Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Italian Fantasy

The Italian word "fantastico" (both noun and adjective) was applied by Italo Calvino in 1970 to the field of artistic creation in its non-mimetic aspects; it has nothing to do (except today, and in a limited sense) with subgenres like Sword and Sorcery, and does not necessarily imply a strong link to the Fairytale tradition, since such a tradition has not been relevant in the Italian literary discourse. In fact, Italy's Romantic period has been influenced less by folklore, medieval legends or the Gothic phase than by religious and national preoccupations, related to the fight for independence and the territorial unity of the country.

Although Italy's greatest poem, Dante's Divina Commedia (written circa 1307-21), and always translated as The Divine Comedy, deals with the supernatural worlds of Hell, Purgatory and Paradise, the "truth" of the spiritual journey accomplished by the narrator (Dante) to redeem his soul develops a wealth of autobiographical, historical and philosophical observations belonging to a concrete and very mundane experience. To consider Divina Commedia as fantasy would be to imply that, say, English morality plays were likewise fantasies; i.e., while the Commedia is a Taproot Text for modern fantasy (and sf), it is not itself fantasy (or sf).

A different perspective emerged in the Renaissance, when the reappraisal of Classical culture interwoven with extraordinary improvements in the understanding of the natural sciences and the geographical discoveries of the European travellers, fostered a taste for the Marvellous, which is apparent in some of the episodes of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso (1516; rev 1532). Mythical Creatures, like the hippogryph, as well as enchanted castles, Wizards and Witches inhabit regions of the poem: they are toys and objects of desire for the adult imagination of the readers and of Ariosto, who ironically pinpoints their dreamlike artificiality but also fulfils the intellectual need of his age for Romance and chivalric adventures.

It was only in the 18th century that Italian culture regularly employed fantastic themes fashioned on the rationalistic allegorical mode of the Enlightenment – though also sometimes opposing it in defence of a looser and more fanciful inspiration. The Italian translation of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) as Viaggi del Capitano Lemuel Gulliver in paesi lontani (1729) marked the opening of a new literary path, because Swift seemed to reconcile the didactic bias of the age with the inexhaustible imaginative tricks of his creative mind. Together with Voltaire's Candide (1759), and mainly through the mediation of the dominant French culture, Gulliver's Travels influenced a long series of tales devoted to the chronicles of extraordinary voyages and amazing encounters, from Zaccarina's Seriman's I viaggi di Enrico Wanton ai Regni delle Scimie e dei Cinocefali ["Enrico Wanton's Travels to the Kingdoms of the Monkeys and the Dog-faced People"] (1749; rev 1764) to Giacomo Casanova's Icosaméron, or Histoire d'Edouard et d'Elizabeth (written in French 1787-1798). Swift, in short, bequeathed a peculiar blend of Satire and fantasy to Italian literature, and we can still detect it today in such works as the unfinished anti-utopian novel Belmoro (1957) by Corrado Alvaro (1895-1956) or the play Un Marziano a Roma ["A Martian in Rome"] (first performed 1960), whose author, Ennio Flaiano (1910-1972), worked as a scriptwriter with the movie director Federico Fellini (1920-1993), himself an extraordinary conjurer of magical, Surrealist images.

Back in the 18th century an extravagant mood, nourished with exotic plots, was introduced on the stage by the Venetian Carlo Gozzi. Among his plays, L'augellin belverde ["The Little Green Bird"] (1767) is a sort of Fairy romance. The two main characters are the children of a king; after many accidents, the girl, Barbarina, marries a prince who was transformed into a wonderful Bird by a Spell, and the boy, Renzo, rescues his beloved, previously turned into a Statue.

In the 19th century it was not until the Decadent age (see Decadence) that any of the rest of Europe's imaginative writers seized the Italian attention. Among the Romantic poets, Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837) employed nocturnal and sometimes mythical Visions, especially in the philosophical prose of the Operette morali (1827). In "Dialogo di Federico Ruysch e delle sue mummie" ["The Dialogue of F.R. with his Mummies"], Leopardi juxtaposes the tragical dilemma of death with the terse and passionate clarity of his wit: during a Poe-like conversation with the ancient Mummies stored in a scientific cabinet, the Dutch savant Ruysch realizes that death is not a terrifying event but rather a pleasant slumber, wiping sorrow and despair from the human Soul.

