The Pentamerone, or The Story of Stories/Preface
The reader will probably wish to know something of the author of this collection of tales, and I shall introduce the few remarks I intend to make with the following account of Basile and his writings, given by MM. Grimm in the Notes to the Kinder- und Haus-Märchen.
"In the seventeenth century a collection of Fairy Tales in the Neapolitan dialect, by Giambattista Basile, appeared in Naples, called, in imitation of the Decamerone, 'II Pentamerone,'—a work which has remained almost wholly unknown in other countries, and was first introduced to us by Fernow. The author, whose name was also transposed into Gian Alesio Abbattutis, lived at the beginning of the seventeenth century. After spending his early youth in the island of Crete, he visited Venice, and was admitted into the Accademia degli Stravaganti. He followed his sister Adriana, a celebrated singer, to Mantua, and entered the service of the Duke, whose favour he enjoyed. He travelled much in Italy, and returned to Naples, where he must have died about the year 1637. . . The numerous editions which the work has gone through would alone bespeak a certain value, but we may add that this collection of tales is indeed the best and richest that has been made in any country. Not only was tradition at that period more complete, but the author possessed peculiar skill in seizing upon it; in addition to which he had a perfect knowledge of the Neapolitan dialect. These stories are consequently almost entire . . . in two-thirds of them we observe the same leading features as in the German tales, existing to the present day. Basile has introduced no alteration, scarcely a single addition of any importance, and this circumstance gives his work a peculiar value. His narration has all the sportive, witty, and lively spirit of the Neapolitan people; he makes continual allusion to the manners and customs of the country, as well as to ancient history and mythology, an acquaintance with which is pretty generally diffused in Italy: in this respect these tales present a striking contrast to the quiet and simple style of the German stories."
Basile was also the author of an epic poem entitled 'Carlo Quinto,' and a 'Raccolta di Madrigali, Canzoni e Sonetti.' The Pentamerone first appeared in 1637, under the title of 'Lo Cunto de li Cunte, overo Trattenemiento de li Peccerille.'
Dr. Jacob Grimm, in his valuable preface prefixed to Mr. Liebrecht's German translation of this work, (of which I shall speak presently,) says:—"The reader of Basile's stories sees at a glance that the materials and the basis of them all are taken from existing tradition; and nothing proves the imperishable nature of these elements more than the circumstance, that even an extravagance of imagery, unsuited to their simplicity, fails to deprive them of their charm or injure them in any way. Straparola had previously produced a number of similar tales, taken directly from the people themselves, which are more broad and less animated; but wherever he comes upon the same ground as the Neapolitan, we must give the palm of imagination in all cases to Basile. . . How inexhaustible is the imagery with which in every page daybreak and sunset are described! and although these descriptions may often seem forced and misplaced, they are yet full of ingenuity and strictly in keeping. In the most graceful and varied similes is expressed the rushing of the stream, the murmuring of the brook, the depth and darkness of the forest shades, and the warbling of the birds; and in the midst of a torrent of Eastern imagery, the quiet and faithful observation of nature takes us by surprise. The language is rich to overflowing in similes, play upon words, proverbs and rimes, which our language is for the most part incapable of rendering; and we may notice here a peculiarity in these tales (which they share with all good ones of a similar character), namely a continual recurrence, in the important and descriptive parts of the narrative, of simple but inimitable rimes, which give animation to the narrator and fix the attention of the listener. Thus in Peruonto,—'Damme passe e ffico se vuoje che te lo ddico;' and in Cenerentola, 'Spoglia a te, e vieste a me.'"
Extravagant as Basile’s language and imagery are, we must recollect that a puerile fondness for concetti was characteristic of his age, in which the Italian language was in its decline. Few withstood the prevalent perverted taste, and the writings of Guarini, Testi, Chiabrera and Pascali are but partial exceptions. Basile however can scarcely be reproached with the bad taste of the Seicentisti, for the very excess of his conceits is their justification. In fact, as the author of Lo Vemaccliio (a Neapolitan critic of the last century) observes, not only are Basile’s images perfectly in the spirit of the Neapolitan people, but he, as well as his friend Cortese, frequently intended, by their purposed extravagance of metaphor, to burlesque the faults of the Seicentisti; thus skilfully drawing from them a new source of amusement, turning absurdity into humour, and legitimizing the follies of his age by giving them a different and original character.
