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The Fanes' saga - Remarks on single Works


Cesare Poppi (1987): The Contìes [Tales] of the Archives Massimiliano Mazzel and Simon de Giulio. A Check of their Sources and Confirmations in the contemporary oral Tradition, Mondo Ladino [Ladinian World] XI, 1-2: 19-57

In 1987 prof. Poppi published these remarks on the state and the structures of the oral tradition in the Fassa valley, starting from the two quoted collections, the last remains yet of a disappearing occurrence. I don’t know whether deliberately or not, the paper appeared on Mondo Ladino at the time of Simon de Giulio’s departure, the last of the storytellers. As a matter of fact, Poppi’s work begins with the flat statement: “The oral tradition of narrative sequencies typical of the popular culture in the Fassa valley, is over”.
For several years I’ve wished to publish at least a summary of this text on this site, as I consider it very important in order to understand the occurrence of the oral tradition of legends. I’ve been hindered by the difficulty of summarizing a text by prof. Poppi: each of his words contains a concept, no summary can really preserve its full significance. I decided to do it now because, having eventually translated from German both Wolff’s Foreword to the Ninth issue of the Dolomitensagen and his Integrations, which exhibit several data about the state of oral tradition at his time, I can compare Poppi’s results with those, eighty years earlier; and the cross-check shows, as far as I can see, several points of interest (see also my remarks at bottom).



In the Fassa valley, there is no longer any community who transmits ancient traditional tales orally one generation to the other. By saying so, we aren’t talking of the oblivion of single tales, but generally of the usage of oral narration as transmission means. This didn’t happen suddenly: it’s a process that has been taking place several decades along, and now has just arrived to its dead end. There are several reasons: mainly, the “learned” culture and the one promoted by clergy have extended down to all social classes, removing the conflict with the popular culture, which had expressive means of its own. The deep social, political and cultural transformations that the valley sustained after WWII just helped bring the process to its completion.

The status of the oral tradition today

In 1976, prof. Poppi carried on a first study on the oral tradition in the Fassa valley and he observed its state of deep decay. Ten years later, the process has come to its conclusion. The last key informers, who were not even specialists of storytelling, but just the last people who were still remembering something, have deceased. Only fragments remain, hearsays, single names detached from their contest, or in the best case a few isolated episodes.
Oral tradition was preserved in the evening spinwatches (filò, vila), which were events reserved to grown-up people. Most times, they were even prohibited to young unmarried women. Children were sent to bed, and it seems that there was not even the usage of telling them fairy tales. Therefore, as the usage of evening watches has extinguished, the elderly people of  today have no way to remember events they never took a part in, and about which even their mothers couldn’t tell them anything. The last man who preserved a remembrance of the tradition seems to have been Simon de Giulio, from Penia, who died in 1987.
Many tales from the collections under scrutiny talk about wizardry and sorcery. They express in a narrative form several beliefs widespread in Fassa, and in a few instances they repeat what can be found in the interrogation proceedings of the witches’ trials in the past centuries. The beliefs are still known (taken for true or not), but the structure of the tale that had been “built” to back up (or even to generate?) that sort of belief is almost never known any longer. And this is significant of the fact that the narration has faded as a way of expression, even earlier than the contents that were narrated.
The same can be told for vivenes and bregostenes, figures whose existence many can quote, but about whom nobody can tell any detail any longer, as well as characters like Soreghina or Albolina, whose names are still remembered, but nobody knows whether they have been heard from oral tradition first, or they have been read on Wolff’s texts.
The last traces of oral tradition can (or could) be found in the uppermost sector of the valley, beyond Canazei, specially at Alba and Penia. Here Fernando Iori de Mita lived, the last “true” specialist storyteller, who died in the early ‘70s. He is remembered as entering homes for the evening watches and usually telling the tales that his audience wished listening to, i.e. no longer vivanes and bregostanes, but stories extracted from literary texts. His celebrated “Count of Montecristo”, narrated in Ladinian, required up to a week of evening watches to reach completion.
We can conclude that oral tradition didn’t fade away because the contents have been forgotten, but because they have been considered as something unworthy of being remembered, or even maybe as something that people “refused to remember”.

