Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  “And just such a sack shall you have. Now make one more wish.”

  “I desire a stick that will do whatever I command.”

  “And just such a stick shall you have,” replied the fairy, and vanished. At Francis’s feet lay a sack and a stick.

  Overjoyed, the boy decided to try them out. Being hungry, he cried, “A roasted partridge into my sack!” Zoom! A partridge fully roasted flew into the sack. “Along with bread!” Zoom! A loaf of bread came sailing into the sack. “Also a bottle of wine!” Zoom! There was the bottle of wine. Francis ate a first-rate meal.

  Then he set out again, limping no longer, and the next day he found himself in Mariana, where the most famous gamblers of Corsica and the Continent were meeting. Francis didn’t have a cent to his name, so he ordered, “One hundred thousand crowns into my sack!” and the sack filled with crowns. The news spread like wildfire through Mariana that the fabulously wealthy prince of Santo Francesco had arrived.

  At that particular time, mind you, the Devil was especially partial to the city of Mariana. Disguised as a handsome young man, he beat everybody at cards, and when the players ran out of money, he would purchase their souls. Hearing of this rich foreigner who went by the name of prince of Santo Francesco, the Devil in disguise approached him without delay. “Noble prince, pardon my boldness in coming to you, but your fame as a gambler is so great that I couldn’t resist calling on you.”

  “You put me to shame,” replied Francis. “To tell the truth, I don’t know how to play any game at all, nor have I ever had a deck of cards in my hand. However, I would be happy to play a hand with you, just for the sake of learning the game, and I’m sure that with you as a teacher I’ll be an expert in no time.”

  The Devil was so gratified by the visit that, upon taking leave and bowing goodbye, he negligently stretched out a leg and showed his cloven hoof. “Oh, me!” said Francis to himself. “So this is old Satan himself who has honored me with a visit. Very well, he will meet his match.” Once more alone, he commanded of the sack a fine dinner.

  The next day Francis went to the casino. There was a great turmoil, with all the people crowded around one particular spot. Francis pushed through and saw, on the ground, the body of a young man with a bloodstained chest. “He was a gambler,” someone explained, “who lost his entire fortune and thrust a dagger into his heart, not a minute ago.”

  All the gamblers were sad-faced. But one, noted Francis, stood in their midst laughing up his sleeve; it was the Devil who had paid Francis a visit.

  “Quick!” said the Devil, “let’s take this unfortunate man out, and get on with the game!” And they all picked up their cards once more.

  Francis, who didn’t even know how to hold the cards in his hand, lost everything he had with him that day. By the second day he knew a little bit about the game, but lost still more than the day before. By the third day he was an expert, and lost so much that everyone was sure he was ruined. But the loss did not trouble him in the least, since there was his sack he could command and then find inside all the money he needed.

  He lost so much that the Devil thought to himself, He might have been the richest man in existence to start with, but he’s surely about to end up now with nothing to his name. “Noble prince,” he said, taking him aside, “I can’t tell you how sorry I am over the misfortune that has befallen you. But I have good news for you: heed my words and you will recover half of what you lost!”


  The Devil looked around, then whispered, “Sell me your soul!”

  “Ah!” cried Francis. “So that’s your advice to me, Satan? Go on, jump into my sack!”

  The Devil smirked and aimed to flee, but there was no escape: he flew head-first into the yawning sack, which Francis closed, then addressed the stick, “Now pound him for all you’re worth!”

  Blows rained fast and furious. Inside, the Devil writhed, cried, cursed. “Let me out! Let me out! Stop, or you’ll kill me!”

  “Really? You’ll give up the ghost? Would that be a loss, do you think?” And the stick went right on beating him.

  After three hours of that shower, Francis spoke. “That will do, at least for today.”

  “What will you take in return for setting me free?” asked the Devil in a weak voice.

  “Listen carefully: if you want your freedom back, you must bring back to life at once every one of those poor souls who killed themselves in the casino because of you!”

  “It’s a bargain!” replied the Devil.

  “Come on out, then. But remember, I can catch you again any time I feel like it.”

