The following story from 19th Century Venice, Italy, is similar to the “Bluebeard” folktales from France, regarding the dangers of female curiosity about forbidden chambers. As Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estés comments, this cycle of stories shows how questioning patriarchal rules can open the door of truth. This mythic jaunt takes another route of the inappropriate suitor, about when the Devil married three sisters and how the third sister managed to rescue the other two from the fires of Hell. Italo Calvino also published another variant of this story in 1956, called ‘Silver Nose’.
How Il Diavolo Married Three Sisters
Based on Widter and Wolf (Thomas Frederick Crane translation), Edited by Jack Eidt
Once upon a time a fellow named Il Diavolo was seized with a desire to marry. He therefore left his home called Inferno, took the form of a handsome young man dressed in black, and built a fine large house. When it was completed and furnished in the most fashionable style, he introduced himself to a family of an old widow living far away from the rest of the world next to a mountain, with her three attractive daughters. Il Diavolo paid his addresses to the eldest of them, named Carlotta. The handsome man pleased the young woman, but her mother noticed something was off with his nose, that appeared somehow silver. The daughter ignored her mother’s caution, ready to escape the mountain at any cost, and it was not long before the wedding was celebrated.
When he had taken his bride home, he presented her with a very tastefully arranged bouquet of rose, carnation, and jasmine, led her through all the rooms of the house, and finally to a closed door. “The whole house is at your disposal,” said he, “only I must request one thing of you; that is, that you do not on any account open this door.”
Of course the young wife Carlotta promised faithfully; but equally, of course, she could scarcely wait for the moment to come when she might break her promise. When Il Diavolo had left the house the next morning, under pretense of going hunting, she ran hastily to the forbidden door, opened it, and saw a terrible abyss full of fire that shot up towards her, and singed the flowers on her bosom.
When her husband came home and asked her whether she had kept her promise, she unhesitatingly said “Yes;” but he saw by the flowers that she was telling a lie, and said: “Now I will not put your curiosity to the test any longer. Come with me. I will show you myself what is behind the door.” Thereupon he led her to the door, opened it, gave her such a push that she fell down into Inferno, and shut the door again.
A few months later he returned to the widow at the mountain and requested the next sister Lucia to come help with the house, even after her mother made more strenuous warnings about that Silver Nose dressed in dapper black. Unfortunately, with her everything that had happened with the first wife Carlotta was exactly repeated.
Finally he returned to the mountain house to ask the widow for even more help from the third sister, Margerita. She was a prudent young woman, and listening to her mother said to herself: “This Silver Nose has done something with my two sisters; yet maybe I can take this opportunity to escape the somnolent mountain and see what happened to them.” And accordingly, with her mother’s warnings, she consented. Upon arrival at the house he gave her a beautiful bouquet of rose, carnation, and jasmine, but forbade her, also, to open the door which he pointed out.
Not a whit less curious than her sisters, she, too, opened the forbidden door when Il Diavolo had gone hunting, but she had previously put her flowers in water. Then she saw behind the door the fatal abyss and her sisters therein. “Ah!” she exclaimed, “poor creature that I am; I thought I had come to live with an ordinary man, and instead of that he is the Devil! How can I get away from him?” She carefully pulled her two sisters out of Inferno and hid them.
When Il Diavolo came home he immediately looked at the bouquet, which she again wore on her bosom, and when he found the flowers so fresh he asked no questions; but reassured as to his secret, he now, for the first time, really loved her.
After a few days she asked him if he would carry three chests for her to her mother’s house, without putting them down or resting on the way. “But,” she added, “you must keep your word, for I shall be watching you.” Il Diavolo promised to do exactly as she wished.
So the next morning she put her eldest sister Carlotta in a chest, and laid it on her husband’s shoulders. Il Diavolo, who is very strong, but also very lazy and unaccustomed to work, soon got tired of carrying the heavy chest, and wanted to rest before he was out of the street on which he lived; but Margerita called out to him: “Don’t put it down; I see you!”
Il Diavolo went reluctantly on with the chest until he had turned the corner, and then said to himself: “She cannot see me here; I will rest a little.” But scarcely had he begun to put the chest down when Carlotta from inside cried out: “Don’t put it down; I see you still!” Cursing, he dragged the chest on into another street, and was going to lay it down on a doorstep, but he again heard the voice: “Don’t lay it down, you rascal; I see you still!”
“What kind of eyes must my wife have,” he thought, “to see around corners as well as straight ahead, and through walls as if they were made of glass!” and thus thinking he arrived, all in a perspiration and quite tired out, at the mountain house of his mother-in-law the widow, to whom he hastily delivered the chest, and then hurried home to strengthen himself with a good breakfast.
The same thing was repeated the next day with the second chest with the second sister Lucia. On the third day Margerita herself was to be taken home in the chest. She therefore prepared a figure which she dressed in her own clothes, and placed on the balcony, under the pretext of being able to watch him better; slipped quickly into the chest, and had the maid put it on Il Diavolo’s back.
“The deuce!” said he; “this chest is a great deal heavier than the others; and to-day, when she is sitting on the balcony, I shall have so much the less chance to rest.” So by dint of the greatest exertions he carried it, without stopping, to his mother-in-law, and then hastened home to breakfast, scolding, and with his back almost broken.
But quite contrary to custom, his wife did not come out to meet him, and there was no breakfast ready. “Margerita, where are you?” he cried; but received no answer. As he was running through the corridors he at length looked out of a window, and saw the figure on the balcony. “Margerita, have you gone to sleep? Come down. I am as tired as a dog, and as hungry as a wolf.”
But there was no reply. “If you do not come down instantly I will go up and bring you down,” he cried, angrily; but Margerita did not stir. Enraged, he hastened up to the balcony, and gave her such a box on the ear that her head flew off, and he saw that the head was nothing but a milliner’s form, and the body, a bundle of rags. Raging, he rushed down and rummaged through the whole house, but in vain; he found only his wife’s empty jewel-box.
“Ha!” he cried; “she has been stolen from me, and her jewels, too!” and he immediately ran to inform her mother of the misfortune. But when he came near the mountain house, to his great surprise he saw on the balcony above the door all three sisters, his wives, who were looking down on him with scornful laughter.
Three wives at once terrified Il Diavolo so much that he took his flight with all possible speed.
Since that time he has lost his taste for marrying.
Italo Calvino, Italian Folktales, (New York: Harcourt) 1956.
Thomas Frederick Crane – Italian Popular Tales (London: Macmillan and Company), 1885.
Widter-Wolf, “How the Devil Married Three Sisters.” (Venetian, No. 11, Der Teufel heirathet drei Schwestern).