Italian Popular Tales/Introduction

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By popular tales we mean the stories that are handed down by word of mouth from one generation to another of the illiterate people, serving almost exclusively to amuse and but seldom to instruct. These stories may be roughly divided into three classes: nursery tales, fairy stories, and jests. In countries where the people are generally educated, the first two classes form but one; where, on the other hand, the people still retain the credulity and simplicity of childhood, the stories which with us are confined to the nursery amuse the fathers and mothers as well as the children. These stories were regarded with contempt by the learned until the famous scholars, the brothers Grimm, went about Germany some sixty years ago collecting this fast disappearing literature of the people. The interesting character of these tales, and the scientific value attributed to them by their collectors, led others to follow their footsteps, and there is now scarcely a province of Germany that has not one or more volumes devoted to its local popular tales. The impulse given by the Grimms was not confined to their own country, but extended over all Europe, and within the last twenty years more than fifty volumes have been published containing the popular tales of Iceland, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Russia, Germany, England, Scotland, France, Biscay, Spain, Portugal, and Greece. Asia and Africa have contributed stories from India, China, Japan, and South Africa. In addition to these we have now to mention what has been done in this field in Italy.

From their very nature the stories we are now considering were long confined to the common people, and were preserved and transmitted solely by oral tradition. It did not occur to any one to write them down from the lips of the people until within the present century. The existence of these stories is, however, revealed by occasional references, and many of them have been preserved, but not in their original form, in books designed to entertain more cultivated readers.1 The earliest literary collection of stories having a popular origin was made in the sixteenth century by an Italian, Giovan Francesco Straparola, of Caravaggio.2 It is astonishing that a person of Straparola's popularity should have left behind him nothing but a name. We only know that he was born near the end of the fifteenth century at Caravaggio, now a small town half way between Milan and Cremona, but during the Middle Ages an important city belonging to the duchy of Milan. In 1550 he published at Venice a collection of stories in the style of the Decameron, which was received with the greatest favor. 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. The author feigns that Francesca Gonzaga, daughter of Ottaviano Sforza, Duke of Milan, on account of commotions in that city, retires to the island of Murano, near Venice, and surrounded by a number of distinguished ladies and gentlemen, passes the time in listening to stories related by the company. Thirteen nights are spent in this way, and seventy-four stories are told, when the approach of Lent cuts short the diversion. These stories are of the most varied form and origin; many are borrowed without acknowledgment from other writers, twenty-four, for example, from the little known Morlini, fifteen from Boccaccio, Sachetti, Brevio, Ser Giovanni, the Old-French fabliaux, the Golden Legend, and the Romance of Merlin. Six others are of Oriental origin, and may be found in the Pantschatantra, Forty Viziers, Siddhi Kûr, and Thousand and One Nights.3 There remain, then, twenty-nine stories, the property of Straparola, of which twenty-two are märchen, or popular tales. We say "the property" of Straparola: we mean they had never appeared before in the literature of Europe, but they were in no sense original with Straparola, being the common property which the Occident has inherited from the Orient. There is no need of mentioning in detail here these stories as they are frequently cited in the notes of the present work, and one, the original of the various modern versions of "Puss in Boots," is given at length in the notes to Chapter I.4 Two of Straparola's stories have survived their author's oblivion and still live in Perrault's "Peau d'Ane" and "Le Chat Botté," while others in the witty versions of Madame D'Aulnoy delighted the romance-loving French society of the seventeenth century.5 Straparola's work had no influence on contemporary Italian literature, and was soon forgotten,—an unjust oblivion, for to him belongs the honor of having introduced the Fairy Tale into modern European literature. He has been criticised for his style and blamed for his immorality. The former, it seems to us, is not bad, and the latter no worse than that of many contemporaneous writers who have escaped the severe judgment meted out to Straparola.

