Cervantes’ tomb, an open question mark

Possible remains of the Spanish writer being investigated.

Foto: diseño de webmaster de IPS-Cuba

Almost 400 years after the death of one of the most studied and renowned Spanish-speaking writers of all times, Don Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the multidisciplinary team in charge of identifying his remains has not been able to offer a definitive result, which is why the investigation continues being open.

The extensive and complex process started being concretised in 2014, with the search for the exact place where he was buried, as the media in Spain has reported. It was known that after his death on April 23, 1616, and by the express wish of Cervantes, his body had been buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians of Madrid, though it was not known if the remains had been moved when the old church was later moved to another site, within the limits of the Convent.

Why did Cervantes choose the Convent of the Trinitarians as the place for his burial is partly explained by the very trajectory of that man who had a rather restless life before sitting down to write the books that would immortalise his name. Perhaps because the Trinitarian Order or Order of the Holy Trinity and Captives, according to its original name, was the one that arranged his rescue and was able to collect 500 ducats in gold demanded for his release from a jail in Algiers, where he was imprisoned for five years. The rescue was carried out successfully on September 19, 1580 and, who knows if it was a coincidence, years later Cervantes would set his last residence in a barrio near the Convent of the Trinitarians, where moreover Isabel de Saavedra, his natural daughter, was interned.

But it was not until 1870 that there was the greatest certainty that Cervantes’ remains were resting in the Convent, based on an investigation carried out by the then director of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, Mariano Roca de Togores, Marquis of Molins. In the memoirs that collect the results of this investigation under the title of La sepultura de Miguel de Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes’ Grave), the Marquis affirms:

“As to the remains of Cervantes, one thing had been demonstrated: that they have not left the Convent that he saw founded, and where he ordered that they be buried…. I however have fulfilled your order, these inquiries, and I have acquired in them the full conviction that he was buried there, and that he has not been moved from there.” (1)

And it was based on this conviction and the data contributed by historians and scholars that it was decided to initiate this entire process of search, which originally wished that the tomb of the writer be duly identified. Starting then there has even been talk of the possibility of creating the specific conditions for the burial mound to be visited by an interested public, even though nothing regarding this has been defined.

The works geared at determining the current location of Cervantes’ remains started by using georadar that made it possible to make a sort of map of the soil to specify the place where he was buried. In a second stage excavations were made, taking special care not to affect the structure of the Convent that has been declared a protected monument, an Asset of Cultural Interest. Expectations increased when an old coffin with the inscription M.C. on its top came to light and it was finally possible to start the studies that would allow for confirming (or not) the transcendence of the find.

According to Spanish press reports, this multidisciplinary team has been headed by experienced forensic scientist Francisco Etxeberria, who carried out the exhumation of persons murdered during the Spanish Civil War, and the analysis of the remains of Chilean President Salvador Allende, among other important works.

The specialists hope to identify Cervantes based on a series of evidential signs, especially the sequels of several wounds he received in 1571 during the Battle of Lepanto in which the future writer participated as member of the Spanish Armada. But the expectations created with the discovery of the coffin came undone a while later, when it was known that the bones found belonged to several persons, even young ones. Nevertheless the studies continued and in a new report presented on March 17, 2015, the experts announced the possibility that some of the bone fragments that had been found belonged to the writer, though until now no one has dared to confirm this with absolute certainty due to the high degree of deterioration of the samples and to the fact that they were mixed with the remains of later burials.

Since the beginning the scientists ruled out the use of DNA tests and, according to what has been said, it will be necessary to resort to expensive studies in specialised labs to obtain definitive results, which is why one will have to wait for some time to find out if the remains found correspond or not to those of the author of one of the most famous books in our language and the history of literature, Don Quixote.

But even when it is impossible to clarify with certainty if the old remains are those of Cervantes, or if it were possible to open to the public the crypt where his remains were supposedly deposited, for the true admirers of his work it is simply enough to revisit once in a while the immortal pages written by Cervantes. Perhaps that would be the best tribute wanted by the great writer, considered by many the creator of the modern novel and of some of the most well-known and indispensable characters in the history of universal literature, like his ineffable knight Don Quixote and his faithful esquire Sancho Panza.

At a distance of more than a century I agree with the Marquis of Molins when he refers in his memoirs to the place, still to be specified, where supposedly the remains of Cervantes rest in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians:

“For my part, I confess, it suffices to know that they are there; I’m not interested in discovering in what corner. Cervantes sleeps with those of us who waited like him; his sleep is guarded by those nuns who believe like he did; they are accompanied by those who loved and suffered as he did. Or will a building of a few square metres perhaps be too much of a document for a man who fills the world with his fame?” (2)

(1) and (2): La sepultura de Miguel de Cervantes. Memoirs written on the orders of the Spanish Academy and read to it by its director the Marquis of Molins (1870), pp. 145-146, reproduced by the Urban History of Madrid site.

(2015)

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