The town of Collodi, Italy, about 45 miles west of Florence, is set on a slope behind a fabulous 17th-century villa. The garden, built as a kind of fantasy pleasure park for the Garzoni family and their noble guests, offers terraces, flower beds, grand staircases, splashing fountains and antique marble statues surrounding the Baroque villa. Walk through the tunnel under the villa and follow the path up the hill, and the stone houses of Collodi speak to a very different reality. Ascending its precipitously steep cobblestone main street, you come to a small piazza with communal sinks for laundry. The town is older than the villa and was probably originally built on the hilltop for purposes of strategic defense. It is where the working-class people lived, the ones who tended the nobility’s villa and gardens. It’s hard to know what these laborers were thinking as they trudged back up the hill after a long day of working at the villa. It is probably fair to say they were tired.
In the first half of the 19th century, a young boy named Carlo Lorenzini, originally from Florence, spent stretches of his childhood living here with relatives, and later, when he became a writer, he took Carlo Collodi as his pen name. He wrote political essays and satire for adults, and then, in his 50s, turned his attention to children. The Story of a Puppet first appeared in serial form, starting in 1881, in Giornale per i bambini, the Children’s Newspaper. Its opening paragraph was meant to undermine the traditional idea of a fairy tale—and also to send a political message:
Once upon a time there was…
“A king!” my little readers will no doubt say in a flash.
“No, kids. You got it wrong. Once upon a time there was…a piece of wood.”
That piece of wood, of course, became Pinocchio, and the story became the first internationally known work of Italian children’s literature. The Adventures of Pinocchio has been adapted for film 18 times, including two live-action movies starring Roberto Benigni. Disney and Netflix are both in the process of producing new versions. For most Americans, Pinocchio is synonymous with the 1940 animated Disney movie about a wooden puppet whose pointy nose grows every time he tells a lie. But the original Italian story is not primarily about lying. Yes, Pinocchio tells lies, but that’s just part of his general misbehavior; he’s selfish and unreliable. He’s a scamp, a brat, a kid who, as we might say today, makes a lot of poor choices. The moment Geppetto carves him out of the miraculous block of wood, Pinocchio runs away and refuses to go home. His antics lead to poor Geppetto’s arrest.
“Every time I teach Pinocchio to American undergraduates, I get at least two reactions,” says Maria Truglio, a professor of Italian and women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Penn State, and the author of Italian Children’s Literature and National Identity: Childhood, Melancholy, Modernity. The first reaction is “such surprise at how different it is from the Disney version—and how much they prefer the original version.” The second reaction is from students who find the book more complex than they’d expected. “These students will say, ‘I don’t really read a lot, and I don’t typically enjoy books, but I really enjoyed Pinocchio.’”
Anna Kraczyna, a university lecturer in Florence, was astonished by the narrative about 15 years ago when she was reading the book to her young son. “I couldn’t believe how rich the text is,” says Kraczyna, who was born in Italy to American expatriate artist parents. She made the case to John Hooper, a British journalist and the author of a 2015 book called The Italians, that it was time for a new English translation. He agreed. “The beauty of the language, the literary inventiveness of Collodi—he does things I’ve never seen any author do,” says Hooper. Their new translation of The Adventures of Pinocchio, published in 2021, includes copious notes and an introduction exploring the story’s complexities.
In the Disney film, Geppetto is a maker of toys and cuckoo clocks living in a vaguely European half-timber house. But there’s nothing quaint about the 19th-century Italian poverty in the book, in which Geppetto is a struggling woodcarver. Pinocchio spends much of the story filled with anxiety about finding something to eat. On his very first day, after he has gotten Geppetto arrested, he experiences “a hunger so real it could be cut with a knife.” When Geppetto returns home, he offers the hungry puppet the three pears he had intended for his own breakfast. Pinocchio promptly demands that they be peeled, but he ends up ravenously devouring the peels and cores, learning the lesson “We mustn’t be too finicky or dainty in our eating.”
There is also a certain risk of being eaten in a world where everyone is always hungry. Pinocchio narrowly escapes being thrown into the fire by a hungry puppeteer called Fire-Eater who needs wood to roast a ram for his dinner. Later, Pinocchio is coated in flour and almost fried in a pan along with an assortment of fish; the fisherman is looking forward to trying this new “puppet-fish.” In another episode, he is turned into a donkey and thrown into the sea to drown so that his owner can make a drum out of his hide; but helpful fishes eat off “that layer of donkey,” freeing the puppet again. And finally, he is actually eaten by a great shark and rescues Geppetto, who had been swallowed by the shark earlier in the story.