We find no further traces of popular tales until nearly a century later, when the first edition of the celebrated Pentamerone appeared at Naples in 1637. Its author, Giambattista Basile (known as a writer by the anagram of his name, Gian Alesio Abbattutis), is but little better known to us than Straparola. He spent his youth in Crete, became known to the Venetians, and was received into the Academia degli Stravaganti. He followed his sister Adriana, a celebrated cantatrice, to Mantua, enjoyed the duke's favor, roamed much over Italy, and finally returned to Naples, near where he died in 1632.6 The Pentamerone, as its title implies, is a collection of fifty stories in the Neapolitan dialect, supposed to be narrated, during five days, by ten old women, for the entertainment of the person (Moorish slave) who has usurped the place of the rightful princess.7 Basile's work enjoyed the greatest popularity in Italy, and was translated into Italian and into the dialect of Bologna. It is worthy of notice that the first fairy tale which appeared in France, and was the avant-coureur of the host that soon followed under the lead of Charles Perrault, "L'Adroite Princesse," is found in the Pentamerone.8 We know nothing of the sources of Basile's work, but it contains the most popular and extended of all European tales, and must have been in a great measure drawn directly from popular tradition. The style is a wonderful mass of conceits, which do not, however, impair the interest in the material, and it is safe to say that no people in Europe possesses such a monument of its popular tales as the Pentamerone. Its influence on Italian literature was not greater than that of Straparola's Piacevoli Notti. From the Pentamerone Lorenzo Lippi took the materials for the second cantare of his Malmantile Racquistato, and Carlo Gozzi drew on it for his curious fiabe, the earliest dramatizations of fairy tales, which, in our day, after amusing the nursery, have again become the vehicles of spectacular dramas. Although there is no proof that Mlle. Lhéritier and Perrault took their stories from Straparola and the Pentamerone, there is little doubt that the French translation of the former, which was very popular (Jannet mentions fourteen editions between 1560 and 1726) awakened an interest in this class of stories, and was thus the origin of that copious French fairy literature, which, besides the names mentioned above, includes such well-known writers as Mde. D'Aulnoy, the Countess Murat, Mlle. De La Force, and Count Caylus, all of whom drew on their Italian prototypes more or less.9

Popular as were the two collections above mentioned they produced but one imitation, La Posillecheata, a collection of five stories in the Neapolitan dialect and in the style of the Pentamerone, by Pompeo Sarnelli, Bishop of Bisceglie, whose anagram is Masillo Reppone. The first edition appeared at Naples in 1684, and it has been republished twice since then at the same place. The work is exceedingly coarse, and has fallen into well-deserved oblivion.10

Nearly two centuries elapsed before another collection of Italian tales made its appearance. The interest that the brothers Grimm aroused in Germany for the collection and preservation of popular traditions did not, for obvious reasons, extend to Italy. A people must first have a consciousness of its own nationality before it can take sufficient interest in its popular literature to inspire even its scholars to collect its traditions for the sake of science, to say nothing of collections for entertainment. In 1860, Temistocle Gradi, of Siena, published in his Vigilia di Pasqua di Ceppo, eight, and in his Saggio di Letterature varie, 1865, four popular tales, as related in Siena. These were collected without any other aim than that of entertainment, but are valuable for purposes of comparison. No attempt at a scientific collection of tales was made until 1869, when Professor De Gubernatis published the Novelline di Santo Stefano, containing thirty-five stories, preceded by an introduction on the relationship of the myth to the popular tale. This was the forerunner of numerous collections from the various provinces of Italy, which will be found noted in the Bibliography. The attention of strangers was early directed to Italian tales, and the earliest scientific collection was the work of two Germans, Georg Widter and Adam Wolf, who published a translation of twenty-one Venetian tales in the Jahrbuch für romanische und englische Literatur, Vol. VII. (1866), pp. 1–36, 121–154, 249–290, with comparative notes by R. Köhler. In the same volume were published, pp. 381–400, twelve tales from Leghorn, collected by Hermann Knust; and finally the eighth volume of the same periodical, pp. 241–260, contains three stories from the neighborhood of Sora, in Naples. In 1867 Schneller published at Innsbruck a German translation of sixty-nine tales, collected by him in the Italian Tyrol. Of much greater interest and importance than any of the above are the two volumes of Sicilian tales, collected and translated into German by Laura Gonzenbach, afterwards the wife of the Italian general, La Racine. There are but two other collections of Italian stories by foreigners: Miss Busk's Folk-Lore of Rome, and the anonymous Tuscan Fairy Tales recently published.

