Mitologia Italiana - nel testo

No.19. King Crin
Once there was a king, who created his kingdom in the heart of Lombardia. This place was a source of great artistry and culture. Back when young Armando was still just a prince, he took to his bicycle in search of new worlds; riding a long dusty path all the way from Reggio Emilia to Milano. It was here he joined La Gazzetta - a place where men of words brought stories of far of places into the homes of their people. Among them was Armando’s father Alberto, who spoke of the sword. A short time later, La Gazzetta had lost its way. Its stories were no longer of interest to the people. Taking up his duties as king, Armando ignited a lost passion across his domain, and used his power at La Gazzetta to introduce new tales of heroic deeds, great journeys and athletic prowess - he started a grand race across the land. And back. This event went by the name of Giro d’Italia. Its inaugural running would exit Piazzale Loreto, in Milano just before three o’clock in the morning, on May 13th 1909. One hundred and twenty-seven riders began. Forty-nine would finish. Among them was a Milanese bricklayer, called Luigi. Many days later this young man from Induno Olona took the spoils of victory, racing into the neo-classical splendour of Arena Gianni Brera, to claim the 5,325 pieces of treasure in recognition of his efforts. 
In the following years, la punzonatura would annually occur outside La Gazzetta, on Via Galileo Galilei. Numbers were given to race entrants. And a race was run. During this time, the artistically-inclined Bugatti family would entrust one of their clan to bring to life an iconic motorcar company; some time in fusion with Prinetti & Stucchi, Stucchi & Co., who produced machines for sewing. At the same time, in nearby Turin, a Lancia Beta would roll off onto the roadway. Paradoxically, within this automobile revolution, something of a bicycle renaissance also began to emerge, aided by the outlook of the Touring Club Italiano. Deep in the kingdom of Lombardia there was a grand celebration.

No.39. The Happy Man’s Shirt
Aking had an only son. But the king was secretly a wizard, who lived in the province of Alessandria, and the son was not related to the king by birth. The wizard was also blind. The young novitiate went by the name of Angelo. As a youth he worked in a butcher’s shop, riding there every day from a far off home, on a rusty old bicycle. One day, the wizard was buying some salami from the butcher when Angelo arrived back from a delivery run. Immediately the wizard’s attention fell on the heavy breathing youth. “I can see with my hands,” the wizard king said to Angelo, extending his arms towards the sweating young man. “And what do they see?” responded Angelo. The king paused. Gathered his thoughts. “They see a great champion. The greatest ever. They see five victories in the race of the Maglia Rosa. A rivalry between two great warriors, where winning the race runs second to defeating the other. They also see a dangerous white lady. La Dama Bianca.” In mid-sentence the wizard then stopped. His hands dropped back to his side. And while packing the salami away in a canvas bag he turned back, leaving Angelo with a final word of wisdom “Beware a man called Monsieur Maurice. He will gather you and some friends in a place called Upper Volta, where your greatest battle will be fought against your smallest foe.” 
The wizard king’s wise words would all play out in truth. And Angelo would ultimately lose his final battle. At the same time, far off in another kingdom, neorealism competed with fantasy. A young woman from Sweden called Ingrid told an older man called Roberto “I am ready to come and make a film with you”. Their scandalous fate is soon sealed on an exploding volcanic rock called Stromboli. And another man of pictures exposes a naive young boy carved from wood, who tries to escape a life under the control of others. Along the way he joins a circus, becomes transformed into a donkey and ultimately is reborn through a miraculous metamorphosis. Where those seeking the allure of the maglia rosa fight to the bitter end, it is rumoured the truly happy man wore no shirt.

