By Asia Leonardi
“Amor vicit omnia”, “love triumphs over all”, even with the most monstrous appearances, is what the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast seems to invoke, a tale that according to research by the University of Lisbon and Durham in 2016, could be more than four thousand years old. We know the famous re-representation of Disney, released in cinemas in 1991. In this film directed by Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise: a young, humble, beautiful girl in order to save her father, must live with a monstrous beast in an enchanted palace inhabited by talking objects. At stake is a fairy’s curse: the beast in reality was a young prince, a presumptuous narcissus who, punished for his arrogance, had been transformed into a beast: the ugliness of his soul manifested in the body, and the prince, horrified, locks himself in the castle, observing the world from a magic mirror. He would have been saved only if a girl, in love for his spirit and not for his appearance, would have kissed him.
In truth, the original story, written by Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve in 1740, differs a lot from Disney: in this version, there are no curses, nor enchanted objects, but we find elements of great literary and folk interest: magical elements, fantastic creatures, subplots that hint at a veiled criticism of the eighteenth-century patriarchy.
But even Madame de Villeneuve takes inspiration from the past: the theme of the fairy tale is certainly not new. Transformed into myths and stories, it traveled around the world: in the Indian Panchatantra, a collection of fairy tales transmitted orally until it found its exhibition written in 500 AD. We find it in The Woman Who Married a Snake; The French Beast, in Russia and China is a snake too (The Enchanted Tsarévich and The Fairy Serpent), while in Italian folklore it becomes a dragon (Zelinda and the Monster).
Probably, however, the celebrity of the theme is due to the Metamorphosis of Apuleius (late 2nd century AD), which is crowned by the tale of Cupid and Psyche.
The Ancient Myth of Cupid and Psyche
The myth of Cupid and Psyche narrates of a young girl, Psyche, so beautiful that she is called by the inhabitants of her village “Venus”. The goddess of love, jealous of her beauty, orders her son Cupid to shoot a fiery arrow to make the beautiful Psyche fall in love with a hideous man. Cupid, however, when the arrow strikes, stumbles and the dart hits his foot. He falls in love with the girl, and fearing the wrath of his mother, hides her in a castle, where he loved her fervently at night, while never revealing his face. Psyche, however, taken by indomitable curiosity, while her lover sleeps next to her, lights the candlelight to discover his face.
“the mildest of all creatures, the sweetest beast.”
Struck by such beauty, she inadvertently drops a drop of wax on the chest of Cupid who wakes up and, feeling gravely betrayed, abandons Psyche in the castle. After a series of trials submitted by Venus, Cupid and Psyche eventually reunite and marry.
Psyche, in a psychoanalytic key, symbolizes the rejection of submission of the female element, (more “weak”, more “fragile”), which passes through a jagged path in which the woman rebels to an asymmetric and odd relationship, to become independent, carrying out the fundamental passage for mature and conscious love, in which both man and woman are on the same level. Also in the Beauty and the Beast we find a similar symbology: Beauty rebels in every way, tries to escape from the castle; the moment when the Beast sets her free, she returns to him, of her own free will, to undertake the journey of adult and equal love.
Madame Villeneuve’s Version (1740)
In Madame Villeneuve’s tale the story begins with the birth of Beauty, daughter of the King of the Happy Island and a benevolent fairy. Her mother’s enemy was an evil fairy, who, intending to rule the kingdom, seduced her father, imprisoned her mother, and tried to kill the child, who was saved by entrusting her to the care of a rich merchant.
The merchant had five children: three boys and two girls, with whom Beauty grew up, distinguishing herself in grace and sweetness. The family grew up in luxury, but it was not long before it met with misfortune: a fleet of cargo ships owned by his father shipwrecked following a storm, and he found himself completely devoid of any wealth. However, there was a rumor that one ship had survived the shipwreck: with enthusiasm, the father prepared to leave and asked his sons and his daughters what they wished for as a gift on his return.
The boys asked for weapons and horses, the girls woven, jewels and precious stones; only Beauty remained unfailingly modest and asked for a single rose.
His father, when he arrived in town, discovered that the cargo of the ship had been stolen at the time it had docked. Mortified and embittered, the man was retreading home, but was caught in a violent storm, which forced him to seek refuge in an isolated castle in a forest. He knocked at the door and was received with all honors: new clothes, a delicious banquet, a warm bed. He was not, however, allowed to see the gentle master of the home, who had remained hidden throughout his stay.
The next morning, the merchant left the castle. Before, however, to resume the journey, he spotted a rose bush in the garden on the estate. Remembering the promise made to Bella, the merchant took the most beautiful rose but, caught in the act by the master, who showed himself in the sunlight with his beast features, he was taken prisoner in the castle.
The merchant begged to be let go, and the master agreed on one condition: he would have to return to the castle, he or one of his daughters, to remain there forever. The man accepted the agreement, was rewarded with jewels and with money, and went on his way.
