true hero Malgherita Spolatina swam sea to Teodoro, her Leander

The “lovely and graceful {vaga e leggiadra}” woman-hero Malgherita Spolatina lived early in the sixteenth century on Midway Island off the coast of Ragusa. One day Malgherita noticed the hermit Teodoro begging for bread. The name Teodoro was from the Greek words “God’s gift {Θεόδωρος}.” Teodoro was a low-status man in the eyes of many and thus quite unlike the mythic Leander. Nonetheless, looking upon Teodoro with her female gaze, Malgherita saw that he was “beautiful and outstanding {bello e riguardevole}.” She gave him alms while burning in love for him.

Men historically have carried the gender burden of soliciting amorous relationship and enduring amorous rejection. With admirable concern for social justice, the strong, independent woman Malgherita Spolatina spoke boldly:

“Teodoro, brother and sole comfort of my soul, such is the passion that torments me that if you don’t help me, you’ll soon see me lifeless. Inflamed with love for you, no longer can I resist those amorous flames. So that you may not be the cause of my death, help me at once.” Having said these words, she began to weep intensely.

{ “Teodoro fratello, e solo refrigerio dell’anima mia, tanta è la passione che mi tormenta, che se voi non mi prestate aiuto, presto mi vederete di vita priva. Io, infiammata del vostro amore, non posso più resistere all’amorose fiamme. Ed acciò che voi di mia morte non siate cagione, mi prestarete subito soccorso”; e queste parole dette, si mise fortemente a piagnere. }[1]

Her behavior astonished the hermit Teodoro. Leaving aside “celestial things {cose celesti},” he conversed with her compassionately. They discussed love and agreed to engage in the act that perpetuates life.

Teodoro didn’t know how to arrange securely an affair. Malgherita thoughtfully proposed a plan:

My love, don’t worry. I’ll show you the way we must take. The way will be this. You this evening at ten o’clock at night will put a burning lamp in the window of your hut. Seeing it, I’ll immediately come to you.

{ Amor mio, non dubitate; che io vi dimostrerò il modo che avremo a tenere. Il modo sarà questo. Voi in questa sera a quattro ore di notte porrete un lume acceso alla finestra della capanna vostra; ed io, quello veduto, immantenenti verrommi a voi. }

The chastelaine de Vergi summoned her lover, belittled and dehumanized, by having a little dog run through her garden. Malgherita, in contrast, invited herself over to her man’s hut at a mutually agreed time. Moreover, with her plan she made reparations for the historical gender injustice long perpetrated in repeated retellings of the myth of Hero and Leander. Strong, independent women today have much to learn from Malgherita Spolatina.

Teodoro perceived a problem: the sea. His hut was on a rock protruding above the waves midway between Midway Island and Ragusa. Teodoro worried about his beloved Malgherita:

Ah! How will you manage, my little child, to cross the sea? You know that neither you nor I have a boat to ferry you across. To entrust yourself to the hands of another would be dangerous to the honor and life of us both.

{ Deh! come farai tu, figliuola mia, a passar il mare? Tu sai che nè io nè tu avemo navicella da traghiettare; e mettersi nell’altrui mani sarebbe molto pericoloso all’onore e alla vita d’ambiduo. }

She comforted him in his worry:

Don’t worry at all. Leave the burden to me, because I have found a way to come to you without danger to life or honor. Seeing the burning lamp, I will come to you by swimming. No one will know of our doings.

{ Non dubitate punto; lasciate il carico a me, perciò che io trovai la via di venire a voi senza pericolo di morte e di onore. Io, veduto il lume acceso, me ne verrò a voi nuotando; nè alcuno saprà i fatti nostri. }

Teodor was afraid for Malgherita:

There’s danger of you drowning in the sea, because you are young and have little endurance, and the way is long, and you could easily lose your breath and go under.

{ Egli è pericolo che non ti attuffi nel mare; perciò che tu sei giovanetta e di poca lena, e il viaggio è lungo, e ti potrebbe agevolmente mancare il fiato, e sommergerti. }

Malgherita was a hero confident in her ability and unafraid to take on what was Leander’s labor:

“I’m not afraid of maintaining my endurance,” replied the young woman. “I could swim in competition against a fish.”

