- Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the Fairy Tale Tradition
Fairy Godfather is a monographic essay on Giovanni Francesco Straparola da Caravaggio's Pleasant Nights, a two-volume collection of stories published in Venice between 1550 (1551) and 1553, and reprinted more than twenty times in the following fifty years. The study consists of five chapters, two of which, about the two-thirds of the book, concern the author's biography and sociocultural context. I'll start this review by focusing on those chapters. Chapter 3, "A Possible Biography for Zoan Francesco Straparola da Caravaggio," tries to reconstruct imaginatively the biography of an author about whom very little is known. The facts we can be certain of are very few: the birth in Caravaggio, a rural village in the vicinity of Bergamo; a book of poetry published in 1508 (Opera nova [Venice, new expanded edition in 1515]); the move from Caravaggio to Venice; the publication of the two volumes of Pleasant Nights in 1550 (1551: the dedication is dated more veneto on 2 January 1550) and, in 1553, "ad instanza dell'autore" (i.e., at Straparola's own expense); no further participation of the author in the 1558 edition, allowing one to infer that his death occurred between 1555 and 1558.
On this meager framework Bottigheimer builds a completely fictitious biography, supported by no philological or documentary verification. She imagines that Straparola lived as "subaltern intellectual, assistant, or teacher" at a [End Page 317] noble house in Venice or nearby (Padova or Treviso), writing for others more than for himself; before that, she invents his humble childhood in Caravaggio by getting clues of Straparola's life and psychology from two tales: that of Fortunio (III, 4), where we read an account of the painful discovery of being an adopted child; and that of Zambò (V, 3), where we read about the long and uneven trip from Valsabbia (near Brescia) to Venice. Along the same lines is chapter 4, "Straparola at His Desk," in which Bottigheimer reconstructs the publishing iter and the structure of Pleasant Nights. One can overlook the startling invention of two dialogues between Straparola and the Venetian publisher Comin da Trino. But I would question the author's conclusion that volume two betrays the presence of a second author. This conclusion is based on the asymmetry of book II in comparison with book I and with the initial project (thirteen instead of ten nights, thirteen tales in the last night against five tales in all others), on some glaring errors that affect the frametale and individual tales, and on the weighty reuse, in the last two nights, of Morlini's Novellae translated from Latin. These imperfections in the Straparola collection have been noticed by other scholars and ascribed to a certain haste created by the success of book I and the desire to publish a second book; regarding the use of Morlini, previous scholars have seen a specific literary interest in bringing a little-known and semiclandestine text to life again. Even if we may not agree with this (Bottigheimer assumes that Straparola did not know Latin well and that he drew from well-known florilegia the few Latin passages in his collection), there is no compelling reason to believe that another author collaborated on book II; in any case, such hypothetical collaboration would exist only for nights 11 and 12, since Bottigheimer acknowledges that night 13 is by Straparola himself, as is the dedication, commonly written after completion of the book.
Pages of this kind may provide a fictional vision of the good old days (and the good old Venice), but they don't fit well into a scholarly monograph on an author of the Italian Renaissance. Moreover, these hypotheses underestimate the solid literary learning that underlies Straparola's oeuvre, as shown in the commentaries of Giuseppe Rua (Bari: Laterza, 1927) and Donato Pirovano (Roma: Salerno Editrice, 2000). They also neglect the significance of the noble and learned setting of the Pleasant Nights (where we find Pietro Bembo, Antonio Molino, Ottaviano...