Returning home, the merchant recounted his adventure: the sons volunteered to kill the Beast, but Beauty seated offered to leave for the castle. There she was treated like a queen: the Beast made her visit the entire estate, and made her a gift of jewels, clothes, and precious stones. Every evening, the Beast went to Beauty and asked her to marry him (and, no less explicitly, asked her to sleep with him), but the girl always rejected him, dreaming, in the night, of a young prince, who nevertheless advised her never to trust appearances.
Meanwhile, the Beast struggled against his feelings, unable to express them with sincerity and elegance (it is no coincidence that “Beast” in French is called “bête”, which also means “not very intelligent”).
As time passed, Beauty, seized with melancholy, asked the Beast to return home to visit her family: the Beast agreed, provided that Bella could only stay away a week, and not a day longer. He gave her a magic mirror, with which she would be able to see everything that happened in the castle, and a ring, which, if turned around her finger three times, would take her immediately to the castle.
Beauty was received at home with warmth by her brothers and especially by her father, but not by her sisters who, envious of her fine clothes and precious jewels, and having become aware of the agreement between her and the Beast, asked her to stay an extra day. Beauty did not know how to say no, but on the eighth day, seized with remorse, she used the magic mirror to look for the Beast, and saw him on the ground, dying, near the rose bush. Beauty turned the ring three times, finding herself next to the Beast. She held him, confessing his love to him, and when Beauty’s tear fell on the cheek of the Beast, he regained his human features, revealing himself to be the beautiful prince that Beauty had dreamed of.
The prince, no longer Beast, tells Beauty his story: he had lost his father in his youth, while his mother was engaged in a war to defend the kingdom. Left in the care of an evil fairy, she tried to seduce him, but failing, turned him into a Beast. The tale ends with the marriage of the young, happy couple.
The True Story Beyond the Fairy Tale?
In addition to the folkloric origins of the fairy tale, some academics argue that Madame de Villeneuve took her cue from a true story: the life of Petrus Gonsalvus.
Petrus was born in 1537 in Tenerife, a descendant of the “mencey“, the kings of the Guanches, aborigines of the Canary Islands, who were defeated and enslaved in the Spanish conquest of the late 1400’s. He suffered from congenital hypertrichosis, a genetic alteration that manifests with the excessive growth of hair on the whole body, even on the face. According to historical sources, Petrus, at the age of ten, was sold and sent as a “gift” from the Canaries to King Charles V of Habsburg, in the Netherlands, but during an incursion of French privateers into the sea, the boy was captured and brought as a wedding gift to Henry II of Valois, king of France.
In an era marked by great discoveries and the desire to possess everything bizarre and exotic, the rulers of Europe collected dwarfs, giants, aborigines to show ostentatiously to their guests. They became patrons of deformity and pathological dysfunction.
In the French court, the pathology that afflicted him aroused a lot of curiosity in Queen Catherine de’ Medici: she took care of providing her new “exotic jewel” the highest cultural education of the time, based on the study of Latin and humanistic disciplines, and Petrus became a gentleman. When Petrus reached the age of marriage, the Queen, with the idea of hosting at court a family of “civilized savages”, made sure to find him a wife, choosing the most beautiful among her court ladies: her name was Catherine Raffelin, who, it is said, fainted in horror at the sight of the young Petrus.
However, Petrus’s gentlemanly gifts, his kindness, and sensitivity, as well as his beautiful traits behind the down, melted Catherine’s heart, which over time began to appreciate the many positive aspects of her husband, and they turned out to be, all things considered, a happy union. Their improbable love gave birth to six children, four of whom had the same illness as their father. Their cases were studied by Ulisse Aldrovranti, a passionate naturalist of the time, and made known by Lavinia Fontana, a famous portraitist. During their life, they were never free but forced to turn from court to court and be exposed as freaks.
After the death of Catherine de’ Medici in 1589, and the fall of the Valois dynasty, Petrus Gonsalvus, and his family were sold to the Parmesan court of the Farnese, and on this occasion, one of Petrus’ daughters, the little Antoinette, known as Tognina, was given as a collector’s item to Isabella Pallavicino, Marquise of Soragna.
Petrus and Catherine then retreated to Capodimonte, on Lake Bolsena. She died in 1623, while Petrus died in 1618 at the age of 81. The details of his life are still kept in the Vatican Archives and the State Archives of Rome and Naples.
Petrus was a true gentleman: cultured, intelligent, well-educated. It should be noted, however, that the nickname with which he was always called was Barbet, from the Belgian shepherd dog characterized by thick, curly, and woolly hair. Not even his noble education was enough to free him from the stigma of “beast” and “monster”, which remained attached to him all his life.
It is with these terms that he and his sons are cataloged by the Italian naturalist Ulisse Aldrovandi in his compendium Monstrorum Historia: beings little more than beastly, but not entirely human.