Italian Boots and Mythical Stories: the wonderful works of Laura Orvieto

Dorota Bazylczyk is a postgraduate student in the Faculty of Artes Liberales, at the University of Warsaw.  Her PhD is funded by the ERC, through the Our Mythical Childhood project.  She is working on the function of mythology in Italian children’s literature.  It is my great pleasure to introduce her work here, in the first of a small series of posts on Laura Orvieto (1876-1953), a pioneer in retelling mythology for young Italians.                                             –Elizabeth Hale


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Laura Orvieto, grandmother of Italian retellings of classical mythology

Laura Orvieto (7 March 1876, Milan – 9 March 1953, Florence) was a famous Italian-Jewish author of books for children. She dedicated most of her works to Greek and Roman mythology.  In 1911, she began her famous book series, titled Storie della storia del mondo. Greche e barbare (“Stories of the History of the World. Stories of Greece and the Barbarians”). It was the first Italian mythology addressed directly to very young readers. It became a milestone in its field and a very important base for Italian authors and scholars interested in writing for young readers/interested in the transmission of myth for young readers. (See, for instance, Grandi, William, La musa bambina. La letteratura mitologica italiana per ragazzi tra storia, narrazione e pedagogia., Edizioni Unicopli, 2011, Milano.)

Orvieto went on to write three more historical-mythological works: Beppe racconta la Guerra (1928), Il Natale di Roma (The Birth of Rome) (1927) and La forza di Roma (1933). Her last work published before the war was titled Storie di bambini molti antichi (1937).   It was also aimed at children. (Sadly, its distribution was quickly blocked because of the adoption of the fascist Italian Racial Laws in 1938.)  After the war, Orvieto edited a children’s newspaper.  Her works are now in wide circulation, and have been published in new editions, and translated into a number of languages.


Storie di bambini molti antichi

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The latest edition of Storie di Bambini Molto Antichi, illustrated by R. Petruccioli



Working on my doctoral dissertation, related to Italian mythological children’s literature, I was excited to read a new edition of Laura Orvieto’s Storie di bambini molto antichi, published in 2014 by Mondadori, and illustrated by Rita Petruccioli (click here to see more of Petruccioli’s delightful illustrations to the text).

While the book turned out to be interesting in many aspects, not least the mythological retellings, its role in Italian cultural studies is the main focus of my attention. A careful analysis of many myths presented by Orvieto reveals that she “smuggled” a lot of Italian elements into the world of the mythical characters, trying to bring the ancient stories closer to the Italian children living in her times. Most of the Italian references hidden in the text were not so obvious to me at first, so I decided to start looking for their deeper meaning. The results of my search turned out to be very interesting.

Selecting Relevant Myths

First and foremost, Orvieto made a specific selection of the myths. Many of them talk about the characters strongly associated with the culture of the ancient Rome, like Saturn (God of agriculture and time), Mercury (Roman god of commerce), Bacchus (God of wine), Diana (Goddess of moon an hunting) or are happening partially on Italian soil (for example the myth about Hephaestus, which takes place in Sicily[4]). Let’s take a closer look at one of the fragments of the myth of Saturn, where Orvieto describes Italy:

Scese giu’ dall’Olimpo traverso’ la Grecia senza fermarsi, con la sua falce sule spalle passo’ il mare, e approdo’ a una penisola lunga, verde, bellissima, che si lanciava sul mare e forma di stivale. Era l’Italia (. . . .)  In Italia c’era allora un antico re, che si chiamava Giano (p. 33).

With his scythe on his shoulders, he came down from the Olympus and walk across Greece without making any stops. Then he stepped on the sea, and landed on a long, green and beautiful peninsula, which was lying on the water in the form of a boot. It was Italy. (. . . ) In Italy, one ancient king was already ruled – he was called Janus.

Fragments such as this show that ancient culture is particularly close for Italians.  Living on the Apennine peninsula, they treat the ancient Roman world as if it was their own and direct cultural heritage.  (It seems that in the times of Orvieto, this connection between the past and the present was emphasized the most strongly, mainly through the politics of Mussolini who even wanted to rebuild the Roman Empire).


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The beautiful green boot that is Italy . . .


Telling Ancient Myths in Italian Ways

Another meaningful Italian aspect is the specific form of narration used in the book. It is developed in the form of a storytelling, which was always Orvieto’s favorite. In one of her letters to Luigi Tonelli, she wrote:

Ecco, ho sempre, da quando mi posso ricordare, raccontato storie ai bambini; chiedevo a tutti di raccontarne a me, e quando non potevo trovar nessuno, ne raccontavo io ai più piccoli…

Since I can remember, I was always telling stories to children…I was asking everyone to tell me some stories, and when I could not find anyone, I was telling them to the little ones . . . 

