Ogres and Slaves: Representations of Race in Giambattista Basile’s Fairy Tales

Suzanne Magnanini

[print edition page number: 201]
Written in Neapolitan dialect and titled Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de’ peccerille [The Tale of Tales or Entertainment for Little Ones] (1643–1636), Giambattista Basile’s collection of fifty fairy tales opens with the extradiegetic narrator whose voice begins and concludes the overarching or frame tale by stating:

A seasoned proverb of ancient coinage says that those who look for what they should not find what they would not, and it’s clear that when the monkey tried putting on boots it got its foot stuck, just like what happened to a ragged slave girl who although she had never worn shoes on her feet wanted to wear a crown on her head. But since the millstone grinds out the chaff and sooner or later everything is paid for, she who deceitfully took from others what was theirs ended up caught in the circle of heels, and however steep her climb up was, her tumble down was even greater. It happened in the manner that follows.[1]

The overarching (frame) tale that follows this introductory paragraph does not, however, begin with a direct recounting of the enslaved Black woman’s rise and fall. Instead, her storyline is subsumed by and subordinated to the adventures of the white princess for whom the slave functions as an antagonist, an obstacle to be overcome. Immediately after this [202] introduction that momentarily foregrounds the slave, the narrator begins to tell the story of princess Zoza.

Once upon a time, in the kingdom of Valle Pelosa [Hairy Valley], there was a melancholy princess named Zoza. Despite her father’s best efforts to cheer her with dancing dogs, jugglers, and singers, Zoza never cracks a smile. One day, an old woman and a court page fight viciously in front of an oil-spouting fountain that the king had constructed in the hope of amusing his sad daughter. After they both let loose an avalanche of curses, the frustrated hag flashes the lad by raising her skirts to reveal a “scena voscareccia” [woodsy scene].[2] Zoza’s laugher at this ribald exchange provokes the old woman’s wrath and she curses the princess to marry Prince Tadeo who lies as if dead in far off Campo Retunno [Round Field]. To wake him, Zoza must cry a pitcher full of tears. After a long journey during which each of three fairies gives Zoza a nut containing an enchanted automaton, she arrives in Round Field and begins to cry, but before her tears have reached the rim, she falls asleep exhausted. In that moment, a Black slave named Lucia seizes the pitcher, finishes the task, and marries the prince. Undaunted, Zoza will use the automatons to gain Tadeo’s favor and enchant now pregnant Lucia with a craving to hear stories. Speaking in a patois, Lucia threatens to punch her belly and abort the child she is carrying if her desire for stories is not satisfied: “If people no come and with tales my ears fill, me punch belly and little Georgie kill.”[3] Fearing for his heir, Prince Tadeo chooses ten old women from his kingdom and commands them to “content yourselves for these four or five days before she empties her belly to each tell one tale a day of the sort that old women usually entertain the little ones with.”[4] Thus, the Black character’s story serves as a negative exemplum, an example of pride punished. What will be her violent demise — still pregnant, she’ll be buried alive — is necessary to facilitate the white princess’s happy ending. Although many a fairy tale character has risen from an impoverished beginning to wear a crown on their head, Basile denies Lucia this sort of permanent transformation. [203]

The Tale of Tales is a seminal text of both the European fairy tale tradition and the Italian literary canon. Subtitled the Pentamerone for its structural resemblance to Boccaccio’s Decameron, the collection includes some of the earliest printed versions of well-known tale types, including Cinderella, Puss in Boots, and Sleeping Beauty. The Italian philosopher, historian and literary critic Benedetto Croce (1866–1952) considered The Tale of Tales to be an essential text of the Italian literary canon and one of the most beautiful books of the Italian Baroque.[5] The Brothers Grimm considered Basile’s collection to be a foundational text of European folklore and they created German adaptations of a number of his tales.[6] Today, Basile’s fairy tales are positioned at the origins of the European literary fairy tale tradition in academic anthologies widely used in undergraduate classrooms.[7]

How might we use Basile’s tales to teach literary representations of race in Renaissance Italy? How might a literary genre grounded in “long ago” and “far away” fantasies allow us to examine the complex social historical realities of race and slavery in the early modern Mediterranean? How do gender and genre shape representations of race? For students whose knowledge of the fairy tale is based primarily on the animated films of Walt Disney — Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Beauty and the Beast, and so on — the fairy tale might seem an unlikely object of study to answer these questions. But Basile’s tales will prove a fertile field of inquiry. In this essay, I will show how to use Basile’s fairy tales to teach our students a number of lessons, including how dominant paradigms in our fields might discourage discussions of race; how identity was intersectional in the early modern period as it is today, with gender and race affecting whether a character achieves a happy ending; and how a pluri-vocal [204] text with its many narrators and tales might simultaneously possess an openness to the imagined difference of fantastic characters (ogres) and a racist attitude toward characters whose identity is grounded in historical reality (slaves).

