July 30, 2020

Throwback Thursday: Italy: The Birthplace of Modern Fairy Tale Telling, By Christina Ruth Johnson

Editor’s Note: I love posts that teach us about fairy tales and folklore. Italy as the origin country for fairy tales is not a new bit of information, but not many people know about it. Enjoy this post from 2014!

When we think of countries that are birthplaces of fairy tales, we automatically think of France and Germany--at least, these are the first that come to my mind, thanks mainly to Perrault and the Grimm brothers. We may think of England, too, as the place tales about actual fairies abound. Next, our minds might travel east to Russia or even farther into the lands of the Arabian Nights. Or perhaps we go north to Denmark, remembering Hans Christian Andersen.

One place to which my mind never traveled, until my research took me there, was Italy. I have since learned that traveling to Italy (literarily speaking) is a must for fairy tale lovers!

A most extraordinary collection of tales was published in Italy between 1634 and 1636--written by Giambattista Basile (published posthumously). The original title was Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille--“The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones.” The title by which we know the work today, however, is Il Pentamerone, a phrase from the dedication page of the first edition that appeared as a subtitle in the 1674 edition by Pompeo Sarnelli (another Italian writer of fairy tales). (Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales)

From "Two Cakes," illustrated by George Cruikshank
Giambattista Basile was born near Naples in 1575 to a middle class family. He worked as a soldier, a government official, a courtier in Mantua, and a governor of various small states in Italy (Encyclopedia Britannica). When he died in 1632, he held the title of count (OCFT). Basile was well regarded as a poet while he lived, “and during his career he became fascinated with the folklore, customs, literature, music, and dialect of the Neapolitan people. He began serious study of things Neapolitan and began to collect fairy tales and folktales, setting them down in a lively Neapolitan style with much local flavour and all the ornament and flamboyance of his influential contemporary Giambattista Marino” (EB). 
"The Serpent," illustrated by by Warwick Goble
Basile’s arguably most famous work, Il Pentamerone, was the first literary compilation of nothing but fairy tales to be published in Europe, paving the way for later publications by the Grimms and others that we know and love today. Linguist and historian Nancy Canepa writes, “Lo cunto constituted a culmination of the interest in popular culture and folk traditions that permeated the Renaissance, when isolated fairy tales had started to be included in novella collections” (OCFT). Il Pentamerone, however, was written in the complicated Neapolitan dialect and parodied both earlier canonical works by Italian authors, such as Boccaccio, as well as contemporary Neapolitan culture (OCFT).

"Seven Doves" and more, by Cruikshank
Like Boccaccio’s Decameron, Basile’s Il Pentamerone is composed of a frame narrative with 49 interior tales--the frame narrative is its own tale, raising the total number to 50. Many stories we readily recognize today appear in this anthology, some in their earliest known literary forms: “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty,” “Rapunzel,” “Snow White and Rose Red,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Puss in Boots.”

"The Three Enchanted Princes, illustrated by Goble
 Canepa remarks that Basile’s versions of these stories are “often bawdier and crueller” than their later, better-known retellings. For example, the heroine of “La gatta Cennerentola” (“The Cinderella Cat”) actually kills her stepmother and actively helps orchestrate her own happily-ever-after. In general, Il Pentamerone’s heroines are surprisingly active and clever agents in their own fates. (OCFT) Petrosinella (the earliest incarnation of Rapunzel) coordinates her escape from her tower, essentially giving orders to the prince.

You can read a selection of stories from The Tale of Tales on the Surlalune website, as well as view more of the gorgeous illustrations by Warwick Goble and George Cruikshank here: http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/pentamerone/. You may also try your hand at reading the original Neapolitan here (full text): http://www.letteraturaitaliana.net/pdf/Volume_6/t133.pdf.

I for one love reading such different versions of tales we think we know so well! Which Pentamerone tale is your favorite? Join Enchanted Conversation and let us know!

“Giambattista Basile.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed 17 August 2014. http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/55102/Giambattista-Basile#ref188608. [OE]
Heidi Anne Heiner, ed. “Il Pentamerone.” Surlalune Fairy Tales. http://www.surlalunefairytales.com/pentamerone/.
Nancy Canepa. “Giambattista Basile.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales: The Western fairy tale tradition from medieval to modern, 41-43. Edited by Jack Zipes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. [OCFT]
Nancy Canepa. “Pentamerone.” The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales: The Western fairy tale tradition from medieval to modern, 377-378. Edited by Jack Zipes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. [OCFT] 

Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.


Brita Long said...

Ooh, I definitely want to read those Italian versions. I like the idea of more active heroines!

Lissa Sloan said...

Me too!

Kelly Jarvis said...

I am teaching four of Basile's tales in my World Literature Class this semester (for the first time). I am so excited to pair the early Italian Fairy Tales with our study of mythology and see what my students think about the active heroines and bawdy details! Love this article!