Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

© ErN 87, Jeff Matthews    entry July 2003   
early collections of fairy tales

Giambattista Basile & The Tale of Tales (the Pentameron)

European nation states are now so well grounded in their respective national languages that we often overlook what a vibrant history many non-standard languages —"dialects"— have. Perhaps the recent (1976) granting of linguistic autonomy in Spain to three minority languages —Galician, Catalonian, and Basque— is a sign of some sort of backlash in Europe against overbearing language hegemony, or, at least, a recognition of the importance of smaller languages in the lives of people. It is, at least, an excellent example of how to defuse an issue often touted as potentially explosive —the rights of linguistic minorities.

The official language of Naples, of course, is Italian. It's what newscasters speak, it's the language of the print media and it's what kids learn in school. It is the national language of Italy because of its glorious literary tradition going back to the language of Dante and Boccaccio in 1300. It is the official language of Naples because southern Italy was made part of the rest of Italy by a series of wars in the 19th century, collectively called "The Wars of Unification" in history books. The spoken language of most of  the people in Naples, however, is the Neapolitan dialect, that southern brand of Latin vernacular with as long a history as the northern Tuscan vernacular upon which the national language is based.

[For a separate item on the Neapolitan language]

In the group of southern Italian literary figures since the Middle Ages who have expressed themselves in their native, southern language, one of the most important is Giambattista Basile (1575-1632), the author of Il Pentamerone or Li Cunto de li Cunti (The Tale of Tales), known in English as, simply, The Pentameron. It is the first published collection of European fairy tales. It is a frame-story like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio's Decameron; that is, the telling of tales is presented within the framework of a group of people passing the time by sharing stories. Basile's Pentamerone tells fifty tales over five nights, all of them in Neapolitan. The most famous of the tales is Zezolla, also known as "The Cat Cinderella," apparently the first published version of the famous fairy-tale, better known to English-language readers in a translation of the later French version by Perault. 

Basile was born in Naples and lived and wrote there. He also traveled to and wrote in Venice and Mantua, but always returned to Naples, where he was the court poet for various families of the nobility, including that of Stigliano Carafa. By 1620 he was among the most respected Neapolitan writers, known for both madrigals and odes in Italian as well as poetry in Neapolitan.

A German edition of The Pentameron

Pentamaron (German) book coverIt is, however, for The Pentameron that he is remembered. It is a valuable source for those who today study such things as comparative folk-tales in an attempt to pin down themes that crop up almost universally across cultures. At the time of Basile's death in 1632, no such lofty ambitions engaged most people, least of all Basile's sister, who put the collection of fairy tales on the back shelf somewhere while she tried to get her brother's other works in Italian some posthumous attention. Fortunately, that back shelf was on the premises of a local book-shop, the proprietor of which had a great love for literature in the vernacular; within a couple of years, the first few Neapolitan tales were published and by 1644 a complete version was published. 

The Pentameron was relatively late in finding a broader audience through translation, almost certainly because of the linguistic difficulties of the original version. Translators often worked from fragmentary French versions done in the 1700s. Complete versions in German and English did not appear until the early 1800s. Interestingly, a complete translation with scholarly notes in Italian (the original Neapolitan is hopelessly foreign to those in northern Italy) did not appear until 1920s when Benedetto Croce turned his attention to it. "The Cat Cinderella" tale in The Pentameron has gained more recent acclaim through the efforts of Neapolitan musicologist, Roberto De Simone, whose staged version of the tale has appeared throughout Europe in various languages. 

One might ask, Why would a poet who wrote odes and madrigals in Italian be fascinated enough by dialect fairy-tales to devote so much of his life to collecting them and writing them down? Not that everything needs to be explained, but at least one version says that Basile was more than a little uncomfortable with the opulence of the Baroque. He worked at the noble courts of Naples in the early 1600s—a time and place when the rich were very rich and the poor very poor. He had the reputation of being a modest person who went out of his way to be honest and to avoid displays of whatever wealth he possessed. Maybe, too, he was just fascinated by tales in which simplicity is a virtue, ones in which good is rewarded and evil punished. Or, maybe, he just liked a good story, like the rest of us: 

There was in that land an enchanted Prince so attracted by Nella's beauty that he married her in secret. And in order that they might see one another without arousing the suspicion of her wicked mother, the Prince crafted a crystal passage from the royal palace directly to Nella's abode, although it was many miles distant. Then he gave her a magic powder saying, "Whenever you wish to see me,  throw a little of this powder into the fire, and I will come to you instantly through this passage, as quick as a bird, along the crystal road to gaze upon this face of silver.

—from "The Three Sisters" in The Pentameron by Giambattista Basile

That's hard to beat.

[For another passage from The Pentameron, see this link.

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