In her study “Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice,” the historian Kate Lowe concludes by making a “basic methodological point above all else: that views are formed on the basis of sources consulted, and in order to get a view in the round, it is necessary to work across a great many sources.”[8] In illuminating the lives of Black freedmen in Venice, Lowe combines the analysis of historical documents (notarial and crime records, wills) with visual evidence (paintings by Carpaccio and Bellini, period prints). This same research methodology informs the design of a series of assignments and class discussions in which Basile’s fairy tales provide a fuller view of the representation of race in early modern Italy, while the work of historians and art historians enrich our understanding of Basile’s text. Employing an interdisciplinary approach to the text at hand has the added benefit for scholars of Italian literature to recognize and to question why our field lags behind others, such as history and other national literatures like English and Spanish, in exploring representations of race. Taking a cue from the Baroque penchant for multiple perspectives, I triangulate topics and tales as the class examines representations of Black female slaves, Black and/or Muslim male slaves,[9] and fantastic others such as ogres and ogresses. [205] Putting multiple tales into play to explore each topic helps us to avoid falling into binary thinking while providing students a glimpse at the complexity that would arise from an analysis of all fifty tales. What follows is a series of lesson plans that may be employed in a course on early modern Italian literature, European fairy tales, or race in the Renaissance.

Lesson 1: Basile and The Tale of Tales: The “dream of an odd Mediterranean Shakespeare”[10]

Assigned Readings:

  1. Nancy Canepa, “Introduction,” The Tale of Tales, xxxiv–xl
  2. Joaneath Spicer, “European Perceptions of Blackness as Reflected in the Visual Arts,” 35–59
  3. Kate Lowe, “The Lives of African Slaves and People of African Descent in Renaissance Europe,” 13–33

Before diving into Basile’s fairy tales, I think it is important to remind students that when a reader encounters a text, the text draws the reader into its orbit and exerts a gravitational force. In part, the reader’s own identity and experiences determine the force of a text’s pull, or the weight the reader feels in the presence of the text. I would then warn students of color and women that Basile’s text might weigh heavily upon them; I would also ask those students who find the text “light” reading to reflect on why this is so for them.

We can begin our discussion of Basile and his tales by first noting that literary critics and folklorists to date have said precious little about the remarkable fact that at the center of one of the key texts of the European fairy tale tradition stands a Black woman. Using my own work as an example, [206] I suggest that both white privilege and our classification of Basile and his tales as “Italian” or “Neapolitan,” categories scholars often constitute exclusively as white, cause us to ignore the presence of the Black character Lucia. In doing so, we commit a sort of violence to her, intellectually burying her, just as she will be buried alive and pregnant at the end of the text.

A first step, then, in re-evaluating this character and the representation of Blackness in the fairy tales, is to reconsider Basile’s own identity. Using literary scholar Nancy Canepa’s concise biography of Basile, we can remind our students of his identity as a Mediterranean author. As a young man, Basile was a soldier of fortune at the Venetian Republic’s eastern outpost in Candia (Crete), facing the Ottoman Empire. For most of his adult life, he lived in Naples, a port city that had been under the rule of a Spanish viceroy since the beginning of the sixteenth century. We can thus take seriously Italo Calvino’s description of Basile’s tales as the “dreams of an odd Mediterranean Shakespeare” and think of him as Mediterranean and Italian and Neapolitan. Doing so positions him in a multicultural and multi-confessional context, where he was stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean to protect Venetian territories from possible invasions by the Ottoman Empire; he mingled with Italian and Spanish men of letters in Naples’ Accademia degli Oziosi; he served at Neapolitan courts under the rule of Spanish viceroys, the counts of Lemos, who had former slaves who had converted to Christianity working for them;[11] and he lived in a city with a Muslim community and where up to 7% of the population was comprised of slaves coming from all around the Mediterranean including the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and North and sub-Saharan Africa.[12]

The readings by Spicer and Lowe are meant to foster a discussion of the configuration of race in Renaissance Europe; the unique features of the intersection of race, ethnicity, and slavery in the Mediterranean; and early modern stereotype of blackness, both positive and negative. After a mini-lecture on how race was theorized in the Renaissance based on Lowe’s [207] observations, I put into play works of art and literature mentioned in sources which are contemporary to Basile’s literary career: Pietro Tacca’s bronze sculpture “Quattro mori incatenati” [Four Moors in Chains]; a statue of Saint Benedict of Palermo, sometimes called “the Moor,” whose case for canonization was actively being compiled in 1625; and a sonnet, “Bella Schiava” (Beautiful Slave), by fellow Neapolitan poet Giambattista Marino (1569–1625). I focus on these three cultural artifacts in order to share the main concepts I want students to absorb from these readings. I show images of Tacca’s sculpture, explaining that it was commissioned, executed, and erected in Livorno in the same years that Basile was likely writing his tales (1617–1626). Tacca’s four enslaved figures are chained to the base of a statue of Ferdinando I de’ Medici by sculptor Giovanni Bandini (1595), and were meant to celebrate the Medici Duke Cosimo I’s victories over the Ottomans. Bandini’s statue invites us to tell the story of Cosimo I’s founding of the Knights of Saint Stephen, a military order charged with battling the Ottoman Empire on the Mediterranean and fighting piracy, but which also enslaved and sold or sent to the galleys people captured during these conquests, just as the Ottomans and North Africans captured and enslaved Christian Europeans and sub-Saharan Africans. Examining the four bronze figures created by Tacca based on wax casts taken from actual galley slaves allows us to underscore the diverse origins of enslaved individuals in the Mediterranean. The variation of the somatic features of Tacca’s four “Moors” reminds us both of the array of skin colors and ethnic origins of slaves in Basile’s day and of the imprecision of the language used to describe people of color. All four figures in Tacca’s sculpture are referred to as “Moors,” a word which could mean Muslim and/or Black, but only one figure possesses features that appear to be sub-Saharan African. As scholars have noted, terminology for skin color, ethnicity, and religion was not always precise; “Moor” and “Saracen” could describe North African or Middle Eastern Muslims, as well as Black Africans who might not be Muslim. As we will see, Basile refers to Lucia as both “black” and “Moorish,” and uses “Saracen” to describe another enslaved Black woman.

