Giambattista Basile

Giambattista Basile

Giambattista Basile (1566 or 1575 – February 23, 1632) was an Italian poet, courtier, and fairy tale collector.


Born to a Neapolitan middle-class family, Basile was, during his career, a courtier and soldier to various Italian princes, including the doge of Venice. According to Benedetto Croce he was born in 1575, while other sources have February 1566. In Venice he began to write poetry. Later he returned to Naples to serve as a courtier under the patronage of Don Marino II Caracciolo, prince of Avellino, to whom he dedicated his idyll "L’Aretusa" (1618). By the time of his death he had reached the rank of "count" "Conte di Torrone".

He is chiefly remembered for writing the collection of Neapolitan fairy tales titled "Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille" (Neapolitan for "The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones"), published posthumously in two volumes by his sister Adriana in Naples, Italy in 1634 and 1636 under the pseudonym Gian Alesio Abbatutis.

He recorded and adapted the tales, believed to have been orally transmitted around Crete and Venice, several of which were also later adapted by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm, the latter making extensive, acknowledged use of Basile's collection. Examples of this are versions of Cinderella, Rapunzel, Puss in Boots, Sleeping Beauty, and Hansel and Gretel.

While other collections of stories have included tales that would be termed fairy tales, his work is the first collection in which all the stories fit in that category. [Benedetto Croce, "The Fantastic Accomplishment of Giambattista Basile and His "Tale of Tales", Jack Zipes, ed., "The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm", p 879, ISBN 0-393-97636-X] Although he did not transcribe them from the oral tradition as a modern collector would, he wrote them in the dialect, and in many respects was the first writer to preserve oral intonations. [Benedetto Croce, "The Fantastic Accomplishment of Giambattista Basile and His "Tale of Tales", Jack Zipes, ed., "The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm", p 880-1, ISBN 0-393-97636-X] "Lo cunto" is known as the Pentamerone, a title first used in the 1674 edition, because it is constructed roughly upon the model of the "Decamerone" of Boccaccio.

The style of the stories is heavily Baroque, with many metaphorical usages, [Benedetto Croce, "The Fantastic Accomplishment of Giambattista Basile and His "Tale of Tales", Jack Zipes, ed., "The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm", p 881, ISBN 0-393-97636-X] such as referring to the dawn as
* "the Sun, like a chief physician, went out to visit the flowers that are sick and languid,"
* "The next morning, as soon as the shades of Night, pursued by the constables of the Sun, had fled the country,"
* "as soon as the Sun with his golden broom had swept away the dirt of the Night from the fields watered by the dawn".
* "as the Night, having aided the robbers, is banished from the sky, and goes about collecting the faggots of twilight"
* "as soon as the Sun opened his bank to deliver the deposit of light to the Creditor of the Day,"This has been interpreted as a satire on Baroque style, but as Basile praised the style, and used it in his other works, it appears to have no ironic intention. [Benedetto Croce, "The Fantastic Accomplishment of Giambattista Basile and His "Tale of Tales", Jack Zipes, ed., "The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm", p 882, ISBN 0-393-97636-X]


Although the work fell into some obscurity, as a work in dialect, the Brothers Grimm, in their third edition of "Grimm's Fairy Tales" praised it highly as the first "national" collection of fairy tales, fitting their romantic nationalist views on fairy tales, and as capturing Neapolitan voice. This drew a great deal of attention to the work. [Benedetto Croce, "The Fantastic Accomplishment of Giambattista Basile and His "Tale of Tales", Jack Zipes, ed., "The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm", p 888-9, ISBN 0-393-97636-X]

This collection (Basile's Pentamerone) was for a long time the best and richest that had been found by any nation. Not only were the traditions at that time more complete in themselves, but the author had a special talent for collecting them, and besides that an intimate knowledge of the dialect. The stories are told with hardly any break, and the tone, at least in the Neapolitan tales, is perfectly caught . . . . We may therefore look on this collection of fifty tales as the basis of many others; for although it was not so in actual fact, and was indeed not known beyond the country in which it appeared, and was never translated into French, it still has all the importance of a basis, owing to the coherence of its traditions. Two-thirds of them are, so far as their principal incidents are concerned, to be found in Germany, and are current there at this very day. Basile has not allowed himself to make any alteration, scarecely even any addition of importance, and that gives his work a special value.- Wilhelm Grimm


