Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino


  II. “The Hare Liver” (La coratella di lepre) from Zorzùt, p. 105, Cormons, told in 1913 by Giovanni Minèn.

  III. “Hospitality” (L’ospitalità) from Gortani, p. 12, Camia.

  IV. “Buckwheat” (Il grano saraceno) from Percoto (in La Ricamatrice, Milan, 1 September 1865, p. 223), Friuli.

  One of the popular legends included among the writings in Friulian dialect of the “peasant countess” Caterina Percoto (1812–87), lady of letters, patriot, and outstanding woman of her time.

  [>]. “The Magic Ring” (L’anello magico) from Schneller, 44, Trentino.

  Many traditional motifs (of Asiatic origin) are interwoven here, giving an impression of improvisation, with intervals of moralizing, as if to make up for the uneven pace.

  [>]. “The Dead Man’s Arm” (Il braccio di morto) from Schneller 35, Trentino.

  Macabre mountain story with a wealth of gothic details, to which I naturally made my own contribution.

  [>]. “The Science of Laziness” (La scienza della fiacca) from Pinguentini, 30, Trieste.

  A Triestine proverbial joke, linked to the ancient theme of striving to excel in laziness and to the traditional satire of the lax morals of the Levant. A whole landscape is conjured up by just a few touches—the garden shaded by the fig trees, the cushions, the immobility of the men.

  [>]. “Fair Brow” (Bella Fronte) from Ive, 3, Rovigno d’Istria.

  The grateful dead man is a motif of diverse medieval legends, including L’HÃ-stoire de ]ean de Calais, which has come into the narrative tradition of our seacoast regions, drawing inspiration from misfortunes endured at the hands of the Turks, an inevitable element in Italian sea stories.

  [>]. “The Stolen Crown” (La corona rubata) from Forster, 10, Zara.

  This tale is full of old motifs pieced together, as if told by someone narrating without remembering the story exactly. But at the same time it never flags in imagination, which makes it a pleasure both to read and to transcribe. Though I added a touch here and there, I have preserved the tale’s carefree incoherence.

  [>]. “The King’s Daughter Who Could Never Get Enough Figs” (La figlia del Re che non era mai stufa di fichi) from Bagli, 5, Castelguelfo, Emilia.

  I found examples of strange contests to win the princess’s hand (such as the pasturing of hares) also in Tuscany and in Lombardy. They appear, moreover, in the folktales of all of Europe (see, for instance, Grimm, no. 165).

  [>]. “The Three Dogs” (I tre cani) from Bagli, p. 40, Imola, Emilia, told by Teresa Ronchi.

  Specialists have devoted extensive studies to this folktale, as well as to a related one about the two brothers (see my no. 58, “The Dragon with Seven Heads”). Ranke found 368 versions in all Europe, 14 of them in Italy. Its origins may well be anterior to the “two brothers” type, and its primary center of diffusion was France. I reduced to a minimum the episode of the liberation of the princess from the dragon, as it is fully related in “The Dragon with Seven Heads.” The ending with the transformation of the dogs into kings is taken from a Tuscan version (Pitrè, T. 2), Siena, told by Umiltà Minucci, dressmaker. There are other versions in Northern, Central, and Southern Italy and in Sardinia.

  [>]. “Uncle Wolf’ (Zio Lupo) from Toschi, Faenza, Emilia.

  Uncle Wolf, Barbe Lof, Barbe Zucon, Nonno Cocon: it is the simplest folktale for children in the popular tradition, widespread in Northern and Central Italy, with its rudimentary elements of gluttony and excrement and with its progression of fear. This extremely simple type—and I followed one of the richest versions—will lead to the perfect grace of “Little Red Riding Hood.”

  [>]. “Giricoccola” from Coronedi, S. 2, Bologna.

  The moon’s journey across the sky gives this Bolognese Cinderella or Snow White a melancholy refinement all her own.

  [>]. “Tabagnino the Hunchback” (Il gobbo Tabagnino) from Coronedi, S. 38, Bologna.

  Common to all of Italy (as to all of Europe, especially the North), this folktale about the successive ruses in the ogre’s house was told by Basile as

  Il corvetto (“The Jackdaw”) in The Pentameron (III, 7). But Basile’s version does not fully reflect the richness and cleverness of popular tradition, which gives free rein to its fantasy for the meeting of the tests.