As I guide this discussion, I introduce historian Giovanna Fiume’s description of the unique aspects of slavery in the Mediterranean in order [208] to help students to distinguish it from the Atlantic slave trade.[13] Mediterranean slavery was marked by reciprocity: Europeans, Ottomans, North Africans, and sub-Saharan Africans enslaved, traded, and ransomed or freed each other throughout the early modern period. Mediterranean slavery differed from Atlantic slavery in its temporariness: enslavement was often a period of one’s life, not a permanent condition. Captured and enslaved individuals could be ransomed, and religious orders and legal procedures oversaw such transactions. Slaves were often manumitted upon the death of their owner and entered the local culture as freedmen and women. This meant that enslaved, freed, and free Black Africans could be found in Basile’s Naples. In the Mediterranean, slavery could also be a repetitive experience with individuals captured, enslaved, and freed more than once.

Next, a statue of Saint Benedict the Moor (Attrib. José Montes de Oca, 1734) and the poem by Marino can be used to analyze the tropes employed in more positive representations of blackness, Black Africans, and slaves. The statue of Benedict provides a stark contrast to the enchained Black African sculpted by Tacca. Benedict (1526–1589) was the son of a couple from sub-Saharan Africa, Cristoforo Manasseri, enslaved, and his free wife Diana, who had converted to Christianity.[14] Born in San Fratello, near Messina, Benedict eventually moved to a monastery in Palermo. A Franciscan monk, he was revered for his charity and ability to heal the sick. He would find many devoted followers, first in his native Sicily and then in the New World, particularly among indigenous tribes and people of color (he is the patron saint of African Americans). Benedict can serve as an example of what Spicer calls “black and/but” beautiful.[15] Efforts to canonize Benedict were well underway in 1625 and Philip III of Spain, who ruled over both Sicily and Naples, ordered a silver casket to be built for [209] Benedict’s bones. Praise for Benedict, however, sometimes celebrated him by erasing his Blackness. For example, a Spanish priest who wrote on the evangelization of people of color in the seventeenth century noted that “although black,” Saint Benedict “was the whitest among all the spiritual men of the time.”[16]

Marino’s depiction of a beautiful Black slave in his sonnet “Bella Schiava” (Beautiful Slave), which begins “Black, yes, but you’re beautiful,” can be used in a similar fashion.[17] Here Marino plays on the Petrarchan tropes of female beauty that celebrated the white skin and golden hair of the poet’s beloved lady, by praising the black skin of the slave.[18] In keeping with Marino’s poetics of the marvelous through which he aims to amaze his reader, the slave’s beauty is depicted as an exotic curiosity and she is described as a beautiful monster (“leggiadro mostro”). We can conclude by drawing attention to Spicer’s observations that during the first decade of the seventeenth century, there appeared to be “a new level of acceptance for Africans in Europe,” but, in hindsight, and from the vantage point of Basile’s text, these events “look more like markers of the end of an era.”[19] [210]

Lesson 2: Zoza vs. Lucia: The Fairy Tale Frame Tale

Assigned Readings:

  1. Basile, “Introduction to the Tale of Tales (Frame Tale),” 3–11; “The Cinderella Cat” (1.6), 56–62

For this lesson, students undertake a close reading of Basile’s overarching tale, the story of Lucia and Zoza, that is informed by the background readings, and they analyze Basile’s Baroque style through a reading of his version of Cinderella, a tale type most will know, in which the female protagonist, Zezolla, is also mockingly called “gatta Cennerentola” [Cinderella Cat]. I provide a series of questions and request that they cite the text in their answers. I begin with “The Cinderella Cat” because Basile’s version of this classic tale challenges students’ expectations. How does Basile’s version differ from the one you know? How does his literary style differ from that of other tales you have read? Zezolla, or Cinderella Cat murders her first stepmother on the advice of the woman who will become her second abusive stepmother, manipulates and threatens her father in order to obtain the magic that will allow her to leave home, and in her finery is compared to a promenading prostitute. Basile employs a poetics of the marvelous, using surprisingly ingenious comparisons in long lists of metaphors, and making unexpected references to both learned and popular culture.

