Colapesce is the protagonist of various similar legends tracing back to the Twelfth century. The name is a contraction of Nicola Pesce (lit. “Nick the fish”), whose characteristic is to be able to stay underwater indefinitely, without any need to breathe.

Colapesce’s first stories are always rather sad: in one of them he dies when he is taken out of the sea to meet the king; in another he dives deeper and deeper to recover a precious item that keeps going overboard until he disappears forever; in the third he is a sort of undersea explorer who appears to sailors in the nighttime startling (and sometimes killing) them. In relatively modern times, Colapesce is the protagonist of two distinct sagas. Italo Calvino transcribed the most famous version, in which the boy is challenged by emperor Frederick the Second to dive deeper and deeper off the coast of Sicily to describe what lies under the island. Colapesce eventually sees that the triangle-shaped island is held up just by three columns, one of which is crumbling/almost consumed by the fires of the Etna volcano. To save his motherland, he then chooses to stay underwater, to hold the column together for all eternity. A variation has Colapesce come back to shore to report that the fires of the Etna are burning even under water. The emperor asks him for a proof, insisting even when he explains that he’d have to sacrifice himself to give him that proof. Eventually the boy deep-dives holding a piece of wood that floats back to shore all burnt up, but there is no trace of Colapesce anymore.

Another story from the Napoli area has the boy having fun by taking undersea rides… in the belly of giant fishes he lures to be swallowed whole. When Colapesce is satisfied he cuts the guts of the fish with his knife and goes back home, but his mother is so exasperated by his escapades that she curses him. As a result, the boy slowly turns into an actual fish himself, and he is forced to jump into the sea for one last time.