From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 7.1 (1987): 3-12.
Copyright © 1987, The Cervantes Society of America


The Italian Origins of the Episode of Don Quijote and Maritornes


IT IS WELL KNOWN to students of Don Quijote that in his use of source materials Cervantes follows procedures very distinct from those of his contemporaries. Whereas it is relatively easy to identify the influence of Italian storytellers upon a Mateo Alemán or a Lope de Vega, for example, it is quite a different matter to establish such influence in the case of Cervantes. Thus, while scholars have long known that Alemán based his story of “Don Luis de Castro y don Rodrigo de Montalvo” upon Masuccio Salernitano's forty-first novella,1 and that Lope's El castigo sin venganza derives from Matteo Bandello's Novelle I, 44, 2 Cervantes is not generally considered to have taken any significant episode of Don Quijote from an Italian novelliere. I believe that the reason for this is not that Cervantes eschewed the use of Italian material, but that he handled his sources in a manner that is much more difficult to detect.
     Briefly stated, whilst Alemán or Lope —like most writers of the day, including Shakespeare— tended to preserve intact relatively large portions of plots from their models, Cervantes would appropriate considerably smaller fragments. The normal procedure for a Golden Age writer was to modify the accessory details of a borrowed tale —to

     1 The source of Alemán's story (Guzmán de Alfarache, II, i, 4) was pointed out by John C. Dunlop, The History of Fiction, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: J. Ballantyne, 1816), II, 395.
     2 Although this has been known at least since Adolf Schaeffer's Geschichte des spanischen Nationaldramas, I (Leipzig: Brockhaus, 1890), 88, the matter has still not been exhaustively studied; I shall do this in the near future.



change the narrative viewpoint, to add or delete characters and minor episodes, to expand the action by engrafting another story upon the main plot, and nearly always to alter the names and nationalities of the characters, as well as the historical and geographic settings. However, most authors normally left untouched the basic kernel of their model, the central plot that differentiates one story from another. The originality of Cervantes was that, in addition to making the usual modifications, he typically changed the very heart of the borrowed tale, thereby rendering it into a different story, or at least one with a new focus. Consequently, given Cervantes' tendency to modify fundamentally the structure of his narrative sources, it becomes much harder to recognize those works which inspired him. Let us illustrate this principle with a study of the origins of one of the funniest episodes in the Quijote, that of the hero's amorous encounter with the remarkably ugly Asturian servant girl named Maritornes (I, 16).


     It will be recalled that in Part I, chapter 15, the usually sedate Rocinante succumbs to an attack of lechery, and assails a herd of mares that express no interest whatsoever in his libido; the upshot is that both Rocinante and his owner (along with Sancho), who defends him, are roundly cudgeled by the Yanguesan proprietors of the señoras facas. Rocinante's uncharacteristic departure from chaste decorum foreshadows an equally disastrous loss of restraint in his owner in the following chapter. Arriving at the inn of the high-spirited Juan Palomeque, Don Quijote and Sancho are cared for by the innkeeper's kindly wife, their handsome daughter, and Maritornes. Significantly, although Don Quijote will be smitten by the good looks of the host's daughter, the narrator focuses his attention upon the rare loathsomeness of the lowly serving maid:

Servía en la venta asimesmo una moza asturiana, ancha de cara, llana de cogote, de nariz roma, del un ojo tuerta y del otro no muy sana. Verdad es que la gallardía del cuerpo suplía las demás faltas: no tenía siete palmos de los pies a la cabeza, y las espaldas, que algún tanto le cargaban, la hacían mirar al suelo más de lo que ella quisiera.3

     3 Don Quijote, ed. Francisco Rodríguez Marín, 10 vols. (Madrid: Atlas, 1947-49), I, 419-21. All citations refer to this edition  (I make occasional modifications of punctuation and spelling).