Turning to the frame tale, we can ask students to provide a description of Lucia based on textual citations: How is Lucia described physically? How does she speak and what does she say? What does she do? Which tropes of blackness is Basile employing in his descriptions of Lucia? In class, we can characterize Basile’s representation of Lucia based on an analysis of the citations in student responses. Lucia’s blackness is often negatively contrasted to whiteness (“the prince got out of his coffin of white stone as if he were awakening from a long sleep, took hold of that mass of black flesh, and carried her off to the palace”).[20] Many comparisons liken her to animals in unflattering ways (“cricket-legged”; “monkey”). Blackness is set in antagonistic opposition to whiteness; it undoes or temporarily defeats Zoza (“two black things had brought her [Zoza’s] downfall:  sleep and a slave”).[21] Comparing Basile’s representation to the sonnet we studied in the previous lesson, they might note that while Marino calls the Black slave in his poem a “monster of beauty,” Basile casts Zoza in this role, associating Lucia with the black night: “Tadeo, who like a bat was always flying round that black night of a slave but became an eagle when he fixed his eyes upon Zoza — that monster of nature’s bounty, that ‘I’m out’ of the game of beauty.”[22] They might also note that Lucia is described as a “Moorish slave” an “ugly slave.[23] Finally, Lucia’s patois also marks her as linguistically different from both Princess Zoza and the lower-class narrators summoned to entertain her. When she speaks, she does so only to demand things and threatens, in a sing-song rhyme, to abort by beating her belly should her desires not be satisfied: “If people no come and with my tales ears fill, me punch belly and little Georgie kill.”[24]

We can then contextualize these citations for students, beginning with Lucia’s name and the many associations it would have evoked for early modern readers. Slaves were often renamed when they arrived in Italy, and Lucia was a particularly popular name for enslaved women.[25] Basile’s Lucia speaks a patois that Michele Rak, who has edited the tales, calls Neapolitan-Moorish.[26] This was both a language spoken in the streets by foreign-born slaves and a literary language used by African characters in Neapolitan theater. A stock character named Lucia appeared in a micro-genre of street theater known as “Luciate,” as well as in theatrical dances, such as the one listed as one of the entertainments Zoza’s father hopes will cheer his melancholy daughter (“Lucia Cagnazza” or “Bitchy Lucia”). In this Moorish dance performed during Carnival, a man in blackface cross-dressed as a woman in Oriental garb mimed while a song referenced sexual acts, birth, and death and included a chorus calling Lucia a [212] bitch.[27] Although Basile doesn’t particularly underscore Lucia’s sexuality, her patois and name liken her to a highly sexualized character from Neapolitan street theater. Rak describes a published example of the micro-genre La Luciata nuova. Posta in luce dal Rovinato Pover’Uomo, a compiacenza de’ virtuosi (The New ‘Luciata,’ Brought to light by a Ruined Poor Man, For the Satisfaction of the Virtuous, Napoli, 1628), with dramatis personae including Lucia, three male slaves, a master-slave, and a chorus.[28] Written in the theatrical language akin to the patois of Basile’s Lucia, in this luciata Lucia is depicted as a flirt who dances uninhibitedly to the sound of percussion instruments with movements that mimic copulation and her infidelity produces a child at the end of the play.[29] We can ask students how knowing about this theatrical tradition, which Basile’s first readers most certainly did, informs our perception of Lucia.

Students who are studying Basile as part of a course on fairy tales sometimes attribute Lucia’s overwhelmingly negative portrayal as characteristic of the fairy tale genre. Fairy tales are often described as presenting characters and situations in stark terms and well-defined contrasts. For example, when writing about the style of oral fairy tales the Swiss folklorist and literary theorist Max Lüthi (1909–1991) observed, “The fairy tale is also fond of other extremes and contrasts: dreadful punishments and splendid rewards, giants and dwarfs, mangy skull and golden hair, good and evil, handsome and ugly, black and white. Thus, the fairy tale portrays a clearly and neatly fashioned world.”[30] But it is important to remind students [213] that Basile does not always proceed according to this stricture of sharp contrasts and simplicity — one need only think of Zezolla, or Cinderella Cat, who is neither completely kind nor wholly evil. And, if we look at his depiction of a fantastic race, ogres and ogresses, we will see that Basile often introduces remarkable complexity into the fairy tale tradition that belies the sort of flat binaries attributed to the genre. We can use three tales depicting ogres told during the first day to make this point and to provide a richer context for Basile’s representation of Lucia’s difference.

Lesson 3: Ogres and Ogresses: A Spectrum of Difference

Assigned Readings:

  1. Basile, “The Ogre” (1.1), 13–21; “The Flea” (1.5), 49–55; “The Enchanted Doe” (1.9), 83–90
  2. Nancy Canepa, “Ogres and Fools: On the Cultural Margins of the Seicento,” 222–46

For this lesson, I assign the three ogre tales recounted on the first day of storytelling, tales 1, 5, and 9, using three questions to guide students: What role does the ogre play in the tale? How is the ogre depicted? Does this representation challenge or conform to our assumptions about ogres and their roles in fairy tales?

