In 1954 Giuseppe Cocchiara proposed to Einaudi to create a collection of the best Italian fairy tales from the various Italian regions. The publishing house – for which the ethno-anthropologist from Mistretta had published more than one writing and had been the inspiration for the Classics of fairy tales – accepted the proposal and handed the job over to one of his young collaborators, Italo Calvino. Calvino – whose birth centenary is today – is a writer in his early stageswho had been part of the Einaudi entourage for some time, of which he would become manager the following year, in 1947 he made his debut with «The path of the spider’s nest», a novel in neo-realistic style with the Second World War and the Resistance as a backdrop which was followed, in 1949, by the collection of stories «Last comes the crow» and, above all, the long story «Il viscount halved».
Above all, because «Il visconte dimezzato», published the same year in which Calvino began his study on fairy tales, inaugurates the cycle of «Our ancestors», the trilogy that decrees his affirmation and sanctions his aesthetic maturation marked by Cesare Pavese’s attraction to the fantastic and the fairy tale was already captured in his first novel: «Calvino’s cunning, the squirrel of the pen, was this: climbing the plants, more for fun than out of fear, and observing partisan life like a forest fairy tale, sensational, colourful, different” (L’Unità, 26 October 1947).
Calvino has great respect for Cocchiaraadmires his scientific rigor, his passion for research, his “gift of transmitting the pleasure of doing to others”, and, aware of the difficulty of the work that awaits him – accentuated by Italy not having had its Grimms or his Afanasjev – , begins an extensive correspondence with him. In November 1954 he went to Sicily and receives from the Sicilian scholar a conspicuous documentation coming largely from the Pitrè Fund, which he will define as a “conspicuous loot”. This is how Calvino, through and mediation of Cocchiara, he meets Giuseppe Pitrè, for which he has an immediate predilection: among those who, in nineteenth-century Italy, were involved in the research of popular fairy tales, the Palermo folklorist is in his eyes the one who did it with greater skill and scientific scruple. So much so that of the two hundred fairy tales that are transcribed and translated from their dialector in «Italian fairy tales», published in 1956 (and just republished in the Oscar Mondadori Baobab series), the lion’s share is made by the Sicilian ones: 44 of which 41 were collected by Pitrè.
The Cuban but Genoese-by-adoption writer considers Pitrè’s «Fairy tales, short stories and Sicilian folk tales» «the book of a scientist». On the other hand, Calvino is a man of letters who grew up in a family of scientists (his father was an agronomist, his mother was a naturalist), in his own way an “enlightenment” and in his narrative scientific observation and “exactitude” (to which he dedicated one of his , unfinished, «American Lessons») occupy a prominent place. This also explains his sympathy for the Palermo doctor who was passionate about demology.
And that his interest in Pitrè is not fleeting is demonstrated when in the essay «The popular tradition in fairy tales» of 1973 Calvino includes among «the major monuments of Italian popular fiction» «Peppi, spersu pi lu munnu», a short story that is part of what he called the “Pitrè galaxy”.
Calvino’s approach to the endless and evocative world of fairy tales is not easy: on the one hand he tries to catalog and give an organic arrangement to the vast material at his disposal, on the other he allows himself to be distracted by the desire for abandonment, as a reader and as writer, to their story-telling taste. In May 1955 he wrote to his guide Cocchiara explaining the method he was trying to apply: «For every fairy tale I read, I make a quick note; then I classify it based on numbered types that I have established for myself according to my needs and which I gradually increase with each type of encounter. Each type has its own card on which I write the title of the fairy tale; when I start drafting it soon, I will take the best variant of each type or subtype, possibly integrating it with others”. His is a “half-scientific” method which does not differ much from that of the Brothers Grimm: he sifts the raw material – the many fairy tales collected a century earlier – but then he roughs it out and selects to finally choose the most captivating versions, among the many,.
Calvino has fun with popular fairy tales: he plays with their variants, in some he finds a confirmation in specific literary works, such as in the «Diavolozoppo» which refers to Niccolò Machiavelli’s «Belfagor», he experiments with the taste of combinatorial literature which he will approach in his last creative period after joining the Oulipo group (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle) in France.
If for Leonardo Sciascia the most fascinating character of the fantastic Sicilian popular world is Giufà, for Calvino it is Colapesce (to whom in 2016 Donzelli dedicated a volume taken from Pitrè, with beautiful illustrations by Fabian Negrin). With whom he even identifies himself in his dive into the sea of fairy tales: «For me – and I was well aware of it – a cold leap, like diving from a diving board into a sea in which for a century and a half only people who are attracted not by the sporting pleasure of swimming in unusual waves, but by a call of the blood, almost to save something that is stirring down there and otherwise get lost in it without ever returning to shore, like the Cola Pesce of legend ».
A healthy immersion for Calvino thanks to which – and to his new Virgilio Cocchiara – the path to take to reach the highest aesthetic levels will be revealed to him: that of the fantastic and the game between rationalism and lightness.