Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  In contrast to the Sicilian folktale which unfolds in a somewhat limited gamut of themes and often from a realistic starting point (how many hungry families go out into the country looking for plants to make soup!), the Tuscan folktale proves a fertile ground for the most varied cultural influences. My favorite Tuscan source is Gherardo Nerucci’s Sessanta novelle popolari Montanesi, 1880 (Sixty Popular Tales from Montale—a village near Pistoia), written in an odd Tuscan vernacular. In one of these a certain Pietro di Canestrino, a laborer, told, in La Regina Marmotta (“The Sleeping Queen”), the most Ariosto-like tale to come from the mouth of a man of the people. The story is an uncertain byproduct of the sixteenth-century epic, not in its plot (which in its broad outline is reminiscent of a well-known folktale) nor in its fanciful geography (which also dates back to the ballads of chivalry) but in its manner of narrating, of creating magic through the wealth of descriptions of gardens and palaces (much more complete and literary in the original text than in my own highly abridged reconstruction, where I sought to avoid any appreciable divergence from the general tone of the present book). The original description of the queen’s palace even includes a list of famous beauties of the past, introduced as statues: . . . and these statues represented many famous women, alike in dress, but different in countenance, and they included Lucretia of Rome, Isabella of Ferrara, Elizabeth and Leonore of Mantua, Varisilla Veronese with her beautiful face and unusual features; the sixth, Diana of Regno Morese and Terra Luba, the most renowned for her beauty in Spain, France, Italy, England, and Austria, and whose royal blood was the purest . . . ” and so forth.

  The book of the sixty Montale stories appeared in 1880, when many of the most important Italian collections of folktales had already been published, but the lawyer Gherardo Nerucci (1828–1906, somewhat older than the other folklorists of the “scientific” generation) had begun collecting tales much earlier, in 1868. Many of the sixty stories were already in the anthologies of his colleagues; some of the most beautiful tales in the Imbriani and Comparetti collections are his. Nerucci was not concerned with comparatist storytelling (his interest in popular tales was linguistic), but it is plain that the Montale stories are based, often, on literary sources. To be sure, this village also produced its share of obscure and prehistoric tales, such as Testa di Bufala (“Buffalo Head”) which simply clamors for ethnological interpretation. There were also tales that appear strangely modern and “invented,” like La novellina delle scimmie (“The Little Tale of the Monkeys”) but a great many of the stories have the same themes and plots as popular poems (going back to the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries) and as the Arabian Nights; these (with only the settings transposed) are so faithful to the French eighteenth-century translation by Galland (allowing for an adaptation to suit Western taste) as to exclude the possibility of influences stemming from long ago, via who knows what oral paths from the Orient. These were unquestionably directly plucked from literature and transposed into folklore quite recently. Thus, when the widowed Luisa Ginanni repeats from beginning to end the plot of Boccaccio’s Andreuccio da Perugia, I believe that it derives not from the popular tradition that was the source of Boccaccio’s story, but from a direct version in dialect of the most picaresque story in the Decameron.

  Thus, with Boccaccio, we come close to defining the spirit in which Pistoia country people told stories. It would appear that in this region the link has been established (or that Nerucci perceived it) between a fiaba (fairy tale) and a novella (short story); the transition between the narrative of magic and the narrative of fortune or individual bravery has been pinpointed. The tale of magic flows smoothly into a mundane, “bourgeois” story, short story or novel of adventure, or tear-jerking account of a damsel in distress. Let us take, for example, Il figliuolo del mercante di Milano (“The Son of the Merchant of Milan”) which belongs to a very old and obscure type of folktale: the youth who draws from his adventures—always the same, in which a dog, poisoned food, birds play a role—a riddle in nonsense rhyme. He puts it to a princess who is reputed to be a riddle-solver, and thus wins her hand. In Montale, the hero is not the usual predestined character, but a young man of initiative, ready to run risks; he knows how to capitalize on his winnings and profit from his losses. The proof is that—and it is very odd behavior in a fairy-tale hero—instead of marrying the princess, he releases her from all obligation to him in exchange for economic gain. This happens not just once, but twice in succession: the first time in exchange for a magic object (more exactly, the permission to win it himself), and the second, even more practical, in exchange for a steady income. The supernatural origin of Menichino’s success is quite overshadowed by his true native ability to make the most of these magic powers and retain all profits for himself. But Menichino’s outstanding trait is sincerity, the ability to win people’s trust: the hallmark of a businessman.

