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  • Fairy-Tale Science: Monstrous Generation in the Tales of Straparola and Basile
  • Stephanie Malia Hom (bio)
Fairy-Tale Science: Monstrous Generation in the Tales of Straparola and Basile. By Suzanne Magnanini. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008. 224 pp.

It is only appropriate that this review appear in Marvels & Tales, for Suzanne Magnanini's latest work reframes Giovan Francesco Straparola's and Giambattista Basile's literary fairy tales within the discourse of the marvelous, and in doing so, insightfully explores the relationship of these texts and their authors to the emerging body of scientific knowledge in early modern Europe. Magnanini has wisely focused on one marvel in particular-monsters-and investigates the mutually contiguous boundaries (or lack thereof) between fairy-tale monsters and those of the New Science. By situating these tales and their monsters in the cultural and historical context of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italy, they become "science fictions" insofar as Magnanini shows how Straparola and Basile "weav[ed] learned theories of monstrous generation into a genre that was understood by their contemporaries to contain only fiction and nonsense" (9).

Fairy-Tale Science represents an important scholarly contribution to the fields of folkloristics and Italian studies, for it is the first work to comprehensively compare the two most important collections of the Italian literary fairy tale: Straparola's Le piacevoli notti (1551-1553) and Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti (1634-1636). Typically, the scholarship has focused exclusively on either one or the other, or it has placed these works within a larger fairy-tale genealogy (i.e., Basile, Perrault, Grimm). For folklorists, this work will flesh out the textual specificity of the Italian literary fairy tale, introducing them to the vast scholarship on Boccaccio and the novella tradition begun in the fourteenth century, as well as Italy's epic tradition heralded by Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso, who published contemporaneously alongside Straparola and Basile. For Italianists, this work makes the case for folklore, showing how fairy tales can reveal just as much about historical milieux and cultural imaginaries as other literary forms.

Just as it contributes to different disciplines, Magnanini's study builds on work being done in many. First, it is indebted to fairy-tale scholarship-first and foremost, and in particular, the studies of Straparola and Basile by Ruth Bottigheimer and Nancy Canepa, respectively. Second, it engages the scholarship on "monster theory" born of Georges Canguilhem, and the more recent work on monsters in the Italian literary imagination. Finally, her employment of Stephen Greenblatt's research on the marvelous reveals Magnanini's clear ascription to the tenets of New Historicism. While she does not articulate it as such, her book pioneers what might be considered a sort of New Historicist reading of the Italian literary fairy tale; she shows how Straparola's and Basile's texts elucidate their historical and cultural landscapes, and vice versa, as well [End Page 423] as how text and context together illuminate an exceptionally complex historical moment-the birth of modern science.

A key question about the fortune of the literary fairy tale anchors this study. Magnanini asks why the genre essentially failed in Italy. Despite the enormous successes of Straparola and Basile, their works inspired few imitators at home, and the genre would have to travel abroad to find its successors in Madame d'Aulnoy, Charles Perrault, and the Grimm brothers. Magnanini's resulting analyses of shifting cultural and historical circumstances explain why the literary fairy tale died in Italy, even though birth-one that was simultaneously monstrous and scientific-was at its center.

The book is organized into seven chapters. The introduction and the first two chapters provide a basic introduction to the works of Straparola and Basile and detail the ambitious theoretical aims of this project. Chapter 1 explores the boom in teratology-the study of monsters-in sixteenth-century Italy, and demonstrates the confusion that existed as to "which monsters existed in nature and which were solely figments of the imagination" (15). This confusion, Magnanini argues in chapter 2, must be contextualized within the Aristotelian conceptions of the marvelous-that is, the "wonder" of the age. She makes the case for classifying Straparola...


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