Emma Perodi

Benedetto Giuseppe Russo (University of South Bohemia of České Budějovice, Czech Republic)

Emma Perodi (Cerreto Guidi, Florence, 1850 - Palermo, 1918) is one of those women who, in the second half of the 19th century, established themselves in Italy, albeit amid hardships and prejudices, as journalists, storytellers and school authors with a keen interest in the development of an educational and entertainment literature aimed at an emerging middle- and lower-class, female, child and youth audience. She is the author of the famous Novelle della nonna. Fiabe fantastiche (1892-1893) and wrote an extraordinary variety of texts (educational readings, schoolbooks, novels, [fairy] tales, articles, translations from English, French, German), displaying a hybridity of interests and an ability for thematic and stylistic flexibility that were truly remarkable. Among her works, which ensured her great fame, is the children’s reportage on a geo-cultural subject entitled I bambini delle diverse nazioni a casa loro (with pictures by Enrico Mazzanti, Bemporad, 1890; quotes from Perodi, 2010), which initially appeared in instalments (1884-1885) in the Giornale per i bambini.

The book consists of 18 chapters divided by countries (including Italy, Germany, Great Britain, Egypt, Japan) or macro-areas of Europe and the world (Spain and Portugal, Sweden and Norway, Austria-Hungary, Russia and Poland, Holland and Belgium, some British colonies, Eskimos, American Indians, Central Asia and Morocco), and can be defined as an invitation to “explore” and learn to respect and appreciate the many sides of childhood life in various parts of the planet. Lifestyles and places of daily life, ways and objects of dressing, playing and amusing oneself, school-educational systems, but also the different socio-economic conditions and the daily difficulties of children are observed in relation to cultures, values, spirituality, societies, landscape and artistic beauties, climates and territorial shapes of the various countries.

The text was inspired by an educational purpose that was futuristic at the time, influenced by the positivist taste and aimed at overcoming, in a transnational and multicultural perspective, that self-referential patriotism and protective pedagogy, distrustful of the new, inspiring the didactic culture and much youth literature of the time. I bambini can also be considered the first Italian adaptation for children of the documentary book on odeporic subjects, in which Edmondo De Amicis had already stood out as an author of diaries, memoirs and travel reports, which could be consulted for touristic purposes or imaginary escape to places perceived as exotic. However, the main objectives of Perodi’s reportage are to make Italian children curious, to activate in them moral reflections and open-mindedness in the name of tolerance and the appreciation of diversity, and, as stated in the initial dedication Ai piccoli lettori, to make peers from other nations the object of little Italians’ fondness, focusing on human values and feelings that are valid beyond any ethnic difference.

I bambini can be considered an example of crossover literature, i.e. crossing from child to adult or adult to child audiences. In 1891 the Giornale della Libreria included the book in the catalogue of the prized and pleasant books: educational and entertainment texts offered to worthy pupils as a cherished school memento and valuable to keep familiarity with reading over time. They could become cherished objects even for children’s families, often being the only texts to enter humble homes. Therefore, the reportage was probably also leafed through by parents and teachers and used by them as an information and reading education tool in relation to younger children or as a support for cultural and pedagogical reflections. The description, in the chapter on Germany, of the educational system proposed by F. Fröbel and put into practice in the kindergarten, which Perodi learned during her stay in Berlin, suggests that teachers could have used such information to enrich their didactic culture. Furthermore, the Giornale per i bambini, where the work was first published, responded not only to young readers’ tastes but also to the educational expectations of parents and teachers. The potential crossover use of the book does not detract from the fact that the child the author addresses is the one that European pedagogy rediscovered in the 19th century in its specific needs and desires and in its fresh curiosity for the new and the different.

