Italian Folktales by Italo Calvino

  [>]. “The Daughter of the Sun” (La figlia del Sole) from Comparetti, 45, Pisa, told by an old woman of the people.

  The myth of Danae is very much alive in Italian folklore and usually serves to introduce the later vicissitudes of the daughter engendered by the Sun. The tale, I believe, can be considered truly Italian, or pretty much so; it is actually found only in Italy, Spain, and Greece, with its crude stories of magic, mutilations, and self-prepared banquets. The bean field is not in the Pisan text but another Danae tale, from Rufina (Florence), Faina (Pitrè, T. p. 9). All the magic feats are in the original, except the girl’s passing through the wall and walking on the cobweb—my own inventions.

  [>]. “The Dragon and the Enchanted Filly” (Il Drago e la cavallina fatata) from Comparetti I, 17, Pisa, told by the narrator of the preceding tale.

  Into a rather unusual plot are woven motifs of the serpent king (cf. my no. 144), Fanta-Ghirò (cf. my no. 69), and the false report of the monstrous childbirth (cf. my nos. 31, 71, 87, 141).

  [>]. “The Florentine” (Il Fiorentino) from Comparetti, 44, Pisa, same narrator as in the preceding.

  This is the story of Ulysses and Polyphemus translated into a Tuscan peasant story with farmer and priest, local satire, the misery of the Florentine who has nothing to boast of, and the petty cautionary moral of always staying close to home. I have accentuated the character satire in the way the story seems to demand; hence my inclusion of the tale’s last sentence.

  [>]. “Ill-Fated Royalty” (I Reali sfortunati) from Comparetti, 42, Pisa, same narrator as in the preceding.

  This folktale presents several unusual aspects: double plot, intertwining of the different loves and matrimonial exchanges, precision of political plot with conspiracies, coup d’etat, and well-defined international relations. In addition, there is the serious tone of a tear-jerker. All those aspects suggest that a romance could be the source of the tale. The geography, on the other hand, is imaginary, with that splendid mountain passage that leads directly into Scotland.

  [>]. “The Golden Ball” (Il gobbino che picchia) from Comparetti, 40, Pisa, same narrator as before.

  North European (see Grimm no. 91) and also Italian tradition is full of stories about the world underground, with the youngest of three brothers or comrades going below and freeing the princess and subsequently finding himself abandoned down there by his traitorous brothers. I chose this strange and carefree Pisan version, dressing it up a bit toward the end.

  [>]. “Fioravante and Beautiful Isolina” (Fioravante e la bella Isolina) from Nuti (tale in Pisan vernacular, recorded and annotated by Oreste Nuti, Milan 1878), Pisa, told by Tonchio di Pitolo, “farmer and schoolmaster.”

  In the grand line of stories about the prince disguised as a servant, who frees a princess from a spell with the help of a talking filly and three grateful animals (cf. my no. 6), this Pisan folktale is in a vernacular charged with color (which I have toned down in keeping with the book’s overall tone) and interspersed with lines from Tasso and moral explanations. It presents rare fanciful details (the two dolphins, for instance, wrangling over the tress) and an even rarer subplot about the weaver in love, the poor girl who sacrifices herself to save her beloved and consequently brings about his marriage to a princess. Are these variants “literary,” or a part of genuine popular tradition? An episode with a sad denouement is unusual indeed in folktales, even if overshadowed by the usual happy ending of the princely wedding. Also, there is a bitter resignation to class barriers, which are cynically shrugged off by the decision to provide a dowry for the unfortunate girl in love, so that she can marry someone else.

  [>]. “Fearless Simpleton” (Lo sciocco senza paura) from Pitrè, T. 39, Florence, told by Paolina Sarta, “who had heard it in Leghorn and told it in a very scatterbrained way.”

  Unlike Dauntless Little John of my no. 1, this tale’s hero, the titular protagonist of the Florentine original, takes no account of dangers or strange occurrences but is an irresponsible prattler. The notable feature of this version is the protagonist’s speech, which makes him a full character—and that is rare in oral narrative (cf. Grimm no. 4). Pitrè’s text closes with the hero’s head cut off and put on backward (see note on my no. 1) ; but since that brings an element of fantasy into an otherwise realistic narrative, I thought it best to exclude it.

  [>]. “The Milkmaid Queen” (La lattaia regina) from Pitrè, T. II, 25, Leghorn.