{ Non temo, rispose la giovane, di non mantener la lena; perciò che io nuoterei a gara d’un pesce. }

Perceiving her strong will, Teodoro agreed to her plan.

Night came. In the dark Malgherita saw Teodoro’s burning lamp shining out in the sea. She rejoiced and went to the shore. There she took off all her clothes. She swept her hair to the top of her head and wrapped it in her slip. Then she pushed out into the water and swam strongly. In less than fifteen minutes she reached the hermit’s rock. He was there waiting for her. He took her by her hand and led her into his humble hut. He dried her all over with a towel as white as snow. They lay down together on his small bed and enjoyed “the ultimate fruits of love {ultimi frutti d’amore}.” After two hours of sweet conversations and embraces, she arranged to return to him and then swam home. Guided by the Teodoro’s lamp, Malgherita subsequently made many swims to be with him.

Malgherita and Teodoro embrace

One foggy night, fishermen saw a fish that they had never seen before. Eventually they recognized that the fish was a woman. They saw her get out of the water onto the rock and go into a hut. Intrigued, they rowed to the rock and hid there. After a long time they saw the young woman emerge from the hut and swim away. After observing several such nocturnal trips the fishermen recognized Malgherita, the signal of Teodoro’s burning lamp, and their love affair. Fearing that she might drown or bring dishonor to her family, the fishermen told Malgherita’s brothers everything.

Malgherita’s brothers internalized the misandry that drives today’s college sex police. They resolved that their sister must be killed for loving a man. The youngest brother went to Teodoro’s hut and asked for shelter for the night:

The hermit, who knew that it was Malgherita’s brother, kindly welcomed him and treated him affectionately. All that night Teodoro spent with him in varied conversation, declaring to him the miseries of this world and the grave sins that kill the soul and enslave it to the devil.

{ Il calogero, che conosceva lui esser fratello di Malgherita, benignamente il ricevette e carecciollo; e tutta quella notte stette seco in varii ragionamenti, dichiarandogli le miserie mondane ed e peccati gravi che mortificano l’anima e fannola serva del diavolo. }

Malgherita’s brother thus ensured that Teodoro didn’t hang his lamp to invite Malgherita to spend the night with him. Other of her brothers meanwhile went out in a boat with a pole and a lamp. When they were next to Teodoro’s rock, they set the lamp burning and hoisted it on the pole.

Malgherita saw that light and with delight jumped into the sea to swim to Teodoro. But her brothers gradually moved the light away from Teodoro’s rock. In the dark night Malgherita swam strongly, following the light. When the brothers had taken it out into the open sea and Malgherita had come near, they extinguished the burning lamp. Malgherita, tired from her long swim, was bewildered: “she gave herself up completely and like a broken ship, was swallowed by the sea {s’abbandonò del tutto, e, come rotta nave, fu ingiottita dal mare}.” The brothers left their downing sister in the middle of the sea and went home. They treated their sister’s life with the contempt that many men have felt for their own lives.

Three days later, Malgherita’s dead body washed up onto Teodoro’s rock. Recognizing it, Teodoro nearly killed himself in grief. But death isn’t the Christian triumph over death. This earthy hermit, undergoing conversion like the holy harlots of Christian history, cared for Malgherita’s dead body:

Taking her by an arm, with no one noticing, he dragged her out of the water and carried her into his house. Throwing himself upon her dead face, for a long time he wept and flooded her white breast with abundant tears, and many times called her in vain. But after he wept, he thought to give her a worthy burial and to help her soul with prayers, with fasts, and with other good deeds. And taking the spade with which he sometimes dug his little vegetable patch, he made a grave inside his little church. With many tears he closed her eyes and mouth. Making her a garland of roses and violets, he set it on her head. Then giving her a blessing and kissing her, he put her in the grave and covered her with earth.