In a tone that is often colloquial, the writer addresses readers mainly with verbal appeals in the second person plural, whereby curiosity and imagination are stimulated, shared knowledge is recalled and new topics are introduced. A dialogical liveliness is given by the use of didactic questions ("Com’è la culla del piccolo fellah, o coltivatore?" [113]). The beginning of the chapter on Switzerland sounds captivating and familiar ("Dite la verità, bambini, c’è nessuno fra voi, che non salterebbe di gioia se sentisse dire che i suoi genitori lo conducono per un paio di mesetti nel paese caro a tutti i viaggiatori […]? Io credo di no" [76]), and the country is described as a locus amoenus. The didactic-inclusive plural also recurs, aimed at a greater involvement of the reader or referring to the writer and the reader as members of the same national “family” or friends linked by a camaraderie ("Pare, dacché la libertà è ritornata a insediarsi da noi, dacché la nostra bandiera sventola gloriosa in terra e in mare, che tutti gli affetti gentili si sieno ridestati" [20]).

Verbs of movement are evocative of the journeys ideally undertaken by the author and the reader-travellers ("vi condurrò nel bel parco che chiamano Prater" [57]). In the sentence "Ma lasciamo il Tirolo e trasportiamoci in Ungheria" (63), the verb trasportarsi sounds suggestive and seems to evoke a magical move, with an odeporic and fairy-tale flavour at the same time. Above all in the chapter on Turkey the “reporter” turns educational prose into an authentic travel prose, which records the experience of progressively entering the country in a direct and immediate way, “live”, with the aid of the present and the imminent future: “Noi siamo sulla via di Costantinopoli, ove andiamo a visitare i ragazzi e le bambine di quel paese orientale. Ci figureremo di esserci imbarcati sul Danubio, di esser penetrati nel Mar Nero […]. Ecco, siamo in vista delle sette colline su cui Costantinopoli è costruita […]. Vediamo dinanzi a noi la città in tutta la sua bellezza, ed entriamo nel golfo del Corno d’oro […]. Sentite che allegre voci di bambini! […] Il venerdì è il giorno di riposo dei turchi […] e in quel giorno noi seguiremo i bambini nell’interno delle loro case” (102, 104, 107).

Perodi sometimes explicitly appeals to the readers’ sensitivity of mind, soberly expressing compassion and solidarity with the less fortunate children, protagonists of exploitative situations, migratory movements or harsh and even inhuman treatment. However, an attitude of mere observation prevails: moral judgements or the ostentation of human and cultural superiority are generally avoided. Only in a very few cases the difference between civilised customs and unjust/savage ones is briefly pointed out, and the latter is usually described with a dry documentary-journalistic style, avoiding sentimentalism and ideological superstructures.

Some descriptive passages are lexically and structurally refined, rich in naturalistic and architectural details elegantly harmonised in chromatically vivid landscape pictures with a vedutista flavour. The descriptive procedure of the list recurs, which implies the expansion of sentences (whose construction is not however convoluted), the use of more than one anaphora in the same sentence, enumerations, parallel structures, especially juxtapositions, as well as a thematic structure articulated in a set of information constituents that, like so many pieces, form a unitary descriptive object. Here is an example relating to Italy, with constructs of delightful pictorial finesse: “Il magnifico paese che fu ognora guardato dagli stranieri con occhi avidi, che li attira irresistibilmente al di qua delle Alpi e che affascinò fino nei secoli più remoti la fantasia dei nordici invasori; il paese dalle alte montagne nevose, dai grandi e limpidi laghi, dalle pianure ridenti, dalle colline coperte di ulivi e di vigne, il paese che si tuffa nei suoi mari azzurri, il paese in cui l’arte, emula della natura, ha seminato ovunque i suoi tesori, è la vostra patria, o bambini” (18).

As regards Constantinople, the descriptive mode makes one think of a cinematographic zooming, since it is based on the progressive narrowing of the observation field: first one has the illusion of entering a fairy-tale city, where "si distingue la immensa mezzaluna dorata del duomo di Santa Sofia; si vedono centinaia di minareti che s’inalzano snelli nell’azzurro del cielo; le cupole delle moschee scintillano ai raggi del sole, e gruppi di scuri cipressi s’ergono qua e là solenni"; then one moves on to the real aspect, cramped and inelegant, of the Turkish capital, which "è più bella veduta a distanza. Anzi, a vederla da vicino, si prova una forte delusione" (104).

