The most translated Italian book, published in over 240 different languages, happens to be the fairytale story of Pinocchio, the living marionette. This notwithstanding, most people immediately associate the character with the Disney animation movie or – if you are of Eastern origins – with the “reimagining” written by the russian author Aleksey Tolstoj. Unfortunately, they are both less than faithful to the original book, which was written in 1881 by Carlo Lorenzini, better known as “Collodi”, which is in fact the name of the village in Tuscany where he lived. Collodi wrote Storia di un burattino (literally: ‘A hand puppet’s story’) for the children supplement of a local newspaper, in the form of a feuilleton, or serialized novelette. The very fact that the original title gets the main character wrong – he is a marionette, not a hand puppet after all – says a lot about the consideration the author had for the story. In fact, it is widely known that it was written strictly to pay the bills.

The writer was so disinterested in Pinocchio that he actually tried to kill it as quickly as possible. The novel originally ended much earlier, with the protagonist hanged by the neck. The current, happy-ending structure was only added after a huge protest by the readers, who couldn’t bear to see their hero writ off like that. To understand this strange situation you need to take into account the state of children’s literature in that age. Kids’ tales were not all soft and cuddly as they are today, but were mostly thought of as cautionary tales to teach youngsters of the dangers of the world. They were “educational” horror stories, really, whose message was to conform, behave and lay low in order to survive.

Pinocchio does follow the same format. The naughty protagonist is surrounded chapter after chapter by monsters, violence, death and outright evil from which even magic – in the form of the blue-haired fairy – cannot shield the character. The only problem is that Collodi hated the message he was paid to spread. Looking closely at the story, it’s easy to notice an underlying picaresque story for grownups: the authorities and “proper” people look positively deranged, while the shrewd scoundrel is the only believable character of the book. This is exactly what won the readers’ hearts, and what is in fact played up by most later retellings. Originally though the book was labelled as outright subversive – so much that it wasn’t allowed in most bourgeois houses as it was deemed unfit for children.

The rebellious nature of Pinocchio clearly struck a chord anyway. In the end Collodi did add a happy ending, and the character became a symbol of carefree youth, of the importance of an ethical upbringing, and the source of countless proverbs and tropes all over the world. It is just a shame that, to actually get to know the original story, you have to dig up ancient original printings, or a rare faithful translation. Another possibility is to visit Collodi (the place) itself, and walk through a fascinating “Pinocchio park” filled with statues and landmarks telling the unadulterated tale. Or, of course, “rebelliously” pick a number of retellings and mix and match the story that better suits you – there even are a few where Pinocchio is portrayed as a Christic allegory, Japanese anime series, science fiction versions, ballets, musicals, comics and so on. Our suggestion? If you know Italian, go for the 1977 album Burattino senza fili by Edoardo Bennato: it is a rock masterpiece including many operatic and baroque interludes, in which the evergreen song Il gatto e la volpe (‘cat and fox’) first appeared.