27 December 2015


"Two or Three" Book Club, Meeting 136

Merry Christmas! I wish I could say that all sorts of traditional Christmas things are the reasons I haven't been able to update my blog as often as I'd like . . . but let's not waste any more time! Today we meet our latest folk hero, Bella Fronte or Fair Brow, who, with a nickname like that, surprised me by turning out to be male rather than female.

-Figlio, ora che hai finite I tuoi studi, sei nell'eta giusta per metterti a viaggiare . . .-

The start of this fiaba feels like an allegory of a uni graduate who is having what we Anglophones might call "failure to launch." Which, come to think of it, is such an apt expression for this story full of ships that I wonder whether its Italian twin is equally nautical in imagery!

So what did you think of our protagonist's first venture? He spent settemila scudi to pay the debts of a dead man who was being denied burial. That's a corporal work of mercy right there--and incidentally, my personal favourite of the seven! But that money had been given to him by his father for him to set up a trade, and when he has to return home with nothing to show for the investment, he makes up a lie about corsari.

Then there's his second proper adventure, in which he rescues la figlia del Sultano, not just from slavery to real corsari (turchi) through a ransom, but also from slavery to sin through baptism. I can't even say how supportive of this I am--and how much I wish that more modern Italians had a similar response to the millions of souls who have been entering their country as refugees for years. (Perhaps their own figli e figlie del Sultano aren't also as belli.) The only problem we have here is that Bella Fronte is again using money that his father gave him for another purpose. This time, however, he tells the truth when he gets home. Did he give anyone else St. Francis of Assisi vibes?

The fairest criticism of our hero seems to be that he's just bad at following directions, including the one very simple one from his new wife. Mrs. Darwin can't be too happy with him. ;-)

-Tu con la canna, io con la battella
Forse ci pescheremo una sardella-

Everything works out when Bella Fronte finds a sympathetic old fisherman. (I'm starting to sit up and take notice whenever I read "vecchio" or "vecchia" in a fiabe.) I wonder how much of this is due to the twist we learn at the end and how much is due to his new work not being very mercantile. Previously, his only two "business partners" required him to do things he probably wasn't suited for; now, all he has to do is handle a fishing rod. (The Thomas Frederic Crane translation [Yes, I peeked. Sono tanto desolato!] gives the vecchio the additional line: "I will go and sell the fish, for I am not ashamed . . ." Crane must have noticed that sales isn't our protagonist's strong point!)

Later, when the two are made prisoners, they also acquit themselves well as gardeners and as musicians. Bella Fronte couldn't have found a better person with whom to agree to share his life, both il male and il bene. It is also the ideal of Christian marriage, though here we see it between two platonic friends rather than between husband and wife. (Nota bene: St. Thomas Aquinas has written that the greatest friendship is between husband and wife!)

It feels a little presumptuous for my unmarried self to suggest an allegorical reading for married couples, but naturally, I'll do it anyway! First, it makes sense that Bella Fronte and the old man start their relationship as two fishermen, who agree to split every day's catch whether it is a great haul or a meagre one: no bride and groom ever know what the future is going to bring, but they agree to share each other's joys and burdens anyway. Their shared captivity brings back the Catholic angle: even the happiest couples, able to bring forth good fruit and sweet music through their union, aren't really at home on earth . . . and will not be at home until death inevitably parts them. It must be bittersweet. The most moving moment in the fiabe is when a newly liberated--and newly wealthy--Bella Fronte remembers his promise to his friend and returns to keep his word. It means risking everything he has regained (and his wife might not have been too impressed with his virtue here!), but a promise is a promise. And there is hope in thinking that a spouse who finally receives his eternal reward will be able and willing to share that good with the widowed partner as well, through intercession from Heaven.

-E che carico avete?-

A final note: I liked the play on words that we get from the past participle "carico." The first time we read it in the story, it refers to the dead man's debts: he is a "morto carico di debiti." These may be literal debts, but Catholics know what they really symbolise. We read "carico" again when Bella Fronte is asking the corsari turchi what cargo they have on their ship. I'm a little disappointed that Italo Calvino doesn't use it a third time, when our hero and his wife sail home in the best ship yet.

Totally Optional Discussion Questions for Bella Fronte:

1) Why do you think Bella Fronte is represented by his forehead? What does this body part symbolise?
2) If you lived in a faerie tale and couldn't be royalty, how would you earn your living?
3) If you are married, do you think the friendship between Bella Fronte and the old man is a good model for your relationship with your spouse?

If you liked talking about marriage, we might get another chance with the next story: La Borea e Il Favonio or Miss North Wind and Mr. Zephyr. It's nice and short in both Italiano (Scroll down the PDF until you get to Scheda #6) and English.