The number of stories published, in German and English, is about twice as many as those published in Italian before Pitrè's collection, being over four hundred. Pitrè contains more than all the previous Italian publications together, embracing over three hundred tales, etc., besides those previously published by him in periodicals and elsewhere. Since Pitrè's collection, the three works of Comparetti, Visentini, and Nerucci, have added one hundred and eighty tales, not to speak of wedding publications, containing from one to five stories. It is, of course, impossible to examine separately all these collections,—we will mention briefly the most important. To Imbriani is due the first collection of tales taken down from the mouths of the people and compared with previously published Italian popular tales. In 1871 appeared his Novellaja fiorentina, and in the following year the Novellaja milanese. These two have been combined, and published as a second edition of the Novellaja fiorentina, containing fifty Florentine and forty-five Milanese tales, besides a number of stories from Straparola, the Pentamerone, and the Italian novelists, given by way of illustration. The stories are accompanied by copious references to the rest of Italy, and Liebrecht's references to other European parallels. It is an admirable work, but one on which we have drawn but seldom, restricting ourselves to the stories in the various dialects as much as possible. The Milanese stories are in general very poor versions of the typical tales, being distorted and fragmentary. In 1873 Dr. Giuseppe Pitrè, of Palermo, well known for his collection of popular Sicilian songs, published three specimens of a collection of Sicilian popular tales, and two years later gave to the world his admirable work, Fiabe, Novelle e Racconti, forming vols. IV.–VII. of the Biblioteca delle Tradizioni populari Siciliane per cura di Giuseppe Pitrè. It is not, however, numerically that Pitrè's collection surpasses all that has previously been done in this field. It is a monument of patient, thorough research and profound study. Its arrangement is almost faultless, the explanatory notes full, while the grammar and glossary constitute valuable contributions to the philology of the Italian dialects. In the Introduction the author, probably for the first time, makes the Sicilian public acquainted with the fundamental principles of comparative mythology and its relation to folk-lore, and gives a good account of the Oriental sources of the novel. He has, it seems to us, very properly confined his notes and comparisons entirely to Italy, with references of course to Gonzenbach and Köhler's notes to Widter-Wolf when necessary. In other words, his work is a contribution to Italian folk-lore, and the student of comparative Aryan folk-lore must make his own comparisons: a task no longer difficult, thanks to the works of Grimm, Hahn, Köhler, Cox, De Gubernatis, etc. The only other collection that need be mentioned here is the one in the Canti e Racconti del Popolo italiano, consisting of the first volume of the Novellino pop. ital. pub. ed ill. da Dom. Comparetti, and of Visentini's Fiabe Mantovane. The stories in both of the above works are translated into Italian. In the first there is no arrangement by locality or subject; and the annotations, instead of being given with each story, are reserved for one of the future volumes,—an unhandy arrangement, which detracts from the value of the work.

We will now turn our attention from the collections themselves to the stories they contain, and examine these first as to their form, and secondly as to their contents.

The name applied to the popular tale differs in various provinces, being generally a derivative of the Latin fabula. So these stories are termed favuli and fràuli in parts of Sicily, favole in Rome, fiabe in Venice, foe in Liguria, and fole in Bologna. In Palermo and Naples they are named cunti, novelle and novelline in Tuscany, esempi in Milan, and storie in Piedmont.11 There are few peculiarities of form, and they refer almost exclusively to the beginning and ending of the stories. Those from Sicily begin either with the simple "cc' era" (there was), or "'na vota cc' era" (there was one time), or "si raccunta chi' na vota cc' era" (it is related that there was one time). Sometimes the formula is repeated, as, "si cunta e s' arricunta" (it is related and related again), with the addition at times of "a lor signuri" (to your worships), or the story about to be told is qualified as "stu bellissimu cuntu" (this very fine story). Ordinarily they begin, as do our own, with the formula, "once upon a time there was." The ending is also a variable formula, often a couplet referring to the happy termination of the tale and the relatively unenviable condition of the listeners. The Sicilian ending usually is:—

"Iddi arristaru filici e cuntenti,
E nuàtri semu senza nenti."

(They remained happy and contented, and we are without anything.) The last line often is "E nui semu ccà munnamu li denti" (And here we are picking our teeth), or "Ma a nui 'un ni dèsinu nenti" (But to us they gave nothing), which corresponds to a Tuscan ending:—

"Se ne stettero e se la goderono
E a me nulla mi diedero."

(They stayed and enjoyed it, and gave nothing to me.) A common Tuscan ending is:—

"In santa pace pia
Dite la vostra, ch' io detto la mia."

(In holy pious peace tell yours, for I have told mine.) In some parts of Sicily (Polizzi) a similar conclusion is found:—

"Favula scritta, favula ditta;
Diciti la vostra, ca la mia è ditta."