No.53. The Devil’s Breeches
Aman had a son. In fact, it is said, he had eight. Elsewhere it has been suggested there were as many as ten. What is mostly overlooked, is the eleventh was a girl. They all lived together, in a shack without windows, in deepest Emilia-Romagna, along with many chickens. One day, the man had grown so desperate to feed his starving family that he made a pact with the devil himself. The covenant was a simple one - the horned rogue would take possession of one of the poor man’s offspring, in return for a lifetime of food. But there was also one extra item of conditional small print - the man had to accept the custodian would both live and die by two wheels. The bargain was struck. That night roast pig was served in the windowless shack. Elsewhere a young girl was presented with a shiny new bicycle. Over the coming years, the young girl, who went by the name of Alfonsina, found her two-wheeled companion provided its own rewards. She would enter races. And win. Often she would be competing against older men, who were seemingly stronger. Yet they were no match for the devil’s daughter, or the ‘devil in a dress’ as the bitter wave of losers soon labelled this cycling phenomenon. Over time, the race stakes grew higher and higher, until one day Alfonsina entered the most precipitous of them all - the Giro d’Italia. At that time, the competition was open to all. Race entrant number 72 was awarded to an individual who went by the name of Alfonsin (she had cleverly dropped an ‘a’ to conceal her gender). Presumptuous and ignorant journalists began writing about Alfonsino, presuming No.72 was a man. After twelve gruelling, long stages Alfonsina received a heroic welcome as the race concluded in Milan. She became the first and only woman to compete in the Giro. And despite finishing 28 hours behind the winner, was among only 30 riders to finish the race. She was also not last. The devil in a dress had used a humble bicycle to challenge machismo across many kingdoms. 
At the same time, the beast with horns had his fingers in many pies. In Rome, a group of future-gazing visionaries opened the Cabaret del Diavolo - borrowing from the Florentine Dante Alighieri, the three main rooms went by the names Paradise, Purgatory and Inferno. Other kindred spirits included Fortunato Depero, who founded the Casa d'Arte Futurista. Further devotees joined the movement formed around a ground swell called Futurista. Back in the kingdom of Lombardia Alfonsina had traded her simple bicycle for one with its own power. This new beast, called Guzzi, was coloured scarlet. And he growled the most throaty thunder. One day, returning home from a town in the north, Guzzi became uncontrollable. His grease-splashed bulk fell against Alfonsina. Unable to move she pleaded for air. But the beast took no heed, the Devil had taken the place of him.

No.74. The Daughter of the Sun
Aking and a queen who had waited for ages were one fine day blessed with the arrival of a daughter. That same year all the kingdoms of their homeland united, and signed a special agreement to be peaceful with those they shared the world with. Sadly, young Marina, for that was the infant’s given name, witnessed no such peace treaty closer to home. The king was adored across many kingdoms. He was a champion of unrivalled aptitude. Often he appeared as a long-necked bird, who elegantly lived among the clouds. Back on dry land however, he was an awkward passenger of everyday life. While Marina was still quiet young the king and queen decided to part. The king, it would seem, had taken up with a vivacious consort who was known as La Dama Bianca. Their relationship caused a scandal. Men of the church tried to intervene. But all to no avail. Marina’s shy mother silently slipped into the shadows, as her beloved father used the shadows for entirely other purposes. Sadly one day, when the young princess was just a slight twelve-year-old, the king was soaring above the clouds in a far off land when he was bitten by a small but menacing fly. He came crashing to the ground in a crumpled heap. Back home the sad news was broadcast into the air “…his name echoes on the highest mountains,” they said. The people’s champion-of-champions was put to rest at the top of a hill in the kingdom of Alessandria. His final climb was aided by the thousands who came to wave him farewell. In his honour, the great race known as La Corsa Rosa dedicated the highest peak of all further races to henceforth be known as the Cima Coppi. The king who was a bird had defined the race in which he was all conquering. Despite sometimes enlisting the assistance of a genie called La Bomba, he was loved by many as a symbol of liberation and emancipation, for he was originally from a bloodline of provincial roots; the spoils of his first conquest being a simple salami sandwich. His public life had mirrored his racing - full of ups and downs; littered with unbelievable exploits and crusades; a sonata veloce to the eccentric, capricious and mercurial. But then one day the king came down to earth and did no more strange things.