  The Devil dared not go back on his word. He disappeared underground and, in almost no time, up came a throng of young men pale of face and with feverish eyes. “My friends,” said Francis, “you ruined yourselves gambling, and the only way out was to kill yourselves. I was able to have you brought back this time, but I might not be able to do so another time. Will you promise me to gamble no more?”

  “Yes, yes, we promise!”

  “Fine! Here are a thousand crowns for each of you. Go in peace, and earn your bread honestly.”

  Overjoyed, the revived youths departed, some returning to families in mourning, others striking out on their own, their past misdeeds having been the death of their parents.

  Francis, too, thought of his old father. He set out for his village but, along the way, met a boy wringing his hands in despair.

  “How now, young man? Do you make wry faces for sale?” asked Francis, in high spirits. “How much are they by the dozen?”

  “I don’t feel like laughing, sir,” replied the boy.

  “What’s the matter?”

  “My father’s a woodcutter and the sole support of our family. This morning he fell out of a chestnut tree and broke his arm. I ran into town for the doctor, but he knows we are poor and refused to come.”

  “Is that all that’s worrying you? Set your mind at rest. I’ll take care of things.”

  “You’re a doctor?”

  “No, but I’ll make that one come. What is his name?”

  “Doctor Pancrazio.”

  “Fine! Dr. Pancrazio, jump into my sack!”

  Into the sack, headfirst, went a doctor with all his instruments.

  “Stick, pound him for all you’re worth!” And the stick began its dance. “Help! Mercy!”

  “Do you promise to cure the woodcutter free of charge?”

  “I promise whatever you ask.”

  “Get out of the sack, then.” And the doctor ran to the woodcutter’s bedside.

  Francis continued on his way and, in a few days, came to his village, where even greater hunger now raged than before. By constantly repeating, “Into my sack a roasted chicken, a bottle of wine,” Francis managed to provision an inn where all could go and eat their fill without paying a penny.

  He did this for as long as the famine lasted. But he stopped, once times of plenty returned, so as not to encourage laziness.

  Do you think he was happy, though? Of course not! He was sad without any news of his eleven brothers. He had long since forgotten them for running off and leaving him, a helpless cripple. He tried saying, “Brother John, jump into my sack!”

  Something stirred inside the sack. Francis opened it and found a heap of bones.

  “Brother Paul, jump into my sack!”

  Another heap of bones.

  “Brother Peter, jump into my sack!” Calling them all, up to the eleventh, he found each time, alas, only a little pile of bones half gnawed in two. There was no doubt about it: his brothers had all died together.

  Francis was sad. His father also died, leaving him all alone. Then it was his turn to grow old.

  His last remaining desire before dying was to see again the fairy of Lake Creno who had made him so prosperous. He therefore set out and reached the place where he had first met her. He waited and waited, but the fairy did not come. “Where are you, good queen? Please appear one more time! I can’t die until I’
ve seen you again!”

  Night had fallen and there was still no sign of the fairy. Instead, here came Death down the road. In one hand she held a black banner and, in the other, her scythe. She approached Francis, saying, “Well, old man, are you not yet weary of life? Haven’t you been over enough hills and dales? Isn’t it time you did as everyone else and came along with me?”

  “O Death,” replied old Francis. “Bless you! Yes, I have seen enough of the world and everything in it; I have had my fill of everything. But before coming with you, I must first bid someone farewell. Allow me one more day.”

  “Say your prayers, if you don’t want to die like a heathen, and hurry after me.”

  “Please, wait until the cock crows in the morning.”


  “Just one hour more, then?”

  “Not even one minute more.”

  “Since you are so cruel, then, jump into my sack!”

  Death shuddered, all her bones rattled, but she had no choice but jump into the sack. In the same instant appeared the queen of the fairies, as radiant and youthful as the first time. “Fairy,” said Francis, “I thank you!” Then he addressed Death: “Jump out of the sack and attend to me.”

  “You have never abused the power I gave you, Francis,” said the fairy. “Your sack and your stick have always been put to good use. I shall reward you, if you tell me what you would like.”

