Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  [>]. “The Snake” (La Biscia) from Comparetti, 25, Monferrato, Piedmont.

  The luxuriant story from The Facetious Nights (III, 3) about Biancabella and the serpent, one of Straparola’s finest, is here told, on the contrary, in bare rustic simplicity, in the midst of meadows ready for mowing, fruits, and seasons. The episode of the pomegranate tree with its fruit that cannot be plucked was added by me to fill out a somewhat sketchy passage in the Piedmontese version. I took it from a Tuscan variant (Gradi), based on motifs from this tale and others, where supernatural help comes from a red and gold fish.

  [>]. “The Three Castles” (I tre castelli) from Comparetti, 62 and 22, Monferrato, Piedmont.

  These two Piedmontese tales are variants of a single type. I took the beginning from one and concluded with the other. Nothing was added; I merely underlined a few elements already in the text (such as the tax collector) and the rhythm.

  [>]. “The Prince Who Married a Frog” (Il principe che sposò una rana) from Comparetti, 4, Monferrato, Piedmont.

  The tale of the frog bride is common to all of Europe; scholars have counted 300 versions. Comparing it, for instance, with Grimm, no. 63, or with Afanas’ev’s “The Frog Prince,” this variant which we can classify as distinctly Italian (since it shows up uniformly throughout the Peninsula, even if slinging to locate the bride is rather rare) stands out in its near-geometrical logic and linearity.

  [>]. “The Parrot” (Il pappagallo) from Comparetti, 2, Monferrato, Piedmont. See my remarks on this folktale in the Introduction, p. xxx-xxxi. I have taken the liberty of doctoring the two versions published by Comparetti—the Piedmontese one and a Tuscan one, from Pisa (1)—and I heightened the suspense by placing the interruptions at the crucial moments.

  [>]. “The Twelve Oxen” (I dodici buoi) from Comparetti, 47, Monferrato, Piedmont.

  The folktales about the sister who rescues her brother or brothers changed into animals can be divided into two groups: the one where the seven sons are under a curse (as in Basile, IV, 8, or in Grimm, 9 and 25), and the other where the sole brother is transformed into a lamb (as in Grimm, 11, or in my no. 178). The brothers are most commonly transformed into birds (swans, ravens, doves), and the first literary manifestation of the motif dates back to the twelfth century; the latest is possibly Andersen’s “Wild Swans.”

  [>]. “Crack and Crook” (Cric e Croc) from Comparetti, 13, Monferrato, Piedmont.

  This is one of the oldest and most famous tales, which has occupied the attention of scholars for generations. The Piedmontese version I followed is faithful to the oldest tradition and includes the curious character-names and a brisk dose of rustic cunning. Herodotus (Histories) tells in detail about Egyptian King Rhampsinitus’s treasure, chief source of the vast narrative tradition concerning wily robbers put to the test by a ruler. The beheading of a cadaver so it will not be recognized is also encountered in Pausanias, who presents the myth of Trophonius and Agamedes (Description of Greece, IX, 372). Either through the Greeks or through oriental tradition the tale entered medieval literature, in the various translations of the Book of the Seven Sages and other Italian, English, and German texts. Literary versions by Italian Renaissance story writers are numerous.

  [>]. “The Canary Prince” (Il Principe canarino) from Rua (in Archivio per lo studio delle tradizioni popolari, Palermo-Turin, VI [1887], 401), Turin.

  This folktale from Turin, with its balladlike pathos, develops a medieval motif, which is also literary. (But Marie de France’s lai, Yonec, is quite different, being the story of an adultery.) My personal touches here include the prince’s yellow suit and leggings, the description of the transformation in a flutter of wings, the gossip of the witches who traveled the world over, and a bit of stylistic cunning.

  [>]. “King Crin” (Re Crin) from Pitrè (in Archivio per lo studio delle tradizioni popolari, I [1882], 424), Monteu da Po, Piedmont.

  Of illustrious origin (since it is certainly related—at least in the motif of the bridegroom who cannot be seen in his true form—to the myth of Amor and Psyche), the folktale about the swine king is one of the most widespread in Italy. This Piedmontese version has a beginning full of brio. The development repeats—with the walnuts to be cracked, spying on the sleeper, etc.—a motif also common to other types and of which my no. 140 presents a richer version.

