- The Pleasant Nights by Giovan Francesco Straparola
The Pleasant Nights promises to become an indispensable reference for narrative scholars, a long-hoped-for revised English translation and annotated edition of the Piacevoli Notti by Giovan Francesco Straparola (the first since The Nights of Straparola, by William George Waters, 1894) with a most informative and comprehensive introduction. Beecher’s text is the product of years of research and consultation of primary and secondary sources in more than four languages as well as published and unpublished oral narrative material, foreign editions of the Notti, and European collections of tales that were influenced by Straparola’s work.
First published between 1550 and 1553 in two volumes (later collected in a single volume in 1558), the Piacevoli Notti brings together seventy-five novellas, jests, farces, anecdotes, fables, and wonder tales, varying from fantastic to vulgar and irreverent in tone, with sometimes explicit contents. Underestimated in Italian literature (in favor of Boccaccio and Basile), this collection has come to occupy a pivotal role in folk- and fairy-tale studies, most notably because it includes seventeen texts that are the first ever written records of wonder tales, including the earliest instances of plots such as “Puss in Boots” (ATU 545) (XI.1: Costantino Fortunato).
Aside from the wonder tales, the entire nature of the collection raises fundamental questions about the interrelationships between oral and written texts. The Notti are inscribed in a narrative frame inspired by the Decamerone: during the Carnival period, on the island of Murano, in Lucrezia Sforza’s palace, ten young ladies take turns telling stories to their host and to a company of gentlemen to extend the joy of the evening balls, ending each of the thirteen nights with a riddle. Yet Straparola departs from the Boccaccian model and the tradition of the novellieri. We know hardly anything about this man or about his methods in compiling the Notti, but we do know that he brings together a variety of genres and elusively refers to them all in the proem as [End Page 147] favole (fables) written “not as he wished to write them, but as he heard them from the ladies who told them, neither adding nor taking anything away” (140). Indeed, whereas twenty-seven of Straparola’s seventy-five narratives have direct matches in literary sources, the rest do not (although these contain motifs that are common to stories that precede and follow them); thus most of the tales can be taken to represent the “first ‘hard evidence’ of their existence in the oral culture of the Renaissance” (39).
How much can this collection tell us about the folk scene of its time? Straparola presents these stories with varying styles, including dialects. Were those the styles of the folk? Was Straparola a proto-folklorist? How closely might these texts approximate the ways in which the stories were orally performed? Had Straparola “heard” them in the salotti, or did he hear them among the lower strata of the population and then present them to the salotti audience for the first time through this book? The Notti appears at a turning point in history, and it continues to supply material and to set challenges for the study of the dialogue between high and popular culture.
Beecher’s edition adds an invaluable voice to this dialogue. In his seven-part introduction (I, “The Straparola Dilemma, or the Biography of an Invisible Author”; II, “The Genre, Design, and Conventions of Le piacevoli notti”; III, “Polite Society and the Gaming Culture of Renaissance Italy”; IV, “Folk Culture, Wonder Tales, and Fairy Tales”; V, “The Enigmas”; VI, “The Publishing History of Le piacevoli notti”; VII, “The Translation and Editorial Procedures”), Beecher weaves a rich and revealing historical, political, literary, and social context around the collection, analyzing the different genres (in particular, the enigmas and wonder tales) as parts of a performance event shaped by the recreational practices of Renaissance society (veglie and gaming evenings), where “storytelling had gained a new venue for presentation, further enabling the movement...