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Evidently, our author is establishing a contrastive parallel between Maritornes and her young mistress: if the latter stands out for her beauty, the former excels in her unloveliness. The analogy continues shortly hereafter: we are first informed that Maritornes has agreed to an amorous rendezvous with a muledriver for that night (pp. 425-26), and then we learn that Don Quijote —who is sharing accommodations with the muleteer in the loft— has become infatuated with the daughter and lies awake in the dark, imagining that she returns his passion and will come to “yacer con é1 una buena pieza” (p. 429), just as sometimes happened in his beloved books of chivalry. (Don Quijote's lasciviousness is emphasized in the phrase “tenía los ojos abiertos como liebre” [p. 428]: while it is true that, as Rodríguez Marín observes, “opinión vulgar muy antigua es que las liebres duermen con los ojos abiertos . . . por el mucho temor que tienen a los cazadores . . .” [p. 428, note 7], it is also the case that rabbits and hares are standard symbols of lechery.) So if the humble muleteer impatiently awaits the visit of the frightfully ugly Maritornes, Don Quijote dreams of an equally unchaste tryst with the alluring daughter. Therefore, when the obliging Asturian maid appears in the loft, stumbling in the dark, she represents a dream come true both to the uncouth mule skinner and to the gentle knight who believes that he is in a castle, and that his noble host's offspring has come to his bed.
     The ensuing scene is one of the most hilarious in the novel and constitutes good justification to those few readers (the present one included) who profess to enjoy Part I of Don Quijote even more than Part II. As Maritornes tiptoes in, trying mightily to make as little noise as possible, the superannuated cavalier grabs her, forcefully seats her upon his cot, and proceeds to launch into a discourse about how he will preserve at all costs his chastity for Dulcinea del Toboso, all the while continuing to fondle her. For our purposes of pointing out Cervantes' sources of inspiration for the scene, several particulars need to be stressed:

1) absolute darkness reigns in Juan Palomeque's loft: “en toda [la venta] no había otra luz que la que daba una lámpara que colgada en medio del portal ardía” (p. 428). This explains why Maritornes cannot see where she is going, and why Don Quijote can confuse her exquisite ugliness with heavenly beauty;

2) Maritornes makes every possible effort to conserve the prevailing silence : “en toda la venta estaba en silencio . . .” (p . 428), “la asturiana . . . con tácitos y atentados pasos, entró en el asposento . . .” (pp. 430-31), “la asturiana . . . toda recogida y callando . . . sin que ella osase hablar palabra . . .” (p . 431), “Maritornes . . . procuraba, sin hablar palabra, desasirse” (p. 433);


3) emphasis is placed upon Maritornes' nightshirt, humble though it may be: “la asturiana . . . en camisa . . . entró . . .” (pp. 430-31), “[Don Quijote] tentóle luego la camisa, y aunque ella era de harpillera, a él le parecía ser de finísimo y delgado cendal” (p. 431);

4) Cervantes repeatedly accentuates the stark contrast between the image of celestial beauty that Don Quijote preserves in his mind's eye while holding in his arms the very embodiment of bestial deformity; the author cites a series of objects and characteristics belonging to Maritornes, together with the knight's diametrically-opposed perception of them. The first item alluded to is the maid's shift, just described in number 3 above (“era de harpillera, a é1 le parecía . . . delgado cendal”); then follows:

     Traía en las muñecas unas cuentas de vidro; pero a él le dieron vislumbres de preciosas perlas orientales. Los cabellos, que en alguna manera tiraban a crines, él los marcó por hebras de lucidísimo oro de Arabia, cuyo resplandor al del mesmo sol escurecía. Y el aliento, que sin duda alguna olía a ensalada fiambre y trasnochada, a él le pareció que arrojaba de su boca un olor suave y aromático; y finalmente, él la pintó en su imaginación de la misma traza y modo que lo había leído en sus libros de la otra princesa . . . . Y era tanta la ceguedad del pobre hidalgo, que el tacto, ni el aliento, ni otras cosas que traía en sí la buena doncella, no le desengañaban, las cuales pudieran hacer vomitar a otro que no fuera arriero; antes le parecía que tenía entre sus brazos a la diosa de la hermosura. (Pp. 431-32)

     In summary, then, the essence of the mirthful episode of Maritornes' encounter with Don Quijote consists in the fact that the knight makes love to her (in his own limited way) in total darkness and silence (broken only by his amorous prating), and because of this murk Don Quijote believes that he is enjoying the company of the ravishing beauty with whom he is presently enamored, while in reality he is only with the horribly homely servant of that lovely creature. Of course, no serious sexual contact takes place between the two, and their chance meeting comes about only because Don Quijote's imaginary tryst with Juan Palomeque's daughter happens to coincide in time and space with the more mundane rendezvous arranged by Maritornes and the muleteer. As is usual in Don Quijote, the knight (and his amazed squire, who has been quietly sleeping) will suffer considerable physical reprisals for his comparatively innocent amorous escapade.