I may here observe, that Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, one of our earliest specimens of heroic romance, offers several points of comparison with Basile's writings. In that jar of sweets we find continually recurring metaphors and expressions scarcely less extravagant, and often remarkably similar to those which Basile is so fond of employing. Take for instance the following:—
"It was in the time that the Earth begins to put on her new apparel against the approach of her lover, and that the Sun, running a most even course, becomes an indifferent arbiter between Night and Day," &c.
"O my Claius, hither we are now come to pay the rent for which we are so called unto by over-busie Remembrance."
"Upon this place where we last (alas that the word last should so long last),". . .
"To leave those steps unkissed where Urania printed the farewell of all beauty."
"Where the care of cunning chirurgions had brought Life to the possession of his own right, Sorrow and Shame, like two corrupted servants," &c.
"In the time that the Morning did strew roses and violets in the heavenly floor against the coming of the Sun, . . . rising from under a tree, which had been their pavilion, they went," &c.
"You have beaten your sorrow against such a wall, which with the force of rebound may well make your sorrow stronger."
"His joys so held him up, that he never touched ground."
Besides this similarity of style and language, we may note other points of coincidence, such as the "twenty specified shepherds, some for exercises and some for eclogues," in whom Basilius "taketh great recreation;" nay, the very description of the spot where the shepherds meet to entertain Basilius:
"A place of delight, through the midst of which ran a sweet brook, which did both hold the eye open with her azure stream, and yet seek to close the eye with the purling noise it made upon the pebbly stones . . . with such pleasant arbours that they became a gallery aloft from tree to tree, which below gave a pleasant refuge from the choleric look of Phoebus."
The oriental character of Basile's imagery is sufficiently striking, but it partakes more of that of the Persian than the Hindoo poetry, which Mr. Elphinstone well contrasts. In speaking of the figures employed by the two nations he observes: "Those of the Persians are conventional hints, which would scarcely convey an idea to a person not accustomed to them: a beautiful woman's form is a cypress, her locks are musk, in blackness, her eyes a languid narcissus, and the dimple in her chin a well. But the Sanscrit similes, in which they deal more than in metaphors, are in general new and appropriate, and are sufficient, without previous knowledge, to place the points of resemblance in a vivid light."
We can only conjecture where Basile collected these Stories; it is very improbable that all, if any of them, were indigenous in the south of Italy, and we may rather infer with Mr. Keightley that he met with them during his residence in Crete (which by the way Boccaccio also visited) and Venice. Left thus in doubt upon this point, it is interesting to open any source of inference as to their origin. The resemblance between some of the tales and the northern mythology mentioned by Dr. Grimm are most curious; as he well observes, "these are unquestionably the wonderful and last echoes of very ancient mythes, which have taken root over the whole of Europe, and opened in an unexpected manner passages of research which were considered to be closed up, and given the clue to the relationship of Fable in general."
Several writers have drawn largely upon the Pentamerone. Salvator Rosa gave a copy of the book to his friend Lorenzo Lippi, the Florentine artist, who embodied some of Basile's stories in his celebrated production, the "Malmantile racquistato," which first appeared in 1676,—a work, upon which, as Sismondi says, more pains and criticism have perhaps been bestowed than on any other Italian work, excepting the Divina Commedia. Carlo Gozzi in like manner borrowed materials from several tales in the Pentamerone, as the 'Cuorvo,' and 'Le tre Cetre,' which last is the basis of his drama, 'I tre Melarangole.'
It is not a little remarkable that so interesting a collection of tales, and one so popular that no less than ten editions of it appeared in Naples, had until the past year never been translated into any language out of Italy. But a circumstance scarcely less remarkable is, that, after this lapse of above two centuries, two translations should have been made, quite independently of one another, and given to the press nearly at the same time,—one into German by Mr. Felix Liebrecht, and the present one into English.
