"Quel Folletto": Notes on a Hapax

Fabian Alfie (University of Arizona)

Dante Notes / November 25, 2017

Canto 30 of Inferno opens with a scene of abrupt violence.  The nude and withered souls of the impersonators, who have lost all use of their intellectual faculties, run through the bolgia of the falsifiers.  One of them sinks his teeth into the alchemist Capocchio’s neck and drags him bodily across the ground.  The alchemist who remains, Griffolino, then identifies the mad soul to Dante and Virgil by using a particular word: “Quel folletto è Gianni Schicchi” (Inferno 30, v. 32).  Folletto is a peculiar way to describe a damned soul, because it denotes a spirit of the air.  Few medieval commentators addressed the word folletto, and when they did they merely noted that it referred to Gianni Schicchi;[1] when modern scholars have discussed it, they have tended to mention its connotation of a “malign spirit.”[2]  Yet the noun, a hapax in Dante’s Comedy,[3] has a denotation of great precision.  It refers to a specific creature of the folk culture of the Middle Ages, and while Dante certainly conceived of it as demonic, he undoubtedly intended to apply its other layers of meaning to Gianni Schicchi.  The purpose of this study, therefore, is to explore the suggestions of the word folletto as it relates to Dante’s depiction of Florentine impersonator in the afterlife.

The Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca offers a reasonable definition of the word during Dante’s times.  It defines folletto as: “Nome degli Spiriti che son nell’aria.  Lat. Daemon aereus.”[4]  Baldassare Lombardi (1791-92) and Paolo Costa (1819-21) appear to have been among the first Dante commentators to interpret Gianni Schicchi in such a manner.  Their passages were nearly identical to the definition found in the Vocabolario della Crusca, and hence to one another, observing that “folletto” is the “nome degli spiriti che si credono […] nell’aria.”  Dante critics subsequent to Lombardi and Costa also mentioned the same definition of folletto, but none of them discussed the broader ramifications of its application to Gianni Schicchi.  It is necessary, therefore, to discuss Dante’s understanding of folkloric tradition as he received it, as well as the particular species of magical creature. 

Medieval Italian texts offer some assistance in this regard.  During the Duecento, for instance, Bonvesin de la Riva (1240-1313) described his own anguished state by claiming he grimaced like a folletto: “Eo olz li plang dri miseri e li ghign del foleto: / Com quist en soz lamenti, ke ‘m fan star gram e breto.”[5]  Decades later, Nicolò de’ Rossi (1290-1348) similarly portrayed himself as unhappy, explaining that he will soon become evil like a witch or a folletto: “Eo no penso potere alegrarmy / Floruça, se lo mondo lu çurasse, / se no cum Rudiana sì v’andasse, / ch’i’ devesse foleto o striga farmy, / o cum gi morti tanto acordarmy, / che dove vano sego me menasse.”  Taken together the citations from Bonvesin and Nicolò de’ Rossi imply a sadness to the creatures’ existence.  While not explicitly stated, the suggestion of demonic misery would accord with Lucifer’s tears in the last canto of Inferno (34: 53-54).  In the Trecento, moreover, Jacopo Passavanti (1302-1357) associated folletti with demons, writing “quando per invocazione oe scongiuro, o per alcuno sagrificio di sangue o d’altra cosa, il demonio si chiama a rispondere, a manifestare, e fare alcuna cosa occuta o malegevole; alla quale dire o fare quel folletto spesse volte mostra essere costretto per la ’nvocazione, o per lo scongiuro, o per sagrificio che gli si faccia.”  Whatever we make of the unhappiness of folletti, the sources are in accord that they were demonic. 

By Dante’s age, churchmen had been demonizing the creatures of folk belief for nearly a millennium.  Augustine had been among the earliest and most influential writer who labeled fairies and other folk creatures as demons.[6]  The demonic interpretation of fairies appears in the Latin definition provided by the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, for instance.  In his De divinatione daemonum, Augustine described demons as aerial beings, that is, not in possession of corporeal bodies,[7] and after they fell from grace their aerial bodies were transformed with a lower and coarser form of air.[8]  Weather-control was a fearful power associated with them, and in 743CE, the Council of Leptinnes condemned the practice of magic, including divination and weather-control, as being demonic.[9]  Other theologians modified Augustine’s beliefs over the years, but it was Thomas Aquinas who changed the very nature of demons by writing that they were not comprised of any type of matter, such as air, but were creatures of pure intellect and will.[10]  Undoubtedly, Dante conceived of fairies and related folk beings in conformity with the clerical condemnation of them as demonic.[11]  He might have agreed with the gloss of folletto as connoting that Gianni Schicchi was a malign spirit, but such a reading of his verse is, in my view, overly reductive.