     The plot outline sketched in the first sentence of the previous paragraph, the backbone of the Maritornes episode, was doubtless familiar to Cervantes through novelle by the two Italian storytellers

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whose collections were most widely read both in their native country and in Spain: Giovanni Boccaccio and Matteo Bandello.4 However, their versions of the tale present basic divergences from the adaptation by Cervantes. In the Decameron VIII, 4, the plot unfolds in the following manner:

     An attractive young widow resides in Fiesole with her two brothers. The elderly rector of the cathedral falls in love with her and importunes her whenever she enters his church. She finally loses patience and plots revenge with her brothers: one day she pretends to accede to the rector's desire to foregather at her home, but specifies that the interview must be conducted in the utmost silence and obscurity, because her brothers occupy the next room. The widow then persuades her maid, who is old and frightfully ugly, to sleep with the priest, in exchange for a fine new nightshirt. The servant gladly agrees, and the rector spends an exhausting night with her, believing that he is in the arms of the comely widow. The brothers call in the bishop to witness the activities of his rector; the latter is punished both by his superior and by the knowledge that he slept with such a hideous hag.

     The story develops somewhat differently in Bandello's novella II, 47 (although it is obvious that it derives from Boccaccio's):

     A pretty married lady of Milan is constantly annoyed by a simple and prim young man. She eventually tires of his advances and plots revenge with her husband: one day the latter feigns to leave the city, and the youth is invited by the lady to spend the night with her, although in darkness and quiet, because of her many domestics. In fact, the lover repeatedly possesses a filthy old maidservant of the lady; upon discovering the deception, the youth departs in disgust, never to bother the gentlewoman again.

     It will be evident that the stories of Boccaccio and Bandello are fundamentally different from the Maritornes episode, in that they present importunate lovers who are punished by ladies who do not

     4 For Boccaccio and Bandello in Italy, see Letterio di Francia, Novellistica, 2 vols. (Milano: Vallardi, 1924-25), chaps. 2 and 7. Marcelino Menéndez y Pelayo correctly observed that “De todos los novelistas italianos Mateo Bandello fue el más leído y estimado por los españoles después de Boccaccio y el que mayor número de argumentos proporcionó a nuestros dramáticos” (Orígenes de la novela, 4 vols. [Santander: Aldus, 1943], III, 34). To cite a single example, Lope is known to have taken parts of some 23 plays from Bandello, but only nine from Boccaccio; see my “Lope de Vega's El mejor alcalde, el rey: Its Italian Novella Sources and Its influence upon Manzoni's I promessi sposi,” MLR, 80 (1985), 610. But Menéndez y Pelayo shared the general belief that “Cervantes . . . nunca imita a Boccaccio directamente . . . (loc. cit., p. 27).


return their passion. What Cervantes has done, then, is to eliminate that very important section of the tale in which the woman is pursued by an unwanted suitor, and plots her revenge by making the substitution of her repugnant servant.5 Nevertheless, the remainder of Cervantes' narrative coincides exactly with those of Boccaccio and Bandello, for in all three a lovestricken swain believes that he is disporting himself with the handsome object of his affections, when actually he lies abed with the grotesquely ugly maidservant of his mistress. All three narratives agree in the further particulars that the amorous interview takes place under conditions of strict silence and darkness, which contribute greatly to the suitor's confusion of beauty with beastliness —the main focus of humor in the stories.
     Moreover, Cervantes has in common with Boccaccio the details of the advanced age of the infatuated wooer, and stress upon the maid's nightshirt. Additional similarities appear in the respective descriptions of the singular physiognomy of each servant:


     Aveva questa donna una sua fante, la quale non era però troppo giovane, ma ella aveva il più brutto viso e il più contraffatto che si vedesse mai: ché ella aveva il naso schiacciato forte e la bocca torta e le labbra grosse e i denti mal composti e grandi, e sentiva del guercio, né mai era senza mal d'occhi, con un color verde e giallo che pareva che non a Fiesole ma a Sinagaglia avesse fatta la state, e oltre a tutto questo era sciancata e un poco monca dal lato destro; e il suo nome era Ciuta, e perché così cagnazzo viso aveva, da ogni uomo era chiamata Ciutazza; e benché ella fosse contraffatta della persona, ella era pure alquanto maliziosetta.6

     5 Neither Boccaccio nor Bandello seem to be bothered by the circumstances that noble and beautiful ladies do not usually employ ugly and slovenly maids, and that chaste women are not likely to induce their maids to engage in casual sex. Still, such occurrences are not beyond the realm of possibility, and moreover, are totally necessary for the evolution of the tales. —Lope had introduced a variant of this Italian novella in La bella malmaridada (1596).
     6 Decameron, in Tutte le opere, IV, ed. Vittore Branca (Milan: Mondadori, 1976), p. 694, §§21-22. “This lady had a maidservant who was not too young, but she had the ugliest and most misshapen face that was ever seen: for her nose was very flat and her mouth twisted and her lips thick and her teeth ill-placed and large, and she suffered from being one-eyed, neither was she free from eye disease, with a greenish and yellowish color that made it seem that she hadn't spent the summer at Fiesole, but at Sinagaglia [an area known for its malaria], and in addition to all this she was lame and a little halting on the right side, and her name was Ciuta, and because her [p. 9] face was so greenish-yellow [also cur-like], everyone called her Ciutazza; and although she was deformed in her body, still she was somewhat tricky” (my translation, as elsewhere).