  The girl prisoner brought by the wind or a bird to an ogress’s house is already in Basile (IV, 6).

  [>]. “The Story of Campriano” (La storia di Campriano) from Giannini, 1, Tereglio, near Lucca, Tuscany.

  This tale has been identically preserved all over Italy and with the same title probably from the fourteenth century. A. Zenatti, publishing a verse version of 1572 (Storia del Campriano contadino, Bologna 1884) lists fourteen printed editions covering the period from 1518 down to the popular editions of his generation. One of the first editions specifies “composed for a Florentine.” Straparola relates the same jokes in the story of Pre Scarpacifico (I, 3). Every version whether literary or popular, with the exception of the present version from Lucca followed by me, contains the final episode of Campriano closed up in a bag and the trick to bag someone else. I did not reinsert it, because, with the three traders swindled, the story is already complete, and the ending—although highly traditional—strikes me as arbitrarily tacked on. The proof is that it exists also separately in literary and oral versions.

  [>]. “The North Wind’s Gift” (Il regalo del vento tramontano) from Comparetti, 7, Mugello, Tuscany.

  Known in all Europe and Asia, the folktale about magic gifts, dispensers of food and wealth successively taken from their rightful owner and later regained by means of another magic gift that delivers blows (see my no. 127), came into this Tuscan variant on a ripple of rustic rebellion—a very slight breeze, not a north wind like the one Geppone recognizes as the sole cause of his hardships and also as his only possible rescuer. Note that the prior-landlord is never explicitly condemned as the thief he is in reality; the farmers blames his misfortunes exclusively on the wind, or on his talkative wife. But submission gives way in the end to fury, in the blows that rain on the prior.

  [>]. “The Sorceress’s Head” (La testa della Maga) from Pitrè, T. 1, “told by Beppa Pierazzoli, of Pratovecchio in the upper Val d’Arno, longtime resident of Florence.”

  This is obviously derived from the myth of Perseus, of which several motifs are repeated: Danae’s isolation, which still does not prevent her from conceiving; the Medusa enterprise imposed on Perseus by King Polydectes; the power to fly (in the myth, with winged sandals); the three Gray Women, daughters of Phorcys, with only one eye and one tooth among the three of them; the silver shield that serves as a mirror for viewing Medusa; blood that changes into snakes; the freeing of Andromeda from the monster, the petrification of King Polydectes. I found no other versions of this in collections of popular tales, and that would lead to the conclusion that we are dealing here with a recent popular remolding of the classical myth.

  [>]. “Apple Girl” (La ragazza mela) from Pitrè, T. 6, Florence, told by Raffaella Dreini.

  Raffaella Dreini is the best storyteller recorded in 1876 by Giovanni Siciliano, one of Pitrè’s collaborators. As I said in the Introduction (p. xxix), the secret of the narrative lies in the metaphor—the evocation of the girl’s freshness by that of the apple. (A near-surrealistic effect is produced by blood flowing from the punctured pome.) I also touched on the matter of kings living next door to one another (Introduction, p. xxxi), with regard to how Tuscan storytellers see kings.

  [>]. “Prezzemolina” from Imbriani, 16, Florence.

  A folktale of well-known motifs resolved in a manner somewhat too simple, but told with vitality, entirely in dialogue, and with that cheerful figure of Memè, cousin of the fairies. It is one of the best-known folktales, found throughout Italy.

  [>]. “The Fine Greenbird” (L’uccel bel-verde)
from Imbriani, 6, Florence, and from other versions.

  For this tale, known all over Italy, I supplemented Imbriani’s version with details from many others, so as to come up with the richest text possible of the story. The tale is known all over Europe (see the Grimms’ sprightly no. 96) and also in western Asia (to which scholars say it spread from Europe; see the last narrative, which is quite similar to our tradition, of Galland’s Arabian Nights, “Histoire de deux sœurs jalouses de leur cadette”). The first literary version is the story of Ancillotto, king of Provino, in Straparola (IV, 3), very much like the tale as it has come down to us by word of mouth. Modeled on the story in The Facetious Nights in Madame d’Aulnoy’s “La Princesse Belle-Etoile et le Prince Chéri.” Gozzi used it for one of his most polemical theatrical fables (L’augellino Belverde), subsequently adapting it into L’amore delle tre melarance (“The Love of the Three Oranges”).

  [>]. “The King in the Basket” (Il Re nel paniere) from Imbriani, 3, Florence.

