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Spain seeks remains of Quixote author Cervantes

A plaque at the Madrid convent in which Cervantes is buried commemorates his life (AFP PHOTO/ GERARD JULIEN)

MADRID: Four centuries after Miguel de Cervantes’ death, Madrid has decided to finance a search for the Spanish Golden Age writer’s remains. Cervantes, author of the emblematic “Don Quixote of la Mancha,” was buried in April 1616 in the church of the red-brick Convent of Trinitarians in central Madrid. But the exact site of his final resting place is a mystery, its location lost over the centuries during which the convent and church buildings were expanded.

The convent is still inhabited by nuns and has been designated part of Madrid’s cultural heritage since 1921, complicating any effort to carry out excavations.

Yet the city authorities feel they have a duty to find the remains of the author, who was born in 1547 in the university city of Alcala de Henares near Madrid but spent his final years in the capital.

“Finding the tomb of Cervantes would mean paying a very important debt to the Prince of Letters in Spain, to the Spaniard who has perhaps left the greatest mark in the history of humanity,” said Jose Francisco Garcia, director of cultural heritage at Madrid city hall.

“Quixote has had a universal significance and influence,” he said. “For the city of Madrid it would be one of the most important cultural projects imaginable at the moment.”

The Madrid district in which Cervantes lived is now named Letras, or Letters, in honor of him and other writers such as Lope de Vega and his great Golden Age rivals Francisco de Quevedo and Luis de Gongora.

First published in two parts, in 1605 and 1615, Cervantes’ “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha” is considered a satirical masterpiece, one of the key works of Western literature.

Despite the difficulties involved, Madrid’s authorities believe a search for the author’s remains is now feasible.

“The technology has advanced enough to enable us to interpret a ground-penetrating radar study and determine with sufficient confidence where human remains have been buried,” Francisco said.

Madrid city hall has allocated 12,000-14,000 euros ($17,000-$19,000) for a preliminary analysis, followed by the radar study, which would begin a few weeks later.

“Before summer we should be able to draw conclusions from the study to know whether we can start archaeological excavations or not,” Francisco said.

“We have permission from the owners, the congregation of nuns, as well as the Madrid region,” he said.

He urged caution, however, stressing that the project was still at an early stage and was awaiting the results of initial studies.

At least two other people were buried in the same area as Cervantes, said historian Fernando de Prado, who proposed the search for the author’s remains to the Madrid city hall.

In his report, De Prado described the burial of Cervantes after his death, which historians date to April 22 or 23, 1616.

“Shrouded in sackcloth of the Third Order Regular of St. Francis of Penance, which he had joined shortly before, in a simple coffin, his hands on his chest holding a wooden crucifix and with his face uncovered ... he was taken to his funeral Saturday April 23 in what was probably the poorest convent of Madrid.”

For the team of archaeologists, identifying the remains should prove straightforward.

“We have been assured that if we find the remains we can reliably determine if they belong to Miguel de Cervantes by his specific physical characteristics,” De Prado said.

Cervantes lost the use of his left hand to a gunshot wound received in the 1571 naval conflict, the Battle of Lepanto, in which the Holy League defeated the Ottoman fleet.

“Cervantes could not use that hand for 45 years,”De Prado said, adding that a professional “could identify that type of bone injury which could be used as evidence to identify him.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 10, 2014, on page 16.

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