The story of Cinderella is universally known. It may have been your favourite bedtime story or you may have seen the 1950 world-famous animated film by Walt Disney. In either case you will remember the glass slipper, the fairy godmother and the spell that will be broken at midnight. However, few know that this story is originally from Southern Italy and was written for the first time by 17th century writer Giambattista Basile, almost unknown today. The story itself is pretty different from the one we all recollect and its content will surprise you. Suffice to say that in this early version, Cinderella is not the typical heroine but even a murderer!
Those who are familiar with the Cinderella story probably know that the most famous version was written by French writer Charles Perrault, who is also the author of Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and The Sleeping Beauty as we know them. Perrault drew from the European fairy tale tradition to write his stories, so it can be assumed that he must have come across Basile’s early version of Cinderella as well. Giambattista Basile, a courtier in Naples, wrote Lo cunto de li cunti overo lo trattenemiento de peccerille (The Story of Stories, or Entertainment for Little Ones), also known as Il Pentamerone, the very first collection of European literary fairy tales. It is written in Neapolitan vernacular and contains fifty fairy tales, including La Gatta Cenerentola (The Cinderella Cat), the first written version of Cinderella.
So, the original Cinderella is actually a Neapolitan girl named Zezolla who kills her stepmother to get her father married to the woman she wants, namely her governess. This second stepmother will become the actual wicked stepmother who not only shows Zezolla how to commit murder – breaking her stepmother’s neck with the lid of an old chest – but also compels her to become a servant in her own house. The story is similar to the one we all know except for some elements: Cinderella’s father does not die but stops loving her when he gets married for the second time. There is a fairy but she shows up out of a date-tree Cinderella herself had planted. Moreover, in this early version Cinderella doesn’t lose a simple slipper, but one of her pianelle, a kind of overshoe with high heels made of cork and used by ladies in the XVII century to walk through mud without staining their ornate dresses.
Interestingly, this and other elements in Basile’s story referred to life in Naples in those days. For example, the delicious dishes cooked for the banquet held by the king are traditional Neapolitan dishes, such as pastiera, casatielli and maccheroni. Some of them are familiar festive delicacies still today, such as pastiera which is a type of pie made with cooked wheat, ricotta cheese and flavoured with orange flower water. Or casatiello which is a traditional Easter bread stuffed with cured pork and cheese, with boiled eggs inside.
La Gatta Cenerentola is the story of a girl treated as a servant who becomes a queen. It represents the actual history of Naples and of its people who were governed by foreign rulers for many years. This is one of the possible readings of the fairy tales and the one that the famous Italian theatre director Roberto De Simone decided to analyse in his stage dramatization of La Gatta Cenerentola in 1976.
So, the next time you watch Disney’s Cinderella, think about the fact that at the very beginning she should really be singing A Dream is a Wish your Heart Makes accompanied on a mandolin and looking more like Sophia Loren than a blonde belle of the 1950s.