  [>]. “Those Stubborn Souls, the Biellese” (I biellesi, gente dura) from Virginia Majoli Faccio (L’incantesimo della mezzanotte [Il Biellese nelle sue leggende], Milan, 1941), Valdengo, Piedmont.

  This tale is also found in Trieste, starring the Friulians (Pinguenti, 51).

  [>]. “The Pot of Marjoram” (Il vaso di maggiorana) from Imbriani, p. 42, Milan.

  Gallant banter in verse sustains this thin narrative, the plot of which is known throughout Europe and already in germ in Basile’s Viola (II, 3) together with other motifs. The verse, which I have handled quite freely, varies from region to region, but always follows the same repertory of jokes.

  [>]. “The Billiards Player” (Il giocatore di biliardo) from Imbriani, p. 411, Milan.

  The only original part is the beginning, which attests the tale’s urban origin—the young man who spends all his time in cafes, the unknown gentleman challenged to a game of billiards—then the action moves onto the supernatural plane. But perhaps under the impetus of that particular opening, the ancient motif of girls in their bath (the dove girls) is charged with a touch of idle urban fantasy. The aborted ending is my own.

  [>]. “Animal Speech” (Il linguaggio degli animali) from Visentini, 23, Mantua, Lombardy.

  The man who understands animal speech will be pope: it is an old European superstition, related also by the Grimms (no. 33) with a medieval flavor of its own and smacking of half-satanical theology and the wisdom of the “bestiaries.” The revelation through the horses’ neighing of the father’s cruel order and the dog’s sacrifice of himself for his master are my own developments of the theme.

  [>]. “The Three Cottages” (Le tre casette) from Visentini, 31, Mantua, Lombardy.

  This is the famous tale of the three little pigs, which has a new twist in its Mantuan version with three little sisters instead of three animals that build houses. But it retains the humorous and scary elements characteristic of the well-known Walt Disney creation. The three little pigs in Italy are often three geese (see my no. 94).

  [>]. “The Peasant Astrologer” (Il contadino astrologo) from Visentini, 41, Mantua, Lombardy.

  Here we have the age-old farce about peasant cunning, with the country detective, astrology turned to ridicule (which is rare in folklore), and a slight grudge on the part of people who labor in the fields toward the house servants, a grudge that gives way at once to complicity.

  [>]. “The Wolf and the Three Girls” (Il lupo e le tre ragazze) from Balladoro (in Giambattista Basile, Naples, IX [1905], no. 6), Pacengo, Lake Garda.

  “Little Red Riding Hood” cannot be called popular in Italy. It must have reached Lake Garda from Germany (its close is more like the Grimms’ version than Perrault’s), but with the variant of three girls. The nonsense rhymes in the dialogue with the wolf are a whim of my own in keeping with the reply at the outset of the original. What I called cakes are, in the original, spongade—a type of rolls with raisins. I also omitted an episode that would have been too gruesome in this meager text: the wolf kills the mother and makes a doorlatch cord out of her tendons, a meat pie out of her flesh, and wine out of her blood. The little girl, pulling on the doorlatch, says, “What a soft cord you’ve put here, Mamma!” Then she eats the meat pie and drinks the wine, with comments in the same vein.

  According to scholars, “Little Red Riding Hood” has never been a “popular” tale in Italy or elsewhere, because its reputation is not based on an oral tradition but on Perrault’s vivid “Petit Chaperon Rouge” with its ballet rhythm, or on the Grimms’ cruder version. The Italian counterparts (all northern) closely follow the literary tradition. More interesting is the versio
n from Abruzzo (see my no. 116), which combines different motifs but retains the famous dialogue between the little girl and the wolf in bed.

  [>]. “The Land Where One Never Dies” (Il paese dove non si muore mai) from Balladoro (in Lares, I [1912] fasc. 2–3, pp. 223–26), Verona.

  Among the many tales or legends of temporary victory over death, this folktale is outstanding for its particular gothic flavor provided by those old people and their punishments, bones lying on the ground, and the cart loaded with worn-out shoes. Distinctive also are the landscapes transformed in the course of time and the estrangement of the man who comes back to town several generations later. All I added here was the length of the old men’s beards.

  [>]. “The Devotee of St. Joseph” (Il devoto di San Giuseppe) from Balladoro, 42, Verona.