  From Basile’s Sapia Licarda (III, 4), story of the seduction of three sisters and of the wiles of the third to escape and get even with a tyrannical and rakish king, this Florentine tale retains only a childish taste for raids and acts of vandalism, with no real maliciousness. For the sake of variety, I made the wardrobe the goal of the girl’s third foray. Thus I came up with a pair of silver pumps as “convicting evidence,” rather than the pot of verdèa ( name of a plant unfamiliar even to the narrator). In the Florentine original, the name of the third sister is Leonarda, which I refined to Leonetta.

  [>]. “The One-Handed Murderer” (L’assassino senza mano) from Imbriani, 17, Florence.

  This is one of the most romantic folktales in Italy, and this particular version unfolds in an atmosphere of obsessive fear, yet with no recourse to the supernatural. The suggestive detail of the hand lopped off is not in Imbriani; I took it from a Pisan folktale (Comparetti, 1). The pistol concealed in the towel is my own invention; in Imbriani the one to fire is the husband, at last awakened, and he does so unjustifiably. The original ends with the miserly father’s repentance, which I omitted.

  [>]. “The Two Hunchbacks” (I due gobbi) from Pitrè, T. 22, Florence, told by Raffaella Dreini.

  This is one of the legends pertaining to the famous “walnut tree of Benevento” (like the tale about the two friends, one of whom blinds the other—see my no. 184), but it is of ancient European diffusion, and widespread in Italy.

  [>]. “Pete and the Ox” (Cecino e il hue) from Pitrè, T. 42, Florence.

  This tale has a style slightly different from usual (and not only this version but other Italian versions of the tale as well, and even the foreign ones—cf. Grimm, 37 and 45): it resembles a child’s drawing, with tiny little men and great big moo-cows and figures inside one another with no sense of perspective. Common to all the versions is extreme coarseness, which I endeavored to preserve in my draft. I deviated from the Florentine version only in the beginning, preferring the versions which present the transformation of peas into children as a curse rather than a blessing. I left out Pete’s drowning in a pond at the end, to close in a better way. And I retained the slightly scatological overtone characteristic of children’s stories.

  [>]. “The King of the Peacocks” (Il Re dei Pavoni) from Marzocchi, 34, Siena.

  Of literary origin, from a French tale at the end of the seventeenth century, La Princesse Rosette by Madame d’Aulnoy. This folk version is faithful to its literary source as far as plot is concerned, but its style is quite simple in comparison with the mannerism of the French text, albeit refined and ornate for a popular narration. I avoided transcribing sentences which struck me as too exalted. The strangest image, that of voices coming from the trees as feathers swirl in the air, is not in the French text. The theme of the bride replaced along the way by the hideous daughter of the nurse is among the most widespread in Italy (see my no. 101), but the peacock decor is probably Madame d’Aulnoy’s own invention.

  [>]. “The Palace of the Doomed Queen” (Il palazzo della Regina dannata) from Marzocchi, 25, Siena, told by “a certain Smida, an old woman who makes hose.”

  A rather sinister folktale, with that cold determination of a heroine too lacking in pity to attract the admiration which courageous girls in tales always inspire. Medieval touches abound, such as the chained queen’s vision of Hell and the romantic fatality of love’s revenge. It seems that this type of tale exists only in Italy, from Venice to Sicily. The beginning, with the dog running off with the girl’s food and entering the unoccupied palace, is common to all the versions.

  [>]. “The Little Geese” (Le ochine) from Signora Olga Cocchi, who kindly provided me with the manuscript, Siena.

  The three little pigs have here become three geese—or, more exactly, one single goose: in this Sienese version, there is no mention of the other two, who built their houses out of flimsier material and whom the wolf (or, in this case, the fox) ate. We see only the third, the wisest, with her iron cottage and her successive foils to the greedy beast. Here we have keener zoological and geographical perceptions than usual with the Maremma landscape and the seasonal migration of palmipeds. Other goose stories in Northern Italy are closer to the “three pigs” type.

  [>]. “Water in the Basket” (L’acqua nel cestello) from Comparetti, 31, Jesi, Marche.

  This is one of the versions which best correspond to the most widespread Italian tradition of the folktale about two sisters or stepsisters—one who is kind, the other ill-willed—with supernatural beings burdened with human sufferings and squalor.

  [>]. “Fourteen” (Quattordici) from Gianandrea, 6, San Paolo di Jesi, Marche.

