19th Century Italy in Pinocchio

Children's Literature Archive© 2010, Daniel Kim, Dennis Lieu, Arujan Ravindran, Vyshnavi Suntharalingam

Carlo Collodi. The Adventures of Pinocchio. Illustrated by: Attilio Mussino. New York: Macmillan, 1969.




The following curatorial commentary covers Carlo Collodi’s he Adventures of Pinocchio (1969). Illustrated by Attilio Mussino, this book is about the adventures of Pinocchio, a puppet free of strings and created from talking wood. With information on both the author and illustrator, the overall approach of this commentary focuses on cautionary story elements, while depicting the living conditions of a specific demographic during its time and space specific culture (19th century Italy).

About the Author

Carlo Lorenzini, who wrote under the pen name Carlo Collodi, was born in Florence, Italy on November 24, 1826. The eldest child of ten, Lorenzini was born to servant parents who worked for a noble family (Lucas). Although his family was poor, he received an education because his parents’ employers saw that he was quite intelligent. Lorenzini was provided with a seminary education and studied two years with the Piarist Fathers in Florence. However, he believed priesthood was not for him and became a freelance journalist who had ambitions of reawakening Italian theatre. He first started writing under the pseudonym of Collodi when he wrote the political satire Il signor Alberi ha ragione! Di (Cro 88). Collodi is the name of the Tuscan village his mother comes from.

During his career as a journalist, he founded a political satire magazine called Il Lampione which was later ceased by the government. Lorenzini continued to write as a freelance journalist and worked for a theatrical paper called Lo Scaramuccia. His interest in theatre increased and as a result he wrote two screenplays and the novel, The Mysteries of Florence. However, his career as a children’s writer began after he was commissioned to translate French literary fairy tales by Perrault, Madame d’Aulnoy, and Madame Le Prince de Beaumont. This commission led to another where he was asked to rework well-known Italian children literature. He made the literature entertaining as well as educational, thereby becoming known as an educational children’s writer.

In 1881, Lorenzini captured the interest of readers of a weekly children’s magazine, Il giornale per i bambini, with The Story of a Puppet. He initially ended the tale with Pinocchio’s death, but upon readers’ request, he continued the tale with ten more chapters. In 1883, the serial was published into a book. Since its publication, Pinocchio has become a world – wide success garnering many translations and has become Carlo Lorenzini’s most notable work.

About the Illustrator

Attilio Mussino was born on 1878 in Italy, and although there is little information available on his personal life, his work as an illustrator has been well-noted. He spent his entire life working throughout Italy, and is pinned as being the illustrator of the very first published, colour edition of Pinocchio (Malchiodi). Similar to Lorenzini, Mussino also worked in the magazine field, creating witty and satirical drawings. He also illustrated comics for a short period of time, but after the Second World War, he returned back to what he was specialized in, illustrating for children’s books (Kousemaker).

Gepptto at Work

The Township

Throughout his illustrations in Collodi’s book, Mussino effectively reflects the lower-class Italian lifestyle in 19th century Italy. A fascinating illustration to analyze is the ones of Geppetto in the first few pages of the book. His style of clothing and living conditions through Mussino’s work embodies his respective social class. Geppetto’s home is poorly constructed; there is no alignment in the wooden fixtures. Mussino creates Geppetto’s home quite dim and not so vibrant, while vividly illustrating the township with life and colour. Thus, Geppetto’s home plays a role in depicting his lower-class lifestyle.

Geppetto at Home

The Carabineer

Furthermore, Geppetto’s clothing is in poor condition. They are covered in stitches as if it has been worn for a very long time. In comparing Geppetto’s clothing to that of an authoritative figure such as the police officer, there is a huge contrast of colour as Geppetto’s clothes are slowly fading. The uniform worn by the police officer is bright and clean. Mussino once again uses his artistic talents to emphasize the lower-class lifestyle of Italians in the 19th century.

Story Elements and Themes

Collodi’s book presents numerous themes and story elements that stretch the boundaries of regular folktale. It teaches children and regular folks lessons of being a responsible and educated individual through chains of consequences. Collodi’s book, unlike other similar folktales at the time, does not take place in a dream world or alternate reality. Its magical elements such as the puppet’s ability to walk and talk leans against the wall of reality and responsibility (Heisig 25).

