Giambattista Basile: Author of the First Fairy Tales Collection
Reliable documentation about the birth of Giovan Battista (shortened Giambattista) Basile is scarce. We don't even know the name of his father. Yet, obviously, the Basile family got enough talent to write the names of several members in history. Giambattista had at least one brother: Lelio, a successful poet and composer and three sisters: Adriana, Margherita, and Vittoria, all popular singers in their time.
Adriana Basile and later her daughter Leonora (Baroni) were actually the most famous singers in Italy of the 17th century. Especially Adriana played a crucial part in Giambattista's literary success.
Family Basile is from Napoli, where Adriana very likely started her artistic career but we can only find documents of her move to the court of Vincenzo Gonzaga, the Duke of Mantua. Mantua, where the famous Monteverdi's L'Orfeo was produced in 1607, was the musical center of Italy in those times. But let's don't skip the events.
Giambattista was probably born in 1566 and we know he served as a soldier of Venice Republic for short time. He also visited Crete, one of the cultural crossroads of the then known world. Talented for linguistics, fluent in three languages from the early age, he probably first came in contact with Giovanni Francesco's Straparola's Facetious Nights, a collection of tales with several early versions of fairy tales like Puss in Boots, Donkeyskin, Hans my Hedgehog and others.
These tales and short stories were arranged in the format with storytellers telling stories to each other, just like in the famous Decameron by Boccaccio. The same form was later used by Giambattista Basile.
Between Mantua and Napoli
Adriana and her husband Muzio moved to Mantua in 1610 on condition that Giambattista was hired too. The Duke accepted this condition but Giambattista had another idea - he stayed in Stigliano court trying to occupy the emptied position of Muzio. He wrote a marine pastoral dedicated to the Carafa, prince of Stigliano and became a founding member of Academy of Napoli, which became not only one of major intellectual forces in Southern Europe but an important crossroad of Italian and Spanish culture as well.
In 1612 he finally moved to Mantua, where he wrote numerous musical and occasional pieces for marriages, deaths and similar events for local nobility. New duke Ferdinando promoted him to the position of the court gentleman.
He proved himself as a skilled organizer of different spectacles what earned him another invitation from Napoli. He became a feudal administrator and later a governor.
These financially undoubtedly successful years probably ingrained his anti-court feelings and bitterness which are more and more obvious in his later works, especially the ones written in a Neapolitan dialect.
He signed his works in Italian and Spanish with his name and Neapolitan ones with a pseudonym - an anagram of his name - Gian Alesio Abbattutis. He stayed in contact with a Neapolitan dialect and peasants for all his life because his positions demanded frequent visits of all kinds of properties belonging to his masters.
One of his greatest wishes was to establish a Neapolitan dialect at such position as the Tuscan. Boccaccio, Dante, and Petrarch managed to make the Tuscan dialect so popular it later became an official language of Italy (which didn't become a state until the second half of 19th century).
The Count of Torone
Giambattista Basile continued working for different princes and dukes as a governor and as a court writer in Italian, Latin, and Spanish. He authored many spectacles including a masquerade for the occasion of the Spanish king's sister Maria of Austria to Naples.
Basile was an important member of several academies. He officially became a count of Torone, a town in Caserta, in 1624 and signed all next works with this title. His last position of a governor was in Giugliano, province of Naples. In 1631 Mount Vesuvius erupted what was followed by a deadly epidemic of flu. Basile was one of its numerous victims. He died on February 23, 1632.
Several of his works remained unpublished but fortunately, his sister Adriana decided to find publishers and preserve the literary heritage of her brother who never experienced even a friction of her glory but created one of the most important literary works in human history. Adriana decided to continue his legacy by signing his books in Neapoletan dialect with Gian Alesio Abbattutis.
The Pentamerone was originally titled The Tale of Tales with a subtitle Entertainment for Little Ones. It's the first national collection of fairy tales, with exactly fifty tales arranged in a frame format, similar to Bocaccio's Decameron, Straparola's Facetious Nights, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, or Arabian Nights.
We can find numerous old versions of today classic fairy tales like The Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, Cinderella, The Goose Girl or Diamonds and Toads. This book inspired almost all major writers of fairy tales in next centuries and is still a non-exhaustive source for fiction writers and other artists.
Being written in Neapolitan dialect it represented a huge challenge to translators and with controversial themes to the editors as well. First complete translation to English was done by Sir Richard Francis Burton and was published posthumously by his wife who didn't allow even a single change to the translation. But the second edition was rigorously censored just like all previous translations.
Nancy Canepa did an impressive study about Basile's life and his major work Pentamerone. His crucial role in development of the fairy tale as a literary genre is clear. A must read for every literary enthusiast.
Finally, a complete translation to modern English came to a long-time scholar of Basile's life and work Nancy L. Canepa in 2007 and is available in paperback since 2010.
A full article about Pentamerone can be read here:
The movie with the same title, based on three stories, using elements from several others was made in 2015. Don't miss it. Giambattista Basile would love it!