Theses Doctoral

Through the Woods and Underground: Italo Calvino between Ecology and Folklore

Naponiello, Luca

This dissertation offers an ecocritical reading of Italo Calvino’s Fiabe italiane, a collection of traditional oral tales published by Einaudi in 1956, and argues that the two-hundred folktales function as a repository of ecological motifs, showing the relationship between humans and the environment as not necessarily exploitative, but rather as a relationship of coexistence and entanglement. The dissertation shows that the critical language that Calvino uses, influenced by a long tradition of folklore studies, rests on two key metaphors to express belonging in a political and national community: rootedness and groundedness.

Through the reading of several tales, I show that the folktales themselves actually reveal a fabulist ecology concerned much more with entanglement and enmeshment with the natural landscape, and offer imaginative tools to recover, at the time of the Anthropocene, an enchanted view of the environment. In the first chapter, I argue that the morphology of the folktale that Calvino draws from the Russian formalist Vladimir Propp rests on a conception of the folktale as a plant that can be dissected with the same tools used by a botanist. I show how observations that Calvino makes about tales of metamorphosis of women into plants betray an investment in rootedness as a metaphor for belonging in a political and national community. Drawing from material ecocriticism, I argue that plants, rather than signposts for stasis and belonging, can be read as signs of mixture, coexistence, and symbiosis with the environment. I also argue that the frequent metamorphosis of female characters into plants points toward a trans-corporeal conception of subjectivity.

In the second chapter, I show how Calvino contradictorily engages with the legacy of the Brothers Grimm, for whom the forest stands as a metaphor of the lost unity of the German nation. Through a close reading of “Hansel and Gretel,” and Calvino’s rewriting of this tale, “Pulcino,” I show that forests, be they material or fictional, can also be read as environments that preserve an agrarian ecology of subsistence, populated by othered figures such as witches and ogres that depend on a non-exploitative relationship with the environment of the forest. This ecology is preserved in Calvino’s own Marcovaldo, a collection of modern urban fairy-tales that he authored in the same period. Ultimately, I conceive of trees as markers of deep time and connectors between human and geological history.

In the third chapter, I turn to the second metaphor identified by my project, groundedness. I briefly reconstruct the cultural milieu in which Calvino operated, and the development of postwar folklore studies after the publication of Antonio Gramsci’s Quaderni del carcere. Therefore, I examine the “Observations on Folklore,” showing how much of Gramsci’s theoretical language engages metaphorically with geology. Calvino himself is indebted to this idea of stratification. His folktales, especially “Cola Pesce,” then become a site where human history and geologic time intersect, and many stories function as repositories of folk knowledge about the telluric landscape of Southern Italy and about the porosity of humans and stones.

In the conclusion, I offer an overview of the material and I consider Calvino’s revisiting, in the 1970s, of his earlier folkloric work and how his thoughts on storytelling and belonging evolve in the course of two decade, arguing that they constitute a literary ecology.


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2028-06-23.

More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Leake, Elizabeth
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 28, 2023