It is difficult to get a complete understanding of the oral traditions of the Middle Ages, but nevertheless what is known broadens the picture about folletti.  While much fairy lore is specific to the Celtic regions, it was distributed throughout medieval Europe, including Italy.[12]  Furthermore, orality was not delimited to the subaltern or illiterate classes, as is often assumed, but was found throughout medieval society.[13]  While a subpopulation in the Middle Ages was highly literate like Dante, all members of society engaged in folkloric recitations and oral culture.[14]  Thus it would be mistaken to assume that Dante did not possess knowledge about fairies, or that narratives about fairies were alien to him, and that they were not part of his calculus when describing Gianni Schicchi. 

In the folk imagination, the folletto was a type of imp or goblin that lived in the air, and like other fairy creatures it was capable of influencing the weather.[15]  In many descriptions of folletti, there appears an impish, almost playful quality, even committing pranks that could not be cast as malevolent.[16]  Folletti tended to be invisible and childlike, appearing in twirls of wind.  They might be responsible for gusts that knocked hats off people’s heads, and twirled women’s hair into knots.[17]  That said, folletti were not to be taken lightly.  They belonged to the same species as the dark angel that torments the corpse of Bonconte da Montefeltro in Purgatorio 5.  As Bonconte relates, the demon collects the humidity of the air into a violent storm and washes his body away, never to be found (vv. 103-129).[18]  Dante describes the infernal angel of Purgatorio 5 in a manner reminiscent of Aquinas’s determination of them as pure intellect and will, but devoted to evil: “quel mal voler che pur mal chiede / con lo ’ntelletto” (vv. 112-113).  In Purgatorio 5 Dante seems to distance himself from Augustine’s notion of fallen angels having aerial bodies. 

Folk beliefs about fairies also ascribed other fearful powers to them, such as shape shifting and the abduction of children.[19]  These attributes of folletti are probably at play in Inferno 30.  As an impersonator, Gianni Schicchi too engaged in shape shifting while alive by pretending to be the deceased Buoso Donati to defraud his heirs.  To be sure, his shape shifting was not magical like that of a fairy.  Furthermore, Gianni’s action in Inferno 30 can be seen as a type of abduction, grabbing the alchemist’s soul in hell and carrying him off.  Such an interpretation is in conformity with Purgatorio 5, where Dante suggests that the demon’s treatment of Bonconte’s corpse was itself a form of abduction.  For that matter, the demon who carries off the soul of Bonconte’s father Guido, described as a “black cherubim” (“un d’i neri cherubini,” 27: 113), engages in abduction as well.  In Inferno 30 Dante reinforces the fairylike reminiscences of the violent impersonator when he urges Griffolino to identify Gianni Schicchi “before he disappears” (“pria che si spicchi,” Inferno 30: 36).  One other connotation to the word folletto should be mentioned; it was etymologically derived from the Latin follis, a noun literally meaning an inflated ball that bounced here and there, but for centuries was employed as an adjective to indicate folly.[20]  All the souls in the tenth bolgia suffer from sickness, and the illness of the impersonators is insanity.  Nothing in the portrayal of Gianni Schicchi indicates magical powers; on the contrary, in Inferno Dante evokes the attributes of a folletto in ways that are utterly mundane.  Gianni Schicchi, and by extension the other impersonators, are a human type of fallen angel, perhaps anticipating the traitors to guests farther below in the underworld.  In canto 30, the poet capitalizes on the suggestions of a fairy creature in a demystified manner to present a debased human soul. 

In conclusion, by calling Gianni Schicchi a folletto, Dante calls to mind numerous beliefs from the oral culture of the time.  Gianni is a mad shape-shifter and an abductor, foolish and dangerous.  His is a mocking presence, just as the falsifiers in the tenth bolgia made a mockery of authentic substances, items, or identities.  At the same time, Dante views the folk tradition through the lens of centuries of demonization on the part of churchmen and theologians.  For nearly a millennium, the learned tradition cast the creatures of folk belief as fallen angels.  From that perspective, these are not the leprechauns of modern-day Saint Patrick’s Day parades, but lesser rebels against God in thrall to the devil.  Through his sin, Gianni has degraded his human form, becoming demon-like as he scampers through the tenth bolgia for all time.   

