Spring comes to northern Italy with paintbox colors bright on terraced hills straight out of a da Vinci painting: the yellow of gorse, the purple of iris, the silver-green of the olive trees, the brilliant red of fields of poppies open to the morning sun. A shepherd leads his goats past the doorway of a farmhouse on a steep hillside, where I sit with a notebook, a mug of espresso, a well-worn copy of Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales, pondering the magic one can almost smell and taste in this fertile, golden land.
I've come to spend two months in a Tuscan hilltown close to the city of Florence, lured to this country by the art, the food, and these words from the introduction to Calvino's book: "It is generally accepted that Italian tales from the oral tradition were recorded in literary works long before those of any other country." Likewise, from Marina Warner's recent work on the history of fairy tales (From The Beast to the Blonde): "Il Pentamerone [by Italian writer Giambattista Basile]. . .can lay claim to being the foundation stone of the modern literary fairy tale; published in 1634-36, it contains some of the earliest written versions of the most familiar stories." And so I've come here to explore the rich folklore tradition of Italy, following in the footsteps of Calvino, Warner, the Pre-Raphaelite painters, and countless other writers and artists who all succumbed to a passion for the stories of Italia -- and the beautiful land from which they spring.
Calvino began his task of collection with a dry, detached interest in the subject; but "I was gradually possessed by a kind of mania," he writes, "an insatiable hunger for more and more versions and variants. . .as a result of which I would have given all of Proust in exchange for a new variant of the 'gold-dung donkey'." He gradually became convinced that the "grace, wit and unity of design" to be found in the fairy tales of Italy is unsurpassed in the western world. Yet when we think of European fairy tales, we generally think of the French tales of Charles Perrault, the German tales of the Brothers Grimm, or the Danish tales of Hans Christian Andersen. We rarely think of Italy as being central to the European fairy tale tradition -- and indeed, it was not until the 1950s that Calvino's book (translated into English by George Martin) finally presented a comprehensive Italian collection to compare with the work of the Brothers Grimm. Yet centuries ago, these stories would have been known and circulated throughout Europe -- both through the oral tradition and through the publications of early Italian authors like Boccaccio, Straparola and Basile. In Italy we find some of the earliest published versions of very familiar fairy tales indeed: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Puss in Boots, Red Riding Hood, Donkeyskin, The Handless Maiden, and many, many others -- told in an earthy, unflinching manner common to the oldest of fairy stories.
In the folklore of Italy (that is: of the disparate regions that make up the modern country of Italia) we see the influence of three storytelling traditions: classical, Christian, and medieval. In classical Italic mythology, the pantheon of ancient Rome (Jupiter, Juno, Apollo, Venus and a vast family of other gods) borrowed heavily from Hellenic myth -- so much so that standard reference texts often list the two together under the label "Greco-Roman." The New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology states that "the term Roman Mythology requires some explanation, even justification. The religious system whose center is placed for convenience in Rome was not in fact purely Roman. . .but a mosaic in which can be recognized contributions that were Etruscan, Alban, Sabine, Greek, Syrian, Persian, Egyptian." Virgil wrote his sad and glorious Aeneid as a deliberate evocation of the earlier Greek epics of Homer, taking as his protagonist a minor character from Homer's fall of Troy. Ovid's Metamorphoses is likewise steeped in a mixture of ancient Greek and Roman stories. With the introduction of Christianity, many of these old stories transformed and became attached to Catholic saints and martyrs; or to Mary, whose worship as the Queen of Heaven was once widespread throughout Italy. Pagan holy sites and shrines were rededicated to Christian figures, yet they retained their mystical quality, enshrouded by legendary tales of visitations and miracles.
"I remain impressed by how the subsequent traditions of Italy flowed together," comments Midori Snyder, a fantasy writer who has spent the last year living in Milan; ". . .not so much a crisis as in the Celtic countries, where Druids slammed against the oncoming church, but where all these strands of faith and storytelling merged, sometimes quite playfully. Italy is a country where satyrs and saints sat down together to dine."