  Nerucci’s favorite storyteller is the widow Luisa Ginanni. Of all the Montale storytellers, she knows the greatest number (three-quarters of the collection originate with her); often her imagery is quite striking, but there is no great difference between her voice and that of others. In a style full of verbal invention Nerucci intended to show us the richness of the unusual vernacular that results when the people of Montale speak in Italian—a harsh, mangled, violent Tuscan. Whereas with most of the other texts my task was somehow to enhance the stylistic color, with Nerucci’s my rewriting had to tone it down; there were, consequently, unavoidable losses.

  Rewriting Tuscan texts from a vernacular not so different from current Italian was for me a difficult task. The odds were stacked against me. And the hardest ones—for the simple reason that they are the most beautiful and already have a distinct style—were those fifteen or so tales I singled out from Nerucci. (On the other hand, in the case of the Sicilian texts from Pitrè’s collection, the more beautiful they were, the easier my task turned out to be; I translated them literally or freely, as the text required.)

  As I have already indicated, Tuscany and Sicily have the choicest selection of folktales, both in quantity and quality. And immediately after, with its own special interpretation of a world of fantasy, is Venice, or rather, the entire range of Venetian dialects. The outstanding name here is Domenico Giuseppe Bemoni, who published (in 1873, 1875, 1893) several booklets of Venetian tales. These fables are remarkable for their limpidity and poetic power; although well-known types recur in them they always somehow evoke Venice, her spaces and light, and in one way or another they all impart an aquatic flavor; the sea, canals, voyages, ships, or the Levant figure in them. Bemoni does not give the names of the narrators, nor do we know how faithful he was to the original tales; but there is a distinct harmony overlying the gentle tones of the dialect and the atmosphere pervading various folktales, qualities which I hope are reflected in my transcription of the seven tales I singled out from his collection (stories 29 through 35).

  In the same period, Bologna’s contribution, through Carolina Coronedi-Berti, was a copious, first-rate anthology (1874), written in a dialect brimming over with zest and consisting of well-rounded, well-told stories shrouded in a somewhat hallucinatory ambience and set in familiar landscapes. Although the names of the storytellers are not given, one is often conscious of a feminine presence, who tends, at times, to be sentimental, at others to be dashing.

  In Giggi Zanazzo’s Roman collection (1907), the tale becomes a pretext for verbal entertainment. It is based upon knavish and suggestive modes of speech and makes for rewarding and pleasant reading.

  The Abruzzi have to their credit two very fine collections: the two volumes by Gennaro Finamore (1836–1923), a teacher and medical doctor. He collected texts in dialect from various localities and transcribed them with great linguistic precision; a vein of melancholy poetry occasionally emerges from these texts. The other Abruzzi anthology is the work of the archeologist Antonio De Nino (1836–1907), a friend of D’Annunzio’s, who recast the tales in Italian in very brief stories interspersed with sh
ort ballads and refrains in dialect in a playful and childlike style—a method of doubtful value from the scientific point of view as well as from mine. But the book contains many unusual stories (although a number of them are culled from the Arabian Nights) and curious ones (see my Gobba, zoppa e collotorto, “Hunchback Wryneck Hobbler”), that have an underlying irony and playfulness.

  Eight of the best tales I ran into are in Apulian dialect, in Pietro Pellizzari’s book, Fiabe e canzoni popolari del contado di Maglie in terra d’Otranto (Popular Fables and Songs from the Country of Maglie in Terra d’Otranto, 1881). They are familiar types, but written in a language so witty, in so racy a style, with such enjoyment of grotesque malformation, that they give the impression of having been conceived in that very language, like the excellent I cinque capestrati (“Five scapegraces”) the plot of which can be found in its every detail in Basile.

