In its original version, the Adventures of Pinocchio paints a complex vision of childhood and the movement to adulthood. A new illustrated version unearths the nuances of this Italian classic.
Few professors boast as broad a readership for their work as Nancy Canepa. A scholar of sixteenth- and seventeenth- century Italian literature, Canepa has a special interest in literary fairy tales, those familiar stories that continue to appeal to children and adults alike even after centuries of retelling. Although she doesn't write tales herself, Canepa's scholarly book about an early collection of Italian tales earned her the prestigious Howard R. Marraro Prize from the Modern Language Association (MLA) in 2000. While this work was of great interest to scholars, Canepa recently completed a project accessible to her daughter's fourth-grade class: an illustrated translationof Carlo Collodi's The Adventures of Pinocchio from the original Italian, which she read to the students over several months. The project, a collaboration with her husband, illustrator Carmelo Lettere, was published by Steerforth Press last fall.
"This story can be read with profit by both children and adults," says Canepa. Although familiar to many Americans only through the 1940 Disney film version, the original book about Pinocchio is considered among the classics of Italian literature, along with The Divine Comedy and The Decameron. The story has been adapted, rewritten, and illustrated countless times since first appearing in serialized form from 1881 to 1883 in an Italian children's magazine. In fact, according to the Carlo Collodi National Foundation, the book lags behind only the Bible and the Koran for the greatest number of copies in print. At least eighteen cinematic versions of Pinocchio have been produced since 1911, including last fall's live-action film featuring Academy Award-winning actor Roberto Benigni.
Canepa describes Pinocchio as a "cultural icon" in Italy, where entire shops are devoted to him and he is often portrayed wearing red, white and green, the colors of the Italian flag. Since Pinocchio's creation followed shortly after the period of Italy's unification, which ended in 1870, some scholars surmise that the carefree puppet who becomes a boy is a metaphor for the creation of a "new citizen" coming to terms with the changes and problems the country was experiencing at the time.
"Critics who read Pinocchio this way see the puppet as representing the immature, often anarchic, state of a people unfettered by the duties of nationhood, who are then forced to 'grow up' and become accountable social subjects," says Canepa, who has taught at Dartmouth since 1989.
But the story is more often seen as an allegory for the transition from childhood to adulthood, which Collodi presents in an ambivalent light.
"On the one hand, Pinocchio is encouraged to aspire to be a real boy, and thus to become a respectable, hard-working community member, but on the other hand, the world that he'll become part of is generally not portrayed as being very positive. Social conditions are harsh, physical hardship is always around the corner, and those who fall between the cracks or try to beat the system are treated with indifference or cruelty. Representatives of institutions that should tend to the physical and social fabric - such as doctors, police, judges - are generally unjust, corrupt, or dangerously inept," says Canepa.
"Moreover, there's a sense that when Pinocchio becomes a real boy, he not only gives up his carefree ways, but also his kindness of heart and some of the other good qualities we've seen in him throughout the book. It raises the question of what 'coming of age' really means," she says.
This uncertainty likely mirrored Collodi's own complex vision of the world. The author, whose real name was Carlo Lorenzini, was a versatile writer who began his career as a journalist, but also plied his trade as a children's writer. In the late 1800s, as Italy worked to create a curriculum for its newly created national public school system, Collodi wrote scholastic texts that combined pedagogical lessons with storytelling. (Pinocchio is, notably, not among those texts.) However, he was also vocal in his doubts about the importance of compulsory schooling while other, more immediate problems such as hunger and poverty still threatened children. Those doubts surface repeatedly in the Pinocchio story.
"Pinocchio always seems to be talking about or trying to go to school, but we never get a sense of what he gains from it when he finally gets there," Canepa says. "There's a scene where Pinocchio and his classmates, who have cut school that day, use their school books, including several books by Collodi himself, as ammunition in a fight. One of the boys is presumed dead when he's hit in the head by a book, which seems to say something about the negative power of the written word. And then, when some of the books fall into the sea and the fish try to eat them, they spit them back out, concluding they're not fit to be consumed." When Pinocchio finally becomes a responsible and studious boy in the end, it's because he took on the task himself at home, not because of school, she adds.
Technically, Pinocchio doesn't fall into the fairy tale genre but is part of a body of new fantasy tales that emerged in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Books such as Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz, and Alice in Wonderland integrated fairy tale motifs into original stories. Less formulaic than traditional fairy tales, these newer stories came at a time when there was a burgeoning interest in creating literature that specifically addressed childhood issues; however, Pinocchio and similar works approached these issues in ways pertinent to both children's and adults' experiences. In many cases, as with Collodi's story, their authors often toyed ironically with conventions of more orthodox pedagogical tales and novels as well.
Canepa's work with Pinocchio has reinforced her interest in writing a cultural history of the Italian fairy tale from its origins in the 1500s to the twentieth century. The first literary fairy tales - those that were authored as opposed to just being shared orally - date back to sixteenth-century Italy. As the commercial and cultural heart of western Europe for much of that time, the country was a crossroads for the exchange of ideas and folk tales.
The most comprehensive early collection of fairy tales put on paper was Giambattista Basile's Lo cunto de li cunti (The Tale of Tales), which Canepa is currently translating, again in collaboration with her husband. Published in serial form from 1634 to 1636, the book is less known than the collection published by the Brothers Grimm two hundred years later. Canepa previously completed a critical and historical study of Basile's tales titled From Court to Forest: Giambattista Basile's "Lo cunto de li cunti" and the Birth of the Literary Fairy Tale (Wayne State University Press, 1999) which earned her a Modern Language Association prize.
The Basile book, which is three to four times longer than Pinocchio, poses its own translation challenges, not the least of which is the uncommon Neapolitan dialect in which it is written.
"Basile is like the Shakespeare of Neapolitan; he revolutionized the language," which was infrequently used for literary purposes previously, Canepa says.