In medieval Italy, around the 13th century, poets began to write in the Italian language rather than composing exclusively in Latin. The first great epic poet of the era was Dante, a political exile from Florence whose stunning Divine Commedia depicts the author's journey through the circles of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise. Dante is guided through these horrors and wonders by the spirits of the poet Virgil, and of Beatrice, whom Dante had loved (chastely, devoutly, ceaselessly) since glimpsing her as a child. Giovanni Boccaccio's Decameron is the Italian equivalent of The Canterbury Tales, an entertaining and rather bawdy collection of "a Hundred Stories in Ten Days Told by Seven Ladies and Three Young Men" in escape from Florence during an outbreak of the Plague. The stories of the Charlemagne Cycle, and the love adventures of Charlemagne's nephew Roland, were brought from France into medieval Italy by several poets. The most accomplished of these poets was Ariosto, who took over ten years to compose Orlando Furioso (Roland Insane), a rather rambling but hilarious narrative in which our hero is driven completely mad by his passion for an Oriental princess. All of these stories were popular throughout the regions of Italy, for they were available even to illiterate audiences in oral form. As a result, traces of Boccaccio or Ariosto can be found in the fairy tales collected from remote rural areas, and many folktales still have a strong medieval flavor in their language and imagery.
Jack Dann is an accomplished contemporary writer who conjures the Italy of centuries past in his adult fairy tale "The Glass Casket" (published in the anthology Snow White, Blood Red). The story is set, Dann explains, "in the time of Leonardo da Vinci, Machiavelli, and the poet, philosopher and magus Pico della Mirandola. An aura of magic and mysticism surrounded Pico della Mirandola, who spent his short but brilliant life searching the caballah and other occult sciences for the meaning of truth and love and beauty. I have questioned what he would do if he found the object of his desire. Indeed, what would any of us do?" Dann speaks of the Italian Renaissance as a time "when magic was as legitimate a pursuit as philosophy, theology, science or art. A time of great brutality and sensitivity, eroticism and religion, and brilliant painting and poetry."
The art of Renaissance Italy is indeed brilliant and extraordinary, mixing imagery from classical myth, pagan folklore, and medieval Christian symbology. The Sibyls -- prophetic pagan sorceresses with the tails of snakes hidden under their skirts -- were said to have foretold the coming of Christ and thus were incorporated into Christian legendary, taking their place on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel painted by Michaelangelo. Botticelli painted centaurs and goddesses to hang beside his luminous Madonnas; Fra Angelico graphically depicted the slavering demon servants of Lucifer; Piero di Cosimo painted fantastical beasts roiling in the oceans of classical myths; Piero della Francesca portrayed the enchanted legend of the Queen of Sheba in gorgeous frescoes still to be seen gracing the walls of an ancient Tuscan church. The art of the Renaissance has turned Rome, Venice, and particularly Florence into cities where stories surround us everywhere we look, shimmering on the peeling plaster walls, gleaming down from mosaic ceilings, holding up the rooftops in figures carved in fine white marble. Venice, a city floating on water, is in itself a work of fantasy. With its masks and mists, its crumbling palaces, its winged lions and Byzantium domes, to walk its streets is like walking through a dream, or the pages of a fantasy novel.
It was in Venice in 1550 that Giovan Francesco Straparola (the "Babbler") published his Piacevoli Notti (The Pleasant Nights), setting into print the magical tales told by a circle of women storytellers -- or so he attributed its authorship when brought up before the Venetian Inquisition on a charge of indecency. In the following century, Neapolitan author and historian Giambattista Basile published Il Pentamerone, or Lo cunto di li cunti (The Tale of Tales) -- the splendid cycle of fifty stories which Marina Warner credits as the foundation for the modern literary fairy tale, predating the tales that came out of French literary salons later that same century. (The French court writers were almost certainly familiar with Basile's work.) This is a bawdy, comical, violent, romantic and thoroughly magical work, with a frame story about a princess who is unable to laugh. When a series of escapades causes an old woman to fall comically and expose herself, the princess finally laughs -- and is promptly cursed by the old woman, setting off the whole adventure. It can be difficult to find Sir Richard Burton's 1893 English translation of this Italian fantasy masterpiece -- but it is worth the effort, for it contains riveting early versions of some our most familiar fairy tales: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and a host of others.
