteltermini, Sicily, told by Giuseppe Lo Duca.

  One of the finest and most widespread stories about fools, with grand theatrical gags (for instance, the dialogue with the statue, and the exchange of few words).

  II. “Giufà, the Moon, the Robbers, and the Cops” (Giufà, la luna, i ladri e le guardie), ibid.

  Remarkable for the return at night through the fields and the hide-and-seek with a moon in harmony with the sleepy rhythm of the passage.

  III. “Giufà and the Red Beret” (Giufà e la berretta rossa) Palermo, told by Rosa Brusca.

  One of the most Sicilian of tales, with the red beret and the mother’s lament.

  IV. “Giufà and the Wineskin” (Giufà e l’otre) Palermo, told by a worker from the Oretea Foundry.

  V. “Eat Your Fill, My Fine Clothes!” (Mangiate, vestitucei miei!) Palermo, told by Francesca Amato.

  VI. “Giufà, Pull the Door After You!” (Giufà, tirati la porta!) Palermo, told by Rosa Brusca; and Trapani, told by Nicasio Catanazaro, nicknamed Baddazza.

  [>]. “Fra Ignazio” from Bottiglioni, 108, Cagliari, Sardinia, told by Bonatia Carlucciu.

  Bottiglioni notes: “Fra Ignazio was born in Làconi, and his name is still very popular in Cagliari and Campidano. He was the alms-seeker of the Capuchin monastery, where one can still view his bed, rosary, and crucifix. The people of Calgiari call him venerable and have the same devotion for him as for a saint.”

  [>]. “Solomon’s Advice” (I consigli di Salomone) from Mango, 11, Campidano, Sardinia.

  In various parts of Italy, and not just in Sardinia, one encounters the story of the three pieces of advice with the same fatalism, the same truculence, and the same hint of lasciviousness (the caress given the young priest). But only here do I find the name “Solomon,” which seems to link the tale with its Eastern source. (The oldest Indian, Arabic, and Persian collections include it, and from there it passes into the books of Christian exempla and the stories of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.) Peculiar to the Sardinian version, I believe, is the fear at the opening of being an innocent victim of the law.

  [>]. “The Man Who Robbed the Robbers” (L’uomo che rubò at banditi) from Pietro Lutzu (in Due novelline popolari sarde (dialetto campidanese) quale contributo die leggende del tesoro di Rampsinite Re di Egitto, Sassari 1900) Oristano, Sardinia, told in 1874 by a certain Beppa Rosa Massa di Santa Giusta.

  This is not the “Rhampsinitus” type, as Lutzu believed, but the “Ali Baba” type, however much we would like to see the age-old story of a pharaoh reset in a rocky Sardinian landscape along with the replacement of the king’s treasury by a bandits’ cottage and the wiles to get in by means of a hidden key. But whatever the tale’s origin, every detail here is newly invented and darkly realistic—the beheaded body hung from a dead tree, the sorceress’s advice, the clashing of the rams on the mountain. Even the ending, which is closer to “Ali Baba,” takes on local color—the village scene with the cooper and the house of the farmer grown mysteriously rich, then the appearance of casks and the prompt arrival of officers of the law.

  [>]. “The Lions’ Grass” (L’erba dei leoni) from Loriga, 7, Porto Torres, Sardinia.

  The plot of this tale is widespread (see note on my no. 179), but the beginning is Sardinian with the thwarted love of the young people and the precariousness of life which brings sickness or death at every turn.

  [>]. “The Convent of Nuns and the Monastery of Monks” (Il convento di monache e il convento di frati) from Loriga, 8, Porto Torres, Sardinia.

  Well-known motifs wind in and out of this very rudimentary, but witty and graceful little tale. I altered the following details of the original: the unmotivated decision to become monks and nuns; the father superior’s tying up the nuns to set fire to them. And I added the name “Johnny” (Gianni) myself. Cf. my no. 151, which is quite similar to this tale.

  [>]. “The Male Fern” (La potenza della felce maschio) from Bottiglioni, 13 and 15, Tempio, Sardinia, told by Anna Rosa Ugoni and Nicoletta Atzena.

  The Sardinian legends published by Bottiglioni are quite short and meager in narrative development, but infused with local color. Here I combined two tales, giving as an introduction one of the many elementary stories about encounters with a multitude of dead people and then proceeding with the beautiful legend of the male fern. Dying from gunfire is almost equivalent to a particular sickness, and the bandit as a generous hero wants to liberate man from it. But only courage can free man from such a death, and that is the whole point of the legend (in short, it takes more courage not to fire than to fire). Man proves weak, incapable of dominating his fear, and the story ends sorrowfully.

  [>]. “St. Anthony’s Gift” (Sani’ Anto
nio dà il fuoco agli uomini) from Bottiglioni, 29, Nughedu S. Nicolò, Sardinia, told by Adelasia Floris; and from Filippo Valla (in Rivista delle tradizioni popolari, I [1894], 499) Osieri, Sardinia.

  St. Anthony in Sardinia takes the role of Prometheus. Fire is a diabolical element, but stealing it and delivering it to man is a holy use, and we have a high-spirited comedy indeed. “Close by Nughedu,” notes Bottiglioni, “is the chapel of St. Anthony of the Fire, where his feast is celebrated annually.” And Filippo Valla describes the big bonfires that are lit on January 17; included in the wood that goes into these fires is cork, which, according to Sardinian tradition, fed the fire of Hell. The accounts of both Bottiglioni and Valla are extremely brief and rudimentary. I aimed to heighten the narration and bring out the saint’s shrewdness, taking a hint from Valla regarding the pig which throws Hell into such chaos (a Hell strangely well-ordered). The concluding verse is composed of words incomprehensible in part even to Sardinians.

  [>]. “March and the Shepherd” (Marzo e il pastore) from Ortoli, I, Olmiccia, Corsica, told in 1882 by A. Joseph Ortoli.

  “March and the Shepherd,” a famous Tuscan apologue, is based on the wiles of the shepherd who goes to the hills when he says he is going to the plain and vice versa; the shepherd and the month vie with one another in cunning and peasant mockery. Here, though, the relationship smacks of a religious cult: the shepherd prays to the months, occasionally losing faith and blaspheming one, which is then unleashed against him with the fury of an irate deity. I retold the tale from Ortoli’s French translation.

  [>]. “John Balento” (Giovan Balento) from Carlotti, p. 187, Corsica.

  A Corsican variant of the famous story about the braggart, of which I gave a version from Marche in my no. 97. Strange is the closing episode with the Amazons; I slightly modified it by presenting a country invaded by flies.

  [>]. “Jump into My Sack” (Salta nel mio sacco!) from Ortoli, 22, Porto Vecchio, Corsica, told in 1881 by Madame Marini.

 
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