In tale 1.1, the ogre adopts a foolish boy who has been chased from his mother’s home and teaches the lad how to properly use three magic objects to provide for his family. The ogre is an adoptive father and effective teacher, whose guidance puts the boy on a path of self-sufficiency. When in tale 1.5 an ogre guesses that the hide which the King of Green Meadow has displayed is that of a monstrously large flea, he wins the hand of the princess in marriage. The ogre is terrifyingly ugly and lives in a house constructed from human bones. He is, however, also surprisingly [214] open to negotiating the preferences of his human wife, by accounting for her dietary practices. After seeing his wife Porziella repulsed by the human flesh he has brought home, he promises to hunt pigs the next day and then invite his family for a celebration of their matrimony. The ogre wants to integrate her into his cultural milieu without demanding that she assimilate completely. Though he seems far more accommodating to his wife’s wishes than her father was, the ogre will be killed at the end of the tale. In tale 1.9, we find the traditional human flesh-eating ogre dwelling deep in the woods who must be killed in order for the hero’s trajectory to a happy ending to continue. Thus, Basile’s ogres perform different narrative functions in each tale and are not depicted solely as evil antagonists.

We can enrich the conversation by assigning literary scholar Nancy Canepa’s insightful article “Ogres and Fools: On the Cultural Margins of the Seicento,” in which she meticulously documents the multiple, nuanced depictions of ogres in Basile’s tales. Particularly useful for our purposes is her observations that “Ogres’ heads are repeatedly likened to food — ricotta, pears, — again hinting that the real cannibals are others. Basile has, of course, an illustrious precedent in contrasting ‘innocent cannibalism’ with the barbarity of civilization, where man, perhaps not as literally but much more cruelly, devours man, in [the sixteenth-century French intellectual Michel de] Montaigne’s essay ‘On Cannibals.’”[31] Basile himself will associate human flesh-eating ogres with New World people in tale 5.9, discussed below. In that tale, a human prince searches for a perfect wife by sailing to the New World and exploring various islands where he meets an ogress who will encourage him to leave quickly before her hungry son returns.

As Canepa shows, ogres function in Basile’s text much like wild men did in early modern culture, as an imagined race used to critique the faults of civilized society. Though imagined others, Basile’s ogres share many traits with actual minority groups living in Naples. They live on the geographical margins (deep in the woods, on mountain tops, on islands in the New [215] World), but can also be found in small numbers amidst the dominant, civilized culture; they are marked by physical difference that is often deemed unseemly or ugly; they embrace different dietary practices; they are often victims to the unjust whims of the hegemonic powers; and while their children sometimes marry into the dominant culture, the price of assimilation can be high, demanding the death of a parent or guardian. When operating in a completely imaginary sphere, Basile musters sympathy for some members of this imagined race of ogres. He recognizes the systematic oppression they endure and provides readers with a wide variety of representations of individuals belonging to the race that are difficult to reduce to stereotypes.

Lesson 4: Fairy Tale Intersectionality: Tales of Male Slaves

Assigned Readings:

  1. Basile, “The Padlock” (2.9), 185–88; “Penta with the Chopped-Off Hands” (3.2), 214–24; “The Golden Trunk” (5.4), 413–42

Having examined Basile’s diverse depictions of ogres, we can examine three tales that depict male slaves to provide an intersectional view of the representation of race in The Tale of Tales. Here I am using Critical Race Studies scholar Kimberlé W. Crenshaw’s concept of intersectionality. For Crenshaw, our understanding of an individual’s difference and experience of that difference, if assessed solely along a single axis (e.g., race or gender), will necessarily be distorted and incomplete.[32] As with the previous lesson, questions regarding function and representation guide the reading: How are male slaves depicted? What are their functions in the tales? In two of the tales, male slaves play minor roles. In “The Padlock,” a reworking of motifs from Apuleius’s “Cupid and Psyche,” the youngest of [216] three sisters, a girl named Luciella, meets “a handsome slave” at the fountain who takes her to a “splendid underground palace.”[33] He sees to her needs at the behest of the prince who will become her husband. When in “Penta with the Chopped off Hands,” Penta’s brother insists on marrying her because he, as if acting out a Petrarchan trope, is infatuated with her lovely white hands, she decides to extinguish his passion by persuading her slave Alì, “who didn’t have much of a brain,” to chop them off in exchange for a bag of gold coins. While his name marks him as Muslim, his skin color is not mentioned, although Penta’s is. Perhaps referencing European books of secrets which contained all sorts of recipes for whitening skin, Penta speaks with words which recall Lucia’s patois, “My dear Alì, you cut my hands, me want make nice formula and get more white,” as if his stupidity would prevent him from understanding her unless she spoke this way.[34]