  “I have no more desires.”

  “Would you like to be a chieftain?”


  “Would you like to be king?”

  “I wish nothing more.”

  “Now that you’re an old man, would you like health and youth again?”

  “I have seen you, and I’m content to die.”

  “Farewell, Francis. But first burn the sack and the stick.” And the fairy vanished.

  The good Francis built a big fire, warmed his frozen limbs briefly, then threw the sack and the stick into the flames, so that no one could put them to evil use.

  Death was hiding behind a bush. “Cockadoodledo! Cockadoodledo!” crowed the first cock.

  Francis did not hear. Age had made him deaf.

  “There’s the cock crowing!” announced Death, and struck the old man with her scythe. Then she vanished, bearing his mortal remains.



  English translation edited and slightly revised by Italo Calvino.

  For each tale, except the first, Calvino lists, in the following order:

  (1) the particular version followed—indicated by the original compiler’s name (see Bibliography for complete data on the compilations)

  (2) the place where the tale was collected

  (3) the narrator’s name, when known.

  1. “Dauntless Little John” (Giovannin senza paura). I begin with a folktale for which I do not indicate, in contrast to my procedure in all the other tales, the particular version I followed. As the versions of it from the various regions of Italy are all quite similar, I let myself be freely guided by common tradition. Not only for that reason have I put this tale first, but also because it is one of the simplest and, in my view, one of the most beautiful folktales.

  Italian tradition sharply diverges from the Grimms’ “Tale of a Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear” (Grimm no. 4) which is no doubt closer to my no. 80. The type of tale is of European origin and not found in Asia.

  The disappearance of the man limb by limb is not traditional, but a personal touch of my own, to balance his arrival piece by piece. I took the finishing stroke of the shadow from a Sienese version (De Gubernatis, 22), and it is merely a simplification of the more common ending, where Little John is given a salve for fastening heads back on. He cuts his head off and puts it on again—backward; the sight of his rear end so horrifies him that he drops dead.

  2. “The Man Wreathed in Seaweed” (L’uomo verde d’alghe) from Andrews, 7, Menton, told by the widow Lavigna.

  This sea tale transfers to an unusual setting a plot well known throughout Europe: that of the younger brother who goes down into the well to free the princess and is subsequently abandoned there himself (cf. my no. 78). Andrews’s collection of tales presents no more than brief summaries in French; for this tale, then, as well as the following, taken from the same compilation, I gave free rein to my imagination in supplying details, while adhering to the basic plot. I chose the name Baciccin Tribordo (Giovanni Battista Starboard) to replace the original name whose meaning is not very clear. In the original text, the princess is abducted by a dragon instead of by an octupus, and the dragon changes into a barnacle, which seemed to me too easy to catch.

  [>]. “The Ship with Three Decks” (Il bastimento a tre piani) from Andrews, 2 and 27, Menton, told by Giuanina Piombo dite La Mova, and by Angelina Moretti.

  Prosperous sea-trading, with unusual cargoes coming into ports where the merchandise is highly prized, is a metaphor of luck in the popular mind. It recurs in diverse folktales and is woven into various plots (cf. my no. 173, from Sicily). In this tale from the Italian Riviera border, the curious motifs of the ship with three decks and of the isles inhabited by animals are incorporated into the widespread type featuring the enchanted filly (in one of Andrews’s versions, advice is given by the horse) and grateful animals (cf. my nos. 24 and 79). I have freely rendered the two versions summarized in French by Andrews.

  [>]. “The Man Who Came Out Only at Night” (L’uomo che usciva solo di notte) from Andrews, 14 and 21, Menton, told by Iren Gena and Irene Panduro.

  A tale full of oddities, the most striking of which is that of women constables, given as a historical fact regarding a particular police system. In Andrews’s first variant, the bridegroom turns into a toad.

  [>]. “And Seven!” (E sette!) from Andrews, 4, 23, 47. (The first two were collected in Menton, the third near Ventimiglia.)