My attention was first particularly drawn to the Pentamerone in the year 1834, by the publication of Mr. Keightley's Tales and Popular Fictions, in which, and in his Fairy Mythology, he has given a translation of several of these stories. I had great difficulty in obtaining a copy of the work, which is very scarce in this country; but at length, through the kindness of a friend, I procured one from Naples. From that time to the present I have continued the translation of it at intervals of leisure, as inclination prompted, and have had about twenty of the stories lying by me nearly completed for several years. I had however no definite intention of giving them to the press, until the publication of my selection from the Kinder- und Haus-Märchen suggested to me the wish to give this volume of Neapolitan tales as a companion to the German collection. When I first began to translate, unaided by any vocabulary, the difficulties appeared insurmountable, not only from the peculiarities of the dialect, and the great number of words of foreign origin (Greek, Spanish, Arabic, Turkish, etc.), but from the continual allusions to local usages and manners, proverbs and idioms, which no one but a Neapolitan can interpret. In all these cases of difficulty I have received the valuable aid of my friend Mr. Rossetti, (himself a Neapolitan by birth), whose kindness I desire particularly to acknowledge. To my friend Mr. Keightley I am under an equal amount of obligation: he first encouraged me to undertake the work, and not only allowed me to reprint such stories as he had himself published, but liberally gave me several others which he had in manuscript; adding to his kindness the favour of revising the whole work as it went through the press, and comparing it with the original. And here let me bear my ready testimony to the erudition, ability and careful accuracy with which Mr. Liebrecht has executed his translation; and my gratification in expressing this opinion is the greater, because there is probably no person who can so fully estimate all the difficulties he has encountered as myself, simply from the circumstance of my having, like him, gone through the work word by word.
"The brothers Grimm," says Mr. Liebrecht, "have spoken of the unusual difficulties attending a translation of Basile, and I can only confirm what they have said in its fullest extent; and all the more, as I have not attempted to give a free translation, but to render the Pentamerone as exactly, and at the same time as German as possible, without injuring too much the peculiar colouring of the work."
In close fidelity to the original the present version follows the same plan as that of Mr. Liebrecht, but I have purposely avoided substituting an English for the Neapolitan dress; thus in all metaphors, proverbs, and even idioms, as far as was admissible, I have adhered to the original. The colouring ought, in my opinion, to correspond to the form; and the modes of thought, the turns of expression, and above all the proverbs,—those exponents of a people's character and mind,—contain a distinctive impress, and are on that account valuable. In the popular stories of Germany we feel this peculiarly, since both the language and the tales themselves spring from the soil, and indicate its nature. In Basile's stories, the very uncertainty of their origin—of the design of the picture—in my opinion imparts the greater value to the colouring given to them, and this is national and characteristic.
The reader will observe that each of the four first Days of the Pentamerone concludes with an Eclogue, or dialogue between two of the Prince's servants, given in imitation of the Canzone which concludes each Day in the Decamerone. These it would be almost impossible to translate, and, having no connection with the stories, they are here omitted. Their versification has great merit.
The Pentamerone contains fifty stories, of which I have given thirty. The gross license in which Basile allowed his humour to indulge is wholly inadmissible at the present day in a work intended for the general reader; the moral sense of our age is happily too refined and elevated to tolerate indelicacy. At the same time, as Dr. Grimm justly observes, such offensive license in style and language did not convey to the Neapolitan in the seventeenth century the same degree of coarseness as it does to our ears, simply because he connected with it very different ideas of propriety. Dr. Grimm advised Mr. Liebrecht to omit all the objectionable portions of the work in his translation, and I regret that he has not done so. I respect his scruples as a scholar to mar the integrity of the work; nevertheless, as all the most valuable portion may safely be retained, by the omission of some stories and the occasional modification of expressions, I think he has needlessly restricted the circle of his readers, and rendered his work, like the original, a sealed book to all except the scholar and literary student. For these reasons, and acting upon an opposite principle, I have omitted all those stories which I considered objectionable, and carefully removed all matter of offence.