(Story written, story told; tell yours, for mine is told.) So in Venice,—

"Longa la tua, curta la mia;
Conta la tua, chè la mia xè finìa."

(Long yours, short mine; tell yours, for mine is ended.) The first line is sometimes as follows:—

"Stretto il viuolo, stretta la via;
Dite la vostra, ch' io detto la mia."

(Narrow the path, narrow the way; tell yours, for I have told mine.) The most common form of the above Tuscan ending is:—

"Stretta è la foglia è larga è la via,
Dite la vostra chè ho detto la mia."

(Narrow is the leaf, broad is the way, etc.) This same ending is also found in Rome.12 These endings have been omitted in the present work as they do not constitute an integral part of the story, and are often left off by the narrators themselves. The narrative is usually given in the present tense, and in most of the collections is animated and dramatic. Very primitive expedients are employed to indicate the lapse of time, either the verb indicating the action is repeated, as, "he walked, and walked, and walked," a proceeding not unknown to our own stories, or such expressions as the following are used: Cuntu 'un porta tempu, or lu cuntu 'un metti tempu, or 'Ntra li cunti nun cc'è tempu, which are all equivalent to, "The story takes no note of time." These Sicilian expressions are replaced in Tuscany by the similar one: Il tempo delle novelle passa presto ("Time passes quickly in stories"). Sometimes the narrator will bring himself or herself into the story in a very naive manner; as, for example, when a name is wanted. So in telling a Sicilian story which is another version of "The Fair Angiola" given in our text, the narrator, Gna Sabbedda, continues: "The old woman met her once, and said: 'Here, little girl, whose daughter are you?' 'Gna Sabbedda's', for example; I mention myself, but, however, I was not there."13

If we turn our attention now to the contents of our stories we shall find that they do not differ materially from those of the rest of Europe, and the same story is found, with trifling variations, all over Italy.14 There is but little local coloring in the fairy tales, and they are chiefly interesting for purposes of comparison. We have given in our text such a copious selection from all parts of the country that the reader can easily compare them for himself with the tales of other lands in their more general features. If they are not strikingly original they will still, we trust, be found interesting variations of familiar themes; and we shall perhaps deem less strange to us a people whose children are still amused with the same tales as our own.


1. There are some popular tales, chiefly Oriental in their origin, in the Cente novelle antiche (see the notes to Chapter III.), and Boccaccio and his imitators undoubtedly made use of popular material. These popular elements, however, are almost exclusively of the class of jests. The fairy tale, which constitutes by far the largest and most important class of popular tales, is not found in European literature until Straparola. For a few earlier traces of fairy tales in mediæval literature, see an article by the writer, "Two Mediæval Folk-Tales," in the Germania, XVIII. [New Series], p. 203.

2. The little that is known of Straparola and a very complete bibliography of his Piacevoli Notti will be found in an excellent monograph entitled, Giovan Francesco Straparola da Caravaggio, Inaugural-Dissertation von F. W. J. Brakelmann aus Soest, Göttingen, 1867. Straparola's work, especially the unexpurgated editions, is scarce, and the student will ordinarily be obliged to consult it in the French translation of Louveau and Larivey, of which there is an excellent edition in the Bibliothèque Elzevirienne of P. Jannet, Paris, 1857. There is a German translation with valuable notes of the märchen contained in the Piacevoli Notti by F. W. Val. Schmidt, Berlin, 1817. Schmidt used, without knowing it, an expurgated edition, and translated eighteen instead of twenty-two popular tales.

3. The reader will find all the necessary references to Straparola's borrowed materials in Liebrecht's translation of Dunlop's History of Fiction, pp. 283, 493; in Brakelmann's dissertation above cited; in the French version in the Bib. Elzevir.; and in Grimm, II. 477.

4. A comparison of Straparola's tales with those of Grimm, and an analysis of those lacking in Schmidt's translation, will be found in Grimm, II. 477–481.

5. The imitations of Straparola will be found in Dunlop-Liebrecht, p. 284. It is impossible to say with absolute certainty that Perrault borrowed his "Chat Botté" and "Peau d'Ane" from Straparola. It is, however, quite likely. Perrault's stories appeared 1694–97, and twelve editions of the French translation of Straparola had been issued before that date.