  This folktale shows an almost Voltairean impudence, but that should not mislead one regarding the legend’s origins and significance. At its heart is a theological issue and, as such, it is well known all over Italy and in other Catholic countries. Alexandre Dumas père in two of his books of Neapolitan recollections, Le Corricolo and L’Histoire des Bourbons de Naples, relates it as told in the pulpit by a famous preacher as evidence of the supremacy of the cult of St. Joseph among Neapolitan mendicants; the sinful devotee was the famous bandit Mastrilli. A study on the subject (Guido Tammi, Il devoto di San Giuseppe netta leggenda popolare, Rome: Edizioni dell’Ateneo, 1955), continuing Pitrè’s research and comparing various popular versions, maintains that the legend, reminiscent in structure of medieval “Arguments” between Divine Justice and the Virgin interceding for sinners, is crystallized in this form at the time of the Counterreformation under the impetus of the church’s emphasis on devotion to St. Joseph. A certain Father Giovanni Crisostomo of Termini told the tale in a Palermo pulpit in 1775 and was denounced and seized by the Inquisition.

  [>]. “The Three Crones” (Le tre vecchie) from Bemoni, 16, Venice.

  In this particular Venetian version, the crone takes a wad of aromatic jam into her mouth and spits it on the hand of the passing youth. Instead, I have her drop her handkerchief.

  [>]. “The Crab Prince” (Il principe granchio) from Bernoni, III, 10, Venice.

  A rather rare tale, in an original version, entirely aquatic with its intricate underwater labyrinth, its courageous heroine who swims, and the little ballet on cliffs with the eight maids of honor. My personal touches here are limited to the following: I bring out the princess’s absorption in the customs of fish; I focus on the underwater routes that are a bit hazy in the original; and I add a choreographic note to the scene with the ladies on the rocks.

  [>]. “Silent for Seven Years” (Muta per sette anni) from Bernoni, III, 12, Venice.

  A motif widespread in Europe, yet rare in Italy—heroic persistence in pretending to be mute in order to save one’s brothers—gives singular narrative power to this folktale including family and childhood fictional elements, as well as aspects of demonic legends and tales of adventure. The tale also contains the well-known medieval theme of the persecuted wife, enhanced here by the victim’s silence.

  [>]. “The Dead Man’s Palace” (Il palazzo dell’Omo morto) from Bernoni, III, 13, Venice.

  This tale is identical to the beautiful story that opens the Pentameron. Basile’s narrator need only say “canal” in place of “street,” and the melancholy of the tale would have a well-nigh natural setting in Venice, while the Dead Man’s palace becomes one of those decaying palaces on the lagoon, with the Moorish slave evoking booty from the Levant. The tale closes on an unusual note of melancholy.

  [>]. “Pome and Peel” (Porno e Scorzo) from Bernoni, III, 2, Venice.

  Moments of grand tragic theater are presented in the story (most likely of Indian origin) of the brother turned to stone in Basile’s Cuorvo (IV, 9). Gozzi uses its subject for his finest play, Il Corvo (The Raven). More moving is the Grimms’ “Faithful John” (no. 6). Peel (Scorzo or Bella Scorza), brother-servant, is in the popular versions that open with the queen and her handmaiden simultaneously conceiving as they respectively eat an apple and its peel.

  [>]. “The Cloven Youth” (Il dimezzato) from Bernoni, III, 9, Venice.

  The story of Pietro Pazzo (Peter the Mad), who can realize every desire through the power transmitted to him by a fish and even impregnate the princess that laughed at him, was told in a lively manner by Straparola (III, 1), and scholars tend to consider it of Italian origin. Similar to it is Basile’s story about Peruonto (I, 3), who receives magic powers because of shading three sons of a fairy as they slept. Peculiar to this Venetian version is the halved hero in place of the usual simpleton.

  [>]. “Invisible Grandfather” (Il nonno che non si vede) from Bernoni, III, 14, Venice.

  The punishment of the girl, in the Venetian version, is the transformation of her head into a goat’s, with the ears of a hare. But since that makes the tale too much like another one I have transcribed (no. 67, “Buffalo Head”), I substituted for those metamorphoses the appearance of a beard on her as in other variants (Tuscany, Comparetti, 3, and Abruzzo, Finamore, x). The Tuscan “Buffalo Head” and the many other versions of that type are among the most mysterious and “ethnological” Italian folktales. But the Venetian variant has a distinct logic all its own. Thus the girl’s punishment for leaving something behind is accounted for: her oversight has prevented the breaking of an evil spell.