[1] See, for example, the passages from Benvenuto da Imola, Francesco da Buti, Anonimo Fiorentino, and Guiniforto delli Bargigi, all available on the Dartmouth Dante Project: http://dante.dartmouth.edu.  The references to Baldassare Lombardi and Paolo Costa are also available on the Dartmouth Dante Project website. 

[2] Vincenzo Valente, “Folletto,” in Enciclopedia dantesca, vol. 2 (Roma: Istituto della Enciclopedia Italiana, 1970): 959. 

[3] “Folletto,” in Concordanza della Commedia di Dante Alighieri, vol. 2, ed., Luciano Lovera (Torino: Einaudi, 1975): 1083. 

[4] See Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crucsa: http://vocabolario.sns.it/html/index.html

[5] The citations of Bonvesin de la Riva, Nicolò de’ Rossi, and Jacopo Passavanti are all from “folletto” in the Tesoro della lingua itliana delle origini: http://tlio.ovi.cnr.it/TLIO/.  The citation from Jacopo Passavanti also appears in Vincenzo Valente, “folletto,” 959.

[6] Euan Cameron, Enchanted Europe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010): 79-80. 

[7] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Toronto, Plymouth UK: Rowman and Littlefield, 2007): 55. 

[8] Dylan Elliott, “On Angelic Disembodiment and the Incredible Purity of Demons,” in Fallen Bodies: Pollution, Sexuality, and Demonology in the Middle Ages (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999): 126-156 [128]. 

[9] Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present, 68-69. 

[10] Dylan Elliott, “On Angelic Disembodiment and the Incredible Purity of Demons,” 134. 

[11] For an overview of Dante’s conceptions of demons, including their relationship to folk creatures, see Arturo Graf, “Demonologia di Dante,” in Miti, leggende, e superstizioni del medio evo, vol. 2 (Roma: Loescher, 1892): 79-139.  Graf does not mention folletti, however. 

[12] Richard Firth Green, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016): 43. 

[13] Evelyn Birge Vitz, Orality and Performance in Early French Romance (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1999): ix-x. 

[14] Jan M. Ziolkowski, Fairy Tales from Before Fairy Tales: The Medieval Latin Past of Wonderful Lies (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2007): 5.  See also John Ahern, “Dioneo’s Repertory: Performance and Writing in Boccaccio’s Decameron,” in Performing Medieval Narrative, eds., Evelyn Birge Vitz, Nancy Freeman Regalado, and Marilyn Lawrence (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2005): 41-58 [41-43]; and Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (London and New York: Methuen, 1982): 54. 

[15] Richard Firth Green, Elf Queens and Holy Friars: Fairy Beliefs and the Medieval Church, 38. 

[16] Franca Romano, “Il folletto innamorato: Folletti e adolescenti nella cultura tradizionale italiana,” La ricerca folklorica 34 (Ottobre 1996): 73-74. 

[17] Giovanni Tassoni, Folklore e società: Studi di demonologia padana (Firenze: Olschki, 1977): 88. 

[18] The demon that torments Bonconte’s body recollects, in many respects, the actions of Mars in Vanni Fucci’s premonition (Inferno 24: 145-151).  Mars, Vanni explains, will draw up the humidity of Val di Magra before casting a bolt that will break the fog at Campo Piceno.  The aerial and watery motifs of the episodes only underscore the similarities between them.  For analysis of Purgatorio 5 according to its fluid—swampy—nature, see Gary Gestaro, Dante and the Grammar of the Nursing Body (Notre Dame: Notre Dame University Press, 2003): 123-133. 

[19] Katharine Briggs, “Shape-shifting,” in An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976): 360-361; and Katharine Briggs, “Changelings,” in An Encyclopedia of Fairies, Hobgoblins, Brownies, Bogies, and Other Supernatural Creatures (New York: Pantheon Books, 1976): 69-72. 

[20] Ottorino Pianigiani, “folletto” in Vocabolario etimologico della Lingua Italiana (La Spezia: Fratelli Melita Editori, 1991): 548.