Salma Hayek eating the heart of a sea dragon in Tale of Tales

IFC Films

Salma Hayek as a queen eating the heart of a sea dragon in Matteo Garrone’s film Tale of Tales (2015), adapted from a set of stories by Giambattista Basile

It starts with an act of indecent exposure. An old woman, maltreated and insulted outside the king’s palace, lifts her dress to reveal “a woodsy scene.” A series of events is set in motion that ultimately induces the king to call together the best storytellers of the realm to tell ten stories a day for five consecutive days to keep his pregnant wife happy. So we have the so-called pentameron, a backward nod to Boccaccio’s Decameron; written by Giambattista Basile (1575–1632) and published posthumously in 1634 under the title Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales) and with the subtitle “Entertainment for Little Ones,” it is the first authored collection of literary fairy tales in Western Europe.

But “entertainment for little ones” it most certainly is not. I first came across Basile’s work in Matteo Garrone’s film Tale of Tales (2015) and was struck by the focus on questions of family and belonging, still so essential to Italian life. Garrone intertwines three stories, all centered on kings, queens, princes, and princesses—emblematic families. Panoramic shots of the Italian landscape show walled towns topped by moated castles perched on lonely hilltops. None of the drama involves conflict or commerce between these distant, spectacularly segregated communities, or even within them; rather we have the drama of the passage from inside to outside, or outside to inside: leaving home to become a stranger, a wife perhaps; or inviting a daughter-in-law or son-in-law into one’s own small world. The self-sufficient family is the ideal: but to perpetuate themselves families must produce children, and that means looking outside to find a spouse, who is not one of them, hence potentially dangerous.

In one of the stories Garrone adapts, a handsome king on the battlements of his castle hears a beautiful female voice from the houses of the poor below. She sings so sweetly that he knows he must have this woman. But the door to the house where the singing came from is bolted against him. Inside are two ancient and unspeakably ugly sisters. However, the king doesn’t know that. What would he know about people outside his castle?

Fired up by the seductive voice, he declares his love. After eight days, one of the women pokes a finger through a keyhole for him to caress, a finger she has spent hours sucking and smoothing. The king is ecstatic. In her tiniest voice, one of the hags says she will come to his bed if he will agree to have her in complete darkness. He agrees. When, in the middle of the night, he discovers what she looks like, he calls his men and has her thrown out of his high bedroom window into the wild woods beneath the castle.

The story is far from over. In the woods there are fairies. Amused to find an old hag hanging by her hair from a tree, they cast a spell, transforming her into the most beautiful woman there ever was. Out hunting, the king sees her and immediately falls in love; this is the sort of creature he was after. “Don’t bar the door of pity against me,” he begs. “Don’t raise the drawbridge of mercy against me.” Amazed, she gives him his way and he takes her back to his castle. The two marry.

Still the story is not done. You can marry into a different world and leave your loved ones, but you cannot altogether forget them. Hadn’t our enchanted beauty spent her whole life with her poor sister? It’s the only company she has ever known. So she invites her to the wedding. Once the old crone recognizes her sister, she is overwhelmed with envy. She refuses to go back to her hovel. She is family; she deserves a place in the castle. But of course the king would never put up with such a loathsome in-law. “How did you do it?” the ancient sister demands. “I skinned myself,” the queen lies. She had been beautiful underneath.

Eager to be part of the new and glamorous family, the old hag goes to a barber and asks him to skin her. In the film these are not easy scenes to watch. Garrone shows very little—the barber sharpening his knives, the first incision—but the idea alone is upsetting. The old woman cannot accept that her sister is worthy of the king’s bed, while she has been abandoned. It is not enough that the queen promises to help her secretly. She demands respect and recognition. What she gets is unspeakable pain.

Another of Garrone’s selections presents a king so self-obsessed that he spends his time breeding his own body fleas, entirely ignoring the needs of his gorgeous daughter, who wants to get out of the family and start a life. Eventually, he breeds a flea as big as a pig, only to be afflicted by grief when it dies. Pestered by his daughter, he has the dead flea skinned, hangs up the pelt, and organizes a competition; the man who recognizes what animal it was can marry his daughter. Needless to say, all the nice young men the daughter yearns for have no idea. But a huge and horrible ogre is all too familiar with the smell of common fleas and with royal self-obsession. He gets the girl and carries her off to his lonely cave. If the king is the center of the world we know, the ogre condenses everything alien and threateningly erotic.


