You can't guillotine the fairies

Vernon Lee was in her early twenties when she wrote her book of essays about 18th century Italy, and among them, a famous – though some say distorting – essay about Carlo Gozzi, the Venetian playwright who took Italian fairy tales and made them into theater. Gozzi did this partly just in order to get up the nose of the enlightened crowd around Goldoni. Gozzi’s plays, notably Love for three Oranges and Turandot, served as the basis for famous operas – and though I looked, I could not find other videos of this seemingly amazing performance of Prokofiev’s L’amour pour trois oranges which, I am betting, the Colonel probably saw
- and are of interest to us here at LI for ending the 18th century on a fairy note – just as it began with Perrault’s fairy tales, those most modern of ancient relics.

Lee tells a story – which is too good to be true – that Gozzi wrote The love for three oranges because he’d been driven crazy by Goldoni’s bragging about his success – and with plays that, in Gozzi’s opinions, were as dull as Diderot’s. Where was the magic? So Gozzi said “I wager that with the masks of the old comedy I will draw a greater audience to hear the story of the Love of the Three Oranges than you can with all your Ircanas and Bettinas and Pamelas!” Which, Lee contextualizes, is like saying you are going to make a theatrical hit out of Jack and the Beanstalk. But Gozzi possessed the key to great comedy- an endless flow of malice. So he wrote the play, which was a great success, drove Goldoni’s realism from the stage – in Lee’s account, at least – and wrote many more Fiabe – fables – for theater.

This is what fascinates me:

“Carlo Gozzi himself was of the opinion that the invisible world obtained some mysterious power over him from the moment of his writing the Love of the Three Oranges, and that the series of persecutions which he relates in his very quaint autobiography were due to the vengeance of the fairy world, which he had dared to bring on to the stage.”

So – diverting our attention away from the suicide theme I have been pursuing – we know our readers need a break! – let’s look at Gozzi. Whose spirit may well have been astonished by the fact that a Bolshevik artist took over his reactionary play. Although perhaps it isn’t really that surprising, since Schiller had already injected Gozzi into the stream of German romanticism. But LI hopefully has shaken up our reader’s sense that the terms reactionary/progressive, or right/left, are to be taken as rigid designators in the anthropological study of Western politics.

And this is Lee’s excellent description of Gozzi’s struggle with the invisible world:

About 1740 his combat had begun with those invisible enemies who wer to pesecute him throughout his life. Carlo Gozzi manfully determined to break the spell which hung over his family: he went about examining the Gozzi property on terra-firma; he tried to lease part of the premises; he sought for the title-deeds of bonds left by his father; but the goblins met him on all his journeys with flooded roads and broken bridges, with bugs and thieving stewards. They sent to him polyp-like tenants who never paid, scandalized the quarter by their doings, and , when legally ejected, clambered back into their former premises during the night; they inspired the Countess Gasparo Gozzi [wife of his older brother] with the happy thought of selling all the family papers and parchments to a neighboring porkshop. However, Carlo was victorious: he reclaimed the terra-firma property; he finally ejected the non-paying, disreputable tenants; he recovered, among the heaps of cheeses, the rolls of sausages, and the compact rows of ham, the venerable documents of the family; he put his younger brothers into Government offices, his sisters into convents; had the little Gasparo Gozzi swashed and shoed and stockinged; quietly shipped off the resigned philologist Gasparo and his furious poetess wife to Pordenone; and then with a few books and just sequins enough to eat meagerly and dress tidily for the rest of his days, he established himself alone in the haunted palace at S. Canziano, with his Spanish plays and his collections of Arabian and Neapolitan fairy tales. But the goblins did not let him off so easily; they delighted in pulling, pinching, twitching, and tripping him up; they led his silk-stockinged feet into every pool of water; they jolted his coffee-cup out of his hand on to every new pair of satin breeches; they enveloped him in some mysterious cloud which made people mistake him for opera directors, Greek merchants, and astronomers, and give him playful blows intended for other persons; they lost the letters addressed to him and wrote answers of which he knew nothing, so that one evening, returning travel-worn, weary, and ravenous, from Friuli, he found his own house brilliantly lit up and garlanded, filled with cooks and lacqueys, and with a crowd of masked rioters eating, drinking and dancing to celebrate the accession to the patriarchal chair of Monsignor Bragadin, whose flunkeys politely told the astonished owner of the house that he had written to give permission for the momentary annexation of his palace, and that for the three days and nights of Monsignor Bragadin’s festivities he had better retire to the nearest inn.”