In the eighteenth century, Venetian Carlo Gozzi created a fad for fairy stories on the stages of the Commedia dell'Arte, mixing wizards and witches with masked Harlequins and Pantaloons and other stock Commedia figures. All of Venice was a fairy tale then, for this was the time when the city was famed for its wealth and its lavish decadence -- a time when Carnival (a festival known for fantastical costumes and wild extravagance) lasted most of the year and not just the weeks leading up to the austerity of Lent. With a costume, or even just a mask, social and class barriers dissolved, all manner of outrageous behavior was permissible. Some Venetian men and women never left the house without their mask in place.
In the 19th century there was another revival of interest in Italian fairy stories, this time not so much by writers and artists but by scholars and collectors (an interest provoked by the avid work of folklorists in Germany, Finland and elsewhere). In Sicily, around 1875, a medical doctor named Guiseppe Pitre developed a passion for folktales and soon had a large team of collectors working to record the stories of the local people -- particularly those of Messia, a quiltmaker in Borgo. The result of Pitre's obsession is the twenty-five volume Biblioteca delle tradizioni popolari siciliane. His collection of Italian folk art and craftsmanship can still be seen at the Pitre Museum in Palermo. In Tuscany, Gherardo Nerucci, a lawyer, published Sixty Popular Tales from Montale in 1880. His primary source was also a woman, a widow named Luisa Ginanni. Guiseppe Bernoni published booklets of Venetian tales during this same period; other collectors recorded works from Rome, Bolgna, Calabria, and many other cities and regions.
Italo Calvino has drawn from all these sources in his Italian Folktales, seeking to represent the different regions of the country, each with its own particular flavor. What characteristics do these tales have in common? Calvino points to a love of metamorphosis: the fruit that becomes a girl, the swine that becomes a prince, the lover who is conjured from a basin of milk. He notes how "the natural cruelties of the folktale give way to the rules of harmony. The continuous flow of blood that characterizes the Grimms' brutal [German] tales is absent. The Italian folktale seldom displays unbearable ferocity. Although the notion of cruelty persists along with an injustice bordering on inhumanity as part of the constant stuff of stories, although the woods forever echo with the weeping of maidens or of forsaken brides with severed hands, gory ferocity is never gratuitous; the narrative does not dwell on the torment of the victim. . . but moves swiftly to a healing solution, a part of which is the quick and pitiless punishment of the malefactor."
What Calvino, an Italian, does not seem to notice is the common ingredient most apparent to the American reader: the delicious abundance of food imagery -- the young heroes setting off with cheese and sausage in their pockets; the maidens with skin as white as ricotta; the children born from the core of fruit; the bridegrooms made of flour and salt. Elizabeth A. Lynn noted this tendency in her hilarious Italian version of Rapunzel ("The Princess in the Tower," published in Snow White, Blood Red). Michaela Roessner's The Stars Dispose (Tor Books) and Midori Snyder's The Innamorati (Tor Books) are Italianate novels rich in calories and magic; both books are highly recommended. Italian fairy tales touch on all of the senses; they are far more sensual, even outright ribald, than their German, French and English kin. An Italian version of Sleeping Beauty is a good example of this -- a variant older than the French and German versions we're familiar with today:
A childless Queen at last gives birth to a beautiful baby daughter. On the princess's fifteenth birthday, she pricks her finger on a spindle and falls down, dead. Yet the girl is as beautiful as ever; her flesh does not grow stiff and cold even though she is no longer breathing and her heart no longer beats. Her parents cannot bring themselves to bury her, and so they wall her up instead in a tower on a tall hillside, with no doors and only one window. There she lays on a sumptuous bed, wearing a bridal dress with seven skirts sewn with silver bells. One day a long time afterwards, a young King comes upon the tower. His curiosity is piqued, and he climbs through the thorn-covered window. He swoons when he finds the beautiful maid, and so obsessed does he become with her that he returns every day thereafter, embracing her over and over again. Eventually, "so intense was his love" that it results in her pregnancy; the princess gives birth to twins, although she continues to lie as still as death. As the hungry babies try to suckle, the boy-child sucks the splinter from her finger -- and the princess wakes, astonished, as indeed one would expect. The young King promises to marry her, and then he goes back to his own castle to make arrangements for the wedding. But the moment he reaches his castle he falls sick and must be put to bed. As he raves in his delirium, his jealous mother discovers all and sends soldiers to the tower. The soldiers fetch the babies, and the King's mother gives them to the cook, ordering him to dress and roast them and serve them to the King. But the cook substitutes lambs instead, and bravely hides each child away. Then the mother has the soldiers fetch the lovely tower princess herself, and orders the cook to boil her into a stew for the King's dinner. As the princess walks to the boiling pot, all the silver bells ring on her skirt, piercing through the castle and the fever-dreams of the King. He wakes, discovers his mother's plot -- and discovers how the cook has foiled it. And then it is the mother who is thrown in the pot, and the King gets on with his wedding. . . .
