Site map Laboratory About the author Community Links

Previous chapter


The Fanes' saga - Researches on the legend

A short history of the studies on the legend


The Ladinians

They are the original inhabitants of the Dolomites. Pinched between Italians and Germans, they number today about thirty-five thousand people. They speak a neo-latin language, likewise named Ladinian, that is subdivided into as many dialects as there are valleys, but closely resembles Friulian and Grisons’ Romansch. The three languages must once have been a single one, widespread all over central and eastern Alps.

The Ladinians’ DNA is very different from that of their neighbours’, but they are highly differentiated among themselves also, therefore representing a riddle for geneticists. They are known to descend from a population, named Rhaetians by the Romans, that endured several Celtic and Latin infiltrations even before the early Middle Ages, when it was wedged and divided by Franks, Bavarians, Slavs and so on.

Although deeply attached to their language and their traditions, the Ladinians have long been at risk of losing both, squeezed as they were between two mighty cultures like the Italian and the German ones, on the verge of even giving up the pride of their national identity. Only at the end of the nineteenth century, in the age of nationalisms, a few people started recovering and revamping the ancient traditions, of which the legends represented an essential part.

Orally handed down one generation to the next, in an environment where writing was almost inexistent, at most limited to official acts compiled in a foreign language, legends had long been preserved almost intact. Although regarded with hostility by the Counter-reformed church, they really declined only when literacy began to replace the oral tradition as a cultural standard; at the end of the nineteenth century the tradition-preserving community had almost vanished and just a few old men remembered scattered, generally short fragments of what once had been a rich and compact corpus. We must remind, among the first who gave impulse to the wearisome revitalization of the ancient legends, don Giuseppe Brunel and Tita Cassan from the Fassa valley and Wilhelm Moroder-Lusenberg from the Gardena valley. We shall examine now the most significant authors in some more detail.


Hugo de Rossi

Ugo or Hugo de Rossi or Hugo von Rossi [de Santa Juliana] (1875-1940) was born in the Fassa valley, lost one arm in the first World War and lived at Innsbruck since then to his death. In 1912 he collected his “Tales and Legends of the Fassa valley – 1st Part”, published today, in both German-Ladinian and Italian-Ladinian versions, by the Istitut Cultural Ladin "majon di fashegn" of Vigo di Fassa (1984, edited by Ulrike Kindl). Unfortunately, the second part never followed, as it should according to the Author’s intentions. It was expected to contain a lot of fresh material relevant to the so-called “Trilogy of Fassa”, compiled by Wolff.

A honest and careful scholar of folklore, although he didn’t consider himself as an expert, de Rossi transcribed everything that people reported him, not allowing himself to introduce variations and taking diligent notice of the variants he possibly discovered. His collection is of the utmost importance for, among others, the traditions connected with the pre-roman Fassa, with the Roman conquest, with the anguane and the salvani (i.e. wildmen); Wolff himself, who was in touch with him, derived several themes from him. Unfortunately for our purposes, the passages directly dealing with the Kingdom of Fanes are very few and of little relevance.




Karl Felix Wolff

He was born in 1879 at Karlstadt, today Karlovac in Croatia, son of an Austrian officer and Lucilla von Busetti, a woman from the val di Non. His family moved to Bolzano when he still was a little boy. There, Wolff listened to his first Ladinian legends, narrated by an aged nanny from the val di Fassa. Later on he got in touch with some Ladinians who strived to get their language and their traditions back into use: Cassan, de Rossi, Moroder-Lusenberg. He became a journalist and a writer, but never stopped wandering all over the Dolomites, his pocketbook at hand, questioning common people, specially the most aged, in the hope that they could convey him a new legend or a new detail. At first his interest was mostly focused on the closer and more familiar Fassa valley, but later on he extended the range of his researches to all other Dolomitic valleys, pushing as far as Cadore and Alpago. He died at Bolzano in 1966.

He published the results of his research stepwise, until he had composed a trilogy: I monti pallidi (The Pale Mountains); L'anima delle Dolomiti (The Soul of the Dolomites); Rododendri bianchi delle Dolomiti (White alpine roses from the Dolomites). His books appeared in several editions, at times with different titles, over a wide time span. They are available today in the edition by Cappelli (Bologna), in their Italian translation, and by Athesia (Bolzano), in the German original. Wolff additionally published a wide number of articles on several different magazines, as well as many booklets and leaflets. People interested in his complete bibliography can find it in Ulrike Kindl (1983): Kritische Lektüre der Dolomitensagen von Karl Felix Wolff, Band I: Einzelsagen, Istitut Cultural Ladin "Micurá de Rü", San Martin de Tor.

The importance of Wolff’s work for the rescue and revitalization of the ancient Ladinian legends can hardly be overestimated. There are good chances that, had it not been for him, today we would know close to nothing about the Fanes. Unfortunately, however, Wolff’ methods were not as rigorous as they should, and he didn’t care recording what he had collected exactly the way it had been narrated to him. His position was that of a writer and a poet (and maybe, as a highly cultured man, a good Austrian and a germanophile, he also felt a little superior as well); therefore in good faith he made his best to restore and refurbish, and allowed himself to twist the story a little bit, sometimes even to insert a few missing pieces, in order to obtain (inconsciously?) that the result might look a little closer to the general picture he had in his mind. His hand is usually visible, and therefore the “restored” parts can easily be removed, but we are often left in doubt whether something not completely understood or not completely original may remain unaccounted for.