6. The few details of Basile's life will be found in Grimm, II. 481, Liebrecht's translation, II. p. 316, and Taylor's translation, p. v. An article in a recent number of the periodical named from Basile, vol. II. p. 17, gives the conflicting testimony of a number of Italian writers as to Basile's birth and death. The writer has discovered a mention of Basile's burial in the church of St. Sophia at Giugliano, near Naples, and in a record of deaths kept in the same town, an entry stating that Basile died there on the 23d of February, 1632. The following are all the editions of which I can find mention: Naples, 1637, 8vo, 1644, 12mo, 1645, 1674, 1694 (Graesse), 1697 (Pitrè), 1714, 1722, 1728, 1747, 1749 (Liebrecht), 1788, Collezione di Tutti i Poemi, etc.; Rome, 1679, 1797 (Pitrè). Italian translations appeared at Naples in 1754, 1769, 1784, and 1863, and in Bolognese at Bologna, 1742, 1813, 1872, and at Venice in 1813. The editions used in the preparation of this work will be found in the Bibliography. In spite of the numerous editions above cited, the Pentamerone is a very scarce work, and the scholar will usually have to content himself with Liebrecht's excellent translation. Thirty-one of the fifty stories have been admirably translated by John Edward Taylor, London, 1848, 1850. The Pentamerone suffered the same fate as the Piacevoli Notti. It was not known, for instance, in Germany, until Fernow described it in his Römische Studien, Zürich, 1808, vol. III. pp. 316, 475, although Wieland had taken the material for his "Pervonte" from the third story of the first day.

7. The frame of the Pentamerone is the story of the "False Bride:" see Gonz., Nos. 11, 12; Pitrè, No. 13; Imbriani, "'E Sette Mane-Mozze;" and Hahn, Nos. 12, 49. Grimm, II. p. 483, gives the stories in the Pent. which have parallels among his own Kinder- und Hausmärchen. The notes to Liebrecht's translation are to be supplemented by the same author's additional notes in his translation of Dunlop, p. 515.

8. This story is usually printed with Perrault's tales, but its author was really Mlle. Lhéritier. See the latest edition of Perrault's tales, Les Contes de Charles Perrault, par André Lefèvre, Paris, Lemerre, 1875, p. xli.

9. See Dunlop-Liebrecht, p. 408 et seq.; and Grimm, II. p. 489 et seq.

10. References to four of the five stories will be found as follows: I., Pitrè, vol. IV. pp. 372, 375; II., Pitrè, ibid. p. 381; III., Nov. fior. pp. 93, 112, Pitrè, No. 36; V., Pitrè, vol. IV. p. 391. The two editions of Naples, 1684 and 1751, are extremely scarce and the student will be obliged to have recourse to the edition of 1789, contained in the Collezione di tutti li poeti in lingua Napoletana.

11. Pitrè, vol. I. p. xliii., mentions some other names, as, rumanzi by the inhabitants of Termini, and pugaret by the Albanian colonists. To these may be added another Milanese appellation, panzanega.

12. Other endings are given by Imbriana, Pomiglianesi, p. 129:—

No' nce n'è cchiù.

(Cuccurucù, there is no more.)

Ss' 'o vuo' cchiù bello, t' o dice tu.

(Cuccurucù, if you want it finer, tell it yourself.) See also Pitrè, vol. I. p. 196, note 2. The most curious introductions and endings are those in De Nino, Usi e Costumi abruzzesi, vol. III. There is no general formula, but each fiaba has one of its own. Some are meaningless jingles, but others are quite extensive poems on religious subjects. Among these may be found legends of various saints, St. Nicholas, p. 335, etc.

13. An interesting article might be written on the Italian story-tellers, generally illiterate women, from whose lips the stories in the modern collections have been taken down. Some details may be found in Pitrè, vol. I. p. xvii. (repeated in Ralston's article in Fraser's Magazine).

14. Any attempt at an explanation of these facts would lead into the vexed question of the origin and diffusion of popular tales in general. We cannot refrain, however, from calling attention to a remark by Nerucci in the preface to his Nov. pop. montalesi, p. v. He thinks that the Italian popular tale will be found to have much the same origin as the Italian popular poetry, that is, that very much is of a literary origin which has usually been deemed popular. This is undoubtedly true of many stories; but may not two versions of a given story, a popular and a literary one, have had a source common to both? A very interesting study might be made of the Italian popular tales in their relation to literary versions which may be the originals.

The most valuable contributions to the question of the origin of Italian popular tales are those by Pitrè in the first volume of his Fiabe, pp. xli.–cxlv., and in the same author's Nov. pop. tosc. pp. v.–xxxviii.