No.76. The Florentine
There once was a Florentine giant, who rumour had it was made of iron. This humble, righteous colossus was a great warrior. His features were roughly-cast. And although he might appear leaden, this broad individual easily took his steel bicycle to the top of Fattucchia Hill every day. In time, he conquered many more hills, mountains and valleys. The name of Gino began to spread across the land. Far and wide he travelled. Conquering all before him. But then one particularly grey day a great army invaded, and Gino was forced to reconcile his ability with new rules imposed by abbreviated dictators. Not to be undone, the Florentine devised a cunning plan to expedite the escape of many of the persecuted and vulnerable members of his community; now seen as unworthy by the grotesque and misshapen beasts occupying the kingdom. Camouflaged in plain sight, Gino performed the charade of a local hero on a humble bicycle. He exploited his famous ferrous face, and rode by the gargoyles patrolling each passage across the land, smiling and cycling as he went. He rode huge distances. Arriving after many hours at a house designated for the gods. Here his vehicle was taken apart. In the process hidden papers were removed, reassembled and fashioned into new identities. Henceforth the trapped escaped, with Gino the key which opened the door to their liberation. Time and time again, the Florentine took this long journey. All the while he kept an iron curtain of hush on his own deeds. “Good is something you do, not something you talk about,” was all he uttered in recognition of his efforts. Years later, when the invaders had been sent away, the Florentine once again set off to conquer the kingdom on two wheels. Such was the reverence with which the uomo di ferro was held at least three different holy men blessed his journey through life. Yet another sacred place, in a far off land, added Gino’s name to a formidable edifice of other names, each recognised for their rare humanitarian efforts to safeguard the citizens of an oppressed kingdom. Legend has it, high up on a mountain pass sits La Madonna del Ghisallo (so named after a Marian apparition) - a humble church blessed by a holy man; now known as the home to the patroness of cyclists. It is here that a portrait forged in bronze, of a humble man of iron, gazes out into the clouds. When patrons of the Florentine are ever asked about how such heroic deeds were only later discovered, some time after the giant’s final ascension to the light, they simply suggest that the great man was not partial to the ills of vanagloria. And of Orgoglio - they say he had cut it off mowing the grass.

No.95. Water in the Basket
There once was a widowed mother, who was once married to a king. This king ruled the mountains, and a province known as Repubblica. She was there when he began his quest. But had to watch from afar, as the king, and his loyal devotees from the north, became greater by the day. Yet at the same time, another ruler, this time from the south, was also extending the wealth of his patrons, as he too prevailed in capturing prizes from victorious expeditions around the land. His realm was known as Monarchia. In time, the king from the south would collide with his counterpart from the north. The peoples of the land were suddenly divided. A battle would have to be fought to decide the path forward.
Legend has it the king from the north and the king from the south went head to head for many days and nights. Both were battle-hardened warriors. Both displayed ingenuity, endurance and cunning. Rumour has it the king from the north once declared “Age and treachery will overcome youth and skill.” Furthermore, the king from the south did not trust the methods of his rival. He believed a sly medicine man had bequeathed his foe with some explosive potion, which when imbibed increased the consumer’s powers tenfold. The battle raged on. And on. Eventually, the two passionate kings were almost at a standstill. This is the point where the mists of time grow murky. Some say the king from the south grew pity for his exhausted adversary. Others suggest the king from the north was actually winning, but decided to spare his opposer and offer an olive branch. The only aperture of shared clarity into this tale is a moment witnessed by a man who had no name. And who since has disappeared into thin air. But it is said, he saw through one eye the two kings clutching the same drinking vessel, each in desperate need of libation. But was the king from the south offering his spirit to the man in front? Or was the king from the north reaching back to bequeath a life saving mouthful from his? To this day the myth known as the bottiglia d'acqua remains unresolved. What is understood is their shared moment of kind-hearted altruism saved the land. The outcome was a close one. The kings returned to their queens, and a gifted inventor from the creative hot-bed known as Milano, through his love of a flame-haired temptress called Gilda, built a device which allowed all in the kingdom to express themselves through the drinking of a stimulating dark beverage. Elsewhere, Gilda’s legacy was also strapped to a catalyst of greater potency. But as the storm clouds settled, all lived happily ever after.

