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Italian Folktales: Introduction and Sources
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Introduction

ITALIAN FOLKTALES ill. Rosso Fiorentino (1494-1540). Angelic musician.

Famous fairy tales of the French Perrault and Madame d'Alnou as well as the German Brothers Grimm originate in an Italian's work, The Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile. He recorded and adapted tales that are believed to have been orally transmitted around Crete and Venice. His work contains earlier versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel. Charles Perrault acknowledged he used Basile's collection.

These Italian tales are selected from many collections, and some of them have been updated a bit by me. In addition, a selection of fine tales from Sicily has got its own page. [⇒]

Some Collectors

Written and oral tales intertwine. Some folk tale motifs are found in ancient myths, for example. Oral tales may get many variants. Oral folk tales who are written down and translated, may also give rise to different lore - for example, the ancient Greek myth of Eros and Psyche reappears in folk tales with some elements in common with the myth, and other elements added. And different countries have different tales around similar motifs.

A few centuries ago, many Italian folk tales were written down and later translated into French, and since then into German. Many well-known tales have that history, as mentioned above.

Giovanni Francesco Straparola

The impulse of collecting folk tales that was shown by the Grimms was not confined to Germany and the times they lived in. In fact, the earliest literary collection of stories with a popular origin was made in the 1500s by an Italian, Giovanni Francesco Straparola. Straparola (literally: babbler) looks like the writer's nickname. He came from Caravaggio, a town halfway between Milan and Cremona.

In 1550 Straparola published at Venice a collection of stories in the style of the Decameron. His collection "was received with the greatest favour. It passed through sixteen editions in twenty years, was translated into French and often printed in that language, and before the end of the century was turned into German." Straparola's tales were largely borrowed, and "to him belongs the honor of having introduced the Fairy Tale into modern European literature," writes Thomas Crane (see below) in the introduction to his collection.

Giambattista Basile

About a century after Straparola the celebrated Pentamerone appeared at Naples in 1637. Its author, Giambattista Basile, is but little better known than Straparola. He spent his youth in Crete, became known to the Venetians, and roamed much over Italy, and finally returned to Naples. He died nearby in 1632. His Pentamerone is a collection of fifty stories in the Neapolitan dialect. Crane writes in his introduction: "Basile's work enjoyed the greatest popularity in Italy, and was translated into Italian and into the dialect of Bologna."

In 1869 de Gubernatis published the Novelline di Santo Stefano, which contained thirty-five stories. This was the forerunner of many collections from the various provinces of Italy. Popular Italian tales do not differ much from those of the rest of Europe. The same story is found, with minor variations, all over Italy, Crane informs.

Italo Calvino

Italo Calvino (1923-85) was a much-read Italian journalist and writer of short stories and novels. In 1956 he published 200 Italian folktales as Fiabe Italiane. It was the first comprehensive collection of Italian fairy tales. He aimed at producing a popular collection of Italian fairy tales for the general reader and emulating the Grimm Brothers - "a collection of Italian folktales to take its rightful place alongside the great anthologies of foreign folklore," as he writes in his introduction to the book. In his book he used used existing collections of folklorists, and could draw on vast numbers tales that had been recorded, also in various dialects. He set out to assemble "a readable master collection" on this basis, plunging into the stock of available material. With differing versions of tales at his disposal, he seems intent on choosing those who "struck me as not only the most beautiful or the richest or the most skillfully narrated", but also those who seemed (subjectively) rooted in their various Italian regions.

Calvino also found that "A continuous quiver of love runs through Italian folklore", and that "eroticism of tales that we now consider as a part of children's literature . . . was not intended for any particular age level". He came to think the very essence of the Italian folktale was "unparalleled grace, wit, and unity of design" too. He also got confirmed a conviction: that folk stories are a catalog of the potential destinies of men and women. In the real world too "There must be fidelity to a goal and purity of heart," he mused.

In his book, Calvino noted the source of each tale he included, and altered tales to make them more readable.

Good points by a translator, Anne Macdonell (Gleanings)

In Italy fairy-tales are loved not only by the children. Round the Italian peasant fireside, they still sit in the winter evenings after their work is done - men (some of them, at least), women and children, and tell and listen, and listen and tell, for hours together, writes Anne Macdonell about a hundred years ago.

As to the personages of the stories, the giants and wizards and witches can hold their own with those of any land. But Italian fairies have a habit of taking on quite ordinary shapes. A market-woman or a milkmaid you pass by thus makes travelling in Italy very interesting. You never know when you may meet a fairy.

And if all the tales be true, there is no end to the fairies' gratitude for good services. Sometimes they even reward you when you do them a good turn without meaning it.

Wise travellers in Italy have got the happiness-giving, old fairy-tales by heart, and therefore never pull long faces, nor give themselves airs when they meet the people of the country. For maybe the chambermaid may be a fairy, or the coachman, or the old woman by the church door. So they think - perhaps and perhaps not.