(This letter is quoted in  Cerasi, Laura, Laura Orvieto e le sue “Storie”: l’infanzia e le aporie dell’etica della sincerità, )

The situation of “storytelling” is very significant when it comes to the history of Italian’s literature and the genre of Italian fairytales. It is worth recalling that famous works, such as Le Piacevoli Notti by Giovanni Francesco Straparola (containing probably the first Italian fairytales), Decamerone by Giovanni Boccaccio (important work full of tales and stories) or Lo cunto de li cunti written by Gimabattista Basile (probably the main prototype for Grimm’s), were also based on a similar type of narration (cornice narrative , or ‘frame narrative’ in English) where we deal with stories within stories.

In Storie di bambini molto antichi the frame story is the situation of storytelling by the Italian woman/mother (or the author herself), who tells the myths to children. She is deciding which myths will be told on which day. Children are also active in the story – they are very happy to talk to the narrator:

Oggi quale storie si racconta? Quella di Dioniso, quella di Ermes o quella di Ercole?

Quella di Ercole e troppo lunga, e quella di Dioniso non ho voglia di dirla oggi. Si racconterà quella di Ermes.


Children: Which story will be told today? The one of Dionysus, the one of Hermes or the one of Hercules?

Narrator: That of Hercules is too long and I don’t want to talk about Dionysus today. Let’s talk about Hermes.

The other situation presented in the book are the myths themselves.

Orvieto decides to follow the storytelling motif to include many appositions to the presented stories. Thanks to this device, the Italian omniscient mamma, who narrates the myths to the little ones, can use multiple links to help them understand the faith of the main characters:

Nella storia della Bella Addormentata non ci sono le fate buone che fanno bei doni alla principessina quando nasce, e ce n’e una, che porta il suo, di male? Cosi fu quand o nacque Febo Apollo, il figlio di Zeus e di Latona .

In the story of “Sleeping Beauty” there are no good fairies who make beautiful gifts to the princess when she is born. There is only one who is evil and who brings something bad. The same happened when Febo (Apollo), the son of Zeus and Latona was born.

 The Italian mamma gives advice to her listeners, linking the ancient myths to the timeless tradition of storytelling, bringing antiquity even closer to young readers.

— Dorota Bazylczyk

In Dorota’s next post, she will continue this theme, this time talking about the way that Orvieto uses modern Italian food to contextualise ancient myths for her young readers.  Join us next time for another tasty morsel …  




Bath-time Down Under for Archimedes and Friends

One of these characters is the great Archimedes: mathematician, scientist, engineer, bath-taker . . . .  The others are a kangaroo and a wombat, icons of Australian nature.   What happens when they take a bath together?  This is the topic of New Zealand picture-book writer, Pamela Allen’s lovely book Mr Archimedes’ Bath (Harper Collins, 1980).  . . . .


As part of my research for the Our Mythical Survey project, I’ve been digging around to see how Australian children’s writers are making connections to classical antiquity.  I’ve made some discoveries. First, that Australian picture books cover an enormous range of territories and purposes, from didacticism to entertainment, from comedy to tragedy, from the national to the personal. Second, that many of them incorporate exquisite imagery with profound, witty, and thoughtful texts. And third, that in Australian children’s books, classical receptions adapt moments from antiquity and myth, recasting them in new and intriguing ways.

A case in point is Mr Archimedes’ Bath, by the great Pamela Allen. A New Zealand artist, she moved to Australia in the late 1970s, where she began an illustrious career with a children’s book writer and illustrator with this lovely book.

Mr Archimedes’ Bath is a book about bath-time (that perennial of life with young children), with a classical twist. Its premise is simple: at bath-time, Mr Archimedes and his companion animals, a goat, a kangaroo, and a wombat, notice that the water keeps spilling out. Whose fault is it? They take it in turns to jump in and out of the bath, measuring the water each time. Finally . . .

Mr Archimedes got so excited that he jumped in and out, in and out, to make the water go up and down.  ‘EUREKA! I’ve found it, I’ve found it’ he shouted.  ‘Jump in everyone.’  And the bath overflowed.  ‘See,’ said Mr Archimedes. ‘We make the water go up.’
Mr Archimedes’ Bath, by Pamela Allen. Published by Harper Collins Australia 


Mr Archimedes discovers, as we might expect, that it’s everyone’s (and no-one’s) ‘fault.’   Problem solved, they carry on, jumping in and out, making ‘more mess than ever before.’

Without going into a super-forceful reception studies analysis of this book, it’s safe to say this book has it all: a book about bath-time starring Archimedes makes perfect sense; Allen brings him to Australia by including a kangaroo and wombat (and, really, who wouldn’t want to share one’s bath with a wombat?)

Allen returns to the topic of water and weight, with the equally delightful Who Sank the Boat (in which a number of animals debate who sank their boat), and Alexander’s Adventure (in which a duckling from Sydney’s Botanical Gardens falls in a hole, and is rescued by passers by pouring in water from the Archibald Fountain).  But it is Mr Archimedes’ Bath that tickles this reader’s fancy.

Mr Archimedes’ Bath is light and funny. It shows that classical reception doesn’t have to be about myth, or literature, or art, or even particularly deliberate, and that even the greatest scientist may have a slightly crinkly bottom. The principles of displacement are seldom so entertainingly depicted.

–Elizabeth Hale