MADRID — An important forensic investigation in Spain recently confirmed that bones buried in Madrid’s Trinitarian Convent belong to the author of Don Quixote, who died poor and forgotten almost 400 years ago.
One wouldn’t want to spoil a good headline. “Cervantes has appeared! Cervantes has appeared!” proclaimed the papers. But the bad news was, well, he’s dead. And that’s just about the only thing on which all the forensic scientists actually agreed.
Again with the good news: millions of lovers of literature worldwide now have an official place of pilgrimage where they can visit the grave of the man who gave us the Man of La Mancha. The remains of Miguel de Cervantes are indeed in the heart of the so-called Barrio de las Letras (the Literary Quarter) in the crypt of the convent of the Trinitarios Descalzados, or shoeless Trinitarians.
The renowned forensic scientist Francisco Etxeberria and his team of 36 experts have reached this conclusion after working for the last 10 months in the subsoil of the crypt in the second part of an investigation that began in 2014 with the help of ground-penetrating radar. And everything is coming together, it would seem, in time for the great commemoration of the author’s death to be held in 2016.
Cervantes’ unverified bones had been a bit of a problem for Spain. He died on April 22, 1616, ten days before William Shakespeare. But while the tomb of the English bard has become a center of pilgrimage, around Cervantes’s final resting place there was nothing much but apathy and doubt.
To be sure, Shakespeare’s grave in Stratford-on-Avon’s Holy Trinity Church fell into disrepair early on and for some time was in ruins, making the epitaph sound especially plaintive:
Good friend, for Jesus' sake forbear To dig the dust enclosed here. Blessed be the man that spares these stones, And cursed be he that moves my bones.
But for the last couple of centuries donations and huge numbers of visitors have assured the author of Hamlet and Richard III has a well-tended resting place. (Which was more than King Richard’s corpse got until it, too, was discovered with the help of ground-penetrating radar in 2012 and laid to rest once again with great pomp and circumstance only last week.)
For Cervantes, no single site served the purpose of a pilgrimage destination as little museums and shops tried to claim his spirit even if his body was a bit of a question mark. And, unfortunately, no cautionary epitaph warned the Spaniards over the centuries not to dig in the dust, spare the stones or move the bones of Iberia’s greatest author.
Even now, when scientists have succeeded in determining that several of the bones in the crypt belonged to Cervantes, it appears the remains are mixed in with those of other people in such a way that it’s difficult or impossible to separate them out as a single clearly identified skeleton.
This must be frustrating for Etxeberria, who has conducted major exhumations of mass graves from the Spanish Civil War and who was part of the team that determined the death of deposed President Salvador Allende in Chile was a suicide.
This is not the first time that Spain dedicates significant resources to certify officially that the remains of Cervantes lie in this little corner of the Spanish capital, but it is the most expensive and the most technologically sophisticated. It has cost the City of Madrid, to date, €114,000 (about $125,000).
In response to the many criticisms of this expenditure, the Ministry of Culture responds with one figure: the estimate that last year tourists visiting Shakespeare’s tomb left behind some €750 million in direct expenditures. Add to that the increased interest in Cervantes’ life and work. The city and the ministry are asking each other “what took us so long?”
And, in fact, the whereabouts of Cervantes’s remains never should have been such a mystery. Taking nothing away for Etxeberria, a comprehensive review of the literature on the life of Cervantes demonstrates conclusively that his body was buried in the Convent of the Trinitarians and his remains, while they may have been shuffled and stirred, never left. The writer’s death certificate is in the parish archives of the Church of San Sebastian in the historic center of Madrid: “On April 23, 1616, died Miguel Cervantes Saavedra, married to Catalina de Salazar, on Calle del León. He received the sacraments of the hand of Francisco Lopez and was ordered buried in the Trinitarian convent.”
Cervantes died humble and in penury. On April 2, 1616, he had entered the care of the Franciscan order as his sisters Andrea and Magdalena had done before him. The latter had died in 1611 in the most extreme poverty. The remains of the celebrated writer were transferred from his house in Calle del León (now Calle de Cervantes) to the Monasterio de las Trinitarias Descalzas, a distance of some 150 meters. Cervantes’s cadaver was carried by the Franciscans on April 23, following the customs of the congregation, and dressed in a modest shroud of sack cloth with his face uncovered. His place of burial was unmarked.
A century later, the remains of Cervantes along with his wife and another 15 dead people were relocated to accommodate construction of a new church inside the convent walls. It’s those remains in that pile of bones that have been found by the forensic scientists. In all, 33 niches where human remains were stored were explored. The total number of cadavers identified corresponds exactly to the figure given in the church archives.
Some critics have accused the government of trying to use Cervantes as an electoral weapon a few months before voters are due to go to the polls. Others point out that Cervantes wanted to be buried in a humble place, not a tourist attraction. Probably no one had warned him that a dozen bodies would be thrown on his remains. Shakespeare probably had more information about how epitaphs, ossuaries and ground-penetrating radar work when you're dead.