  [>]. “The King of the Animals” (Il Re degli animali) from Coronedi, S. 26, Bologna.

  Among the many folktales about the enchanted palace, this one differs from the others with its strange oriental atmosphere (teeming with animals and mysterious as a tapestry). It is also rather incoherent, almost like a vernacular Alice in Wonderland, candid and full of amazement. I threw a little light on the maid of honor, who, in the original, remains in the shadows. And I let the ring, moreover, be a gift from the good aunt rather than from the king of the animals as it is in the original version.

  [>]. “The Devil’s Breeches” (Le brache del Diavolo) from Coronedi, S. 28, Bologna.

  This is a tale about a bargain with the Devil, but differing from other tales of the same type. Curious details of the present Bolognese version: the protagonist oppressed by his good looks, dodging employers’ wives who are in love with him and thus keep him from working for anyone in the long run; the revolting description of filth, in contrast with the bridal trousseau (the trousseau is an elementary fairytale motif, quite appropriate when—as in this case, I believe—the narrator is a woman). I presented evidence not in the original of the sisters’ actually offering their souls to the devil; otherwise damnation for a simple envious impulse would have been too severe a punishment, with all the cruelty that customarily results from envy in folktales.

  [>]. “Dear as Salt” (Bene come il sale) from Coronedi, 3, Bologna.

  This tale opens, exactly like King Lear, with a “test of love” imposed by a king on his three daughters. But similarities to Shakespeare’s masterpiece stop right there. The rest of it, in general, is related to Perrault’s Peau d’asne, in which the daughter flees from home to avoid her father’s unnatural passion for her. I picked, among versions all over Italy, this brisk and elegant Bolognese variant because of the particular logic of the girl’s repartee—“You were as dear as salt to me.” As Pitrè has noted, “in the Bolognese dialect, amour means not only ‘love but also ‘savor.’” I took the beginning with three different-colored thrones from a Cinderella of Parma.

  [>]. “The Queen of the Three Mountains of Gold” (La Regina delle Tre Montagne d’Oro) from Coronedi, S. 31, Bologna.

  Among the folktales (very widespread in Italy) of the enchanted castle, the beautiful maiden to be freed, her disappearance and the subsequent search for her, this type is distinguished by the motif of the pond from which the girl is liberated by degrees and by the carrousels of animals.

  [>]. “Lose Your Temper, and You Lose Your Bet” (La scommessa a chi primo’s’arrabia) from Coronedi, 18, Bologna.

  Be patient, never get angry; the old rule preached by the rich to the poor backfires in the face of the man who wishes to take advantage of it, in this ancient motif of the bet which takes shape here in a jovial country tale.

  [>]. “The Feathered Ogre” (L’orco con le penne) from Pitrè, T. 24, Garfagnana Estense, Tuscany, told by Rosina Casini.

  Just as there are tales of distrust, so are there tales of generosity, almost independently of the event narrated, thanks to the rhythm imparted by the narrator. This curious and lively Tuscan tale is the triumph of the obliging man who knows that helping others is a small matter and need not originate above. The title “Feathered Ogre” is my own invention; the original speaks of a vague “beast” (whose traits are nonetheless the ogre’s). Also the ending with the retention of the ogre on the ferry is mine, but it does not strike me as arbitrary, since the same thing happens in the Grimms’ tale no. 29.

  [>]. “The Dragon with Seven Heads (Il Drago dalle sette teste) from Nerucci, 8, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the girl Elena Becherini.

  One of the most widespread folktales in Europe and i
n Italy, and the object perhaps of the most detailed folkloristic studies. Ranke records 800 versions of it, including 27 Italian ones (in addition to the 1,100 versions of the similar “Three Dogs”; see my no. 48). In its most complete form (aside from the derivations of the simple motifs such as the liberation of the princess from the monster, which has flourished ever since the myth of Perseus and Andromeda, down to the medieval legend of St. George and the Dragon), it appears to be of European origin; Northern France, according to Ranke, would be its principal center of radiation at the outset of the Middle Ages. The Italian versions are quite rich and harmonious (better, I would say, than Grimm nos. 60 and 85). With this Tuscan version I consolidated details from others.

  [>]. “Bellinda and the Monster” (Bellinda e il Mostro) from Nerucci, 16, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the widow Luisa Ginanni.

