Cervantes, Don Quixote, Inquisition, Index of Banned Books, Index of Prohibited Books, Juan de Borja, turtle, Erasmus, Adagia


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MS 382, c. 1438


Sancho Panza and the Turtle.
Ut lapsu graviore ruat.

Commentary on Silvas 1 and 6.

© Julia D’Onofrio 13-10-2005
(Instituto de Filología y
Literaturas Hispánicas Dr. Amado Alonso
Universidad de Buenos Aires)


Borja, Empresas morales, Brussels 1680. First part, Emblem 2 (Aut multum, aut nihil). Cf. Silva 1.

Sancho’s Whipping (II.71) R. Golding, after the drawing of Robert Smirke (1752 – 1845) — Cf. Silva 6.

Borja, Empresas morales, Brussels 1680. Second part, Emblem 52 (Ruitura levat)

Sebastián de Covarrubias, Emblemas morales, Madrid 1610, Emblem 1.44 (Ut lapsu graviore ruat)

Juan Francisco de Villava, Empresas espirituales y morales, Baeza 1613 (Ut corruat)

To this point, we have found only one edition of Don Quixote that contains the graphical image of the turtle in relation to this episode.

It is found in the French translation L’ingenieux hidalgo don Quichotte de la Manche, Paris: Dubochet, J. J. et Cie. 1836-37. Vol. II, p. 549 (signed by Tony Johannot).

The interested reader will find many other images related to Don Quixote by visiting these webpages:





I would like to offer a modest contribution to the entertaining comments of this section.

Since turtles have been mentioned in these two Silvas and in view of the fact that a sentence from the 1615 Quixote has been the object of commentary, I would like to offer for your consideration the moment in which Sancho himself is converted into a turtle.

This happens towards the end of his governance, when – for the burlesque battle in defense of the invading enemies – his island subjects “arm” him with two shields that prevent him from moving and make him fall to the ground, at which point they all step on him and feign a fierce struggle. That was certainly the motive behind the trick they played on the governor: to humble the prideful man who had been elevated high above his condition, to castigate the man who had attempted to usurp positions that were rightfully the domain of the noble and powerful. For these reasons the image of Sancho is so interesting. In the words of the narrator: "He lay there like a giant turtle enclosed and covered by its shells..." (II, 53, 806, Grossman translation) 1 and then he adds that the only thing that Sancho could do to protect himself was to retract his head and arms under cover of the shields in a gesture typical of how the turtle withdraws into its shell.

Therefore the peasant-squire who wished to govern becomes a tortoise. And such a comparison is not devoid of symbolic meanings, since an emblem repeated in three important Spanish collections, those of Juan de Borja, Sebastián de Covarrubias and Francisco de Villava, represents the concept of the punishment of excessive ambition by means of the eagle that carries in its beak a turtle in order to drop it from on high and smash it to pieces against a rock below. Borja’s commentary says:

…pues lo que más sube es para dar con ello mayor cayda, como se vee en esta empresa del águila con el galápago, que cuanto más alto le sube, es para hacerle mejor pedazos, y çevarse en él, como dice la letra: ruitura levat (levanta para una mayor caída) 2 [Enciclopedia, 3 Nº 45]

[...since that which climbs highest will suffer the greatest fall, as is seen in this impresa of the eagle with the tortoise. For the higher it goes, the better to smash it to pieces and feast on it, as the motto indicates: ruitura levat (it rises for a greater fall)]

The commentary of Covarrubias reads:

Nuestro emblema alude al temor con que ha de estar, el que en las uñas del águila, que es el Príncipe, sube a grande privanza, porque si le disgusta le dexará caer delo alto sobre los peñascos, donde se quebrante y perezca. La letra es: Ut lapsu graviore ruat (para que se despeñe con más pesada caída) [Enciclopedia, Nº 62]

[Our emblem alludes to the fear that should strike he who, in the talons of the eagle, who is the Prince, rises to be his royal favorite, for if he displeases the Prince, he will drop him from the heights down to the crags below, where he will shatter and perish. The motto is: Ut lapsu graviore ruat (so that he will crash down with a heavier fall)].