Only in the late 19th century – and then in Children's Fantasy – did the Italian fantastic imagination come of age, most famously in Pinocchio (1883) by Carlo Collodi. The search for the popular roots of the national literature, sponsored by the newly formed Kingdom of Italy after 1860, and pursued especially by ethnologists and other scholars influenced by Positivism, did not ignore the tradition of fairytales. In 1875 a huge inventory of Sicilian tales was edited by Giuseppe Pitré (1841-1916). The relevance of the "Pitré mine" was acknowledged by Calvino in his Italian Fables (anth 1956), where idioms and dialects belonging to regional cultures are "translated" into a terse literary style, making accessible to a larger audience this marvellous fictional world.

Emma Perodi (1850-1918) turned folklore into children's literature in the five volumes of Le novelle della nonna ["The Tales of the Grandmother"] (coll 1892), published in the Biblioteca Fantastica conceived by Edoardo Perino. The grandmother, Regina Marcucci, reigning as a rural queen over a host of sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren living on the Tuscan hills of Casentino, unfolds a long series of stories where magical objects, Devils and other supernatural beings appear in a basically historical context: a medieval or Renaissance Italy peopled by proud noblemen, meek saints and pure virgins. Despite the work of Perodi, it is worth noting that, outside children's literature, Italian fantasy is generally a male preserve – although a few female 19th- and 20th-century writers, from the Sardinian Grazia Deladda (1871-1936) to the Neapolitan journalist Matilde Serao (1856-1927), have employed supernatural devices in their works, mainly relating them to the popular superstitions of their regions.

The one 20th-century Italian literary movement to be fascinated by the narrative possibilities of the fantastic was the Scapigliatura. The Scapigliati (meaning the dishevelled or untidy ones), a handful of young rebels enjoying a Bohemian life, were hostile to provincialism and in favour of the foreign examples of German Romanticism, Poe and Charles Baudelaire. Iginio Ugo Tarchetti (1839-1869) in particular was willing to experiment with Gothic atmospheres in Racconti fantastici (coll 1896; trans Lawrence Venuti as Fantastic Tales 1992 US). In one of his best works, "La leggenda del castell nero" ["The Legend of the Black Castle"] (1867), the supernatural has a subjective, dreamlike quality, emerging more from psychological disorder than any manifestation of a transcendent power. In most Italian Horror stories Ghosts and devils are the external manifestations of the guilt of a sinner, not messengers of a terrifying otherness. Thus some of the Femmes Fatales created by the Scapigliati have a distinctive vampiric halo, as we can see in Regina della notte ["Queens of the Night"] (anth 1992) ed Marilena Giammarco; but the Gothic tale Un vampiro (1907) by the leading realist author Luigi Capuana (1839-1915), devoted to a "true" vampire, is a Rationalized Fantasy offering a medical explanation and a way of dealing with the creature (burn the corpse ...).

A strong metaphysical aura can be detected in the early-20th-century avant-garde movements. The visionary landscapes of Surrealism distinguish not only the best paintings of Giorgio De Chirico (1888-1978) but also the writings of his brother Giorgio Savinio (real name Andrea De Chirico; 1891-1952) and especially those of Massimo Bontempelli (1878-1960), who in the 1920s declared himself a supporter of Magic Realism in order to counter an obsolete tradition and possibly also the new Fascist intelligentsia. In 1926 Bontempelli wrote: "The one tool of our art will be imagination ... Imagination, fantasy: but nothing similar to the folklore of the fairytales. The most ordinary events of everyday life – we want to see them as an adventurous miracle." Eva ultima ["The Ultimate Eva"] (1923) tells of the journey into an unknown land of a girl, Eva, and of her love/hate relationship with her male self, Evandro, for whom she substitutes the strangely human Puppet Bululù. The masterpiece of this kind of Surrealist fantasy is the short story "Casa 'La vita'" ["The House Called Life"] by Savinio: Aniceto, a young man, visits a mysterious mansion, full of sounds, objects and richly decorated rooms, but devoid of human beings, only to discover that his sterile life has been wasted in the search of an unrequited dream of Love. Also influenced by magic realism is Anna Maria Ortese (1914-1998); her L'iguana (1965; trans Henry Martin as The Iguana 1987) revives the Topos of the utopian Island and introduces the fascinating character of a lizard-girl, Estrellita, a symbolic creature who reminds the reader of the bird-girl Rima in W H Hudson's Green Mansions (1904), since both creatures stand for the power of nature denied and polluted by civilization.