  To produce the richest version possible of this very famous folktale common to all Italian regions, I combined this Tuscan version with one similar in Roman dialect (Zanazzo, 27) and I added a motif from an Abruzzese version—the tree of sorrow and laughter (from De Nino, 29).

  [>]. “The Shepherd at Court” (Il pecoraio a Corte) from Nerucci, 7, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the girl Elena Becherini.

  The tale of magic turns into a story of cunning with a certain raciness and also includes a fearful note, such as the encounter with the stranger whose bed is the rock, and a touch of grotesque humor with the dance the shepherd compels the entire court to dance. Nerucci’s text is, as always, the most verbose; I toned it down and added only a few particulars, dramatizing the boy’s bad manners at court and the spell of the dance; I also had the bean soup overturned on the prison floor. Variants of the tale are found throughout Italy.

  [>]. “The Sleeping Queen” (La Regina Marmotta) from Nerucci, 46, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by Pietro di Canestrino, laborer.

  Concerning the narrative style of this folktale, see Introduction, p. xxiv.

  [>]. “The Son of the Merchant from Milan” (Il figlio del mercante di Milano) from Nerucci, 19, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by Ferdinando Giovannini, tailor.

  In the Introduction (p. xxv), I took this tale as an example of how, in Nerucci’s book, one moves from the folktale to the short story of fortune or the bourgeois novel of adventure. Note that this is one of the rare folktales with an unhappy ending, which brings it right into line with many modern narratives. (One must remember, however, that when desires are satisfied in folktales, the tales as a rule close with the loss of riches gained through magic.) The riddle motif is common to tales of all regions.

  [>]. “Monkey Palace” (Il palazzo delle scimmie) from Nerucci, 10, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the tailor Ferdinando Giovannini.

  The episode, quite common in folklore, of the prince who weds an animal is carried to the extreme here, with an entire population changed into monkeys and a display of grotesque effects typical of a grand ballet. I have accented this display by describing the monkeys in the city and their transformation.

  [>]. “Rosina in the Oven” (La Rosina nel forno) from Nerucci, 32, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the widow Luisa Ginanni.

  In the country tales the beauty of girls is described as radiantly white. This Cinderella, thanks to the spell cast over her by toads, shines in the night; a ray of sunshine destroys her; she will come back to life in the fire.

  [>]. “The Salamanna Grapes” (L’uva salamanna) from Nerucci, 40, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the widow Luisa Ginanni.

  One of the richest tales of The Arabian Nights of Galland (“Histoire du Prince Ahmed et de la fée Pari-Banou”), full of descriptions of marvels and treasures, in a bare Tuscan version. The sequel, or the story of the fairy Pari-Banou, lengthy and rich in Galland, is reduced in Nerucci’s version to an unnecessary appendix; I thus chose to conclude the tale with general disappointment, a type of close traditionally common to some popular stories about contests.

  [>]. “The Enchanted Palace” (Il palazzo incantato) from Nerucci, 59, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the farmer Giovanni Becheroni.

  One of the finest folktales about the enchanted palace, which can be classed as a variant of the Amor and Psyche type, with the invisible wife lost and regained by the husband, rather than the reverse. The charm of this Tuscan version derives from the person of the solitary prince absorbed in his books; I have aimed to accent his character by making him inept at hunting, with his pursuit of the hare leading him to the palace (here I followed a Piedmontese version—Comparetti, 27; in Nerucci, the guardian of the palace is an ill-defined “monster”). The plot is often incoherent, as in the case of the hermit’s strange behavior. Nerucci fails to account for the innkeeper’s sly drugging of the wine; I justified the act, following the version from Monferrato, by the daughter’s claim to Fiordinando’s love.

  [>]. “Buffalo Head” (Testa di Bufala) from Nerucci, 37, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the widow Luisa Ginanni.

  One of the most suggestive and mysterious folktales in Italy. Different details appear in its different versions, but the plot is substantially the same, from Venice to Sardinia. The supernatural creature that rears the protagonist can be a lizard, snake, or dragon in the service of fairies, a monster, an ogre or ogress, an old woman, a woman with a bull’s head, or someone invisible except for his hands (as in the most rational and civilized version—Bernoni’s, source of my no. 35). The offense responsible for the transformation of the girl’s face is usually ingratitude, her failure to say thank you when she goes away; sometimes it is leaving an object behind. Usually ingratitude and oversight go hand in hand; rarely is the offense curiosity (the customary forbidden door). The supernatural being always takes revenge by transforming the protagonist’s face into the head of some animal (buffalo, goat, cat, or donkey); or else a beard grows out of her face, or a sheep’s fleece on her neck; or she may simply become ugly, or even end up with no head at all.