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     Avevano in casa una donna attempata che si chiamava Togna, la quale era di circa sessanta anni e lavava in cucina le scudelle ed altri vasi e nodriva alquanti porci e le galline, e sempre era unta e bisunta e putiva da ogni canto come fanno i solfarini. Aveva l'unghie . . . con tanto grasso e mal nette sotto che averebbe ingrassata una caldaia di cavoli. Era poi guercia da un occhio, con la tigna in capo, e l'altro occhio di continovo gli colava, e sempre la bocca era bavosa, con un fiato puzzolente sovra modo . . .  [Aveva] il petto e le poppe lunghe e grosse e . . . ruvide e corte e gonfie mani . . .7

     Although these portraits belong to the medieval tradition known as vituperatio,8 and therefore possess certain generic similarities, it nevertheless seems clear that from Boccaccio's description Cervantes took the detail of the flat nose (“nariz roma,” “il naso schiacciato forte”, and that Maritornes' hunchback (“las espaldas, que algún tanto le cargaban, la hacían mirar al suelo más de lo que ella quisiera”) corresponds roughly to the lameness of her Italian counterpart (“era sciancata e un poco monca dal lato destro”), especially since both infirmities are twice (i.e., redundantly) described by each author. Furthermore, all three maids share one peculiarly endearing trait: they are at the same time one-eyed and blear-eyed (“del un ojo tuerta y del otro no muy sana,” “sentiva del guercio, né mai era senza mal d'occhi,” “era poi guercia da un occhio, e . . . l'altro occhio di continovo gli colava”).

     7 Novelle, ed. Giuseppe Guido Ferrero (Turin: Unione Tipografico Editrice Torinese, 1974), pp. 634, 636. “They had in their home an old lady named Togna, who was near sixty years old and in the kitchen washed dishes and pots and tended to some pigs and the chickens, and she was always greasy and filthy and stank all over like sulphur matches. Her nails were . . . so covered with grease and so unclean underneath that she could have furnished enough grease for a kettle of cabbage. She was blind in one eye, with mange on her head, and her other eye continuously dripped, and her mouth always slobbered, and she had uncommonly fetid breath . . . Her chest and breasts were long and large and . . . her hands were rough and short and swollen . . .”
     8 See Ernst Robert Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages ( New York: Harper, 1963), p. 182, n. 37, and Edmond Faral, Les Arts poétiques du XIIe et du XIIIe siècle (Paris: Champion, 1923), pp. 76-77. In “The Several Faces of Ugliness in Medieval Castilian Literature,” La Corónica, 7 (1978-79), [p. 10] 80-92, Harriet Goldberg shows that there were no universal characteristics of unloveliness. Nonetheless, the texts that she reproduces tend to repeat certain traits: hairiness, darkness, coarse skin (particularly on the stomach!), ugly teeth, and either excessive size (especially in the breasts) or great thinness. It will be appreciated that Maritornes does not conform to these Castilian tendencies, but stands closer to the grotesqueness of Ciutazza and Togna. Maritornes' shortness is not paralleled in either of these maids, but it does occur in another of Boccaccio's unglamorous servants, who is “grassa e grossa e piccola e mal fatta . . .” (VI, 10, §21 [“fleshy (also lewd) and fat and short and ill-formed . . .”]).


     If the ridiculous love scenes are basically identical in all three authors, the details just enumerated have shown specific influences of Boccaccio upon Cervantes. To these concrete coincidences can be added yet another verbal similarity: when Cervantes says “verdad es que la gallardía del cuerpo suplía las demás faltas,” we are led by the usual rules of rhetoric to expect some positive qualities to be enumerated next, to offset the negative ones presented so far, but then the author humorously proceeds to state that poor Maritornes is likewise very short and hunchbacked. The same rhetorical trick occurs twice in Boccaccio, once at the beginning of the vituperatio and again at the end: “una sua fante . . . non era però troppo giovane, ma ella aveva il più brutto viso e il più contraffatto che si vedesse mai” (as pointed out by Branca and other annotators, the ma leads one to expect an enumeration of counterbalancing positive characteristics, rather than more negative ones), and “benché ella fosse contraffatta della persona, ella era pure alquanto maliziosetta” (the initial allusion to physical defects makes us expect a listing of offsetting spiritual attributes). Finally, the fact that Maritornes is from Asturias, whose inhabitants supposedly lack a cogote, or nape, may have been suggested to Cervantes by Boccaccio's observation that Ciutazza seemed to be from Sinagaglia, because of her abnormal color.
     There are, then, numerous close resemblances of detail that appear to prove beyond doubt that Cervantes had the Decameron text in mind while penning the description of Maritornes. But there are likewise near affinities of thought and expression that leave little doubt that Cervantes also recalled Bandello's story while describing Don Quijote's chance meeting with the maid in Juan Palomeque's loft. Moreover, these similarities occur in two contiguous sentences in both texts, although their order has been reversed by Cervantes. Above (§I, number 4), we saw that the narrator of Don Quijote cites