Garrone’s third story again uses the magical to focus on some spectacular family dysfunctions. A king is so depressed over his failure to have a child with his now aging queen that he isolates himself in his castle, ashamed of his sterility; there will be no further dealings with the wider world. But a bearded sage seeks out the king and offers a solution: capture a sea dragon, have a virgin cook its heart, then give it to the queen to eat. All is done as prescribed, and both the virgin (a common serving girl) and the queen immediately swell up and give birth to identical boys. This uncanny similarity and the ensuing close friendship between two children of such unequal status becomes a problem for the queen. She needs her boy to be unique and the families kept separate. Her attempt to murder the other boy forces him to leave home and set off into the wider world, where he immediately falls prey to an evil ogre.

Garrone’s film is gloomily gripping, charged with emotions central to so much Italian fiction: fear of abandonment, an obsession with worthy and unworthy family members, children forced into exile, and intruders breaking into families to bring discord. Intrigued, I decided to read Basile. But despite my nearly forty years in Italy this proved impossible, at least in the original. Lo cunto de li cunti is written in Neapolitan dialect, almost a language in its own right. The great Italian critic Benedetto Croce translated the tales into Italian in the 1920s and the scholar Michele Rak offered his own parallel Neapolitan/ Italian text in 1985. In English a much adulterated selection appeared in 1848, while Richard Burton offered an error-strewn version perhaps more imitation than translation in 1893. However, in 2007 the American scholar Nancy Canepa translated the whole text into English working directly from Basile’s original, and her version was then republished by Penguin Classics after the film’s release. To open the pages of any of these translations is to enter a world utterly different from that of Garrone’s film.

The reader familiar with Perrault or Grimm or Italo Calvino’s collection of Italian fables expects a certain dispatch in this kind of writing, an economy that allows the shape of the story to stand out before everything else. Basile is not like that. Instead we have the exuberance, outlandishness, and hilarity of an Italian Rabelais, or “a deformed Neapolitan Shakespeare,” as Calvino called him. Lists abound, proverbs proliferate, metaphors come in multitudes, insults are tirades, praise panegyric. The text teems with a good-tempered, baroque liveliness and endless allusions to Neapolitan customs of every kind. It is a unique reading experience.

Take the frame story that encloses the fifty others. The daughter of the king of Hairy Valley will not laugh, and the “miserable father, whose sole life breath was his only daughter,” calls on “hoop jumpers, acrobats, Master Ruggiero, jugglers, strongmen, a dancing dog, Vracone the jumping monkey, the ass that drinks from a glass,” and even “bitchy Lucia” to cheer her up. A footnote tells us that “bitchy Lucia” refers to an ecstatic whirling dance performed by “a man in blackface, dressed as an Oriental woman,” at whom the Neapolitan crowd yelled “bitch.”

The daughter doesn’t laugh. The king orders a fountain of oil to be set up outside her palace window, causing passers-by to “hop about like crickets, jump like goats, and run like hares, slipping and bumping into each other.” The princess is unimpressed. But when an old woman filling her jar with the precious oil has it broken by a stone thrower (one of many references to the Neapolitan passion for throwing stones), she insults him:

Ah you worthless thing, you dope, shithead, bed pisser, leaping goat, diaper ass, hangman’s noose, bastard mule!… [M]ay you suffer a thousand ills and then some with winds in your sails! May your seed be lost! Scoundrel, beggar, son of a taxed woman, rogue!

A footnote explains that Neapolitan prostitutes were taxed “two carlins per month.” The stone thrower gives back as good as he gets: “baby drowner, rag shitter, fart gatherer.” Furious, the old woman exposes herself. Up at her window, the princess bursts out laughing. Humiliated, the old woman curses her: she will never marry, unless to the prince of Round Field, who can only be awakened from his enchanted sleep by a girl who in just three days can fill the pitcher over his open tomb with her tears.


So the princess leaves her doting father to venture into the wide world. With fairy help she almost fills the pitcher, then falls asleep exhausted, allowing a “cricket-legged slave girl” to sneak in, cry a last tear or two to break the spell, and marry the handsome prince. Basile’s is not a politically correct text: a footnote explains that “cricket-legged” was a standard Neapolitan insult for people of Middle Eastern or North African origin.