The fever that turns Pinocchio into a donkey is his punishment for skipping school and running off to Playland. He’d been warned by a talking cricket: “You poor little sucker! Don’t you know you’re bound to grow up to be an absolute donkey and that everyone will make a fool of you?” Kraczyna and Hooper explain that “donkey” had a double meaning in Collodi’s Italian. People who had to work hard were called donkeys; so were children who refused to apply themselves in school. “Collodi’s message to children, at a time when the life of an unskilled laborer was one of unremitting hardship,” they write, “was that if they insisted on being ‘donkeys’ at school, they risked living the life, and maybe dying the death, of a donkey.”
Education was a cause dear to Collodi’s heart. In 1861, numerous republics, kingdoms, city-states and duchies—each one with its own dialect and traditions—unified into a single nation that would cover the boot-shaped peninsula of Italy. It was in the classroom that the children of all those different provinces and states would learn to be Italians. When the country first unified, only 25 percent of Italians could read and write. By 1880, free compulsory schooling had raised the literacy rate to nearly 40 percent.
But Collodi was profoundly aware that children could not be expected to learn if they were hungry. In an open letter called “Bread and Books,” he argued that all humans needed to eat and drink, to be protected from the elements, to have a place to sleep. It was a harsh, eat-or-be-eaten world, and the only way out was through education.
On a glorious autumn day, Kraczyna and Hooper take me through the locales of Collodi’s life. Kraczyna points out that Florence’s narrow Via Taddea, where the author was born in 1826, is a very dark street and gets no morning sun—a dim lane originally home to servants who worked nearby. Carlo’s mother, Angiolina, was a seamstress from Collodi. Her father had managed the Garzoni family estate. When a Garzoni daughter married the Marquis Ginori of Florence, Angiolina had accompanied her as a seamstress and companion, and she married the cook, Domenico, and went to live with him on Via Taddea.
Carlo was the first of the couple’s ten children, and one of only four who survived to adulthood. Life was extremely hard; over four months beginning in December 1838, four of Carlo’s younger siblings died, ages 4 months to 6 years. The Lorenzini children spent a good deal of time in Collodi with their mother’s family; Carlo was there as early as 2, and spent much of the school year there when he was 10.
The streets of Collodi are generally too narrow for cars, so we parked above the center and walked down the hill on cobbled paths. The town is no longer known primarily for its proximity to the lavish villa. It’s known for Pinocchio. There are extensive souvenir stands, a Pizzeria Geppetto and a tavern named for Mangiafuoco, or Fire-Eater, the scary puppeteer.
There is also the Parco di Pinocchio, an outdoor attraction featuring one of the first sculpture parks for children anywhere in the world. Rolando Anzilotti, the mayor of the surrounding township, established the park back in the 1950s. He had, of course, grown up with the story. “Coming from this area especially, you’re born with it, you know places that are in the book,” says his daughter Cristina Anzilotti, the former director of Sarah Lawrence College in Florence.
Children all over Italy and even abroad sent tiny sums to help build the park. Walt Disney himself sent a hundred dollars. But the images in the park were much more avant-garde than the Disney cartoons. Emilio Greco, a Rome-based sculptor whose works are on display at London’s Tate Modern and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage, created a large bronze statue of Pinocchio and the Fairy, in an acrobatic, geometric stance. Another artist, Venturino Venturi, designed a mosaic plaza illustrating the stories with bold, slightly abstract images. There were people in Italy who objected to these depictions, Anzilotti says, because the Pinocchio in their minds was so definitely the figure in the classic 19th-century artworks by artists like Florentine Enrico Mazzanti who illustrated the initial story. But the project went ahead and the park was inaugurated in 1956 with the president of Italy in attendance. In 1972 it was enlarged to include a network of walking trails. Designed by the leading Italian landscape designer Pietro Porcinai, they take visitors past more remarkable statues representing characters and scenes from the story. A fountain at the center of the park shows the giant sea creature who swallows Geppetto, its gaping mouth filled with teeth.
The park grew to include more conventional children’s attractions, such as a carousel and puppet shows. When we visited, a woman gowned as the Blue-Haired Fairy was busy doing arts and crafts with children, while a Pinocchio greeted visitors and posed for photos. The park is managed by the Carlo Collodi Foundation, a national nonprofit dedicated to promoting the works and legacy of the writer.
Carlo’s education was paid for by the Ginori family, his parents’ employers; they intended for him to pursue a life as a Catholic priest. But in 1842 he left the seminary and transferred to the College of the Scolopi Fathers, in Florence, where his uncle supported him as he studied rhetoric and philosophy. When he graduated two years later, he went to work at a bookstore that was also a publishing house. There he met people who were engaged in the great cause of the moment: unifying the many independent political entities of Italy. Carlo became a passionate believer in this cause: He volunteered as a soldier for Italian unification in 1848 and again in 1859.
