Is the Original Pinocchio Actually About Lying and Very Long Noses?
John Hooper and Anna Kraczyna on the Italian Author Behind the Beloved (Pre-Disney) Children’s Tale
The gap between the way Carlo Collodi’s The Adventures of Pinocchio is perceived in the land of its origin and the view taken of it by speakers of English is vast. In Italy, critics regard it as a masterpiece: one of the greatest works in the literary canon; a book that has played a significant role in the development of the Italian language; one rich in subtle allusions and artful contrivances, comparable to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Gulliver’s Travels. Italian scholars have written extensive treatises on the layers of cultural, social, political and even religious significance to be found in it.
Many English speakers, by contrast, are more likely to have had their perceptions of the story colored by Walt Disney’s 1940 cartoon movie version, Pinocchio. Seldom has a work of literature been so overshadowed by its celluloid adaptation.
The Adventures was not unknown outside Italy before Disney’s animators got to work on it. It was published in an English translation in 1891, just eight years after it appeared in Italian, and soon became popular in the English-speaking world and beyond. But it was Disney’s motion picture that transformed Collodi’s puppet into a universally recognizable figure. The Adventures has since gone on to be one of the world’s two most translated works of fiction; it has been reincarnated in TV series, plays, video games and other movies; the puppet’s name has been given to an asteroid and used to denote a philosophical conundrum―all largely because of the global fame conferred on him by Hollywood.
One reason for this is that Disney’s movie was a landmark in the history of animation. It introduced an extraordinary degree of realism with effects so far ahead of their time that, even today, 80 years later, they do not look particularly outdated. But Disney and his animators did more than just tweak Collodi’s original tale. They distorted the personality of the central character, replaced the message at the heart of the fable and changed the setting.
Disney’s Pinocchio is about a cute little boy who tells the odd fib. Collodi’s puppet, by contrast, is a brat. The original Pinocchio has a good—even, at times, noble—heart. And toward the end of the Adventures he starts to mature. But until then, he is lazy, mischievous, irresponsible, profoundly egotistical and easily led astray: a late 19th-century prototype for the likes of Bart Simpson.
Collodi’s Pinocchio is also intermittently mendacious. And on a couple of occasions the author punishes him for his lies by making his nose grow. Disney, with a sharp eye for a visually arresting novelty, honed in on the puppet’s extending nose, making it central to his movie in a way that it is not in the book. The result was to forge a link between Pinocchio and lying that has since become indissoluble. The emoji for a lie is a face with an absurdly long nose, and when the Washington Post’s fact-checkers scrutinize politicians’ assertions, they rate them on a scale from no Pinocchios to four. Yet it is hard to read Collodi’s original story as a cautionary tale about the evils and consequences of lying.
The fable began as a serial, Storia di un burattino (The Story of a Puppet). The first installment was published in the launch issue of the Giornale per i Bambini, or Newspaper for Children, on July 7, 1881. Both the periodical and the series enjoyed instant popularity. Collodi continued to chronicle Pinocchio’s misadventures until he brought them to a shockingly grisly end in October, when the puppet was left hanging from a tree, apparently dead. By then, Pinocchio’s nose had grown. Twice. But—as we point out in the endnotes—not when he lied. When he did lie, his nose did not extend by even a millimeter. So, had the story ended when its author intended, the link would never have been made.
Such, however, was the clamor from readers for the tale to be continued that its author resumed Storia di un burattino in the same newspaper four months later and sustained it through an additional 19 installments before definitively ending his story in January 1883, when the entire tale was repackaged as a book, Le avventure di Pinocchio, Storia di un burattino (The Adventures of Pinocchio, the Story of a Puppet). Even in the second run of installments, however, the puppet’s nose grows on only two occasions in response to his lying. What is more, the puppet tells at least three, and arguably four, other lies in the second part of the story without anything untoward happening to his nose. Mendacity was in no way central to Collodi’s original work.
Other messages lay at the heart of the tale. As Daniela Marcheschi notes in her monumental annotated edition of a selection of Collodi’s works, Collodi was a great believer in the “university of life”―of children learning from their mistakes and building up a stock of experience with which to cope with the perils and opportunities of life. But, at a time when schooling was only just starting to become compulsory in Italy, he was also an advocate of the need for formal education. Pinocchio’s reluctance to go to school is the driving force behind the plot of the Adventures. It is what leads him from one disaster to the next in both the first and second parts of the book.
A second, deeper, theme is the growth to maturity via the acquiring of a sense of responsibility. It is only after Pinocchio starts to care for his “parents,” Geppetto the carpenter and the Blue-haired Fairy, that he earns the right to be a human being. The twin morals of the story, it can be argued, are that education is vital, and more importantly that a sense of duty to others is at the core of our common humanity. Some of that, though more of the latter than the former, found its way into Disney’s film.
The most drastic change that Hollywood made was to thoroughly de-Italianize the story. Some of the characters have names ending in “o.” But that is about as Italian as it gets. Pinocchio the movie is set in some ill-defined, mountainous European land. Geppetto is transformed from a dirt-poor Tuscan carpenter into a maker of cuckoo clocks and other sophisticated timepieces. Pinocchio is given an Alpine hat with a feather stuck in the ribbon around the brim. And he and his creator are shown living together happily in a town of half-timbered houses with steeply pitched roofs.
But then the film was crafted as the shadow of Italian Fascism, allied to German Nazism, was creeping across Europe. It was released in the same year that Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, declared war on Britain and France, America’s oldest allies in Europe. The following year, 1941, Italy declared war on the United States itself. It was not a moment to be setting a cartoon movie, however entrancing, in Italy. Yet Italy, and specifically Carlo Collodi’s native Tuscany, are at the very core of a story written by a man who was passionate about his homeland and the destiny of his compatriots.