The genres of oral narrative

In the collections under scrutiny, the fairy tales properly called (those structured according to the sequences detected by Propp) are a genre of absolute minority, either because they have been forgotten quicker, or because they have been so since ever. As a matter of fact, in the Fassa valley the witnessing tale (contìa) is predominating; it incorporates a few of the structures of a fable, but something of an historical narration as well. Differently from a fable, the contìa is always located, however, not in a “land far away” but in a historical and geographical situation that the listener knows very well, and thence gets him emotionally carried away much more.
Among the contìes, a special role is played by the tales about the bregostenes, which are always referred to the past, but have a linear flow, as historically happened events, and to precisely determined persons.
The same holds for the tales about magic/sorcery, that constitute the majority of both collections. Episodes attributed to “historical” witches are inserted into the context of the tales, that become this way almost a proof of the truth of the superstitions they describe. More or less the same can be also told concerning other beliefs in supernatural, e.g. about the “procession of the dead”. What is “believed” and what is “narrated” remain therefore strictly related and mutually support each other.
The patofjes, also present in great number in the collections, are a genre of humorous narrative, generally relevant to well determined characters who lived historically; they exhibit a funny behaviour, at times stupid, at times sly. It seems that each patofja is part of a single storyteller’s assets, and even when they are re-narrated, both their main character, and the storyteller who had told them first, are always mentioned. Only when the historical memory of their main characters begins fading, the patofjes start taking the less determined features of the contìa.
We have then the falopes, tales whose core consists of a clear and obvious lie, told on the purpose to astonish the audience. But falopa is also the assessment that a skeptical audience assigns to a tale believed not to be really credible: this can happen to several tales of magic/sorcery, today considered as mere cock-and-bull stories.
Last, the etiological legends, i.e. those that use a myth to “explain” a natural phenomenon. Some of them certainly derive from a long-time oral tradition; more, several that we know having been alive in the early XIX century, seem to have been lost completely. Other ones clearly show a more recent origin, and appear as having been “invented” on patently “literary” purposes.

The collections by Mazzel and Simon de Giulio

Informants and sources

Simon de Giulio himself indicated who his sources were, in a fully reliable way. Most are members of his own family, almost all the remainders are his countrymen from Penia. Just a few refer to a “widespread tradition”, which everyone or so knew in the village. Simon de Giulio has perhaps been the only man to write down his tales while preserving the form and style of an oral narration.
Don Massimiliano Mazzel represents a more complex problem because, in his reading of tales in Ladinian language at the Bolzano broadcasting station, his purposes were not only cultural, but also moralistic, and therefore he added remarks that had nothing to do with oral tradition. Probably, on the contrary, he didn’t modify much the content of his tales, while it is almost certain that he filtered out just those which better adhered to his purposes. Many legends of the etiologic type have almost certainly been invented, in a romantic-like style, by him or by his direct informants; only a few among them we also know by name. The style is intermediate between the “literary” one and that of the oral tradition proper; the contents are such that they “might” be derived from oral tradition, even when it is certain that they are the invention of single Authors.

The spreading of themes and motives by area

Locating the place where the single themes and motives of the collections were originated is a difficult task. Only a few of them are widely known all over the valley, and probably they are the most ancient, like those about the bregostene. We can say for sure that most tales come from the upmost section of the valley, Canazei, Alba and Penia; it is doubtful whether this derives from the circumstance that most informants had been selected from the upper valley, or that only in the upper valley it was still possible to find informants. Generally speaking, it seems that the circulation of the tales was rather restricted, and their possible spreading very slow.

The problem of authenticity
By authenticity, we mean the direct derivation of a tale from the circuit of oral tradition. Several stories of both collections are the written re-elaboration of widespread beliefs, often composed by their extensor, who built around them a story of his own, in a way more or less detectable according to cases.
For many legends, our judgementr of authenticity must be left pending, as they are built around fragments of remembrances and hearsays, and they might even be traced back to the reading of K.F.Wolff’s literary works. Notice, on the purpose, that Simon de Giulio was rather prone to negate the authenticity of Wolff’s elaborations.



Appendixes include:

  • Contents of Simon de Giulio’s archive: 72 tales, listed with title and source;
  • Contents of Mazzel’s archive: 98 tales, they too listed with title and source (when known), extracted from the broadcasting archive or from publications;
  • Breakdown of Simon de Giulio’s and Massimiliano Mazzel’s collections by narrative genre; the following figures result (a few tales can’t be assigned to a genre and have been left out):


Simon de Giulio

Don Massimiliano Mazzel

Fairy tale









Etiological legend



Patofia or historical anecdote



  • Biographical remarks about the main informants/contributors to the collections: Giovanni Giacomo Iori (“Zot de Rola”) from Penia, 1896-1972; Giovanni Battista Costa (“Tita de Megna”) from Canazei, 1884-1968; Ferdinando Iori (“Ferdinando de Mita”) from Penia, 1909-1971.


