Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Fruit of Love in Giambattista Basile's "The Three Citrons"

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

The Fruit of Love in Giambattista Basile's "The Three Citrons"

Article excerpt

"The Three Citrons" is the forty-ninth fairy tale in Giambattista Basile's The Tale of Tales, Or Entertainment for Little Ones, the last story before the conclusion of the frame narrative.1 Basile's book is also known as the Pentameron, the title chosen by its first publisher; it was posthumously published in Naples in 1634-1636 and is generally regarded as the oldest published collection of fairy tales in Europe. The Pentameron contains several tales that later became classics of the genre (including "Cinderella" and "Rapunzel") and is thus a crucial point of reference in fairy-tale studies. "The Three Citrons" in particular ("Le tre cetra" in the original Neapolitan) is the earliest printed version of the ATU 408 tale type, known as "The Three Oranges," and it is associated with the Mediterranean region.2

Given this primacy and the emphasis given to citrons in Basile's tale, it is noteworthy that the best-known instances of tale type ATU 408 do not contain citrons at all. For example, in a footnote to his 1956 adaptation of ATU 408, "The Love of the Three Pomegranates," Italo Calvino states that there are "forty other Italian versions" of this fairy tale; they feature a variety of fruits, including, Calvino catalogs, "watermelons, lemons, oranges, apples, pomegranates, or melangole (which means in some places 'oranges,' in others 'bitter oranges')" (738). Basile's version of ATU 408 does not feature any of the popular fruits listed by Calvino some three centuries later. Rather, the fruit from which this early version derives its title, the citron, is today among the least known in the citrus family and is hardly ever encountered other than in its candied form. It is a fruit whose yellow-green color, bitter and sour flavor, and even masculine grammatical gender (tree fruit in Italian often takes the feminine gender) make it an odd choice for symbolizing and containing a female object of desire- unlike, say, the pomegranates of Cal vino's version, which are white, red, and sweet like the protagonist's longed-for wife as well as grammatically feminine.

Basile's Baroque esthetic certainly relies on odd contrasts and surprising turns of phrase, and readers may be inclined to overlook the strangeness of the citron. Nevertheless, Basile's literary choice of citrons as the botanical sign of love, sex, and desire in this particular fairy tale is not quite as odd or surprising as it might at first appear when it is contextualized within the early modern cultural representations of citrus fruit, especially the 1501 Latin poem dedicated to citrus fruit, De Mortis Hesperidum, sive de Culta Citriorum (On the Garden of the Hesperides, or About the Cultivation of Citrus), by Basile's fellow Neapolitan writer Giovanni Gioviano Pontano. Citrus and citrons, in Basile's and Pontano's texts, are the literary signifiers of Neapolitan and, more generally, Campanian geography: its beauty, antiquity, and resilience. It is well-known that the Pentameron is tightly connected to the cultural geography of Naples and Campania, most obviously through its language: the book is written in a Baroque, highly literary Neapolitan dialect, where even the proper names of places and characters are given in Neapolitan rather than Italian.3 Basile's is also a book that draws heavily on Neapolitan folklore and customs, including proverbs, songs, games, and food. "The Three Citrons," in addition to including several of these Neapolitan elements, takes its title and main metaphor from a plant, the citron, that was by the seventeenth century firmly identified with the region of Naples and Campania-thus embodying, as the sign of popular agriculture and of elite culture at once, the hybrid nature of Basile's fairy tales as a genre.

But first, the tale. "The Three Citrons" features a king's son whose notable trait in the beginning of the story is an absolute refusal to take a wife, much to his father's chagrin.4 One day at table, upon slicing some ricotta with a knife, he cuts one of his fingers, and the sight of blood spreading on the white cheese makes him wish for a wife with a complexion as white as the ricotta on his plate and as red as his own blood. …

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