Villava gives his impresa the motto Ut corruat (so that it may fall) and he elucidates several examples of:

Los que ambiciosamente han subido a dignidades o las poseen con soberbia y arrogancia, permite Dios muchas vezes que caygan de su estado y se pierdan (…) Y asi al altivo derribado se le da esta Empresa. [Enciclopedia, Nº 55]

[Those who have risen to great dignities ambitiously or who possess them with haughtiness and arrogance, often are permitted by God to fall from their position and perish (…) And thus this Impresa is given to the mighty who have fallen]

The analogy with what is happening in the text of Don Quixote is clear with respect to the movements of ascent and descent that Sancho’s character suffers. Elevated by the duke and duchess, the powerful, (compared to the eagle by emblem authors) Sancho, by means of cruel tricks and deceit, is made to fall into opprobrium and general humiliation by them, in order to punish his impertinent ambition.

It is precisely this notion of elevating himself for his own perdition that Sancho expresses when he abandons government, displaying an elevated degree of lucidity and self-knowledge. Turning to dapple, he says:

después que os dejé y me subí sobre las torres de la ambición y de la soberbia, se me han entrado por el alma adentro mil miserias, mil trabajos y cuatro mil desasosiegos. (II, 53, 811)

[“but after I left you and climbed the towers of ambition and pride, a thousand miseries, a thousand troubles, and four thousand worries have entered deep into my soul.” (II, 53, 807, Grossman translation)]

Quédense en esta caballeriza las alas de la hormiga, que me levantaron en el aire para que me comiesen vencejos y otros pájaros, y volvámonos a andar por el suelo con pie llano… (Ibid., 812)

[“Here in this stable I’ll leave the wings on the ant that carried me into the air where the martins and other birds could eat me, and I’ll go back to walking on my feet and level ground…” (Ibid, 808)]

The refrain of the ant who sprouted wings appeared previously in the conversation with the duchess in chapter 33 («Por su mal le nacieron alas a la hormiga» [“It did him harm when the ant grew wings” Grossman, 679]), and here Sancho recalls it again, however, it is curious that he adds a new ending to the original. It is not «para que se pierdan más aína» [“so that they are lost all the more quickly”], as Correas registers in his Vocabulario de refranes y frases proverbiales, (ed. Louis Combet revised by Robert Jammes and Maïte Mir-Andreu, Castalia, Madrid, 2000, s.v. hormiga) nor as Mexia completes the refrain in his Silva de varia lección, Por su mal le nacieron alas a la hormiga... «porque, con ellas, el viento las desbarata» [“because with them, the wind destroys them”] (ed. Antonio Castro, Madrid: Cátedra, 1990, p. 357), rather, he completes it by saying that the wings only resulted in the ant being devoured by martins and other birds. Once again, this elaborates on the notion of ascent only to be destroyed by the powerful, in this case the birds, who are the legitimate inhabitants of the airs, in contrast to the ants, who should remain on the ground.

Without doubt, the onerous tricks that are played on Sancho on his island kingdom, planned out not only for the entertainment of the duke and duchess and their court dwellers, but also, and especially to “put in his proper place” the humble peasant who tried to be a governor, wind up undeceiving the squire. And they lead him to conclude, just like the turtle, that there is nowhere better than one’s own home, according to the well-known fable repeated by Borja in the First Part of his Empresas morales [Domus optima]. [Enciclopedia, Nº 1618]

For us as readers. It is interesting to observe the unfolding of veiled allusions, such as that of Sancho converted into a tortoise, which fill the text with symbolic meanings and reveal the complexity of the Cervantine art of representation.


1 I quote the Quijote from the edition by Celina Sabor de Cortazar and Isaías Lerner, Buenos Aires, Eudeba, 2005 (2ª edición). For the English texts, we have utilized Edith Grossman’s Don Quixote (New York: HarperCollins. 2003)

2 This emblem belongs to the second part of the collection, that is to say, the part added by the author’s grandson in 1680 which incorporated emblems in manuscript form that were supposedly omitted from the original of 1581. Nevertheless, the presence of other emblem authors contemporaneous with Cervantes, allows us to corroborate the presence of the image in the imagery of the period, in spite of the temporal distance between the emblem’s publication and Don Quixote of 1615.

3 Antonio Bernat Vistarini and John T. Cull (ed), Enciclopedia de Emblemas Españoles, Madrid 1999.


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