{ presolo per un braccio, niuno però avedendosi, lo trasse fuori dell’onde, e portollo dentro in casa; e gettatosi sopra il morto viso, per lungo spazio lo pianse, e di abbondantissime lagrime il bianco petto coperse, assai volte in vano chiamandola. Ma poscia che ei ebbe pianto, pensò di darle degna sepoltura, ed aiutare con orazioni, con digiuni e con altri beni l’anima sua. E presa la vanga, con cui alle volte vangava il suo orticello, fece una fossa nella chiesetta sua, e con molte lagrime le chiuse gli occhi e la bocca: e fattale una ghirlanda di rose e viole, gliela pose in capo; indi datale la benedizione e basciatala, dentro la fossa la mise e con la terra la coperse. }

Malgherita died while defying the oppressive gender norms inculcated through the myth of Hero and Leander. Malgherita, a true hero, received a loving burial. She will be with her beloved Teodoro for the rest of his life.

Teodoro discovering his beloved Malgherita Spolatina dead on the seashore (Hero and Leander, gender-reversed)

Forget the myth of Hero and Leander. Tell and retell forever the story of Malgherita and Teodoro.

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Read more:


The above story is that of Giovanni (Zoan) Francesco Straparola, The Pleasant Nights {Le Piacevoli Notti}, Night 7, Story 2, told by the lady Fiordiana. The setting is factual. Ragusa is present-day Dubrovnik in Croatia, Midway Island is present-day Lopud (Middle Isle), and the hermit’s rocky island is called Skupielli or Donzella in Italian. The hermit’s island is about 800 meters south-east of Lopud.

Waters declared Straparola’s story of Malgherita and Teodoro to be “the finest of the whole collection”:

It is rarely one meets with anything told which such force and sincerity; yet, in placing before his readers this vivid picture of volcanic passion and ruthless revenge, Straparola uses the simplest treatment and succeeds à merveille.

Waters (1894) vol. 1, p. xxi. Both “volcanic passion” and “ruthless revenge” seem to me exaggerated characterizations that obscure the wry humor of this story.

The gender reversal in this story relative to the myth of Hero and Leander isn’t just a matter of the gender of the lover who swims and dies. The dialog between Malgherita and Teodoro also includes gender-reversed characterization. That suggests a literary work responding in a gender-transgressive way to the widely distributed myth of Hero and Leander. The specific setting provides a motive for a love swim like that of Leander. The inserted matter of family honor and somewhat implausible fraternal treachery might be understood as poor-dearism included to increase the story’s popular appeal. With respect to Straparola responding to the myth of Hero and Leander, Beecher unconvincingly declared:

Such a means of genesis appears remote. Thus, without a literary source or comparative folk versions, the story must be granted local currency in a form only to be imagined from the present tale. … But the story is so finely conceived that it becomes implausible that its author left no more in kind. Inclination thus favours a tragic legend collectively generated that Straparola first and alone captured for posterity, or a contemporary bit of Venetian colonial news that caught his imagination and died with the following few imitators.

Beecher (2012) vol. 2, p. 99. Beecher thus classified the story as “oral / popular” and declared, “perhaps a local legend gave rise to the present work.” Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 88, vol. 2, p. 100. The myth of Hero and Leander seems to me more probable than Beecher’s unattested, perhaps legend.

On the myth of Hero and Leander, Montiglio (2017) and Murdoch (2019). Both Montiglio and Murdoch mention Straparola’s tale. Murdoch observed, “the reversal of gender-roles and the sexually aggressive Malgherita are surprising.” Id. p. 79. Literary scholars seem unwilling to appreciate stories fundamentally challenging their dominant master narratives.

Straparola, who was born in Caravaggio, Italy, lived from about 1480 to 1558. His two-volume Le Piacevoli Notti was originally published in Venice in 1550 (vol. 1) and 1553 (vol. 2). Recounted under the rule of a lady (Signora), it contains 73 stories told over thirteen nights among ladies and gentlemen gathered at the Venetian palace of Ottaviano Maria Sforza. They took refuge there from political turmoil in Milan. Straparola’s story collection thus has a form similar to Boccaccio’s Decameron. With respect to some of Straparola’s stories, Bottigheimer credits him with creating the “modern fairy tale.” Bottigheimer (2002). For a critique of Bottigheimer’s argument, Ziolkowski (2010).