In another one of Basile’s variations on “Cupid and Psyche” called “The Golden Trunk,” Parmetella descends a porphyry staircase hidden under a golden tree trunk to find “a lovely plain on which stood a splendid palace.”[35] Inside, among the lavish riches, she will meet a “handsome slave” who proposes marriage to her. This character provides Parmetella with a royal lifestyle and seems to have no master. He commands Parmetella to extinguish the candle when she goes to sleep, and after becoming “a beautiful young man” he crawls into bed with her after she has fallen asleep. Awoken in the night, she feels “her wool being carded without a [217] comb.”[36] Like Psyche curious to see her nocturnal visitor, the next night the young woman lights the candle after her bedmate has fallen asleep. She lifts the covers and sees that “the ebony had turned to ivory, the caviar to the milkiest milk, and the coal to whitewash.”[37] Unlike in the descriptions of Lucia, blackness here is associated positively with precious materials, “ebony” and “caviar,” but we can note that these positive assessments appear in a phrase that serves to erase or undo the very blackness it describes. And despite his beauty, this character’s blackness is literally a curse. We learn that the handsome slave is the son of an ogress who has been cursed to live for seven years as a Black man. After Parmetella has, like Psyche, endured many trials, he will eventually reclaim her as his wife, but their happy ending is founded on his return to whiteness and the death of his ogress mother, aunt, and newborn cousin. In sum, these three tales recall Tacca’s statue which depicts diverse groups as enslaved.

Lesson 5: Lucia & Lucia: Doubling and Displacement

Assigned Readings:

  1. Basile, “The Three Citrons” (5.9), 443–53; “End of the Tale of Tales,” 454–55

In the fifth and final lesson, having examined the representation of ogres and male slaves, I circle back to the depiction of Lucia in the frame tale and her double, another enslaved Black woman named Lucia, who appears in the penultimate tale of the collection, “The Three Citrons” (5.9). As in previous lessons, I ask students to undertake a close reading that compares Lucia in the frame tale to Lucia in “The Three Citrons,” during which they note similarities and differences. But I also now ask them to compare the representation of these Black enslaved women to those of male slaves and ogres. [218]

I emphasize that the similarities between the two Lucias runs deeper than their shared name and status. In “The Three Citrons,” Lucia’s blackness is also described in negative terms and she, too, will supplant temporarily a white woman destined to marry a prince. Despite the resemblances, there are also key differences to note between the frame tale and “The Three Citrons.” In the latter, the prince is fully alive and awake throughout the tale. Although initially reticent to marry, after cutting his finger and bleeding onto white ricotta cheese, the prince is determined to marry a woman of similar complexion (red and white) and “of his blood.” He travels as far as the New World in search of his bride and returns home with a white fairy whom he has liberated from inside a citron. Wanting to provide his bride with a proper entrance, the prince leaves her in a tree outside the kingdom, stating he will return with fine clothes for her. As the fairy awaits his return, a Black slave named Lucia arrives at the fountain below the tree and, when she mistakes the fairy’s reflection in the water for her own, she assumes she is now white, and rebels against her mistress by repeatedly refusing to fetch water. When the fairy spies Lucia inadvertently creating a comical fountain by piercing her mistress’s goatskin filled with water, she laughs out loud and Lucia realizes her mistake. After offering to style the fairy’s hair, Lucia attempts to murder the fairy who, to save herself, becomes a dove and flies away. When the prince returns, he is clearly upset to find the slave rather than the fairy in the tree, and his Baroque lament unfolds as a series of comparisons that celebrate whiteness and denigrate blackness: “Who put this ink blot on the royal paper where I planned to write my happier days? Who draped with black mourning the freshly whitewashed house where I thought I would take all my pleasures? Who would have me find this touchstone where I left a silver mine destined to make me rich and blissful?”[38] Lucia then lies, claiming to be under a curse, “Not to marvel my prince, for presto! Me be enchanted, one year white face, one year black ass!”[39] As in the frame tale, black skin is depicted negatively, equated here with a stain, mourning, and a less valuable dark stone (instead of a precious [219] metal), the bottom of the body rather than the top. In the end the fairy-dove returns and reveals Lucia’s deception, the slave is sentenced to death, and the fairy, once again in human form, will marry the prince.

“The Three Citrons” is followed by the conclusion of the frame tale, in which the prince’s wife Lucia reacts to the tale of this other Lucia in a way that once again recalls the eponymous character from street theater: “And Lucia reacted like a Lucia, wiggling all over as the tale was told, and from the agitation of her body, could be understood the tempest in her heart, since she had seen in the tale of the other slave the spitting image of her own deceits.”[40] But are the crimes of the two Lucias equal? Is “The Three Citrons” the “spitting image” of the frame tale? In the frame tale, Lucia murders no one, does not actively lie, but instead simply finishes off a task begun by another woman.