Remarks: the situation described by prof. Poppi in comparison with that described by Wolff in his Forewords and Integrations to the Dolomitensagen

What’s most funny is that both Poppi in 1987 and Wolff about eighty years earlier start by stating that the oral tradition of legends has ceased to exist. Are we dealing then with a Phoenix, that is born again from its ashes? If we just go a little deeper, we can discover that both had two rather different concepts in mind: Wolff refers to thoese poetical legends, certainly often quite ancient, from the scattered fragments of which he composed (re-composed?) the body of his work; Poppi, on the contrary, to the concept itself of re-narrating as means of transmitting to posterity the traditions that had been learned from the past generations. Poppi, who isn’t only reporting his analysis of both collections mentioned in the title, but also the results of his own observations, limits to the “filò” [spinwatch] alone (the evening watch built around the task of spinning, but during which several different domestic or agricultural tasks were performed) the occasion when this process could take place. Wolff indicates also the different environment of the evenings in the shepherd mountain huts, where the ambience was often much coarser, as they were dominated by the presence of men instead of women. We may add, beyond that, as a third possible environment where ancient legends were narrated, that “popular theater” (that was one of  Wolff’s recurring thoughts), whose existence and importance was suggested to him by Cassan and Moroder-Lusemberg. According to the latter, it seems that this traditional form had already ceased to exist with the early Napeoleonic wars in the Dolomites. It might be, therefore, that the very poetical legends, that Wolff a century later found already scattered into isolated and mostly forgotten fragments, and that according to Poppi the last Fassan storytellers themselves doubted had ever existed, had their roots in the popular theater and never succeeded to completely transmigrate into the environment of spinwatches.
For a full comparison between both descriptions, it would be anyway interesting to know whether Poppi in 1985 didn’t meet the mountain shepherd hut environment, indicated by Wolff, because it didn’t exist any longer, o just because, being it totally extraneous to both collections under scrutiny, he had no way to approach it himself.
We can make the further remark that Poppi only considers the Fassa valley, while Wolff was active all around the Dolomites; but he was also specially acquainted with the Fassa valley, and in any case the differences among the several valleys don’t look to have really been significant. The sociological process under way must not have been uniformly synchronous, but substantially they must have been everywhere the same.

To tell the truth, a more recent collection of popular Ladinian traditions does esist. It is based on the survey performed early in this millennium by Dr. Andrea Zinnecker and by Wolfgang Karreth on behalf of the Bayerischer Rundfunk of Munich, which radioed their results under the title “Zakan… wer weiß, wann?” [Once upon a time, who knows when?] and which, by its Authors’ courtesy and through the benevolence of kind ms. Tarabiono, is available in this site. It is of special interest that we are dealing with the recording of orally narrated legends (part of them in German, part in Ladinian), not of written or transcribed ones. Unfortunately this collection hasn’t been analyzed yet in depth; I promise to proceed at least to a preliminary examination, notwithstanding my well-known difficulties with both languages. Anyway, the fact the after year 2000 some material, partially even original, could still be retrieved, makes me suspect that oral traditions in the Dolomites, although certainly in a deep crisis, haven’t yet (at least for now…) completely ceased.

A second interesting topic emerging from the comparison of Wolff’s remarks and Poppi’s ones is given by the different setting that can be found eighty years apart in the women’s involvement in the spinwatches. While Poppi twenty years ago detected that young girls were just prohibited from attending, this at Wolff’s times didn’t happen at all; elderly women, however, provided a sort of “preventive censorship” to make sure that the contents of the tales to be narrated didn’t show elements that could be considered as inappropriate. Wolff’s hint to the spinwatch as a place traditionally assigned to entertainment and dancing, at least before the counter-reformation, makes us believe that moralistic restrictions started at that time and became over and over stricter and more widespread.

Finally, it might be interesting to compare the genres of the tales in Wolff’s collection and in those under Poppi’s scrutiny, but unfortunately it would make little sense. Wolff, indeed, as he clearly admitted, was very selective and discarded all material that, for several reasons, he didn’t consider suitable to his job as a poet of traditions – and he näively stated never having realized that his scraps might turn out of a high ethnological significance!


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