Pinocchio manifests the role of the pure and carefree child whose only desire is to gain without working; but his boldness to fulfill his wishes always comes at some cost to him or those around him (Heisig 27). Geppetto sells his coat for money towards Pinocchio’s education; but Pinocchio is sidetracked and does not go to school (Perella 11). The cricket is Pinocchio’s voice of warning and responsibility, and desires Pinocchio’s trust in order to teach him and raise him; but Pinocchio decides to betray the cricket’s word by lying and cheating his way through life, and this was what causes his nose to grow to huge proportions (Heisig 29). When the Blue Fairy is sick after saving the puppet from the shark, and in consequence for not valuing the love Geppetto gave him as a parent, Pinocchio suffers and disciplines himself by working late at night in order to earn enough money for medicine (Heisig 26).

This folktale shows how betrayal and consequence can truly and effectively teach the morals of being a responsible and caring person by showing how one’s actions can truly speak louder than any magical or dream element (Heisig 33).

Pinocchio as a Representation of Children

The realities surrounding lower-class children in 19th century Italy is well depicted in Collodi’s book. Furthermore, the story itself falls in the old traditional category of cautionary tales. Pinocchio, a puppet merely made from talking wood, symbolically represents the group of children marginalized as an ‘other’ in parts of Italy such as Tuscan and Florence. The environment in which the puppet was created directly reflects the living conditions of its time and space specific culture. From the end of the 19th century to World War I – years after the Italian Unification – it was an era of hardship. Children were beggars on the streets and idlers who grew up to be criminals. Infants were abandoned at high rates, and thus, left with little moral and financial support (Ipsen 23). In fact, due to increasing child workers, the first Child Labour Law was passed in 1886 by United Italy (Ipsen 85). But with the lack of guidance, many children were not educated and disobedient to authority, leading them to confined reformatories (Ipsen 133).

As Collodi’s protagonist is free from adult control, the audience can critically examine the conditions surrounding Pinocchio. The tale is a narrative with allegories used to convey morals and values. The lack of puppet strings on Pinocchio can symbolically represent freedom, or the children’s desires to escape from such harsh living-conditions. However, they can also represent protection, and without these strings in the story, Pinocchio was free to leave the comforts of Geppetto’s home and explore the ‘real world’: corrupted and unsafe.

Pinocchio’s transformation into a donkey is symbolic to children in Liberal-Era Italy, who prevalently rejected authority and education. However, even Pinocchio, through his adventures, ultimately gains moral and intellectual values. Pinocchio is a puppet created from wood that turns into a donkey, and later to a real boy and each transformation is caused by his moral choices. Collodi’s cautionary tale empowers Pinocchio with this choice to make a difference, instead of merely becoming a product of his environment. The story informs the audience that even a piece of wood – that was even once a donkey – can become a real boy. However, it also warns the dangers of idleness, and the rejection of education and authority.

Select Bibliography

  • Cro, Stelio. “Collodi: When Children’s Literature Becomes Adult.” Merveilles and Contes 7.1 (May 1993): 87-111. Rpt. in Children’s Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 120. Detroit: Gale, 2007. Literature Resource Center. Web. 16 Oct. 2010.
  • Heisig, James W. “Pinocchio: Archetype of the Motherless Child.” Children’s Literature: Annual of The Children’s Literature Association and The Modern Language Association Division on Children’s Literature 3 (1974): 23-35.
  • Ipsen, Carl. Italy in the Age of Pinocchio: Children and Danger in the Liberal Era. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. Print.
  • Kousemaker, Kees. “Comic Creator: Attilio Mussino.” Lambiek Comics. 2010. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. .
  • Lucas, Ann Lawson “Collodi, Carlo” The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Edited by Jack Zipes. Oxford University Press 2006. Ryerson University. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. .
  • Malchiodi, Alfredo. “Digital Library of Illuminated & Illustrated Books Online – Pinocchio – Attilio Mussino.” Digital Library of Illuminated Books Online. 2006. Web. 15 Nov. 2010. .
  • Perella, Nicolas J. “An Essay on Pinocchio.” Italica 63.1 (1986): 1-47.


About Lorraine Janzen Kooistra

Lorraine Janzen Kooistra is Professor of English at Ryerson University and Co-Director of the Centre for Digital Humanities. She works with illustrated Victorian periodicals at the intersection of the material and the digital, and is particularly interested in pictorial initials and textual ornaments.