Today, many people have the illusion that they know who Pinocchio is. They think that he is a wooden marionette who becomes a human boy; that he was swallowed by a huge fish; and that when he told lies his nose grew longer. (As a result of this last incident, for over a hundred years politicians have been caricatured with a lengthened nose when they prevaricate in public—most of all Richard Nixon, who already had a kind of Pinocchio nose.)
These people are right, but often in a very limited way. They know Pinocchio only from the sentimentalized and simplified Disney cartoon, or the condensed versions of his story that are thought more suitable for children. The original novel by Carlo Collodi, which today survives mainly in scholarly editions, is much longer, far more complex and interesting, and also much darker. The critic Glauco Cambon has called it one of the three most influential works in Italian literature (the others, he claims, are Dante’s Divine Comedy and Manzoni’s The Betrothed). For him, and those who know the real version, The Adventures of Pinocchio is not an amusing, light-hearted fantasy, but a serious fable about art and life. It is a story about growing up—and it is also, in essential ways, a story about growing up poor and Italian.
Carlo Collodi, whose real name was Carlo Lorenzini, was born in Florence in 1826, the first of ten children of household servants. When he did well in the local school, his parents’ employer paid for his further education in the hope that he would become a priest. This did not happen. Instead, after graduation Lorenzini went to work for a bookseller, and eventually became a liberal journalist, skeptical of both education and the Church. In Pinocchio school is something that all boys dread, and religion is hardly mentioned.
Originally, Pinocchio was published as a serial in the newspaper Il giornale per i bambini (“The Paper for Children”). It appeared in eight parts between July and October of 1881, and then in eleven more installments from February 1882 to January 1883. The form of the story was that of a picaresque novel, in which, perhaps because of the pressures of time, some of the chapters are more original and better integrated into the whole. Some of these episodes—for example those in which Pinocchio meets a giant serpent, is caught in a trap and made to serve as a watchdog, rides on the back of a pigeon, and is mistaken for a fish by a monstrous green-haired fisherman—are often left out of the condensed English-language versions.
The Disney film omits even more of the story, and changes it drastically. Geppetto, Pinocchio’s foster father, appears to be a prosperous toymaker, and the town where he lives looks Swiss or Bavarian: his workshop is full of music boxes and cuckoo clocks. In the original story, however, Geppetto is a desperately poor Italian woodcarver. When the film begins Pinocchio is …