Though Carlo had wanted the new country of Italy to be a republic, Italy was instead unified as a kingdom, in 1861. When Carlo was in his 20s—and still using the surname Lorenzini—he founded a satirical newspaper called Il Lampione, the Streetlamp. The Grand Duchy of Tuscany forced him to close it and he founded a second one called Lo Scaramuccia, the Controversy. Around 1860, he began using the pen name Carlo Collodi.
But it wasn’t until 1881 that the author began writing children’s stories about a mischievous wooden puppet. He debuted the character in the premiere issue of Giornale per i bambini, the first-ever publication for children across the newly unified Italy. The stories appeared at a key moment in the evolution of Italian identity and the Italian language, and helped shape both. In their translation, Hooper and Kraczyna explain that the puppet “speaks a correct but informal Italian”; their version tries to reflect this by, for instance, using words such as “bugged” where earlier translations used “annoyed” or “vexed.”
Along with educating the first generation of true Italians, Carlo Collodi wanted to send political messages to their parents. At one point, after Pinocchio is tricked out of his four gold coins by the Fox and the Cat, he takes his complaint to the courtroom. The author tells us that the judge, an ape, is “respected because of his honorable age, his white beard, and particularly his gold-rimmed glasses, which had no lenses.” The glasses are ostensibly because of an eye inflammation, but Hooper and Kraczyna suggest that is a pretext, and that the glasses are an empty show of wealth, serving no practical purpose. The whole episode warns readers not to expect much of the justice system. Instead of having his grievance addressed, Pinocchio is thrown into jail because he has been the victim of a crime. Then, when a general amnesty is issued throughout the prison, he is told he is not eligible because he is not himself a criminal. He is released only when he convinces his jailers, “I’m a crook too.”
Throughout the book, Collodi satirizes corruption in business and government, and points to the absurdity of social class. When the scary puppeteer prepares to throw Pinocchio’s friend Harlequin into the flames, the puppet pleads:
“Have pity, Mr. Fire-Eater!”
“There are no misters here,” replied the puppeteer sternly.
“Have pity, Mr. Knight!”
“There are no knights here!”
“Have pity, Mr. Lord!”
“There are no lords here!”
At last, Pinocchio says, “Have pity, Your Excellency!” Those are the obsequious words the puppeteer has been waiting to hear.
On the outskirts of Florence, Hooper and Kraczyna took me to Castello, a little town where many wealthy people built elaborate villas to escape the heat of Florence in a cooler, greener place. Carlo’s brother Paolo Lorenzini spent his summers there. Like Carlo, Paolo had been sent to Collodi during his childhood, before going to high school in Florence at the College of the Scolopi Fathers, where he’d been supported by the Ginori family. Paolo had gone on to become an accountant, and then the manager of the Ginori family’s porcelain factory.
In Castello, Paolo rented a place called the Villa Il Bel Riposo, or the Villa of the Beautiful Rest. Carlo lived and wrote in the tower of the villa, clearly visible from the road outside. There, he gained inspiration for Pinocchio’s adventures.
We traced the path of Carlo’s daily walk, setting out from the Villa Il Bel Riposo. Carlo would turn right and head down the hill toward the cigar shop. (According to the translators, Carlo bought his cigars at the same store as the Italian king.) Along the street, Carlo passed two different shops where artisans worked with wood, one a carpenter and the other more of a woodcarver. The two proprietors were good friends, but they were contentious fellows, and often got into fights.
On the first page of Pinocchio, the block of wood turns up in the workshop of an old carpenter known in older translations as Mr. Cherry, because of his red nose. Mr. Cherry discovers that the wood can speak when he tries to make it into a table leg, only to hear it protest against being struck or cut, and the shock turns the tip of his nose from red to blue. So in Chapter 2, he turns the wood over to his friend Geppetto, who wants to make himself a puppet, “but a wonderful puppet, one that can dance, and fence, and do flips.” With this wonderful puppet, Geppetto hopes, he will be able to earn “a crust of bread and a glass of wine.” The mischievous block of wood manages to provoke a violent fight between the two men, who are both irascible and probably based on the craftsmen whose workshops Collodi passed on the Castello street.
Certainly, the people of modern-day Castello believe that their ancestors appeared in Pinocchio, Kraczyna said, as we followed the slope of Via della Petraia, with small houses and shops on either side. We turned right at the corner, which put us on the street where two “shady characters” had lived, presumed to be the models for the story’s Fox and Cat, Hooper says. This was also the main road to Sesto, where the porcelain factory was located, and a carriage brought locals there. Kraczyna told me that Carlo’s friend Giovanni Fattori, a Florentine artist, once painted the carriage driver in a way that brings to mind the coachman who takes Pinocchio on his ill-fated trip to Playland: “a little man wider than tall, soft and unctuous like a ball of butter, with a small face like a pink apple, a small mouth that was always laughing.”
Rereading Pinocchio as an adult, I was struck by the dangerous world in which the puppet lived. The wooden boy survives being burned, hanged and thrown in the ocean. Pinocchio is certainly made of sturdier stuff than your average flesh-and-blood child.