  [>]. “The King of Denmark’s Son” (Il figlio del Re di Danimarca) from Sabatini (El fio del re de la Danimarca, popular Venetian tale edited by Francesco Sabatini, in Gli Studi in Italia, Rome, III [1880}, vol. II, fase. 2), Venice.

  Goodness knows how this folktale, woven entirely of traditional motifs, got the title, “King of Denmark’s Son.” Perhaps it is from some theatrical memory associated with an atmosphere of vague melancholy.

  [>]. “Petie Pete versus Witch Bea-Witch” (Il bambino nel sacco) from Gortani, p. 118, Cedarchis, Friuli.

  Regarding characteristics of tales for children, see my remarks in the Introduction (p. xxx). I have attempted to give a typical example here, taking all the liberties to which the rudimentary quality of the original texts entitled me. I chose the names “Pierino Pierone” (Petie Pete) and “Strega Bistrega” (Witch Bea-Witch) while “Margherita Margheritone” comes from the Friulian verses. Throughout, I have put key nonsense rhymes into the mouth of all the characters. Other touches of mine include the quail’s call and the hunter (in the original, the child yells, and some boys shooting marbles come and free him) and the stepladder of pots (in the original the witch tries to climb up on the mantelpiece, using spoon, knife, and fork for a ladder). The story about the little boy in the sack is known throughout Europe, and in Northern and Central Italy.

  [>]. “Quack Quack! Stick to My Back!” (Quaquà! Attaccati là!) from Zorzut, II, p. 140, Cormons, Friuli, told in 1911 by Giovanni Minèn, 66-year-old parish organist.

  In many versions, all a bit loosely constructed, this old and mysterious tale (common to all Europe) has come down to us about the princess who does not laugh. One of the first literary treatments of it is in an English poem of the fifteenth century, “The Tale of a Basyn.” This Friulian version is not very different from the Grimms’ no. 64, but it is richer and more amusing. The protagonist here has scalp disease. Scalp disease in folktales is at times a sign of good luck, at others a sign of wickedness.

  [>]. “The Happy Man’s Shirt” (La camicia dell’uomo contento) from Zorzut, II, p. 47, Cormons, Friuli, told in 1912 by Orsola Minòn, housewife.

  A story with a famous literary source. Starring Alexander the Great, it figures in the Pseudo-Callisthenes and from there passes into medieval Latin legends and oriental narratives.

  [>]. “One Night in Paradise” (Una notte in Paradiso) from Zorbut, p. 169, Cormons, Friuli, told in 1913 by Giovanni Minèn.

  This legend incorporates the grand medieval motifs—Death, the Here after, Time. But here, the contemporary narrator brings modern times into the p
icture, with the town grown into a large city with tramways, motorcars and airplanes.

  [>]. “Jesus and St. Peter in Friuli” (Gesú e San Pietro in Friuli).

  The cycle of popular legends about Jesus and the Apostles who go about the world is common throughout Italy, and almost always these short narratives pivot around St. Peter, with whom the people are on very familiar terms. Popular tradition makes of Peter a lazy man, glutton, and liar, whose elementary logic is always contrary to the faith preached by the Lord, whose miracles and acts of mercy never fail to put Peter to shame. Peter, in this sort of common man’s gospel, is the human opposite of the divine, and his relationship with Jesus is somewhat like Sancho Panza’s with the hidalgo. I found the largest number of legends of this cycle in Friuli and Sicily. I have given a selection from Friuli and, further on, a selection from Sicily; but almost all of them are common to both regions as well as to Christendom on the whole, together with another large cycle of legends and tales about the Hereafter, where St. Peter officiates as doorkeeper to Heaven. What prompted me to linger over the Friulian tradition was not only the wealth of material collected (as early as the middle of the last century by Caterina Percoto, and later by Gortani and Zorzùt, who has published an ample selection of it), but also the harmonization of the tales’ episodes and religious moral with the rugged landscape which is always present or implied in the Friulian oral narrative—rough, completely concrete, devoid of all mysticism, yet not forbidding.

  I. “How St. Peter Happened to Join Up with the Lord” (Come fu che San Pietro è andato col Signore) from Zorzùt, p. 22, Cormons, told in 1909 by the widow Caterina Braida Minèn, 40-year-old housewife.

  I have tried to re-create a popular narrative pace in place of Zorzùt’s modern literary dialogue, which is too “poetic” at times.

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