No.126. The Five Scapegraces
In Maglie lived a trumpeter called Alfredo. He originally hailed from a small commune in the Province of Varese. Alongside much trumpeting, Alfredo would become a dominant force in the special race across his homeland. For much of his racing days, the young man would wear the livery of a legendary Lombard warrior called Alberto da Giussano, who fought in the Battle of Legnano. The young Alfredo’s story is, on first glance, of the classic rags-to-riches type - where a humble painter/decorator is plucked from obscurity and goes on to conquer the world. Yet nestled beneath this epic ballad’s lyrical verse lies a more anarchic account. It begins with a man of industry called Bozzi. This man’s early success is founded on a machine he made called Aurora. Using the riches he garnered from many sales of the device, Bozzi travelled to a far off island, and returned with something called a Wolsit. Nobody knew what this entity was capable of, apart from Bozzi, who in due time launched the Ciclomotore Wolsit. The complex narrative evolved further, as the trumpeter called Alfredo, who wore the colours of Legnano, and who rode on a new Ciclomotore Wolsit, came to the attention of some radical ideologists. Presenting themselves as an alternative philosophy, this collective known as Bundle championed home grown sports heroes, and liked to wear only black as a cloth of choice. They offered Alfredo a lifetime supply of gold, in return for much trumpet work, and of course cycling. In due course, after much music making, the cyclist won the biggest prize in the land - the Corsa Rosa - many times. But, for the men with hats who organised this world famous event, many times soon became too many times. Those who followed the annual race were beginning to lose interest. They would feverishly await as each year’s celebration grew near; get excited by the list of combatants who had signed up to race; watch each moment with care (some travelling great distances to be at the road side, on a given day in late Spring); then return to normal life with a world-weary burden of indifference, as the Legnano man, now an elite member of the fuoriclasse, would once again escape with the spoils. This eventuality became so tiresome that some of the men from Gazzetta, who organised the race, offered Alfredo a vast pot of gold (some say as many as 22,500 pieces) to stop trumpeting. Being the wise man that he was, Alfredo accepted quietus for an entire year. During this time the men from Bundle’s ideology was adopted by those using creative means to express their beliefs about how life could be experienced in the future. Everything suddenly became very colourful, and a popular red-tinted beverage was much consumed in anticipation of this approaching arcadian utopia.
During his time without trumpeting, Alfredo had wed and produced a family. Encouraged by the need to provide for his offspring he picked up his instrument and returned to the competition, racing this time with a new sound in his ear - the cries of that mad daughter of his.

No.137. The Thirteen Bandits
There once was two brothers. One became a famous hero, the other an infamous bandit. The hero became so celebrated and illustrious in his native land that all railway journeys which passed by his home would have to stop and pay homage to the champion of champions. Folklore was kind to Constante, the sports hero. It swept under the rug the tacit understanding that this champion was not blessed with notable verticality. And in the early days he was simply known as ‘Omino’ - a small word to describe a diminutive vessel. Yet size proved no barrier to success. Omino became a ‘container of trust’ into which a poverty-stricken land would invest their hopes. He came to symbolise a new era, which purely coincidentally was echoed in the brand name of a new implement built for refined self expression and correspondence - a penna stilografica - which went by the name of Aurora. At the same time, an enterprising band of brothers, calling their endeavour Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino, decided to build a giant cathedral in order that they might worship a post-modern deification which was proving quite popular among those who craved a change from the accepted status quo. Construction took many years. The resulting basilica went by the name of Lingotto; it had a rooftop made for fast travel in a circle - something the people of the time now craved. Some called this craze velocit√†. Standing still was seen as backward and unprogressive; a shared desire to escape the past was spreading with ease. The piccolo pedaler known as Omino became synonymous with victoriousness, whilst his estranged brother was denounced and chased from the kingdom for such crushing lawlessness.