Karl Staudacher

Son of an hotel owner of Brunico, Karl Staudacher (1875-1944) when still a small boy listened to the tales of the Fanes’ kingdom, recounted by girls from the val Badia who had a job at his father’s. Having demonstrated a great talent for studying, he became a priest and worked in several parishes; never, unfortunately, in areas that might allow him to collect additional material on the Fanes. In 1921 he got in touch with Karl Felix Wolff, to whom he made available several fundamental elements that were known in the val Badia but not in Fassa, and lie at the very root of the legend (marmots, vultures, twinnings…). Alas, he was no anthropology student, and even no folklore lover: the Fanes interested him primarily as Nibelungians’ epigones. In effect, he left us a boresome epic poem, written in perfect German verses, Das Fanneslied (1928: available by Tyrolia, Innsbruck-Wien 1994). In his poem, Staudacher almost punctually conforms to the plot of the story as reconstructed by Wolff, although he sometimes deviates into shocking directions, often according to ethymological interpretations which look both daring and naïve. (As an instance, he derives Duranni from Thyrrenoi, accordingly identifying them with the Etruscans and locating Ey-de-Net’s home close to Florence; at the same time he identifies the Caiutes with the Celts – whose kingdom’s capital town was Brescia!).


K. Staudacher as painted by J.B.Oberkofler
Das Fanneslied, Tyrolia ed.)


Angel Morlang

Angel Morlang (1918-2005) was born at Pieve di Marebbe and spent his whole life in the Ladinian valleys. Like Staudacher, he took orders as a priest. He had several interests; for instance, he also was a good painter. In 1951 he published, in the Ladinian dialect from Marebbe, “Fanes da Zacan” (Fanes of Old), reprinted by the Istitut Ladin "Micurá de Rü" of San Martin de Tor in 1978.

His text was written as a script for an open-air popular drama, what Wolff (who greeted it enthusiastically) had long been longing for. As a matter of fact, it was repeatedly performed at La Valle and San Vigilio di Marebbe. Morlang substantially follows Wolff’s version, however with a few noteworthy exceptions (e.g. Spina-de-Müsc instead of Spina-de-Mul, the vulture taking back his place usurped by the eagle…). A few differences can merely be connected with staging requirements, while others may hint at an effectively different tradition from the val Badia (e.g. the single campaign from the Pralongià to the Furcia dai Fers), and others are probably just a good Christian’s misreadings, like Dolasilla buried by Ey-de-Net. The mountain priest’s moralistic lectures are regrettably well visible and abundantly strewn.








Modern Critics

Wolff apart (who perceived their importance, but never got a full and clear picture), as far as I know, the first to understand the anthropological implications of the Fanes’ saga was Kläre French-Wieser, who in 1974 published an article, “The Fanes’ Kingdom – A Matriarchate Tragedy” on the Bolzano magazine “Der Schlern”.

The most significant scholar in modern studies about de Rossi, Wolff and their collections is anyway Ulrike Kindl. She teaches German language and literature at the University of Venice and masters all three languages, Ladinian, German and Italian. She edited both de Rossi’s collection of tales and legends (1984) and the symposium held in 1985 at Vigo di Fassa on the same subject. She certainly is the top leading authority about Dolomitic legends. She is the author of several books, among which both Kritische Lektüre der Dolomitensagen von Karl Felix Wolff, Band I: Einzelsagen (1983) and Kritische Lektüre der Dolomitensagen von Karl Felix Wolff, Band II: Sagenzyklen (1997), where she thoroughly analyzes Wolff’s complete literary production and expounds it with great depth of thought.

Professor Giuliano Palmieri, from Treviso (1940-2007), is the author of several archaeological researches. He wrote together with Marco, his son, I regni perduti dei Monti Pallidi (“The lost Kingdoms of the Pale Mountains”) (1996), where he ingeniously probed into several aspects of the Ladinian legends, specifically investigating several details of the Fanes’ Kingdom. He later on published Le antiche voci dei Monti Pallidi (“The ancient voices from the Pale Mountains”), mostly devoted to different topics, of great cultural and anthropological interest, but where one can also find several themes strictly connected with the legends collected by Wolff.

In the year 2000, Helmut Birkhan, an Austrian professor from the University of Wien, published an essay at the meeting "AD GREDINE FORESTUM 999-1999". After comparing the Fanes' saga with other ancient European legends, he tries a "historical" approach to the interpretation of the legend, without pushing into much detail, and concludes by accepting the authenticity and antiquity of the "anthropological" core of the saga.

One year later, Veronica Irsara, from San Cassiano, took her degree discussing a thesis about the Fanes. She establishes an original compromise between prof. Kindl's "subjective method" and prof. Palmieri's "objective" one.


Previous chapter