  [>]. “The King of Portugal’s Son” (Il figliolo del Re di Portogallo) from Nerucci, 25, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the farmer Giovanni Becheroni.

  Part-folktale and part-romance, and in the end like a piece of news told at fairs, it most likely comes from an old popular poem, Istoria di Ottinello e Giulia.

  [>]. “Fanta-Ghirò the Beautiful” (Fanta-Ghirò, persona bella) from Nerucci, 28, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the widow Luisa Ginanni.

  In Basile’s Pentameron (III, 6), a father feels disgraced to have only daughters and no sons, which inspires Belluccia to pretend to be a man. This theme is better developed in the popular tradition, particularly in Tuscany and in Southern Italy. The humor of the present brisk and precise Tuscan version stems altogether from an affirmation of feminine pluck and resolution—the attitude that always determines the ups and downs of women in men’s garb so common in the stories and comedies of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

  [>]. “The Old Woman’s Hide” (Pelle di vecchia) from Nerucci, 13, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the widow Luisa Ginanni.

  The image of the beautiful girl who steps out of the old woman’s skin (well portrayed in Grimm no. 179) lends charm to this tale, which is one of many variants of the “dear as salt” type, like my no. 54. This Tuscan version in the original begins in a similar way, so for the sake of variety, I took the beginning of an Abruzzese version (Finamore, 26).

  [>]. “Olive” (Uliva) from Nerucci, 39, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the widow Luisa Ginanni.

  The name Olive is encountered in a mystery play (Rappresentazione di Santa Uliva) and in a popular poem (Istoria de la Regina Oliva). Both tell of a woman with mutilated hands and cursed with the crudest of vexations. Those motifs are also common to the present Tuscan tale, where cruelty and religious intolerance (manifested in the inhuman Jew) and a fundamentally cheerful nature (dramatized by the girl eating the pears) are calmly and strikingly blended as in Paolo Uccello’s predella at Urbino. The story of the persecuted girl with her hands loppe
d off is common to quite a few versions all over Europe (cf. Grimm no. 31) and Asia (The Arabian Nights) and is also found in every region of Italy. According to Pitrè, it “figures in popular narratives blending sacred and profane elements and giving rise to Genoveffa, Orlanda, Florencia, Saint Guglielma, to the daughter of the king of Dacia, the queen of Poland, Crescenzia, and Saint Olive.”

  [>]. “Catherine, Sly Country Lass” (La contadina furba) from Nerucci, 3 and 15, Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by the widow Luisa Ginanni and the tailor Ferdinando Giovannini.

  The tale of a country lass’s feats of cunning is common to all of Europe (the oldest written version seems to be a Norwegian saga of the thirteenth or fourteenth century), interspersed with oriental motifs. A few of the witticisms (such as “neither naked nor clothed”) also appear in the popular Italian book of the seventeenth century, Bertoldo, Bertoldino e Cacasenno.

  [>]. “The Traveler from Turin” (Il viaggiatore torinese) from Nerucci, 48 Montale Pistoiese, Tuscany, told by Benvenuto Ginanni, decorator.

  A country Robinson Crusoe. Not only is the tale in its general plan like Defoe’s novel, it also presents all the marginal similarities such as the father’s opposition to the son’s seafaring vocation, the shipwrecked man’s industry, reflections on the vanity of wealth for the single man. But the source of the story is to be found in that great store of seafaring tales, “The Voyages of Sinbad” (The Arabian Nights), particularly the fourth voyage, which the Tuscan tale faithfully repeats, tacking on the sentimental story of the be loved who also ends up in the cavern. (In the Arabian narrative, Sinbad kills all his companions, so as to survive on their victuals.) The oriental motif of the husband buried with the dead wife also comes up, with various justifications, in other popular Italian narratives (see my no. 179, Sicily, and no. 197, Sardinia). About the mysterious bull, The Arabian Nights is very vague, speaking only of an animal that feeds on cadavers. The gratuitous naming of places includes the landlocked city of Turin as the birthplace of the seafarer.

 
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