  In Calabria (mainly in the village of Palmi) Letterio Di Francia, the scholarly author of a history of storytelling, transcribed a collection, Fiabe e novelle calabresi (Calabrian Fables and Short Stories) published in 1929 and 1931, complete with the fullest and most precise notes ever recorded in Italian. The author names the different outstanding narrators, among whom there is a certain Annunziata Palermo. Calabrian storytelling exhibits a rich, colorful, complex imagination, but within it the logic of the plot is often lost, leaving only the unraveling of the enchantment.

  Characteristics of the Italian Folktale

  Can one speak of the Italian folktale? Or must the question of the folktale be dealt with in terms of a remote age that is not only prehistoric but also pregeographic?

  The disciplines concerned with studying the relationships between the folktale and the rites of primitive societies yield surprising, and for me, convincing results, as in Propp’s Historical Roots of Russian Fairy Tales (1946), and it seems to me that the origins of the folktale are to be found in these rites. But having arrived at this conclusion there are still many unanswered questions. Was the birth and development of folklore a parallel and similar phenomenon throughout the world as the proponents of polygenesis claim? In view of the complexity of certain types that explanation may be too simple. Can ethnology explain every motif, every narrative complex throughout the world? Evidently not. Therefore, quite apart from the question of the ancient sources of folktales, the importance of the life which every folktale has had during a historical period must be recognized: storytelling as entertainment means the passage of the tale from narrator to narrator, from country to country, often by means of a written version, a book, until the story has spread over the entire area where it is to be found today.

  Between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, Tuscany, through its ballads and popular verses, often imitative of folklore motifs, must have defined and diffused the most successful categories. The ballad has its own history, distinct from that of the folktale, but the two cross: the ballad draws its motifs from the tale and in turn adapts the tale to suit its motif.

  We must be careful not to “medievalize” the folktale too much. The ethnological view plucks the fable from the décor given it by a romantic taste, and has accustomed us to see the castle as the hut where initiations to the hunt took place, to regard the princess as a sacrificial offering to the dragon for agricultural necessities, the wizard as the sorcerer of the clan. Moreover, one need only glance at any collection faithful to the oral tradition to understand that the people (namely those of the nineteenth century unfamiliar either with the illustrations of children’s books or with Disney’s Snow White) do not visualize the folktales in terms of images which seem natural to us. In these stories description is almost always minimal, the terminology is general. Italian folklore tells of palaces, not castles. It rarely speaks of a prince or princess but rather of the son or daughter of the king. The names of supernatural beings such as ogres or witches are drawn from the most ancient pagan background of the locality. The names of these beings are not classified with any precision, not only because of the diversity of the dialects—for example, in Piedmont the masca (witch) is the mamma-draga (mother dragon) in Sicily, and in Romagna the om salbadgh (wild man) is the nanni-orcu (orca) in Puglia—but also because of the confusion that arises within the confines of a dialect; for example, in Tuscany mago (sorcerer) and drago (dragon) are often confused and used interchangeably.

  Nevertheless, the medieval stamp on the popular tale remains strong and enduring. These stories abound in tournaments to win the hands of princesses, with knightly feats, with devils, and with distortions of hallowed traditions. Therefore, one must examine as a prime occurrence in the historical life of the fable that moment of osmosis between folktale and the epic of chivalry, the probable source of which was Gothic France, whence its influence spread into Italy via the popular epic. That substratum of pagan and animistic culture which at the time of Apuleius had taken on the trappings and names of classical mythology, subsequently fell under the influence of the feudal and chivalrous imagination, of the institutions, ethics, and religious beliefs of the Middle Ages.

  At a certain point this amalgam blends with yet another, a wave of images and transfigurations of oriental origin which had spread from the south when contacts with and threats from the Saracens and Turks were at their height. In the numerous sea stories I have included, the reader will see how the notion of the world divided between Christian and Muslim takes the place of the arbitrary geography of the folktale. The folktale clothes its motifs in the habits of diverse societies. In the West the imprint of feudalism prevailed (notwithstanding certain nineteenth-century touches in the south such as an English lord) while in the Orient the bourgeois folktale of the fortunes of Aladdin or of Ali Baba dominated.

