Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Luigi Capuana: Unlikely Spinner of Fairy Tales?

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Luigi Capuana: Unlikely Spinner of Fairy Tales?

Article excerpt

Le fiabe saranno il lavoro pel quale probabilmente vivra il mio nome.

[Fairy tales will probably be the work through which my name will live on.]

- Luigi Capuana, December 31, 1882

Luigi Capuana s first collection of fairy tales appeared on the market in 1882, just after the publication of his novel Giacinta (1879) and Giovanni Verga's literary masterpiece I Malavoglia (1881). It would be natural to ask why an exponent of verismo, who had modeled his novels on French naturalism, had studied Hegel, and had written essays on realism, would dedicate himself to the production of fiabe, a genre described by Capuana himself in the preface to his first collection of fairy tales, Cera una volta . . .fiabe as "contraria al carattere dell'arte moderna" ("contrary to character of modern art") (Jutte le fiabe 1: 28). Further investigation indicates, however, that the fiabe neither represent moments of evasion nor function as a simple tonic to verismo and positxvismo, but instead are closely tied to the literary roots and the personal memory of the author.

Luigi Capuana's first fairy tale, "La Reginotta," was the culmination of a long process begun when he was still a child, enchanted by the voices of his Zia Angiola and the novellatrici di Santa Margherita (the female storytellers of Santa Margherita) who narrated the tales of Sicily in the square of his hometown, Mineo. Clearly, Capuana's relationship with fiabe is complex and articulates itself in myriad ways in his life and work. In the era when great European folkloric collections were born, the author, known around his town as "don Lisi," transformed himself into an erudite researcher and collector of tales. His collaboration with two important scholars and folklorists (demopsicologi, or psychologists of the people), Lionardo Vigo and Giuseppe Pitre, in a certain sense validated Capuana's desire to study with a scholarly eye the rich patrimony of Sicilian tradition.

Bom on May 28, 1839, to a wealthy bourgeois family in Mineo, Sicily, Luigi Capuana felt stifled as a child by the traditional schooling that forced him to endure hours of inactivity while the colorful and lively life in a small town in the province of Catania churned around him. The young Capuana could often be found joyfully listening to the local townspeople and his elderly aunts spinning their tales about kings, queens, reucci, and reginotte (terms used by Capuana in his tales to indicate princes and princesses), dwarves, wild men from the woods, and invisible merchants who lived in the hills outside of Mineo. 1

The oral stories included fairy tales and local myth, but Capuana's imagination was most stimulated by their connections to traditional Sicilian folklore. At a very young age, Capuana discovered that storytelling was an effective communicative device, rooted in the oral tradition and immune to differences in class, gender, or age. Told among peasants or princes, adults or children, stories unite the storyteller and his authence. Once he forms a bond with his authence, a fabulist can employ the act of storytelling to disseminate information about their common reality.

Attracted to local lore during his adolescence, Capuana became a keen observer and student of the oral tradition of Mineo; the fantasticherie, or reveries, of its farmers; and the popular tales and culture of its people. In Ricordi d'infanzia the author distinguishes between the dreams and the imagined realities of his youth, recalling the Sicilian folk belief in nocturnal phantoms called nonne, who would kidnap children from their beds as they slept:

Today when even science is beginning to occupy itself with visions and with apparitions, perhaps I should not say with dreams, more so because now I believe the dream to be a reality [. . .] One night [. . . in a dream] there appeared a very beautiful woman, dressed in white satin with braiding and gold embroidery. Her blonde hair shone around her head like a halo, but the features of her face and her eyes were motionless. …

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