Creatures of Italian Folklore

There is folk beliefs to reckon with. Creatures of such beliefs of fancy or whatever may enter tales after some time. Here are some of them:

The dahu is a fictional creature of the folklore of France, Switzerland and the north of Italy. It looks like a mountain goat whose legs are longer than on one side than the other, seemingly adapted to walk sideways in along sloping terrain. Dahu stories are used for jokes among natives and for fooling young children.

Or have you heard of the crowned biscione, also known as the bissa? This heraldry creature took off from the simple little grass snake.

The lariosauro is a reptile-like creature reported to live in the deep Lake Como in Italy, about 45 km north of Milan. Alleged sightings are dismissed by a sceptic . . .

The longana is a legendary creature, an intelligent and beautiful woman that lives in water and have goat limbs, strangely enough. She appears in legends of the people of Cadore in Italy. According to such legends, longanas live in groups in coves or near cliffs. Marrying has its pros and cons, the tradition suggests.

The marabbecca is a legendary creature of Sicilan folklore. This creature lives in wells and reservoirs, and might have been invented by Sicilian parents trying to scare their children away from playing dangerously near wells.

The monaciello, "little monk", is a fairy of the tradition of Naples and its surroundings. A short, thick kind of little man dressed in the long garments of a monk with a broad brimmed hat. He is supposed to live in remains of abbeys and monasteries that crown many of the hills of this area. He knows the underground passages of Naples and goes through them in order to attend old palaces and cause much annoyance, for he is said to be fond of playing tricks: to pull clothes off people, to steal quilts from bedrooms and to harass housewives.

However, the monaciello is also thought to be a beneficent spirit, and then he appears only to those who are in sorest need, who themselves have done all that they could to prevent or alleviate distress that had befallen them, and after human aid had failed. If he then appears, he mutely beckons to them to follow him to some place where treasure is concealed and free for the taking, no strings attached. Hence, when anyone has had a sudden increase of fortune they say "Maybe he has had the little monk in his house."

If he is given food, he might change it into gold; but boasting of it makes the gold vanish.

The "little monk" reflects the water carriers in ancient Naples. There were a lot of tunnels underground that connected the wells in town, and the water carriers had to be short in order to pass through them. By these tunnels they had access to most houses. Further, their overalls looked like monk garments.

The squasc is a mythological being in the folklore of the Eastern Lombardy region. It is said to be small, hairy, tawny, similar to a squirrel without tail, but with an human-like face. It may either be summoned to frighten children. It also loves playing jokes on people, particularly young girls.

[All are from WP, sv. "Category:Italian legendary creatures"]

From Alpine sources

The folklore of Italy involves other creatures too. In its Alpine regions there are tales of creatures like Perchta (Bertha in German) and the Badalisc. Both are of mythical origin, and are figures of folkloric celebrations or customs.

Perchta, stemming from an ancient Germanic goddess of old folklore, has the role of "guardian of the beasts" and appear during the Twelve Days of Christmas to oversee spinning. Perchta is said to have two forms: one is beautiful and white as snow, and the other is elderly and haggard.

The Badalisc is a mythical creature of the southern central Alps.

The Tatzelwurm - a stubby, lizard-like creature of the Alpine regions. Its front half looks like a cat and the other half like a serpent without hind legs. It is rumored to live in several areas, including the Italian and Swiss Alps. (Don't put faith in rumours, then).

Roman and Etruscan sources

Some beings that appear in folk tales are rooted in ancient Roman or Etruscan tales, in mythology. For example, Fortuna of Roman mythology is the goddess of fate and fortune and also bringer of fertility. There are also kings, culture heroes, other heroes and other beings in these two mythologies too. They share many characters, although with different names and somewhat dissimilar characteristics. One finds the river god; a river of the underworld; a god of the underworld and ruler of the dead; a winged child; and Amor (Love) the sun-god; satyrs; nymphs; a god of wolves; heroines; healers; seers - also a magic spring; a bird of love; Mania della Notte, a nocturnal spirit bringing nightmares; a sorceress; Medusa, a goddess of fate and chance; Orcus, a hairy, bearded giant; Amazons; the legendary winged horse; a god of boundaries; a craftsman god, often wielding an axe, equivalent to the Greek Hephaistos and Roman Vulcanus; divination guys; the goddess of the dawn; the ruler of the skies, such as Greek Zeus and Roman Jupiter; demons; love goddesses like Venus; prophetic nymphs and others.

Some of these appear in later folktales, perhaps in other "shapes and garbs", or perhaps not, like Amor, the winged child with love arrows on his bow and in his quiver.

Several of these creatures are rooted in still earlier Greek sources.

Contents


Folk tales of Italy, Italian folktales,  Literature  

NOTE. Sicilian folktales on the site have a page of their own.

In Italian

Bernoni, Dom Guiseppe. Fiabe e novelle popolari veneziane. Venezia: Fontana-Ottolini, 1873.