  Marriage anecdotes and fairy-tale initiation motifs (the secret name to remember) are blended in this old story widespread in Europe (of English, Swedish, or German origin, according to scholars), subjected to literary treatment in the seventeenth century in Naples (Basile, IV, 4) and well known throughout Italy.

  [>]. “Body-without-Soul” (Corpo-senza-Vanima) from Andrews, 46, Riviera ligure.

  This Ligurian Jack differs from fellow heroes and liberators of princesses by his systematic cautiousness bordering on distrust (he is one of the few who, the minute he receives a magic gift, must test it before he is able to believe in it). In that respect he takes after his mother, who will not let him go out into the world until he has given proof of perseverance by felling the tree with his kicks. I have been faithful to the original version while aiming to endow it with a particular rhythm.

  [>]. “Money Can Do Everything” (Il danaro fa tutto) from Andrews, 64, Genoa, told by Caterina Grande.

  This story, of oriental origin (found in the Pancbatantra), stresses in its Genoese version a utilitarian and commercial moral all its own. (The final remark of the king was even too harsh along that line, so I decided to give credit also, as is meet, to cleverness . . . . )

  [>]. “The Little Shepherd” (Il pastore che non cresceva mat) from Guarnerio (Due fole nel dialetto del contado genovese collected by P. E. Guarnerio, Genoa, 1892), Torriglia, near Genoa, told by the countrywoman Maria Banchero.

  A feature of this Genoese variant of the widespread tale of the “three oranges” includes encounters with creatures like those in the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch—tiny fairies rocking in nutshells or eggshells. We meet the same beings in another Genoese version (Andrews, 51).

  [>]. “Silver Nose” (Il naso d’argento) from Carraroli, 3, from Langhe, Piedmont.

  Bluebeard in Piedmont is Silver Nose. His victims are not wives but servant girls, and the story is not taken from chronicles about cruel feudal masters as in Perrault, but from medieval theological legends: Bluebeard is the Devil, and the room containing the murdered women is Hell. I found the silver nose only in this version translated from dial
ect and summarized by Carraroli; but the Devil-Bluebeard, the flowers in the hair, and the ruses to get back home were encountered all over Northern Italy. I integrated the rather meager Piedmont version with one from Bologna (Coronedi S. 27) and a Venetian one (Bernoni, 3).

  [>]. “The Count’s Beard” (La barba del Conte). Published here for the first time, collected by Giovanni Arpino in July 1956, in certain villages of southern Piedmont: Bra (told by Caterina Asteggiano, inmate of a home for old people, and Luigi Berzia), in Guarene (told by Doro Palladino, farmer), in Narzole (told by Annetta Taricco, servant woman), and in Pocapaglia.

  This long narrative, which writer Giovanni Arpino has transcribed and unified from different versions with variants and additions from Bra and surroundings, cannot in my view be classified as a folktale. It is a local legend of recent origin in part (I am thinking, for instance, of the geographical particulars given), that is, not prior to the nineteenth century, and containing disparate elements: explanation of a local superstitution (the hairpins of Witch Micillina), antifeudal country legend such as one finds in many northern countries, curious detective-story structure a la Sherlock Holmes, many digressions nonessential to the story (such as the trip from Africa back to town—which Arpino tells me also exists as a separate story—and all the allusions to Masino’s past and future adventures which lead to the conclusion that we are dealing with a “Masino cycle,” Masino being the wily hero and globetrotter from a country whose inhabitants are reputed to be contrastingly slow and backward), verse (of which Arpino and I have presented only as much as we could effectively translate), and grotesque images which seem rooted in tradition, such as the sacks under the hens’ tails, the oxen so thin that they were curried with the rake, the count whose beard was combed by four soldiers, etc . . . .

  [>]. “The Little Girl Sold with the Pears” (La bambina venduta con le pere) from Comparetti, 10, Monferrato, Piedmont.

  I changed the name Margheritina to Perina (Pearlet), and I invented the motif of the peartree and the little old woman (in the original, the magic props come from the king’s son, who is under a spell), to reinforce the pear/girl link.

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