Who was Giambattista Basile?

by Tolovaj

Giambattista Basile wrote many poems, plays and stories, but will be forever remembered for one book - Pentamerone, as one of the inventors of a fairy tale as a literary genre.

Giovan Battista Basile (1575-1632) lived in different parts of today's Italy, wrote mainly works dedicated to members of the nobility in different courts, but still managed to build an immortal monument to his home country. He did that with a very special book which set standards for a fairay tale as a genre.

If we call Perrault the father of the fairy tale and Brothers Grimm the academics who inspired collectors of folklore all over the world, Basile deserves a title of the inventor of the fairy tale. His Pentamerone is the first known collection of fairy tales in the world.

There is very scarce info about this amazing man of letters, but we still found enough to present 10 interesting facts about Giambattista Basile:

1. Who was Giambattista Basile?

1 His full name was Giovan Battista Basile, but shortened it to Giambattista Basile, as it was usual in those days (still is). By far his most known work Pentamerone wasn't signed with his name but with an anagram Gian Alesio Abbattutis.


He used this anagram on several occasions, especially for texts written in Neapolitan dialect. He has another nickname, actually an academic name: Il Pigno, what can be translated as The Lazy One. He took this name at the entrance of Accademia degli Stravaganti in Venice and reuse it at Accademia degli Oziosi in Naples with an emblem of a snail at the foot of the mountain.

2. Naples

He was born in Possilipo, a village near Naples to a middle-class family without substantial resources. His mother was Cornelia Daniele and we don't know the name of the father.

Only a surname - Basile. There were at least five but very likely up to seven children in his family. Several of them were talented and Giambattista soon became a pretty well-known man of letters.


3. From Soldier to Courtier

After serving at several small courts he left Naples, where his literary skills didn't find 'a patron' for a decent living. He was wandering through the territory of today's Italy and it neighborhood for several years before landing in Venice as a soldier where they soon sent him to Candia, an important outpost against Turks. He participated in a battle at Corfu in 1607.


4. Adriana's Brother

He returned to Naples in 1608.

Thanks to his experiences from Venice and connection of his sister Adriana he became a member of the court of Luigi Scarafa, prince of Stigliano, where Adriana served as a singer.

Her husband Muzio Barone was an influent courtier.

Giambattista organized several spectacles and similar cultural events.

His organizational skills got him additional administrative and managerial duties.

5. Versatile and Prolific Writer

He wrote in three languages - Neapolitan dialect, Italian and Spanish. He was very versatile in form as well, writing everything from letters and short poems to musical plays and mock-epics.

Today he is remembered by only one book - published after his death.

Neapolitan dialect is difficult because of so many ...

6. Mantua

When his sister got an invitation from the court in Mantua she answered she would move to Mantua if there would be a place for her husband Muzio and brother Giovan as well. Vicenzo Gonzaga accepted her proposition, but only Adriana and Muzio moved immediately. Giovan Battista probably stayed at the Naples hoping to occupy Muio's position. He failed and joined Adriana later.


7. Art Was in the Family

Giambattista had a talented family. Sister Adriana was a famous singer in the first half of the 17th century, very likely the best in the area of today's Italy and one of the best singers in the world. John Milton was introduced to her and her daughter Leonore in Rome and wrote several poems in Leonora's honor.


Leonora Baroni even surpassed Adriana's success. Several books celebrated the skills of Adriana and Leonora while they were still alive and several after that.

Leonora was also invited to sing in the court of Louis XIV, but French nobility didn't like her style of singing. Her work stayed limited to Italy.

Giambattista's brother was a composer and his other two sisters Margherita and Vittoria were successful singers as well.

8. Pentamerone Was Partly Adriana's Too

It was Adriana who posthumously published the most important Giambattista's work. It went out in five volumes, each volume for one day, first three in 1634, the fourth in 1635, and the fifths in 1636. This happened when she already left the court of Gonzagas. Vincenzo Gonzaga rewarded her services with a barony and a pension, what gave her the opportunity to move to Naples and Rome.