This uncensored version of Sleeping Beauty is a long way from the animated Disney tale that most of us know today. It was not a story meant for children's ears, like so many of the old fairy stories. Yet Italy also has a long tradition of fantasy tales that were penned for children -- the best known, of course, being Carlos Collodi's Pinocchio. Collodi's dark story of a wooden puppet who longs to be a boy of flesh and blood is deservedly a world-wide classic of children's literature. Like J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan, the original story is well worth reading, for it has been tamed and watered down by too many simplistic modern renditions. "I think modern audiences are made uncomfortable by the strong moral of the tale," says William Todd-Jones, an English puppeteer working on a new Pinocchio film, directed by Steve Barron. (It is Todd-Jones' job to manipulate Pinocchio's dancing, running feet.) "In the Collodi version, things happen to Pinocchio directly because of his own actions. In many modern versions this is played down, and the consequences made less frightening. But Collodi's story reminds us that we all have the potential to be truly wicked -- that goodness is not inherent, it is a choice we must consciously make. Pinocchio repeatedly fails to make that choice. And then terrible things happen to him. . . ." In Sandra Gilbert's poetry collection Blood Pressue she poses an apt question: "When Pinnochio looks at the forest does he see the eyes of cousins; does he dream a tickle of moss on his painted scalp?&qupt; His father/creator Giapetto the puppet-maker "walks on the hillside in the evening cool," Gilbert tells us, "paces leafy tunnels, admires sighing lanes, muses, sees a hillside full of boys disguised as trees." (For more on Pinnochio see the following article, "A Prague Sojourn.")
As my own journey through the magical forests and fields of Italy comes to a close, I find myself thinking of Calvino's eloquent words as he finished his folktale book: "Will it be possible to come down to earth again? For two years I have lived in woodlands and enchanted castles. . .and during these two years the world about me gradually took on the attributes of fairyland, where everything that happened was a spell or a metamorphosis, where individuals were carried away by predestined loves, or were bewitched; where sudden disappearances, monstrous transformations occurred, where right had to be discerned from wrong, where paths bristling with obstacles led to a happiness held captive by dragons. I had the impression that the lost rules which govern the world of folklore were tumbling out of the magic box I had opened. Now that the book is finished, I know that this was not a hallucination, a sort of professional malady, but the confirmation of something I had already suspected -- folktales are real."
Like Italy itself, Italian folktales cast a spell, work a strong magic. It is a spell of metamorphosis, of dove maidens and swine princes. It colors this corner of the world with enchantment: a magic you can feel, and smell, and taste. Every bird is a maiden under a spell, every cabbage hides a hole that leads to fairyland. The goats pass by the farmhouse door, and each one is a King's son in disguise.
Art: "Birth of Venus" (Detail) by Sandro Botticelli, 1490
About the Author: Terri Windling is a writer, artist, and editor, and the founder of the Endicott Studio and the Journal of Mythic Arts. For more information, please visit her website for more information. Author's Note: With thanks to Midori Snyder and her family, for opening the doors to an adventure — T.W.
Copyright © 1995 by Terri Windling. This article appeared in Realms of Fantasy magazine in 1995. It may not be reproduced in any form without the author's express written permission.