The Pentamerone is structured around a fantastic frame story in which fifty stories are related over the course of five days rather than the ten of the Tuscan compendium. The frame-story is that of a cursed, melancholy princess named Zoza ("mud" or "slime" in Neapolitan, but also used as a term of endearment). She can not laugh, whatever her father does to amuse her, so he sets up a fountain of oil by the door, thinking people slipping in the oil would make her laugh. An old woman tried to gather oil, a page boy broke her jug, and the old woman grew so angry that she danced about, and Zoza laughed at her. The old woman cursed her to marry only the Prince of Round-Field, whom she could only wake by filling a pitcher with tears in three days. With some aid from fairies, who also give her gifts, Zoza found the prince and the pitcher, and nearly filled the pitcher when she fell asleep. A Moorish slave steals it, finishes filling it, and claims the prince.

This frame story in itself is a fairy tale, combining motifs that will appear in other stories: the princess who can not laugh in "The Magic Swan", "Golden Goose", and "The Princess Who Never Smiled"; the curse to marry only one person, and that one hard to find, in "Snow-White-Fire-Red" and "Anthousa, Xanthousa, Chrisomalousa"; the heroine falling asleep because of saving the hero and so losing him to trickery in "The Sleeping Prince" and "Nourie Hadig".

The now-pregnant slave-queen demands (at the impetus of Zoza's fairy gifts) that her husband tell her stories, or else she would crush the unborn child. The husband hires ten female storytellers to keep her amused; disguised among them is Zoza. Each tells five stories — most of which are more suitable to courtly than juvenile audiences. The Moorish woman's treachery is revealed in the final story (related, suitably, by Zoza), and she is buried, pregnant, up to her neck in the ground and left to die. Zoza and the Prince live happily ever after.

Many of these fairy tales are the oldest known variants in existence. [Steven Swann Jones, "The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of Imagination", Twayne Publishers, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-8057-0950-9, p38] The fairy tales are:

The First Day
#The Tale of the Ogre
#The Myrtle
#The Flea
#Cenerentola — a variant of Cinderella
#The Merchant
#The Enchanted Doe
#The Three SistersThe Second Day
#Parsley — a variant of Rapunzel
#Green Meadow
#Pippo — a variant of Puss In Boots
#The Snake
#The She-Bear — a variant of Allerleirauh
#The Dove— a variant of Snow-White-Fire-Red
#The Young Slave -- a variant of Sleeping Beauty
#The Padlock
#The Buddy The Third Day
#Penta of the Chopped-off Hands
#Sapia Liccarda
#The Cockroach, the Mouse, and the Cricket
#The Garlic Patch
#The Booby
#The Three FairiesThe Fourth Day
#The Stone in the Cock's Head
#The Two Brothers
#The Three Enchanted Princes
#The Seven Little Pork Rinds
#The Dragon
#The Three Crowns
#The Two Cakes — a variant of Diamonds and Toads
#The Seven Doves — a variant of The Seven Ravens
#The Raven
#Pride PunishedThe Fifth Day
#The Goose
#The Months
#The Golden Root — a variant of Cupid and Psyche
#Sun, Moon, and Talia — a variant of Sleeping Beauty
#The Five Sons
#Nennillo and Nennella — a variant of Brother and Sister
#The Three Citrons — a variant of The Love for Three Oranges


The text was translated into German by Felix Liebrecht (1846), into English by John Edward Taylor (1848) and again by Sir Richard Francis Burton (1893) and into Italian by Benedetto Croce in 1925. A further English translation was made from Croce's version by Norman N Penzer in 1934. A new, modern translation by Nancy L. Canepa was published in 2007 from Wayne State University Press.


External links and resources

* [ "La vita di Giambattista Basile"] (in Italian)
* [ SurLaLune Fairy Tale Pages: Il Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile]
* [ Illustrations] by Warwick Goble
* [ Illustrations] by George Cruikshank
* [ Professor S. Cicciotti's page about G. B. Basile] (in Italian)
* [ Online text of some stories, in English (from Taylor translation)]
* "From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile's "Lo cunto de li cunti" and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale," Nancy L. Canepa (Wayne State University Press, 1999)
* "Giambattista Basile’s “The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones,”" Translated by Nancy L. Canepa, Illustrated by Carmelo Lettere, Foreword by Jack Zipes (Wayne State University Press, 2007)

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