  One of the few folktales, perhaps—according to Stith Thompson the only one—that can be considered of “probable Italian origin,” is that of the love of three oranges (as in Gozzi) or of the three lemons (as in Basile) or of the three pomegranates (as in the version I chose). The tale abounds in metamorphoses in baroque (or Persian?) taste altogether worthy of Basile’s inventive powers or of those of a visionary weaver of rugs. It consists of a series of metaphors strung into a story—ricotta and blood, fruit and girl; a Saracen woman who looks at her image in a well, a girl in a tree who turns into a dove, the dove’s drops of blood from which a tree suddenly grows and, completing the circle, the fruit out of which the girl emerges. I should like to have given this folktale greater prominence but having examined numerous popular versions I did not find one that could be considered the frame story. I have included two versions, one (no. 107) integrated with some others is from Abruzzi and represents the most classic form of the tale, the other (no. 8) is a curious variation from Liguria. However, I must say in this instance, Basile is unrivaled and I refer the reader to his tale, the last in the Pentamerone.

  In this very mysterious story of transformations, with its precise rhythm, its joyous logic at work, I think I perceive a characteristic of the popular elaboration of the Italian folktale. There is a genuine feeling for beauty in the communions or metamorphoses of woman and fruit, of woman and plant in the two beautiful companion pieces of the Ragazza mela (“Apple Girl”) from Florence (no. 85) and the Rosmarina (“Rosemary”) from Palermo (no. 161). The secret lies in the metaphorical link: the image of the freshness of the apple and of the girl or of the pears beneath which the girl is hidden in order to increase the weight of the basket (no. 11) in the story “The Little Girl Sold with the Pears.”

  The natural cruelties of the folktale give way to the rules of harmony. The continuous flow of blood that characterizes the Grimms’ brutal tales is absent. The Italian folktale seldom displays unbearable ferocity. Although the notion of cruelty persists along with an injustice bordering on inhumanity as part of the constant stuff of stories, although the woods forever echo with the weeping of maidens or of forsaken brides with severed hands, gory ferocity is never gratuitous; the narrative does not dwell on the torment of the victim, not even under
pretense of pity, but moves swiftly to a healing solution, a part of which is a quick and pitiless punishment of the malefactor—or more often the malefactress—to be tarred and burned in the grim tradition of witches’ pyres, or, as in Sicily, being thrown from a window and then burned.

  A continuous quiver of love runs through Italian folklore. In speaking of the Sicilian tales, I mentioned the popularity of the Cupid and Psyche type found not only in Sicily but also in Tuscany and more or less everywhere. The supernatural bridegroom is joined in an underground dwelling. Neither his name nor his secret must be divulged lest he vanish. A lover is produced by sorcery from a basin of milk; a bird in flight is wounded by an envious rival who puts ground glass in a basin or tacks on a window ledge where the bird will alight. There is the serpent- or swine-king who at night turns into a handsome youth for the bride who respects him, while the wax of the candle lighted by curiosity thrusts him back under the evil spell. In the story of Bellinda and the monster a curious sentimental relationship develops between them. In those cases where the suffering partner is the man, it is the bewitched bride who comes silently at night to join him in the deserted palace; it is the fairy love of Liombruno who must remain a secret, it is the girl-dove who recovers her wings and flies. These stories differ but they tell of a precarious love that unites two incompatible worlds, and of a love tested by absence; stories of unknowable lovers who unite only in the moment in which they are lost to one another.

  Fairy tales are rarely structured along the simple and basic lines we associate with a love story in which the characters fall in love and encounter obstacles to their marriage. This theme is developed only occasionally in some melancholy tales from Sardinia, a land where girls used to be courted from their windows. The countless tales of the conquest or liberation of a princess always deal with someone never seen, a victim to be released by a test of valor, or a stake to be won in a joust to fulfill a destiny, or else someone falls in love with a portrait or the sound of a name or envisages the beloved in a drop of blood on a white portion of ricotta. These are abstract or symbolic romantic attachments that savor of witchcraft or of malediction. However, the most positive and deeply felt loves in folklore are not these, but rather those in which the beloved is first possessed and then conquered.

 
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