We can end this lesson by asking students to compare the representations of Black female slaves, male slaves, and ogres in The Tale of Tales and to draw some conclusions. Hopefully, they will be able to generate a series of ideas. For example, Basile’s nuanced depictions of members of the imaginary race of ogres does not extend to human characters marked by difference (skin color, enslavement) or to characters with historical counterparts in early modern Naples. The depiction of race is intersectional in The Tale of Tales, with female slaves receiving worse outcomes than male slaves, and their skin color consistently denigrated. By reducing Lucia to a sort of commedia dell’arte mask, a stereotype that excludes individual variation, Lucia in the frame tale is conflated with other Lucias (in “The Three Citrons,” in street theater) and burdened with their vices and sins (lust, murder, fraud), despite never having engaged in these acts. Through this association, her violent death, then, can be more easily justified. Also, a kind of white privilege exists in fairy land. Zezolla, the Cinderella Cat, murders and threatens, but still receives a happy ending. In the frame tale, Lucia, ignorant of Zoza’s curse (and perhaps then innocent), merely completes a task begun by another. Rather than an outright lie, her victory involves a sin of omission, yet she suffers a torturous death as violent as the one meted out on the murderous Lucia in “The Three Citrons.” [220] And once the center of concern, the fate of the Giorgetiello, whom Lucia is carrying, is no longer mentioned. While Basile has been seen to use his tales to contest the institutions of power that oppressed courtiers like himself, ultimately his depiction of Lucia reifies the oppression of enslaved Black women by denying them representation as individuals, by reducing all Lucias to one negative stereotype.


For Pietro Tacca’s statue see:

For the Statue of Saint Benedict the Moor see:

Discussion Questions:

  1. How might the literary fairy tale, a genre grounded in “long ago” and “far away” fantasies, help us to examine the complex social historical realities of race and slavery in the early modern Mediterranean? How do gender and genre shape representations of race?
  2. How might redefining Basile’s own identity as more complex than simply “Italian” help us understand his depictions of race in his fairy tales?
  3. How does Basile’s version of the Cinderella tale type differ from the one you know? How does the literary style of his tales differ from the style of other tales you have read?
  4. How is Lucia described physically in the frame tale to Lo cunto de li cunti? How does she speak and what does she say? Which tropes of blackness is Basile employing in his descriptions of Lucia?
  5. How does the street theater tradition/micro-genre of Luciate shape our understanding of Lucia and her actions in the frame tale?
  6. Concerning Basile’s ogre tales: What role does the ogre play in the tale? How is the ogre depicted? Does this representation challenge [221] or conform to our assumptions about ogres and their roles in fairy tales?
  7. How are male slaves depicted in Basile’s fairy tales? What are their functions in the plots of these tales? Does their role and description differ from those of female slaves?
  8. Compare Lucia in the frame tale to Lucia in the tale “The Three Citrons.” In what ways do they resemble each other? Are the “crimes” of the two Lucias comparable? Is story of “The Three Citrons” the “spitting image” of the frame tale?

Suggested Further Reading:

On slavery in the early modern Mediterranean:

Davis, Robert C. Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, the Barbary Coast, and Italy 1500–1800. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2003.


On the representation of Black Saints in early modern Europe:

Rowe, Erin Kathleen. Black Saints in Early Modern Global Catholicism. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.


On the representation of power, race, and gender in early modern Italian fairy tales:

Maggi, Armando. “Abuse of Power, Gender, and Race in Tales by Straparola and Basile.” In A Cultural History of Fairy Tales in the Age of the Marvelous, edited by Suzanne Magnanini, 191–212. Vol. 3 of A Cultural History of Fairy Tales, edited by Anne E. Duggan. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.


On how lore and legends contribute to racecraft, or the construction of race:

Fields, Karen E., and Barbara J. Fields. Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life. New York: Verso Books, 2012.