Image Source: Un Tuffo nei Libri: "Bella Fronte"


Belfry Bat said...

I'm not ashamed to admit that I had to read this through in English. Some of the others were simple enough, perhaps Latin enough... but not today! And then I spent some time wondering if the third section was (at great remove, necessarily) the model for Mozart's Die Entf├╝hrung aus dem Serail... wondering idly, anyways.

Speaking of Bela Fronte being so skilled at all instruments... why didn't that become his trade???

1) Foreheads, eh? In the present context? I hadn't got there 'till you asked, but In nomine Patr...

[I can also imagine the poor fellow being frequently in some perplexity, and striking a certain pose; it would seem to fit with his directorial troubles, at least, but then he seems to act impulsively, rather than as puzzled... unlike a certain self I know...]

2) Goodness! Perhaps I might like to be a blacksmith. That is, I like the idea of making things. In real life, I don't seem to much like actually making things...

Brandon said...

The moral texture of this tale is fascinating. As you note, an act of mercy is front and center in the tale, and it cannot be an accident that we keep running into the acts of mercy:

(1) Fair Brow buries the dead;
(2) He ransoms the captive;
(3) He instructs the ignorant (in converting the Sultan's daughter);
(4) He bears wrongs patiently.

Incidentally, this is one point on which I think Crane's version of the tale is superior to Calvino's -- at the end, the Calvino version has him rewarded for (1), but in Crane's the old man specifically says he is being rewarded for (1) and (3) (and since (2) was a precondition for (3), implicitly for that, as well).

In addition, he acts with justice in the strict sense (which involves equality) toward the old man in word and deed, and also with justice in the broad sense (in truthfulness and generosity and amiability, at least, and also possibly in religion given the conversion and marriage). His primary faults are the original lie to the father and, as you say, not following directions very well; but the story is very much one of mercy and justice triumphing over adversity.

Another interesting aspect to the story is how furious the father is when he finds out his son has come back with nothing but a beautiful wife!

Enbrethiliel said...


Bat -- Given how many musically talented young people are told by well-meaning elders that there's no money in music and that they should find another way to make a living, I can totally understand why Bella Fronte didn't really pursue that career!

My own wild guess about his forehead was that it starts out very smooth (which is one sort of beautiful) and ends lined with experience (which is another sort of beautiful). But I really like your suggestions!

By the way, I found this one a bit difficult, too--to the point that I wondered whether I was reading the actual Calvino. Perhaps the relative complexity of the tale is reflected in the more difficult-to-read style he uses here.

Brandon -- Crane's additions do seem to improve the story! The plot hops along quickly enough, but I can imagine a longer story fitting even more acts of mercy in. I wonder what adventures we'd find in the scattered source versions.

You also bring up something I hadn't considered at all . . . Would the average father be pleased if his son came home another settemila scudi poorer but with a beautiful wife?

Belfry Bat said...

Oh, the father's frustration at his second lost small fortune is most consistent with his Character, and it's most consistent that the beautiful wife would help Bella Fronte not at all in his father's estimation. Papa Fronte is probably thinking he can guess why the capital has turned into a beautiful dependent (and... well, if he doesn't care for music, will he care for painting instead?).

In fact, I'm sure my own family would be rather frustrated with me if I turned up with such a fixed attachment in present circumstances... but never mind that just now. And my family are terribly nice people!

MrsDarwin said...

Surfacing after Christmas to say: yes, he should have listened to his wife! Clearly she wasn't too keen to go back to her father if she knew she had such a distinctive painting style that it could be instantly recognized, and so begged him not to tell her secret.

Seems to me that the young man did obey the command of his father, which was (in Crane): "Be careful what you do; take care to make gains!" He definitely made gains. Spiritually, the first time he came home; matrimonially, the second time; and materially, the third time. Dad's a bit too dense to see that, but that's not the young man's fault. Still, he oughtn't to have lied.

Enbrethiliel said...


While revealing his wife's secret was definitely the worst slip of the story, we could still have a version in which Bella Fronte keeps quiet and the sultan's men (who would presumably be persistent about finding his daughter) learn the artist's identity anyway. But it's more consistent to have our protagonist be "clumsy" three times in a row, rather than "clumsy" twice and then just unlucky the third time. I hope it's safe to say that he learned his lesson in the end!

The father's instruction is close enough in the Italian, but a little more elegant in the English. =) I guess when you mean material gains (and make a big material investment), you wish for kind to be returned in kind. (Not that the father is totally about money: he does say, after hearing the tall tale about the corsari, that the money can be replaced and he is just happy that his son is alive.)