Many of the stories present a young person duped into choosing the wrong partner, an error that will require all kinds of guile, magic, and narrative manipulation to sort out. In this case fairies help the increasingly astute princess to engineer a situation in which the deceitful wife of the prince, now pregnant, feels an irresistible craving to hear stories. Four hundred pages later it will be her undoing.

To tell the stories of his Decameron Boccaccio chose seven beautiful, witty, well-educated women and three fine young gentlemen. Basile has “lame Zeza, twisted Cecca, goitered Meneca, big-nosed Tolla, hunchback Popa, drooling Antonella, snout-faced Ciulla, cross-eyed Paola, mangy Ciommetella, and shitty Iacova.” A footnote tells us these are all ironic distortions of “noble names” common in Naples. The thrust of the project is now clear: Basile had spent his life as a courtier and government servant in various parts of Italy, putting together a respectable oeuvre of mainly conventional poems, plays, and stories written in the Tuscan Italian that was the country’s literary language; often he intended to flatter a duke or king to further his career. His use of the pseudonym Abbattutis—meaning downtrodden or depressed—suggests how frustrating he found it all.

But now, in middle age, he would take time out from the social climbing and the nascent individualism of the modern court to evoke the earthy energy of an older, tight-knit Neapolitan community. The use of dialect is a declaration of belonging, as it still is in modern Italy; only a native speaks dialect. The tales he collected are packed full of references to the world of local people, so that the reader—or more likely listener, for they were probably intended to be read aloud—would feel exactly that secure sense of shared community so precious to the people who populate these stories.

One example must do for all: having injured the king’s son in a stone-throwing fight, a young man is forced to leave Naples in haste but turns back to gaze at the city with a heavy heart:

Here I go, my beautiful Naples, I’m leaving you! Who knows if I’ll ever be able to see you again, bricks of sugar and walls of sweet pastry, where the stones are manna in your stomach, the rafters are sugarcane, the doors and windows puff pastry?

There follows a long, heavily footnoted list of the various parts of town and their different activities, ending with this tribute to local cooking:

Farewell, carrots and chard; farewell, fritters and cakes; farewell, broccoli and pickled tuna; farewell, tripe and giblets; farewell, stews and casseroles! Farewell, flower of cities, glory of Italy, painted egg of Europe, mirror of the world!… I leave you to become a widower of your vegetable soups; driven out of this dear village, O my cabbage stalks, I must leave you behind!

The problems for a translator are evident. The modern American reader will not feel the powerful emotions roused by the dialect or pick up the allusions to local mores or recognize the proverbs Basile so frequently quotes but also slyly distorts and subverts. On the other hand, to eliminate all this, or worse still to bowdlerize it, would rob the work of much of its energy and purpose.

An engraving for Basile’s tales, 1848
An engraving by George Cruikshank for an English translation of Basile’s tales, 1848

Canepa steers a middle route, delivering a highly readable prose that mixes modern vulgarity with a vaguely proverbial aplomb (“every piece of shit has its own smell”), often refashioning old Neapolitan sayings into something credibly contemporary (“they were given pizza for pasty”), and never failing to use footnotes to offer the curious reader a sense of the rich life beneath the surface of the story. You can learn that in court a bankrupt would have to bare his buttocks and touch them against a stone column, that tight socks were fashionable for the upper classes, that dice were made from bones and ink was a popular remedy for burns, that parents might ask for their unruly child to be briefly incarcerated in the public dungeon, and so on. Explanations of children’s games, gambling habits, and dances are also generously provided. In short, always acknowledging her debt to Croce, Rak, and others, Canepa gives us an entire world, and gives it in the liveliest possible way.

Basile structures his encyclopedic ebullience fairly rigidly; each storyteller opens with a barrage of proverbs that her tale is supposed to exemplify, then bows out in the same manner once it is over. Since the proverbs are comically inadequate to describe the complexity of the action and since the stories often end in unpredictable fashion, critics observe that Basile doesn’t offer the moral schematism or didacticism discernible in later fable collections. His Cinderella, for example, far from being a sweet, obedient girl, murders a first stepmother only to find herself saddled with a worse one. No doubt this apparent waywardness and the work’s ease with obscenity explain why it was never a favorite with the Catholic conformism that still plays such a large part in shaping Italian culture. You are not, for example, going to find Basile on the national school syllabus.