The prevailing and varied descriptive typology coexists with anecdotes of a comic and humorous taste or containing examples of charity, and real fragments of family life, having the slant of theatre captions or short dialogue scenes: in these cases, the transition to a narrative dimension, with children as protagonists, quickly shows glimpses of everyday life, filmed almost furtively “live”, as confirmed by the present tense.

Essential references and inserts of legends give a glimpse into the mythological-narrative traditions belonging to the cultural heritage and the children’s imagery of the nations addressed. For example, the Egyptian tale of the maiden Rodopis is indicated as the very first nucleus of Cinderella’s fairy tale. There are several references to the widespread tradition of the folk fairy tale addressed by adults or elders to a child audience. The suggestive chiaroscuro image of the reading vigil appears in the chapter on Switzerland, where the building of collective narratives is mentioned as well.

I bambini’s prose is linear and straightforward, tending towards definitional precision and descriptive concreteness, never tiring in its illustrative clarity nor obsessed with the quest for notions. What stands out is the massive quantity of foreign words (monsieur, patio, kindergarten, izba, nursery, mollah, fellah, etc.), almost always in italics and translated or explained in the text, and sometimes accompanied by indications on their pronunciation and origin. Sayings appear in translation, such as some maxims of wisdom, or in the original too, as well as excerpts from traditional songs. Thus the project of building a national identity in children is enriched by the comparison with other cultures and Perodi expresses her singular multicultural openness in consistent language choices that cross the boundaries of Italian language and culture.

Moving to Palermo (beginning of the 20th century) enabled the writer to strengthen her friendship with Giuseppe Pitrè, a Sicilian demo-psychologist and writer who collected and studied folk traditions and tales. He allowed her to consult his rich archive of documentary material. This immersion in Sicily’s heritage inspired the three collections of fairy tales Al tempo dei tempi.... Fiabe e leggende del Mare/dei Monti/delle Città di Sicilia (with pictures by Carlo Chiostri, Salani, 1909-1910), consisting of (founding) myths of classical inspiration, legends based on the history of Sicily, mainly Arab and Norman, and fairy tales that are less geo-historically characterised.

These texts are dotted with regional, southern or even dialectal words and expressions (the latter in italics; quartara, cantaro, comare, sora, Bedda Matri, allievo "infant", fratuzzu, etc.), and Sicilian sayings. Elements of traditional fairy tales, ethnographic and anthropological data related to regional folklore, and story-telling strategies typical of modern narrative for common people and childhood coexist and show an author able to rework sources creatively. Some legends contain an aetiological function in illustrating the reasons for certain toponyms (cities, squares, streets, Sicily itself, etc.) and local curiosities, present recognisable historical-geographical settings and include vivid descriptions of interior and external spaces (such as the cathedral of Monreale and the Etna volcano in the third book). These ideally transport the reader to the artistic and landscape beauty of the island and its mythical and historical past. The legends thus offered a national readership the opportunity for an imaginary journey to Sicilian lands, combining the fantasy atmosphere of fairy tales with references to potential “tourist” attractions both natural and cultural.

How to cite this dictionary entry: Russo, B.G. (2023). Emma Perodi. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.

References: 
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  • Carli, A. (2011). Emma e i suoi editori. Letteratura giovanile e pubblico popolare nell’opera di Emma Perodi. In Crotti, I., Del Tedesco, E., Ricorda, R., & Zava, A. (Eds.), Autori, lettori e mercato nella modernità letteraria, con la collaborazione di Tonon, S., Vol. 2, 189-198. ETS.
  • Carli, A. (2013). Da Berlino a Palermo fra pedagogia e letteratura. Alcuni percorsi culturali di Emma Perodi. In Perodi, E., Dalla “Bibliotechina aurea illustrata” racconti e fiabe, Carli, A. (Ed.), 7-60. Bibliografia e Informazione.
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  • Perodi, E. (2017). Al tempo dei tempi… Fiabe e leggende dei monti di Sicilia, Muscato Daidone, C. (Ed.). CmdEdizioni.
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  • Scancarello, W. (Ed.) (2015). Su Emma Perodi. Nuovi saggi critici. Bibliografia e Informazione.