Tales of Mischief and Cleverness: Tomaso Costo’s Fuggilozio

What is this book about?

Tomaso Costo’s Fuggilozio (which translates roughly as “The Cure for Indolence”) is a collection of short stories first published in Naples, Italy, in 1596. As was common for such collections in pre-modern Europe, Costo included a frame narrative about a group of six gentlemen (soon joined by two ladies) who gather together for several days, at a friend’s beautiful home, and while away the time in virtuous activities, including telling each other stories. This kind of book had been quite common in Italy since the late 1200s, and had spread to many other parts of western Europe during the Renaissance. Some of Costo’s stories are retellings and revisions of pre-existing stories (a few going back to classical antiquity), while many others are original to his collection or significantly altered.

The stories can in turn be funny, tragic, clever, naughty, or plain silly. They range widely in format, length, and tone:

  • from the somewhat fantastical and elaborate story of a young woman in Cyprus who is about to be raped by a visiting merchant when, thanks to a ring, they recognize each other as long lost siblings,
  • to very quick accounts of sharp witticisms;
  • from the adventures of clever thieves (one of whom steals a donkey and sells it to the friars of a monastery, only to then lead the original owner to reclaim it successfully, so that the thief enjoys both his ill-gotten gains and the thrill of tricking the friars)
  • to those of husbands and wives who display all possible combinations of cleverness and stupidity, of virtue and vice;
  • to stories that emphasize the superior cunning of Italians who cheat, trick, or seduce people from other nations.

What does the title of Cost’s book mean?

Ozio is laziness or indolence, and was usually regarded, in ancient and Renaissance culture, as conducive to moral decline (though in some contexts the term could have a positive meaning, if one applied that leisure time to studies). Fuggire means to flee, to escape. The book title – a word Costo invented – thus means a tool to avoid dangerous, corrupting indolence.

Who was Tomaso Costo?

We know relatively little about the details of Costo’s life, including his precise birth and death date (and no known portrait of him exists). He lived from around 1545 to 1613 or soon thereafter. His was a typical example of the challenging life of a scholar and writer of no high birth or great means: he worked, mainly as a secretary, for various Naples aristocrats and eventually for a local tribunal, and he wrote a prodigious amount of works in all sorts of genres, from epic poems to works of history, from an essay on secretarial work to literary criticism. He was a member of learned societies in both Naples and other Italian cities. Fuggilozio is his only prose fiction work. Throughout his career, Costo claimed that his goal was “what we writers want, honor.”

This image is the front page of the 1613 edition of Costo’s book, one of several Venice editions that followed the first Naples one of 1596. The book was clearly intended for a broad and not particularly elite market: it is fairly small in size and contains no illustrations beyond the Adam and Eve scene on this page.

What is significant about this book?

Costo’s stories offer an interesting, and often humorous, window into the culture of the late Renaissance in Italy, as well as a voice from Naples, a city that tends to be under-represented in Italian literature and literary studies. His stories add to our knowledge of and appreciation for a kind of literature which, at the time, was considered less prestigious, and intended primarily for leisure enjoyment by men and women, often in groups that would read such books together.

How did you become interested in this book?

I came to this project somewhat accidentally. I have recently translated other works published in Naples in the seventeenth century, and enjoyed the process of translation, but I had never translated a work of fiction. I edited a book of essays by various scholars a few years ago, and the writer of an essay on literature in Renaissance and early modern Naples told me that Costo’s was one of her favorite books from the period. With that, I started thinking of a translation, and decided, together with ARC’s editors, to translate a selection of the best of Costo’s short stories (this edition includes 120 or the original’s 422 stories).

What was Naples like in Costo’s time?

With perhaps up to 300,000 inhabitants, Naples at the end of the sixteenth century was by far the largest city in Italy, and indeed one of the largest cities in the world; it was also the largest city in the Spanish monarchy’s global empire, which then spanned from South and Central America to the Philippines. Naples’ site was famously beautiful, but also constrained by nearby hills, so that the density of its population was very high, with all the resultant problems of crime, dirt, and chaos. The city was also a major center of European art and music, attracting visitors and tourists, who were also eager to see the nearby volcano Vesuvius (the only active volcano in continental Europe).

This image shows the Palazzo Donn’Anna, now in part ruined, built in the mid-seventeenth century on the outskirts of Naples, with beautiful views of the Bay. The palace today stands where the storytellers in Costo’s book gather: it is the site of their friend’s villa.

For a general introduction to the city, its kingdom, and their history, see this book. For a set of scholarly articles about various aspects of Naples in Costo’s time, see this book.

Whom is this book for?

I hope readers will find here something of interest about Naples and Italian life and culture generally. I also very much hope the book will appeal to any reader who enjoys a good story and is interested in literature, story-telling, and the flaws and foibles, vices and virtues, hopes and challenges, of human beings at any time.

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