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several examples of bodily defects in Maritornes which seem to the lovestruck knight to be so many earthly perfections. The last of these is the Asturian maid's breath, and then follows a recapitulation of the entire scene:

     Y el aliento que, sin duda alguna, olía a ensalada fiambre y trasnochada, a él le pareció que arrojaba de su boca un olor suave y aromático; y finalmente, él la pintó en su imaginación de la misma traza y modo que lo había leído en sus libros de la otra princesa . . . . (Pp. 431-32).

     Compare these two sentences from Bandello:

     Ben si può dire che in lui faceva l'imaginazione il caso9: aveva la Togna duo labroni grossi da schiava e il fiato fieramente le putiva; nondimeno a l'innamorato Simpliciano parve la più delicata bocca e i più dolci labri e il più soave fiato che trovar si potesse . . . .10 (P. 636).

While Cervantes ends his description of Don Quijote's lovemaking with a statement about how the latter's imagination blinded his senses, Bandello begins his account with a corresponding declaration about the power of the immaginazione. And the similar assertions about the putrid breath of Maritornes and Togna —an aspect absent from Boccaccio's vituperatio— would seem to clinch the case for the influence of Bandello's portrait upon Cervantes, despite the fact that sweet things have been said about the exhalations of lovely women since the time of Solomon.11

     9in lui faceva l'imaginazione il caso: in lui l'immaginazione creava il fatto, egli credeva a quello che immaginava” (note of G. Ferrero).
     10 “It can be truly said that his imagination made him believe what he wanted to believe: Togna had two thick lips like those of a [Negro] slave and her breath stank mightily; nevertheless it seemed to the enamored Simpliciano the daintiest mouth and the sweetest lips and the most exquisite breath that could be found . . .”
     11 In the Song of Songs, the lover says to his wife: “Thy lips, o my spouse, drop as the honeycomb: honey and milk are under thy tongue . . . “ and “thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples; and the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved, that goeth down sweetly . . .” (4:11 and 7:8-9, King James version). In “El licenciado Vidriera” (in Novelas ejemplares, ed. F. Rodríguez Marín, II [Madrid: Clásicos Castellanos, 1975], 49), the deranged student mocks the poets who say of their ladies that “su aliento era de puro ámbar, almizcle y algalia . . .”: Cervantes' reference here may well be to Lope, in La Arcadia (ed. Edwin S. Morby [Madrid: Castalia, 1975], pp. 93, 102, 192, 263). Although the motif [p. 12] of the lovely lady's perfumed breath may have become a poetic commonplace in Spain by this time, the close similarity to thought and expression in both of Cervantes' sentences to those of Bandello make it exceedingly probable that he had this Italian text —as well as Boccaccio's— in mind when he composed this episode.


     It would seem, then, that we have established that in the Maritornes episode Cervantes took inspiration from the two novellieri whose stories were most popular in Spain during the seventeenth century. To a certain extent, students of Cervantes may feel relieved to know that it has finally been shown that Don Quijote coincides with other great masterpieces of the Golden Age, from Lazarillo de Tormes to El castigo sin venganza, in that it draws upon the Italian Novella. The difference with Cervantes is that he conceals his borrowings by fundamentally altering their narrative structure. But an experienced eye can still discern the origins of these plots: not for nothing did Tirso de Molina call Cervantes “nuestro español Bocacio.”12


     12 Cigarrales de Toledo, ed. Víctor Saíd Armesto (Madrid: Renacimiento, 1913), pp. 135-36. In “Cervantes and the Decameron: A Note on the Sources and Meaning of Don Quijote's Prototypical Chivalric Adventure (I, 50),” Cervantes, 5 (1985), 141-47, I show that Cervantes also used elements from Boccaccio's novella VIII, 10.

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