Yet though virtues and vices may not always line up with happy and unhappy endings, there is never any doubt as to what is proper behavior in these stories. As Basile runs the gamut of family situations—brothers who want to marry sisters so as not to have to look outside the family, promiscuous daughters and daughters determined to remain forever virgins, brilliant children and dumb children—it’s evident that blood relationships must be respected: a brother must go to the end of the earth to help a sister and vice versa, a father must not obstruct his daughter’s future, a son must help his parents to find the money to marry off his sisters, and so on.

There is little that is Christian here. The only people who offer assistance to those who are not family are fairies, or in some way magical. For ordinary people altruism is not on the agenda. Somebody outside the family who has behaved badly can be mercilessly punished without the slightest compunction. So the deceitful slave girl in the frame story will be “buried alive, with only her head above ground, so that her death would be more tortured.” No one objects. Amid all the rich detail of Neapolitan life, the word “church” does not appear once; neither Jesus nor the Madonna is mentioned. In contrast to the Decameron’s satire of everything ecclesiastical, priests get only the most oblique of mentions in the dumplings known as strangolaprievete, priest stranglers. Nor is there so much as a hint of the kind of spirituality that was the constant concern of the painters of the time; nobody prays, nobody agonizes.

Why Basile would exclude such a large part of the Neapolitan life he was otherwise meticulously cataloging is not clear. It’s true that Naples was the only major Italian city to have kicked out the Church’s inquisitors in the mid-sixteenth century, and that Basile was writing at a time of fierce religious polarization when an anticlerical stance might have gotten him into trouble. Or perhaps it was precisely because the modern world of the court, the advances of science and technology, and the debate between rationalism and Catholicism were making such inroads into popular culture that Basile set out to record and celebrate that culture in all its premodern, pagan vitality.

So while Christianity is conspicuous for its absence, references to the sun, the moon, the stars, and the night abound. Every dawn and dusk is recorded with some elaborate metaphor: “When with both hands the Sun brandished its broadsword of light in the middle of the stars, shouting, ‘Out of my way, scoundrels’!,” or “And as the Sun, like an unsuccessful whore, began to change quarters,” or “Before the Sun unpacks the merchandise of its rays at the customshouse of the East.” Below every human activity lies the deep determinism of the natural world and the inexorable passage of time, hence the need to accept the seasons and the different prerogatives of youth and age. “Those who oppose the stars are crazy,” ends one story, which does not mean one cannot try to improve one’s lot with a little guile.

Certainly Basile was constantly looking for ways to improve his own life, and was frequently disappointed. In her introduction, Canepa argues convincingly for the presence of autobiographical elements in the tales. “Hapless is he who is condemned to live in that hell that goes by the name of court,” we hear in one story, “where flattery is sold by the basket…deceit and betrayal weighed by the bushel!”

Between each of the five days of ten stories, Basile inserts an eclogue in which two courtiers discuss such things as a crucible that can reveal the dark reality behind the bright appearance, or a dye used to mask the deeper motivations of the apparently virtuous, or a “hook” that becomes a metaphor for all the grasping ways people seek wealth at others’ expense. Effortlessly cataloging depravities of all kinds, the eclogues are less attractive than the tales, but give us a better sense of Basile’s position in relation to them. Fortunately, he himself was rescued from a languishing court career by his sister, Adriana, just as so many of his fairy-tale heroes are saved by their siblings. Having achieved fame for herself as a singer, she drew attention to her brother, first in Naples and again at the renowned Gonzaga court in Mantua, and it was she who published The Tale of Tales after her brother’s death. Even at court, family was all.

Since Basile’s stories spring from an oral tradition, it’s appropriate that Canepa’s translation is available as an audiobook. To establish the contrast between court and commonality, a plummy, male BBC voice reads the introductions to each day while ten women with strong American accents of various kinds perform Basile’s gutsy storytellers. Crude as this may seem, it works. After some initial disorientation, the vitality of Basile’s writing takes over, and however much might be lost in translation, the meshing of the folk content and baroque verbosity plays out wonderfully. As when experiencing any masterpiece from the past, the listener is bound to reflect that there is no progress in the arts, only milestones of excellence pointing up deserts of bad behavior. Basile’s fellow Neapolitan and writer Domenico Rea remarked of these stories in 1984, “There is no pleasure and no brutality that is not contemplated there.”