No. 145. The Widow and the Brigand
Once there was a poor widow, who prior to being poor was actually quite content. In reality, her poverty was more emotional than financial. Misfortune should dictate that the fulcrum of her elegy would also be shared with another, who contributes a degree of chaos to the complexity of this tale, by also being a widow. That makes two widows. Which is not a good start to any fable. Their combined lamentation was felt across the land. And their ripples of loss would spread far and wide. Everyone was united in a sense of grief and general blackness. But it was not always like this. Many years before, when the first widow was not a widow, her king was a character of upright stance, who captured her heart with his daring escapades. Unfortunately, it was on one such high-risk act of escape - which concluded at the peak of a mountain track known as the Passo dello Stelvio - that the king would set eyes on the queen-in-waiting. Scandal soon followed. The king found himself mired by controversy and dissent. The most holy man of the land even took the time to suggest the king might reconsider his motives, and return to the queen he had selected previously. At that time it was in fact an unlawful act to swap queens. But as the king was not one for protocol he ignored the advise from men of learning, and took a holiday to an island in the Tyrrhenian Sea, along with the proxy consort. At that juncture, the king’s battle colours were a very distinct and attractive hue known as Celeste. He would ride into battle on a mechanical steed created by a gifted genius called Edoardo, who rumour had it matched the colour to one he found deep in the eyes of a former queen from his homeland; thereafter painting all his creations in Celeste. Others say the origin was more simpler the sky over Milano. 
The demise of the king, some say, was a metaphor for change. His actions represented the desire for a more modern morality. When white turned to black, his partiality to the allure of women and power was played out across the front pages of popular culture. But then, from the ruins and poverty a new horizon grew. A man called Gio would build a glorious blue and white palace high up on a cliff overlooking an island in the same Tyrrhenian Sea. And a man of cheap words would openly pursue a saccharine pastime in order to to seek his fortune.

No.160. The Left-Hand Squire
Once, it is told, a man of brittle fabric decided to add his colours to the victorious livery which decorated the greatest race across the land. The tapestry in question was predominantly interwoven with the threads of its two most famous and successful competitors. With his valiant efforts tainted by the yarn of a shadowy past, this individual became known as ‘The Third Man’. He had no other name. And his story is littered with incidents of controversy and feud. Paradoxically, this battle-hardened warrior, supported by a devoted band of brothers known as the gregari, survived through financial support from a delicate, renovating epicene elixir known as Nivea. Their battle cry spoke of liberation and redemption. Their ensign a blood-red trident halberd. Such militaristic attribution carried a dangerous beacon of the Third Man’s controversial involvement with a battle held in days of yore, called the Massacre of Valibona. Reports claim he was there, showing allegiance to an opaque militia group. Yet no conclusive evidence put him behind bars.
Years later, as he took his battle to the highest mountain in the land, which went by the name of Pordoi, whispers spread that extra gregari had been brought in from far and wide, and these allegiant scamps had assisted, against the race rules, to push and drag the exhausted competitor to the mountain peak. Despite proclaiming “In life, defeats are more likely to happen than wins”, the Third Man’s victories seemed more likely to happen if he deceived. One one similar occasion, he even managed to cheat Death himself - for despite breaking many bones he continued competing in a long and arduous race against the champions of the time. All the healers from the land were sent away, as the challenger rode on, falling again and again; breaking more limbs with each advancement. Unable to properly control his chariot with his hands, he cleverly fashioned a harness that he gripped between his teeth. It was this act of insane, spirited gallantry which eventually melted the animosity of his doubters. The Third Man finished second in the race. Afterwards, slumped in an infirmary bed, he looked down at his broken body and apologised to his wrecked limbs, saying “scusa for the grief I have caused you”.