Collodi didn’t always intend to be merciful to his protagonist. When Truglio’s students at Penn State reach the scene where Pinocchio is hanging from an oak tree, killed by two Assassins, she tells them, “That’s the end, that’s where he intended to finish it, but the journal editors and the readers wanted it to continue.” Her students are invariably surprised.
In Chapters 16 and 17, Pinocchio is saved by the Blue-Haired Fairy, who initially appears as the Little Girl with Blue Hair and is described as the ghost of a dead girl. There is evidence that the model for the Blue-Haired Fairy was Giovanna Ragionieri, the daughter of the gardener at Villa Il Bel Riposo. Kraczyna and Hooper speculate that Collodi’s description of the dead little girl may have echoes of the death of one of his sisters who died when he was about 12. In the course of the book, the Little Girl grows into a woman, as his sister never did.
After the Blue-Haired Fairy sends helpers to rescue Pinocchio from his hanging—a falcon to cut him down from his noose, a poodle dressed up as a coachman to drive him home—she realizes that Pinocchio has a high fever and pours him some medicine. The puppet, ever defiant, refuses to take the medicine because it would taste bitter. The Fairy bribes him with sugar, but he eats the sugar and still asserts, “I’d rather die than drink that nasty medicine.” Finally, four black rabbits arrive, carrying a coffin to take him away. That’s when Pinocchio grabs the medicine and swallows it down. It works immediately. “After a few minutes,” Collodi tells us, “Pinocchio jumped down off the bed completely recovered, because wooden puppets, you see, have the privilege of seldom falling ill and of getting well very quickly.”
As a pediatrician, I was curious about the medicine Pinocchio was so reluctant to take, so I consulted the notes that Hooper and Kraczyna provide and learned that the word in the Italian story is purgativo. Purgatives—both laxatives and emetics—were popular remedies in the 19th century and before, and were used in many different clinical situations, in hopes of purifying the body. They would not have been particularly effective in the case of fever or infection. In situations where someone was in danger of becoming dehydrated, they were downright dangerous.
Toward the end of the book, another child is brought back from the brink of death. After the puppet allows himself to be talked into playing hooky, another boy throws the massively heavy Treatise on Arithmetic at Pinocchio, but instead hits his friend Eugene, apparently killing him. The other boys run away, but Pinocchio stays with Eugene, imploring him in vain to open his eyes. He is interrupted by two carabinieri, who arrest Pinocchio and leave Eugene, rather casually, with some fishermen, but two chapters later, it turns out that Eugene has fully recovered.
After that incident, Pinocchio becomes an excellent student. But he has to face one last temptation: the ill-fated trip to Playland. He’s able to redeem himself by rescuing Geppetto from the belly of a great shark. Hooper and Kraczyna point out that Collodi’s own father had to be rescued from debt, and the word for predatory lenders—loan sharks—also exists in Florentine dialect: pescecani.
After Pinocchio saves Geppetto, he then works to provide for his father’s health and studies hard at night. In the end, he becomes a ragazzino per bene, a good little kid in this translation, also sometimes translated as a proper (or perhaps decent) boy. Accordingly, the wooden puppet is transformed into “a smart, lively, beautiful child with brown hair and blue eyes who was as happy and joyful as a spring lamb.”
Hooper sums up the book’s moral this way: “Get educated, get informed, don’t let other people pull your strings.” It’s also a book about the importance of caring for other people. “I think Collodi is saying that’s how you become a human being,” Hooper says. “There’s a message about socialization there that is absolutely fundamental.” Or, as Geppetto puts it, “When kids stop being bad and start being good, they also bring a new and joyous air into their families.”
The commemorative sign on the building in Florence where it’s believed that Collodi was born does not describe him as an author, but rather as the padre di Pinocchio, the father of Pinocchio. That seems suitable, especially since Pinocchio is a book about an unusual way of becoming a father.
Collodi never had children of his own, though there were rumors of a daughter born out of wedlock. Not much is known about his love life; after he died, Paolo burned all his letters, fearing they “could have compromised ladies who were still alive and very well-known.” Perhaps Collodi simply never wanted to settle down. Or perhaps he didn’t want to start a family of his own because he’d watched six of his younger siblings die in childhood. It was only in the world of Pinocchio that he had the power to bring dead children back to life.
The apartment where Collodi died at the age of 63 is located above the Ginori porcelain shop in Florence that still exists today. There’s a plaque outside, praising Collodi for using his wit and artistic sensibilities to carry out his life’s true goal: “to educate the people of united Italy.” In the end, Collodi changed his country not by publishing adult polemics but by speaking directly to the nation’s children—as the plaque puts it, con tenera amara virile fantasia, with tender, bitter, virile imagination.