  1. Giambattista Basile, The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for Little Ones, ed. and trans. Nancy L. Canepa, foreword by Jack Zipes, illustrations by Carmelo Lettere (New York: Penguin Books, 2016), 3. For a Neapolitan-Italian bilingual version see Giambattista Basile, Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de’ peccerille, ed. and trans. Michele Rak (Milan, Garzanti, 1987).
  2. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 5.
  3. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 10.
  4. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 11.
  5. Benedetto Croce, ed. and trans., Il Pentamerone by Giambattista Basile, (Bari, Laterza, 1982), xl.
  6. For an English translation of the Brothers Grimm’s adaptations of Basile’s tales see Armando Maggi, Preserving the Spell: Basile’s ‘The Tale of Tales’ and Its Afterlife in the Fairy Tale Tradition (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015), 287–346.
  7. See for example, Jack Zipes, The Great Fairy Tale Tradition: From Straparola and Basile to the Brothers Grimm (New York: Norton, 2000).
  8. Kate Lowe, “Visible Lives: Black Gondoliers and Other Black Africans in Renaissance Venice,” Renaissance Quarterly 66, no. 2 (Summer 2013): 452.
  9. All the female slaves in The Tale of Tales are described as either Black or dark-skinned, while there is more variety in the description of male slaves. In Basile’s “The Golden Trunk,” which I discuss later, a handsome man reveals to the heroine that he is actually a white prince cursed to live as a Black slave, albeit a handsome one, by day and becomes white at night. In “The Padlock,” a handsome slave, whose skin color is not indicated, assists Luciella and her secretive white husband who visits her only at night. The name of a slave in “Penta with the Chopped-off Hands,” Alì, seems to indicate he is a Muslim although he is not explicitly called a Muslim; his skin color is not mentioned in the tale. Two presumably white characters also lose their freedom, as captives or slaves. The prince of Clear Fountain in the tale “Rosella” is kidnapped while boating and taken to Constantinople where the ill-informed Grand Turk believes the prince’s blood will cure his leprosy. In “The Little Slave Girl,” Lisa, a sort of Snow White who lies in an enchanted death-like sleep, is revived by her uncle’s wife who disguises her as a slave, dressing her in rags, cutting her hair, and beating her so that her face is black and blue.
  10. Italo Calvino, Italian Folktales, trans. George Martin (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), 3.
  11. Giuliana Boccadamo, Napoli e l’Islam: Storie di musulmanni, schiavi, e rinnegati in età moderna (Naples: M. Dauria Editore, 2010), 179.
  12. Boccadamo, Napoli e l’Islam, 144–51.
  13. Giovanna Fiume, Schiavitù mediterranee: Corsari, rinnegati e santi di età moderna (Milan: Bruno Mondadori, 2009), x–xi.
  14. Most of medieval and early modern Italy continued to follow the Roman law according to which the status the mother, enslaved or free, determined the status of the child. On this point see Stephen Epstein, Speaking of Slavery: Color, Ethnicity, and Human Bondage in Italy (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 84–85.
  15. Spicer, “European Perceptions of Blackness,” 37.
  16. These are the words of Father Alonso de Sandoval, author of De instauranda Aethiopium salute (Madrid, 1636) and cited in Fiume, Schiavitù mediterranee, 126.
  17. For the poem see and a paraphrase in contemporary Italian see: http://www.treccani.it/magazine/strumenti/una_poesia_al_giorno/07_16_Marino_Giambattista.html.
  18. For an English paraphrase of Marino’s poem, see George R. Kay, ed. and trans., Penguin Book of Italian Verse with Plain Prose Translations of Each Poem (Hammondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1958).
  19. These included:  “the elaborate arrangements made by Pope Paul V to receive the Congolese ambassadors known in Europe as Antonio Manuel, Marquis of Na Vunda … Morocco and the Dutch republic sign a landmark treaty establishing trade relations, the first between a European country and a non-Christian one; the Spanish playwright Enciso writes a play celebrating the life of the black humanist Juan Latino; Philip III of Spain orders a silver casket for the bones of Benedict the Moor (canonized in 1807)” (Spicer, 10).
  20. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 7.
  21. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 8.
  22. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 8.
  23. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 9.
  24. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 10.
  25. Stephen Epstein, Speaking of Slavery: Color, Ethnicity, and Human Bondage in Italy, 25–28.
  26. Michele Rak, ed. Lo cunto de li cunti, by Giambattista Basile (Milan: Garzanti, 1986), 29 n17.
  27. Roberto De Simone, Il Cunto de li Cunti di Giambattista Basile nella riscrittura di Roberto De Simone, 2 vols. Piacenza: Einaudi, 2002. 1: 7 n4.
  28. Michele Rak, Napoli gentile: La letteratura in ‘lingua napoetana’ nella cultura barocca (1596–1632) (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1994), 130.
  29. Rak, Napoli gentile, 130–31.
  30. Max Lüthi, Once Upon a Time: On the Nature of Fairy Tales, translated by Lee Chadeayne and Paul Gottwald, introduction by Francis Lee Utley (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1970), 50–51. Similar observations have been made in general introductions to the fairy tale genre. For example, Marina Warner observes that the symbolism of fairy tales “comes alive through strong contrasts and sensations” (Warner xix) and, echoing the work of Lüthi, that “Fairy tales are one-dimensional, depthless, abstract and sparse” (Warner xx). See Marina Warner, Once Upon a Time: A Short History of Fairy Tale (London: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  31. Nancy L. Canepa, “Ogres and Fools: On the Cultural Margins of the Seicento,” Monsters in the Italian Literary Imagination, ed. Keala Jewell (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2001), 232.
  32. Crenshaw first introduced this concept in the article “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” University of Chicago Legal Forum, Vol. 1989: 1.8 (http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8).
  33. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 186. On Basile’s use of Cupid and Psyche, see Armando Maggi’s Preserving the Spell, 23–108.
  34. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 216. This is the only moment in The Tale of Tales in which a free person uses this patois to address an enslaved person. On the use of “slave speech” in lyric poetry, see Mario Ferrara, “Linguaggio di schiave,” Studi di filologia italiana 8 (1950), 320–28. While more recently Gianfranco Salvatore has described the language used in sixteenth-century canzoni moresche as a “pidgin afro-napoletano” that blends Neapolitan dialect and Kanuri words, I refer to the speech of Basile’s tales as a patois because it uses non-inflected verbs without integrating words from Arabic or African languages. See Gianfranco Salvatore, “Parodie realistiche:  Africanismi, fraternità e sentimenti identitari nelle canzoni moresche del Cinquecento,”  Kronos 14 (2011): 97–128.
  35. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 414.
  36. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 415.
  37. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 415.
  38. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 449–50.
  39. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 450.
  40. Basile, The Tale of Tales, 454.


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