“Cenerentola” by Giambattista Basile

Retold by TQ Townsend

There once was a Prince who was a widower. He had one daughter called Zezolla, and she was dearer to him than anything. The little princess had a governess, who helped to look after her and teach her. The governess was very caring and attentive, so much so that Zezolla told her that she wished she could be her mother. With this idea in her head, the governess said to Zezolla, “if you will do as I say, then I can truly be your mother. You should tell her father about your wish. He would do anything for you — even mint false coins if you asked him to. So tell him that he should marry me, for he will. And I will give you every wonderful thing.”

Zezolla waited until the time of mourning for her mother had passed, and then she began to do as the governess had instructed her. At first her father thought that she was only joking, but soon he saw that his beloved daughter was quite serious. So he did marry the governess, and had a splendid feast at the wedding.

As the wedding guests danced, Zezolla stood and watched. But then a dove flew near and perched close by her, saying “If you ever find yourself in need of anything, just send a message to the Dove of the Fairies on the Island of Sardinia, and you will be given whatever you ask for.”

For almost a week after the wedding the governess kept her promise. She gave Zezolla the best place at the table and dressed her in the finest clothing. But then she suddenly revealed that she had been a widow, and had six daughters of her own that she had never spoken of before. She praised them so much and had so much influence over her new husband that soon the Prince forgot entirely about Zezolla and instead gave all of his love to his stepdaughters. Zezolla’s life grew worse day by day. Her fine clothes were taken away. Then she was banished from her royal rooms to the kitchen. Her stepmother and stepsisters even took away her name, calling her Cenerentola — Ash Girl — because her heavy housework left her so dirty.

The Prince was due to travel to the island of Sardinia on affairs of state. He asked his six stepdaughters what gifts he could find for them there, and they all asked for fine gowns, headdresses, and rouge. Then the Prince turned to his own daughter and asked her in a mocking tone, “and what would you like, Cenerentola?” The girl answered, “Nothing, Father, but that you would commend me to the Dove of the Fairies. And do not forget my request, or you will find that you will be unable to go forwards or backwards.”

The Prince went away to Sardinia, conducted his business, and bought all of the lovely things his stepdaughters asked for. He boarded his ship to go home, but the captain found that it was stuck fast in the harbor. The Prince realized that this was because he had not kept his promise to his daughter. So he disembarked from the ship and went to the Grotto of the Fairies. There he was greeted by a beautiful maiden, who thanked him for relaying his daughter’s kind wishes, and in return she sent four gifts for Cenerentola: a young date-tree, a golden hoe, a golden bucket, and a silken napkin. With these treasures in hand, the Prince’s ship was at last able to return home.

When Cenerentola received these gifts, she was overjoyed. She carefully planted the little palm in a beautiful pot, used the little hoe to keep the soil free of weeds, watered it with the golden bucket, and carefully wiped its leaves with the silken napkin when they grew dusty. It grew rapidly under her care, and a few days later a fairy came out of the tree and asked Cenerentola what she wished for. “I should like to leave the house sometimes without my sisters finding out,” the girl answered, and the fairy told her it would be so.

Soon a royal feast was to be held, and when the sisters had all departed with their mother, dressed in fine clothes and smelling of sweet perfume. Cenerentola ran to her palm, and the fairy dressed her magnificently and placed her upon a lovely horse with twelve attendants to escort her. She went along to the ball, and everyone was charmed by the unknown beauty, except for the six stepsisters, who were jealous. The young King was smitten with her, and asked his page to discover who she was and where she lived. But as she departed the feast, Cenerentola cleverly dropped some gold coins, and the page stopped to pick them up, giving her enough time to escape.

Soon there was another feast, and as before the six sisters left in all their finery, leaving Cenerentola all alone. But as before the fairy dressed her in splendid clothes and off she went to the ball, this time in a beautiful coach drawn by six white horses with footmen dressed in fine livery. When she entered the ballroom the King was overcome with love, and he danced with her all night while the six sisters looked on in jealousy. As before, the King tried to send a servant after her to discover where she lived, but once again Cenerentola cleverly dropped a handful of pearls and jewels, and the servant stopped to pick them up, giving her enough time to slip away.

When the next feast was held, Cenerentola ran to her tree as soon as her sisters were away. This time she was dressed as if she were a queen and placed in a golden carriage with many servants to attend her. The King was delighted to see her again, and this time he sent his most trusted servant to follow her home — one who would not be distracted by a handful of coins or gems. Cenerentola managed to make it to her coach and get away, but not without losing one of her splendid slippers. The servant grabbed the slipper and chased the coach until he was out of breath before returning to the King.

The King proclaimed that all the maidens of the land should attend a great banquet — every maiden — noble, common, rich, poor, beautiful, ugly. He laid out a great feast with the tastiest pies, pastries, stews, and sweetmeats, and he tried the shoe on the foot of every woman present. Yet the shoe would not fit on a single one of them. He asked the guests if anyone was missing. The Prince, who had brought his six stepdaughters, at last confessed that he had one daughter at home, but that she was not worthy to attend. The King demanded that the Prince return the next day with all of his daughters.

And so the next day, there was Zezolla with her father and six stepsisters. And when the King saw her, he had his suspicions, but as he drew close to her the shoe flew from his hand and fastened perfectly upon Zezolla’s foot. And right there the King ran to her, took her in his arms, and placed a crown upon her head. The six stepsisters, sick with rage, went home to their mother, where they bitterly confessed that “only a madman resists the stars.”