A not so quixotic search for Cervantes
Historian hopes to find body of famous author
A woman licks a statue of Sancho Panza underneath a state of Don Quixote at a monument that honours Miguel de Cervantes, one of Spain’s most important literary figures and author of the famous novel, Don Quixote, at Madrid’s Plaza de Espana. Photograph: Susana Vera / Reuters
He may be one of Spain’s literary heroes, but during his life four centuries ago, Miguel de Cervantes could have been considered something of “a loser,” said Fernando de Prado, a Spanish historian. Cervantes, the author of the adventures of the knight-errant Don Quixote, lived in poverty, missed out on a military promotion and was held captive by pirates for five years after his naval ship was intercepted. The recognition and success of his writings came too late to bring him any fortune.
One of the few things that went Cervantes’ way was that he was buried in 1616 where he wanted, in the Trinitarias convent in Madrid. The precise location was never clear, however, and it is something that de Prato believes he can discover, perhaps as soon as next month, when a team of investigators using radar technology is set to enter the cloister in hopes of locating and identifying the writer’s remains.
Cervantes, who was a soldier, asked and was granted permission to be buried in the convent because its religious order had helped secure his release from captivity. The convent is still here, in a neighborhood known as the Barrio de Las Letras (the literary quarter), in homage to Cervantes and other writers who lived there during the so-called Spanish Golden Age, when Spain was home to some of Europe’s greatest writers, architects and painters.
But strangely, through neglect or oversight, reverence for the dead or the seeming impossibility of unravelling a riddle obscured by the passage of time, no effort has been made to locate Cervantes’ grave site. Spain should have searched for Cervantes “a long time ago,” said Alfonso de Ceballos-Escalera, a publisher and historian who has researched the writer’s family. “I think that we’ve done less than others to find some of our most famous people because this also corresponds to a Catholic view, which considers that what is important after a burial is the spirit and not the body and the physical remains.”
For historians like him and others, the relative obscurity of the Cervantes burial site is an ignominious contrast to the prominent place he occupies in the pantheon of Spanish, and indeed all Western, literature. The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha , published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, is generally regarded as the foundation of modern fiction. Its main characters and events are household names in the Spanish-speaking world and have influenced literature and language worldwide, including the word “quixotic” and the expression “tilting at windmills”, a reference to one of Don Quixote’s many delusional acts of chivalry, when he takes on windmills, believing he is battling mighty giants.
Even so, de Prato, the historian, said that when he first approached the authorities at Madrid’s financially ailing city hall in 2010 to fund his project, they declined. They changed their minds, he said, when he told them that he had found alternative financing through private corporations linked to a US university, which he would not name. Nevertheless, Madrid is so far the only financial supporter of his effort, which he said would cost no more than $135,000.
“It might seem strange and ironic that it’s taken years, but sometimes the simplest problems are the hardest to solve,” de Prado said. Cervantes’ special choice of a burial place should make the task of finding his remains easier, he said, because at most 15 people were buried in the Trinitarias. “This isn’t like having to search an entire cemetery,” he said. But complicating the challenge is the fact that over the years the original structure of the convent has been changed. De Prado said that he hoped to find the remains within the new and larger convent that was built on top of the original one in the 18th century, focusing his probe on the side chapels and the crypt. If this initial search proves fruitless, the next step would be to scan and excavate the original foundations, about 13 feet below the current floor. Working with ground-penetrating radar technology, “this can now be done like a surgical intervention, without having to destroy the place,” he said. But the main facilitating factor in the search stems from the events of Cervantes’ own life. At 21, Cervantes left Spain for Italy to avoid legal problems following a duel. In Rome, he put himself at the service of a Roman Catholic cardinal and ended up fighting in the naval battle of Lepanto, where the Catholic fleet of the Holy League put a halt to the Ottoman Empire’s control of the Mediterranean.
After a hospital stay to recover from his wounds, Cervantes continued his military career in Italy until 1575, when his ship was captured. He was released after payment of a ransom and returned to Spain, where he struggled to rebuild his life and repay his debts while increasingly turning his attention to writing.
The wounds he suffered, which included one in the chest and another that paralyzed his left hand, should be recognisable even now, de Prato said, and help the researchers identify his body. Last year, British scholars identified the remains of Richard III, buried below a city parking lot, also in part thanks to a large skull fracture and other battle wounds that he had suffered. That discovery was corroborated by DNA matching with samples from two modern-day descendants.
In the case of Cervantes, however, such DNA testing is unlikely because there are no identified direct descendants of the writer, said de Ceballos-Escalera, the publisher and historian. Cervantes had at least two children, but one joined a convent and the identity of a son born in Italy was never confirmed.
The forensic investigation will be led by Francisco Etxeberria, who last year helped put an end to a long-standing Chilean controversy by taking part in the exhumation of Pablo Neruda to confirm that the poet had died of cancer rather than poisoning in September 1973, shortly after the military coup of Augusto Pinochet.
Pedro Corral, the Madrid city hall official who is responsible for the arts, suggested that finding Cervantes could provide Madrid with the same kind of tourism boost that Stratford-upon-Avon derives from the gravestone of Shakespeare. Asked why the city had initially rejected de Prato, Corral suggested that “more than a money issue, there were probably concerns about the project’s viability,” following a failed attempt in the late 1990s to identify the remains of painter Diego Velázquez, supposedly buried in a spot where the city decided to build a parking lot.
“The search for Velázquez was a fiasco, but we should forget the mistakes of the past and recognise that it is time for Spain to find its literary genius and the inventor of the modern novel,” Corral said. “Even if this search doesn’t end in success, Cervantes is surely worth taking the risk.”
– ( New York Times service)