The 1930s was a fertile time for Italian fantasy, likewise considered a literary means of rejecting the demands for political involvement trumpeted by the Fascist regime. Outstanding among the new writers was Tommaso Landolfi, a brilliant author of short stories, collected as Dialogo die massimi sistemi ["Dialogue Concerning the Chief World Systems"] (coll 1937), Il mar delle blatte ["The Sea of Roaches"] (coll 1939) and Le labrene ["The 'Lipzards'"] (coll 1974). The idea that modern life is a net of absurdities, mysteries and unbelievable coincidences, is underlined in the stories of Dino Buzzati (1906-1972), mostly collected in Sessanta racconti ["60 Short Stories"] (coll 1958).

After WWII, two different Italian writers developed a coherent approach to fantasy: Guido Morselli (1912-1973) and Italo Calvino. The former has been largely forgotten; most of his works, which are anyway really sf, appeared after his suicide. The fiction and critical work of Italo Calvino, by contrast, made him the most popular "highbrow" writer in contemporary Italy. As a novelist, Calvino plays with several aspects of the fantastic: he is fascinated by Ariosto's magical plots, by Galileo's scientific speculation, by Jorge Luis Borges's metafictional experiments, by the tradition of the Fantastic Voyage, and by the narrative potentials included in Card games or the Prophecy of the Tarot.

Post-Calvino, Italian fantasy has produced much work of interest. L'ultima notte ["The Last Night"] (1987) by the Germanist and mythographer Fulvio Jesi (1941-1980) and La mallattia del tempo ["The Disease of Time"] (1987) by Roberto Pazzi (1946-    ) are fine examples of the application of a sophisticated style to an imagined Apocalypse: the former, unfinished, portrays an invasion of Earth by the ancient race of Vampires, blessed by God's consent; the latter shows an invasion of Europe attempted by the Tartar leader Aiku, a 21st-century Hun, as the arrow of Time moves backwards to the year 1815 and a new crucial confrontation between Napoleon and his enemies.

A more popular attitude towards historical fantasy has been developed by Giuseppe Pederiali (1937-    ), the pioneer and the most effective interpreter of Italian Heroic Fantasy. In Le città del diluvio ["The Cities of the Flood"] (1978) medieval Northern Italy is both a mundane landscape and a mythical country inhabited by dragons, warriors and princesses.

Among younger writers, black humour is deployed by Nicoletta Sipos in Favola in nero ["A Fable in Black"] (1989) and by Giuliano Sacco in Favola de crudeltà ["Cruel Stories"] (coll 1991). A more intellectual inclination is perceivable in two recent novels about lack of moral certitude and the impossibility of understanding life: Bruno Pompili's L'ordine dello scarabeo ["The Logic of the Beetle"] (1995) and Giuseppe Di Costanzo's I popoli ["The Races"] (1995). Among many other interesting voices, Giuseppe Longo (1941-    ) can be singled out. He works in the fringe between fantasy and sf. After the cosmic estrangement of the short stories in Il fuoco completo ["Total Fire"] (coll 1986), Longo's novel L'acrobata ["The Acrobat"] (1994) describes the decoding of messages through the Enigma machine and then questions more generally the meaning and mystery of communicative practices.

Is it possible or even advisable to think of a "national" fantasy literature? Buzzati, Landolfi, Morselli and Calvino are all overtly Italian writers, using – or shaping – the vehicle of the Italian language, but fantasy is a complex international fabric of verbal inventions and fabulatory themes. An Italian road to fantasy has been of late advocated by Gianfranco de Turres – a prolific novelist in his own right – who believes that Italians' peculiar taste in fantasy can be built on two seemingly contradictory principles. The Italian fantasy writer should take into account the works of H P Lovecraft and J R R Tolkien, and, at the same time, separate him/herself from them through the careful re-creation of an Italian background, Italian characters, etc. The method has been vigorously sponsored by Turris in his two anthologies Le ali della fantasia ["The Wings of Fantasy"] (anth 1981), which is Tolkienesque, and Gli eredi di Cthulhu ["The Heirs of Cthulhu"] (anth 1990), which is Lovecraftian. [CP]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.