9. Importance of Pentamerone (The Tale of Tales)

The relationship between Basile and his famous Pentamerone is still unclear - is he an author, a collector or a compiler? What was his intention - to preserve existing customs and folklore or to mock literary conventions? Anyway, his work inspired Charles Perrault in 17th, Carlo Gozzi in 18th and Brothers Grimm in the 19th century. They all used the plots from his short stories to create immortal collections of fairy tales and dramas.

10. The Birthplace of a Fairy Tale

Basile loved Neapolitan landscape, customs, dialect and especially the temperament of people living in those places. The humor and energy of Neapolitans dominate all stories in his most famous work Pentamerone. While many (if not all of them) probably originate in other parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, the Neapolitan feel unifies the collection, making it unique and for centuries almost unreadable outside of today's Italy.

Resources and further info




Updated: 12/24/2018, Tolovaj
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Tolovaj on 12/31/2023

In those times there were in general three ways to climb the social ladder if you were not already born as nobility: to become a lawyer, a soldier, or a priest. Being a soldier was not mandatory but could open you some doors.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/30/2023

The third fact, From soldier to courtier, considers the military-service component of Giambattista Basile's life.

Was military service mandatory?

Would surviving military service without a dishonorable-discharge equivalent open socio-economic doors previously deemed closed?

Tolovaj on 12/29/2023

I think Basile took it from the 'Academia but changed it a bit. I am not sure about that, though.

Tolovaj on 12/29/2023

Yes, it's defiitely possible, but we'll never know the truth.

Tolovaj on 12/29/2023

Yes, DerdriuMarriner, such anagrams were popular addition to written works, often with humorius twists.

DerdriuMarriner on 12/29/2023

The second paragraph to the first subheading, Who was Giambattista Basile?, ascribes to the latter the moniker Il pigno ("the lazy one").

It explains that the Accademia degli Stravaganti ("Academy of Oddballs"!) in Venice, northeastern Iraly, featured that name. At l'Accademia degli Oziosi in Naples, southwestern Italy, Giambattista featured that name "with an emblem of a snail at the foot of the mountain."

Was that snail emblem also at l'Accademia degli Stravaganti or was it Giambattista's "invention"?

DerdriuMarriner on 12/28/2023

The second paragraph to the second fact, Naples, apprises us of the last name Basile being the only knowable about Giambattista's paternal heritage.

It's interesting that Basile managed to obtain socio-economic success despite "his middle-class family without substantial resources."

Basile originates as the plant and in the Latin basilicum ("princely, royal robe") and in the Greek βασιλεύς (basileú, "king") by way of the Greek βασιλικόν (basilikón, “royal”).

Would it be possible that "middle-class" origins cloaked royal antecedents, legitimate or otherwise?

DerdriuMarriner on 12/27/2023

The last sentence in the first fact about Giambattista Basile alerts us to his authoring the Pentamerone under the "anagram Gian Alesio Abbattutis."

Can there be a practical reason for such a choice?

Perhaps! Because that anagram carries a possible meaning -- per me as italoparlante dall'ascendenza pisana ("Italian-speaker from Pisan ancestors) -- of "Yahweh is gracious" [to me as] helper [of those] knocked down"

Tolovaj on 05/31/2019

Hi, DerdriuMarriner. It's very hard to find reliable data about the early days of Giambattista Basile. Documents, if any, are hard to find. The life of this family was studied by several historians but nobody, for instance, managed to find the name of the father. There is pretty good documentation about Giambattista's life, because he worked for nobility and handled their money and possessions. But we can't be sure even for his birth date. It may be 1566 or 1575. We also have a problem about identification of his work which was often signed by pseudonyms. We do know about his involvement in establishing academies, where the foundations of Italian language was set.

More is known about Adriana, his sister, who was truly famous. Yet it's hard to be sure about something happening so many centuries ago. We know for sure where they lived when became employed by different princes and we know a lot about her performances yet there are, of course no recordings ...

DerdriuMarriner on 05/30/2019

Tolovaj, Thank you for the practical information and the product line. It's interesting that Giambattista Basile was born into a "middle-class family without substantial resources." Is there any indication as to how he, a brother, three sisters and a niece managed successful careers in the arts?

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