Linares, Vincenzo. Racconti popolari. Palermo: Luigi Pedone Lauriel, 1886.

Nieri, Idelfonso. Cento racconti popolari Tucchesi. Seconda edizione. Livorno: Raffaello Giusti, 1908.

Nieri, Idelfonso. Racconti popolari. Castelnuovo di Garfagnana: A. Rosa, 1889.

Visentini, Isaia. Fiabe mantovane. Roma: Ermanno Loescher, 1879.

In English and French

Anderton, Isabella. Tuscan Folk-Lore and Sketches, together with Some Other Papers. London: A. Fairbairns. 1905. ⍽▢⍽ Stories were told to her by various peasants during a summer stay amid the Tuscan Apennines above Pistoia. She fell ill while on a vacation there, and was tended by an old peasant woman who spent hours by her bedside and by her hammock in the woods, knitting and telling her stories.

Andrews, James Bruyn. Contes ligures: Traditions de la Riviére. Paris: Ernest Leroux, 1892.

Basile, Giambattista. The Pentamerone. Tr. Benedetto Croce. 2 vols. London: John Lane the Bodley Head, 1932. ⍽▢⍽ Basile became in time count, Conte di Torrone. He is remembered for writing the collection of fairy tales titled Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille in Neapolitan. The title means "The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones". The title Pentamerone was first used in the 1674 edition. In it, fifty stories are related over the course of five days. The style is Baroque.
     He recorded and adapted tales that are believed to have been orally transmitted around Crete and Venice. In his collection we find earlier versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel. The French Charles Perrault and the Grimm Brothers acknowledge they used his collection, and the Grimms praised it highly.
     Many of these fairy tales are the oldest known variants that exist.

Boccachio, Giovanni. Decameron. Tr. James Macmullen Rigg. 2 Vols. London: Privately printed for the Navarre Society, 1903. ⍽▢⍽ A collection of 100 medieval novellas by Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio, finished in 1353. A a group of seven women and three men who flee from plague-ridden Florence to a villa in the countryside for two weeks, and tell one another tales, one story each every day.
     Many later writers borrowed from the book, including Jonathan Swift, Shakespeare, John Keats, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and many others. Chaucer too is said to have drawn inspiration from this work, but there is reason to think that he and Bocchacchio rather used a common French source.
     Boccaccio, in turn, had borrowed the plots of almost all of his stories. He consulted French, Italian, and Latin sources, and some of the tales originate in far-off lands - India, Persia, Spain, and other places. And some of the Boccachio tales were centuries old. Also, many of the characters Bocchacho wrote about, actually lived or had lived. There are also some characters that most likely are invented by Boccachio.
    The work has a Renaissance flair. Tales from it are recognised in the International Folktale Catalogue too - about two dozens of them are listed in it.

Calvino, Italo. Italian Folktales. Tr. George Martin. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980. ⍽▢⍽ 200 Italian tales, published in 1956 by Calvino as Fiabe Italiane. He intended to publish as many Italian folktales for the general reader as the Brothers Grimm had done with German tales by their edited collection of Household tales. Calvino altered tales to make them more readable, and at times changed the name of heroines too.

Crane, Thomas Frederick. Italian Popular Tales. Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1885. ⍽▢⍽ Thomas Frederick Crane (1844-1927) was one of the leading folklorists of the 1800s and a founder of the Journal of American Folklore. He is particularly noted for his collection of Italian tales. It his preface to it he writes among other things that, "I have occasionally changed the present to the past tense, and slightly condensed by the omission of tiresome repetitions; but otherwise my versions follow the original closely, too closely perhaps in the case of the Sicilian tales . . . Other condensations are indicated by brackets."
     Crane aimed at a tolerably complete collection of Italian popular tales for the general reader, but ended up with "a small selection" of "typical stories". There are over a hundred stories in the text, and many added stories in his footnotes.

Dixon-Kennedy, Mike. Encyclopedia of Greco-Roman Mythology. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 1998.

Macdonell, Anne. The Italian Fairy Book. London: Unwin, 1911. ⍽▢⍽ A nice and charming book.

Monnier, Marc. Les contes populaires en Italie. Paris: G. Charpentier, 1880.

Steedman, Amy. Legends and Stories of Italy for Children. London: T. C. and E. C. Jack, 1909 (?). ⍽▢⍽ These legends and tales speak for innocent harmony and of how to persevere without blame, to make it pay. One is to guard oneself against evil people along the road. Men and women who come safely through misfortune, may get deserved good fortune.

Straparola, Giovanni Francesco. The Nights of Straparola. Tr. William George Waters. 2 Vols. London: Lawrence and Bullen, 1894. ⍽▢⍽ Giovanni Francesco Straparola (c. 1480 - c. 1557) was an Italian writer and fairy tale collector. Charles Perrault borrowed most of his stories from Giovanni Francesco and Giambattista Basile. The Nights of Straparola (or The Facetious Nights of Straparola) contain 75 stories, including the earliest known version of Strong John.

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