In conclusion, let me express the hope that this work may find some readers inclined, with me, to attach to it a more serious interest than belongs to a mere collection of children's stories. "At the present day," says Dr. Grimm, "no excuse is required for applying to popular tradition the same earnest and accurate research which we have at length come to bestow upon the language and songs of the people at large. These stories may continue, as they have so long done, to cheer and to amuse; but they now lay claim also to a philosophical character and worth, which acquires for them a much larger and more general acknowledgment." At the same time this volume will, I hope, likewise prove attractive to my younger readers, who may derive pleasure and amusement from a ramble in the Fairyland of the South.
J. E. T.
London, Dec. 21, 1847.
- Römische Studien. The various rare editions which Fernow collected are now in the Grand Ducal Library at Weimar.
- His full title was Il Cavalier, Conte di Torrone and Conte Palatino, and his portrait is given in "Le Glorie degli Incogniti," (p. 209,) of which Society he was member. There were other authors of the same name:—Domenico Basile, Giovan Battista Basile of Catania, a doctor of theology, and another Battista Basile of Palermo.
- Adriana of Mantua—for her beauty called "la bella Adriana"—and her daughter Leonora Baroni, were the finest singers of their day in Italy. A volume of poems in Adriana's honour was published in 1623, entitled 'Teatro della gloria d'Adriana.' Another volume, in Greek, Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish, in praise of Leonora, was printed at Rome in 1636, called 'Applausi poetici alle glorie della Signora Leonora Baroni.' M. Maugars, in his 'Discours sur la Musique d'ltalie,' printed in Paris in 1672, has given a long account of Leonora and her mother. "I must not forget," says he, "that one day she did me the particular favour to sing with her mother and sister: her mother played upon the lute, her sister upon the harp, and herself upon the theorbo. This concert so powerfully captivated my senses, that I forgot my mortality, et crus étre déjà parmi les anges." Milton was introduced to Adriana and her daughter and heard them play at the concerts of Cardinal Barberini at Rome; he has celebrated Leonora in three of his Latin Epigrams, and in an Italian Canzone.
- I much regret that I have not space to give this entire, as I had intended; it contains a critical examination of several of the tales. The student will also find many particulars relating to the Neapolitan writers and their works in Mr. Liebrecht's Appendix.
- Sir Philip Sidney attempted to introduce the Italian versification into England, and his songs "to the tune of a Neapolitan Villanell," and "to the tune of a Neapolitan song," may be mentioned here in connection with the class of songs referred to by Baaile at page 336.
- See infra, p. 235
- History of India, i. 293.
- An abridged and mutilated translation into the current language of Italy, appeared in Naples in 1754, and a reprint in 1769. Another translation into the Bolognese dialect appeared in 1742. Fernow also mentions a third into the Modenese.
- Even in Naples the work is almost unknown, and very scarce.
- I had in consequence been some time engaged in revising and completing my manuscript, and had actually two proof-sheets of the work lying before me, when I was informed that a German translation of the Pentamerone was announced. I instantly sent to Germany for a copy, and waited with no ordinary anxiety to see the execution of a work to which I had given so much thought and labour. At the same time I at once resolved to complete my translation independently from the Neapolitan. This plan I have scrupulously followed; line by line, and word by word, it has carefully been rendered from the original. I had neither the aid of Galiani's Treatise on the Neapolitan Dialect, nor of the Vocabolario Napoletano, until within the last few months, when the latter work was lent me by a friend. In fact the only assistance I had was derived from Fasano's 'Tasso Napoletano,' in which I studied the dialect by comparison.
- The reader will remark a frequent similarity to Irish expressions,—fora de li fora, 'beyond the beyonds'; fine del fine, 'the end of the end'; n'aseno, figlio de la mala fortuna, 'an ass, the son of ill-luck.' So Violet says at p. 138, "If I don't cut off your nose, it is only that you may smell the bad odour of your reputation."