No.179. The Captain and the General
Once upon a time in a land known as Sicily there was a ruler. At the same time, in a province also known as Sicily, sat another sovereign. Scholars decided that having two Sicilies spread across a vast kingdom, called Utraque Sicilia, was not a good idea. So after a long discussion they joined as one. Some time later, in a place that was the authentic Sicily, some hungry partisans, whilst climbing the frozen peak of Mount Etna, combined some foraged nuts, crushed berries and honey with a handful or two of snow. Much to their dismay this tasty invention was stolen by a man from one of the former Sicilies, who turned this rare delicacy into a feast which brought him great fortune. One day, many years later, a passionate adventurer called Spica, who lived in the Sicily which by now was no longer called Sicily, appropriated the rich man’s idea, and reinvented it using a secret formula. He called his ingenious innovation Cornetto. He was soon rich, and very famous across all the lands, including Sicily.
With eating now a favourite pastime of most people, sharp-eyed members of a family called Salvarani went into business selling boxes, which when connected together could convert any room into a place in which to cook and prepare meals. This brave new apparatus had everyone talking about things which were ‘modular’. The Salvarani family became prosperous beyond their dreams. And everyone in the land turned modular. With more money than they knew what to do with, some was spent bringing music to the populace. In a giant round bowl called Vignorelli they introduced four insects from a far away island, who played their instruments and sang about girls. They also hired a small battalion of skilled riders to capture prizes, riding all the while in a fetching pale blue livery. This legion had both a Captain and a General (neither of which were from Sicilies), and both were very popular victors, much due to their merry disposition. As the people enjoyed the success of this blue battalion, they also were sad at the loss of a brilliant innovator called Enrico, who had lived in a big house called Varramista. Enrico had changed the landscape across the land by designing a small and affordable vehicle with a bulbous rear end and spiky handles for steering. “It looks like a wasp!” declared Enrico. It wasn’t long before everyone was riding on wasps, from Sicily (now in the south) to the north. In recognition of his great idea he was made Commander of all the regiments.

No.194. The Lion’s Grass
There once was a carpenter who was a skilled craftsman. He made beautiful objects from the wood which he collected from a nearby forest. One day, while out collecting, he came across a lion. The beast did not attack, but looked over to the startled carpenter and gently asked him for help. “Everyone is in fear of me,” he began. “They see my long face and think I will eat them all whole. But all I desire is to be loved and to smile at the village dwellers, and live a simple life.” Ever resourceful, the man of wood suggested the muscular beast win the hearts of the people by entering a competition on their behalf. If he won he could share his spoils, and they would forever be beholden to him. The idea seemed appealing. In time, a great race came through the land, and the lion seized the opportunity. Being blessed with a bravery beyond most, the lion could attack the race with ferocious purpose. He never gave up. And although some were foolish enough to follow, they eventually conceded. In no time the race was won, tamed by a beast with a passion to be adored. 
Returning to rapturous fanfare, the lion opened a special wooden crate made by the carpenter and out spilled the victor’s spoils. Suddenly the fanfare stopped. The crowd drew back. All was quiet. “Is there a problem?” enquired the lion. The town’s Mayor stepped forward. “Toothpaste? Hand cream? We were expecting sustenance, and rare victuals on which to feast and make merry.” The gentle lion leaned against the wooden box and lit up a cigarette. He had heard the story of the Left-Hand Squire, where this face and hand cream was an alternate currency for people of high culture. Not so those of a rural upbringing, he surmised. “Never mind,” said the carpenter. “Perhaps white teeth and rosy cheeks aren’t for everyone.” 
The carpenter returned to making things with wood, and the lion took up residency in the artisan’s workshop attic, painting landscapes of his homeland. “I wouldn’t worry about those folks in the hinterland Mr Lion. You are still king of the beasts to me.” Putting down a brush, and lighting up a cigarette, the lion smiled. In his mind he remained king of the seven crowns.

[Titles, First and Last sentences after 'Italian Folktales' by Italo Calvino]

All artwork, text and images © James Straffon 2024.