Carlo Collodi is a pseudonym. The real name of the author of the Adventures was Carlo Lorenzini. He was born in Florence in 1826. His father was the cook in an aristocratic household, that of the Marquis Ginori Lisci. Lorenzini’s mother trained as an elementary school teacher, but found it more remunerative to work as the Marchioness’s seamstress. While his parents were in straitened circumstances, the young Lorenzini spent long periods of his childhood with his mother’s relatives, in the town of Collodi, forty miles northwest of Florence. It is indicative of the rudimentary medical care available to families like his in 19th-century Italy that, of Lorenzini’s nine siblings, only three should have reached adulthood: five died before the age of seven, a sixth when she was 16.
While still at school, Lorenzini took a job in Florence at the Piatti bookshop, which was also a publishing house and a meeting place for the city’s intellectuals, many passionately committed to the causes of liberalism, democracy and Italian Unification. In 1848, as revolution swept through Europe, Lorenzini volunteered to fight the Austrians then ruling much of northern Italy, in what came to be known as the first war of independence. After the Italians were defeated, he returned to Florence, where he helped found Il Lampione, a satirical review with a democratic agenda that became one of the foremost periodicals of its time. He was to continue writing political satire for the rest of his life.
An admirer of Giuseppe Mazzini, the leading ideologue of the Risorgimento (Reawakening) that led to Unification, Lorenzini had initially been a republican. But, in common with many of his fellow patriots, he gradually came to accept that the only way Italy would be united was as a monarchy under the auspices of King Vittorio Emanuele II, the ruler of Sardinia and Piedmont. It was in that spirit that in 1859 Lorenzini enrolled in the king’s army to fight in the second war of independence, also against the Austrians, but this time with the support of the French. It was this conflict that forced the Austrians to withdraw from their Italian territories and cleared the way for Unification.
Twice, then, Lorenzini risked his life to help found the independent and united Italy that was proclaimed in 1861. As the new state’s politics became increasingly sleazy and its politicians progressively less concerned with the poverty of the majority of its citizens, Lorenzini felt a profound sense of betrayal, which may well explain why he embraced the then-novel genre of children’s fiction: despairing of his contemporaries, he decided that the best contribution he could make was to invest his talents in improving the ethical caliber of future generations.
While some of his messages can seem conservative today, Collodi was no reactionary by the standards of his time. He was a liberal, even a radical, and his story reflects a deep concern for the social inequality that he saw in Italy. The Adventures is a fairy tale without princes or princesses, knights or damsels. Its setting is one that the author knew only too well: the harsh world of the rural poor―much the same as that of Ermanno Olmi’s 1978 art house classic, The Tree of Wooden Clogs. Though Olmi’s movie unfolds in Lombardy rather than Tuscany, his characters, like those in the Adventures, are the little people of late 19th-century Italy. Collodi uses his fable to hint at the injustices to which they are subject and for which they have no redress. And, again and again, he returns to the themes of hunger and misery. It is there right at the beginning, in the description of Geppetto’s wretched living conditions, and hangs over the rest of the book like a dark cloud.
As one essayist has written, the Adventures presents “a picture of an Italy―of a country of hovels and fishing villages―that struggles every day to survive… Its protagonists are healthy and generous in spirit, but vexed by the powerful and cheated by their fraudulent advisers.” In this respect, Collodi’s work has every claim to a place in the corpus of 19th-century novels of social denunciation. It may contain more humor than many books written for children (and certainly more than most written in the 19th century), but it is also infused with a pervasive melancholy that arises from its author’s despondency over the state of the nation he had helped to form.
It has been argued that the very fact that Pinocchio is a puppet—that he is a creature without control of his destiny and susceptible to the manipulation of others—is part of the reason why Italians have taken him to their hearts. It is certainly striking that, as the novelist and screenwriter Raffaele La Capria wrote, “Perhaps the only charismatic character in Italian literature is a puppet.”
What is unquestionably true is that Pinocchio is one of those rare fictional characters in whom an entire people seem to be able to make out their reflection. The only similar literary creations who spring to mind are Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, personifications of the twin souls of Spain: absurdly idealistic and earthily pragmatic. But what Carlo Collodi achieved was to bring together in a single character more than half a dozen of the contrasting traits that Italians, whether proudly or reluctantly, associate with themselves and their compatriots. For Gian Luigi Corinto, Pinocchio is “generous, good-hearted, open, combative, brattish, but a good son who risks his life to save his father, mendacious yet likeable—the most powerful ambassador for italianità [Italian-ness].”
That same title might have been awarded to Pinocchio’s creator, who turned what he initially dismissed as a “bambinata” (a bit of kid’s stuff) into one of the best-known, and best-loved, stories in world literature. Carlo Collodi continued to write prolifically after the publication of the Adventures. Another of his stories told in installments, Pipì lo scimmiottino color di rosa, enjoyed great success in Italy, and two books he had written earlier were published in even more editions than the Adventures during his lifetime. The man behind the pseudonym, Carlo Lorenzini, died suddenly in 1890. One of the journalists who covered his well-attended funeral wrote: “He was the teacher of us all: a teacher emulated by some, but excelled by none.”
From The Adventures of Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi, translated by John Hooper and Anna Kraczyna, published by Penguin Classics, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Translation, Introduction and Notes copyright © 2021 by Scripta & Verba Limited and Anna Kraczyna.