  The little digger with the strength of an ox is the hero of this coarse rustic epic, accomplishing something akin to the feats of Hercules. He has no supernatural help, however, only the strength of his own arms. A king is not the one who imposes the tasks, but a farmer who wants to get rid of Fourteen because of the pay demanded by the boy. The tasks culminate with a descent into Hell, whereby the hero regains his liberty. I have freely mixed the folktale from Marche with a similar one from Abruzzo (Finamore, 27). Stories about strong peasants in Northern Italy present elements in common with “Fourteen.”

  [>]. “Jack Strong, Slayer of Five Hundred” (Giuanni Benforte che a cinquecento diede la morte) from Gianandrea, 7, San Paolo di Jesi, Marche.

  Boasts of strength and the ruses of the little man against the big man are eternal narrative motifs from David to Chaplin. The version I followed has the vitality and irony required by the theme. The death of the giant was somewhat insipid in the Marche text (an iron chest for a trap); I replaced it with the episode of the sheep intestines from a Bolognese version (Coronedi, S. 32), putting in wolves where the original speaks of lions, for the sake of regional accuracy. (For the close, I turned back to the Marche version.) I also transcribed another version (my no. 199, “John Balento”), from Corsica, with different and curious episodes such as that of the Amazons.

  [>]. “Crystal Rooster” (Gallo cristallo) from Gianandrea, 5, Jesi, Marche.

  Fables featuring animals in a group are always entertaining. This is more rigmarole than fable, very comical, thanks to the letter repeatedly consulted with the utmost seriousness.

  [>]. “A Boat for Land and Water” (La barca che va per mare e per terra) from Zanazzo, 21, Rome.

  This is in the grand line of literary swashbuckling, made up as it is of those “quantitative” skills at the root of Gargantua. Many variants all over Italy (see my no. 126).

  [>]. “The Neapolitan Soldier” (Il soldato napoletano) from Zanazzo, 11, Rome.

  The semblance of bravery and mutual mockery of the soldiers lend a modern touch to this Roman folktale. The original shows the first two soldiers deriding the third because he is from Naples. I made those two Roman and Florentine respectively, to accentuate the spirit of the barracks. This type, according to Stith Thompson, is quite rare. It is found here and there in Europe, but I saw no other Italian vers
ion of it.

  [>]. “Belmiele and Belsole” (Belmiele e Belsole) from Zanazzo, 29, Rome.

  This is one of the most widespread types in Italy. To produce a richer version, I combined the Roman with one from Florence (Imbriani, 25). The escape of the nurse and her daughter at the end is my own invention (in place of the customary tarring of a transgressor).

  [>]. “The Haughty Prince” (Il Re superbo) from Menghini (“Due favole romanesche” in Volgo di Roma, vol. 1, fasc. 2, Rome 1890) and from Zanazzo, 1, Rome.

  Love for the haughty prince with the seven veils (see my no. 36, Venice) serves here only as a starting point for a series of tales of sorcery and cures, in which the Italian tradition is quite rich. Nor is the famous “walnut tree of Benevento,” meeting place of witches, wanting. The “magic counterformula” is an addition of my own.

  [>]. “Wooden Maria” (Maria di Legno) from Zanazzo, 24, Rome, and from other versions.

  One of the most widespread folktales in all of Italy. I have drawn on several versions, in order to come up with the most complete text possible. As early as the sixteenth century the tale about the father who wants to marry his daughter and about her flight from him in disguise was told by Straparola (I, 4: Doralice, daughter of King Tebaldo of Salerno, flees in a cupboard, weds a king, etc.). The seventeenth century finds the tale in Basile’s Orza (II, 6: the daughter of the king of Rocc’Aspra runs away, magically changing into a she-bear, etc.), and in Perrault’s Peau d’asne, which is closer to the popular versions (cf. also Grimm no. 65).

  [>]. “Louse Hide” (La pelle di pidocchio) from Zanazzo, 6, Rome.

  A folktale motif—the louse hide—and a story motif—hunchbacks thrown into the river—are deftly combined in this Roman version, as also in Doni’s sixteenth-century short story, where the object to be guessed is a lizard lung.

  [>]. “Cicco Petrillo” from Zanazzo, 10, Rome.

  This little story about the boundlessness of human stupidity is the same the world over; only the dramatizations of it vary. I followed the carefree Roman version, drawing illustrations from others as well.

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