Straparola’s Le Piacevoli Notti has been extensively distributed. Fifteen editions of the Italian text were produced by 1570, and twenty-four editions by 1610. A French translation appeared in 1572, a German translation in 1575, and a Spanish translation in 1578. Smarr (1983) p. 158, Beecher (2012) vol. 1, p. 80.

The quotes above are from Le Piacevoli Notti 7.2, Italian text from Rua (1899) vol. 2, pp. 48-54, English translation (modified slightly) from Smarr (1983) pp. 189-93. For a freely available English translation, Waters (1894). Beecher (2012) is revised version of Water’s translation, along with an extensive introduction, notes, and commentary for each story.

[image] (1) Malgherita and Teodoro embrace on the shore of his rocky island. Illustration by Jules Arsene Garnier in Waters (1901) vol. 3, between pp. 28-9. This illustration isn’t included in Waters (1994). (2) Malgherita Spolatina dead on the shore of her beloved hermit Teodoro’s rocky island. Illustration by E. R. Hughes in Waters (1894), vol. 2, between pp. 54-5.


Beecher, Donald and W. G. Waters, trans. 2012. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Pleasant Nights. 2 vols. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Bottigheimer, Ruth B. 2002. Fairy Godfather: Straparola, Venice, and the fairy tale tradition. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania.

Montiglio, Silvia. 2017. The Myth of Hero and Leander: the history and reception of an enduring Greek legend. London: I.B. Tauris. (Hardin’s review)

Murdoch, Brian. 2019. The Reception of the Legend of Hero and Leander. Brill’s Companions to Classical Reception, volume 19. Leiden: Brill.

Rua, Giuseppe. 1899. Le piacevoli notti di M. Giovanfrancesco Straparola da Caravaggio nelle quali si contengono le favole con i loro enimmi da dieci donne e duo giovani raccontate. 2 vols. Bologna: Romagnoli-Dall’ Acqua. Alternate presentation of 1927 edition.

Smarr, Janet Levarie, trans.. 1983. Italian Renaissance Tales: Selected and Translated, with an Introduction. Rochester, MI: Solaris Press.

Waters, W.G., trans. 1894. Giovanni Francesco Straparola. The Nights. Vol. 1. Vol. 2. London: Lawrence and Bullen. Alternate presentation: vol. 1, vol. 2.

Waters, W. G., trans. 1901. The Italian Novelists. 7 vols. Vols. 1-4, The Facetious Nights of Straparola. Vols. 5-7, The Pecorone of Ser Giovanni. Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. London: Privately printed for members of the Society of Bibliophiles.

Ziolkowski, Jan M. 2010. “Straparola and the fairy tale: between literary and oral traditions.” Journal of American FolkLore. 123 (490): 377-397.

2 thoughts on “true hero Malgherita Spolatina swam sea to Teodoro, her Leander”

  1. Dear Douglas Galbi, I agree completely that the obvious source for this tale is probably a gender-reversed Hero and Leander, although possibly there was also some local case framed to converge with the famous myth. Anyone familiar with the tale of Hero and Leander would immediately think of it when reading this story.
    However, I don’t find the brothers’ action “completely implausible.” On the contrary, it was a way to punish their sister’s dishonoring of the family while making her death seem like an accident, so as not to get themselves potentially embroiled with the law. I’m sure they felt very clever and satisfied.
    Three typos to correct: Ragasu (Ragusa), e fatti nostri (i fatti nostri –but check the text), Dubrovkik (Dubrovnik)

  2. Dear Professor Smarr,
    Thanks for your careful reading. My calling the brothers’ action “completely implausible” was an exaggeration. Out of respect for your literary authority I’ve changed that to “somewhat implausible” and made the sentence less categorical. I believe that most brothers love their sisters very much and would never intentionally harm them. If a sister got into dangerous situation, I think most brothers would try to help their sister and protect her as best they could.

    Thanks also for pointing out the typos. I’ve corrected them. The phrase “e fatti nostri” apparently was a misprint in the 1899 edition of Rua, corrected in the 1926 edition.

    Most of all, thanks for your book Italian Renaissance Tales. Your book informatively and enjoyably documents the rich history of Italian prose storytelling. It deserves to be widely read!

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