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The Lion and the Unicorn 26.2 (2002) 150-168

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The Difficult Art of Making People Laugh:
Comic Children's Literature in Italy

Ermanno Detti


In Italy, comic or humorous literature has a long tradition, with roots that can be traced back to Greek and Roman comedy. In certain respects, this literature is distinct from that of other countries. In the English-speaking world, for example, laughter often erupts from comic action, which runs the gamut from pratfalls under a heap of tin cans to the grimace, from goliardic invention (or, in American terms, practical jokes among frat brothers) to the intelligently grotesque situation. In Italy, however, the humorous is derived not only from the situation, but also from word play, allusion, equivocation, the mordant witticism, and the paradoxical situation.

In the world of children's literature an authentic thread exists that is linked, in some respects, to popular fairy tales. Beginning with the nineteenth century, however, this thread assumed new characteristics, becoming a nursery rhyme or a tale written by an author. It is these nursery rhymes and these tales that have gratified children (and for this reason they have been so much loved by them), in some cases even in the not exactly cheerful schoolrooms of the period. In general, however, these texts, as we shall see, have nourished the imagination of children, especially during their leisure time.

At the base of this genealogy of enjoyment are two authors who are, surprisingly, almost unknown. The first is Giovanni Visconti Venosta (1831-1906), who lived in Milan. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Venosta composed the ballad La partenza del crociato ("The Crusader's Departure"), better known as Il prode Anselmo ("Anselmo the Valiant"), the story of a Crusader who departs, lance in place and bristling with arms, with the intention of liberating the Holy Sepulchre of Christ, but who dies of thirst because he is unable to get a drink of water: the poor devil is unaware that there is a small hole at the bottom of his helmet. And so every time the wretch attempts to get a [End Page 150] drink by first filling his helmet, the water leaks out, finally leaving the poor Crusader completely dehydrated.

The second is Luigi Sailer (1825-1885), also from Milan, the founder of the children's magazine Prime letture. Among other things, in about 1860 Sailer wrote a fairy tale for the little Savoy princess Carignano and gave it the title of La farfalletta ("The Butterfly"), better known as La vispa Teresa ("Sprightly Teresa"). The fairy tale has been rewritten, expanded, and parodied dozens of times by writers such as Trilussa, Sergio Tofano, Enrico Novelli (Yambo), and Lorenzo Stecchetti; it has been adapted for the theater and used, after being further adapted, in advertising campaigns for alcoholic beverages, soap, and even the propaganda of the Socialist Party. 1 It has become so well known that its author has lost his identity. In Italy everyone knows by heart at least the first verses of Vispa Teresa, but very few know who the author is or even that an author exists. Many think it is an anonymous popular fairy tale.

Referring to both Prode Anselmo and Vispa Teresa, Giampaolo Dossena speaks of two comic cycles and attempts to grasp the essence of this humor: "There is a yolk of the deliberately comical, around which wraps itself the albumen of the parodic, the caricatural, the unwittingly comic. . . . We would have plenty to talk about if one wished to inquire about that original yolk of the deliberately comic. I hear in it the foolishness of eighteenth-century Italian poetic language, which is uttering its death rattle, dying, putrefying" (v). Dossena is right. The brief stories about valiant Anselmo and sprightly Teresa are extremely simple and make us laugh because of the paradoxical situations. In Il prode Anselmo it is the blockheaded nature of Anselmo, who is punctilious about his armor and weapons, but does not manage to realize that his...


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