Spain seeks remains of Quixote author Cervantes

Four centuries after his death, Madrid has decided to finance a search for the remains of Spanish Golden Age writer Miguel de Cervantes, author of the emblematic Don Quixote of la Mancha.

Spain seeks remains of Quixote author Cervantes
The Convent of Trinitarians in central Madrid, where Cervantes was buried in April 1616. Photo: AFP

Cervantes was buried in April 1616 in the church of the red-brick Convent of Trinitarians in central Madrid.

The exact site of his final resting place is a mystery, however, the 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 excavate in blind pursuit of Cervantes' remains.

Yet the Spanish capital feels it has 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, Madrid city hall's director of cultural heritage.

"For the city of Madrid it would be one of the most important cultural projects imaginable at the moment," he told news agency AFP.

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

"Quixote has had a universal significance and influence," said Garcia.

Published in two parts in 1605 and 1615 in its first editions, 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, 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," Garcia said.

Madrid city hall has allocated a budget of €12,000-14,000 ($17,000-$19,000) for the first stage of a historical analysis, then the radar study, which would begin "within weeks".

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

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

The official urged caution, however, stressing that the project was still at an early stage 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 on Saturday April 23 in what was probably the poorest convent of Madrid."

For the anthropologists, identifying the remains should be 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. An anthropologist could identify that type of bone injury which could be used as evidence to identify him," De Prado said.

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Finally! Terry Gilliam finishes ‘Don Quixote’ film project that took 17 years

Terry Gilliam, the US-born director famous for a string of dark fantasy films, has finally finished his version of Don Quixote... after 17 years battling one disaster after another.

Finally! Terry Gilliam finishes 'Don Quixote' film project that took 17 years
Photo: Terry Gilliam / Facebook

“Sorry for the long silence…,” he posted laconically to Facebook on Sunday.

“After 17 years, we have completed the shoot of THE MAN WHO KILLED DON QUIXOTE. Muchas gracias to all the team and believers. QUIXOTE VIVE!” (Quixote lives!)

Gilliam said he and his crew had just finished shooting in Spain. But it has been a long haul for the director of “Brazil” and “Twelve Monkeys”.  

Like the aging knight at the centre of Miguel de Cervantes' classic tale, Gilliam, now 76, has had to deal with one mishap after another to complete his quest.

READ ALSO: Most Spaniards have never read Don Quixote

His first tilt at adapting the 17th-century novel was with US star Johnny Depp and French actors Jean Rochefort and Vanessa Paradis.  

That came to grief back in 2000, hit by a string of setbacks that included torrential rain and constant flyovers by military jets from a nearby NATO base.    

To top it all, Rochefort, whose role as Quixote required riding a horse, developed back problems that put him out of action.    

The new version features British actor Jonathan Pryce as Quixote. He starred in Gilliam's 1985 hit “Brazil”, but is perhaps better known to younger viewers as the High Sparrow in the “Game of Thrones” television series.

Also on board is US actor Adam Driver, the villain in the latest Star Wars film; and the Ukrainian-born French actress Olga Kurylenko (“Quantum of Solace”).

The history of Gilliam's disastrous first attempt to film his Quixote project has passed into film folklore: there is even a 2002 documentary, “Lost in La Mancha”, that tells the whole sorry story.

Keith Fulton and Louis Pepe, originally hired to do a making-of film to accompany the finished product, finally managed to salvage an award-winning documentary from Gilliam's disastrous shoot.

But Gilliam, like the steadfast Quixote, refused to surrender.    

The former member of the Monty Python team, and a specialist in absurd fantasies such “Jabberwocky” and “Time Bandits”, pushed on with his project.    

“Shooting my version of Don Quixote is a medical obligation,” he told the Spanish daily El Pais last year. “It's a brain tumour I have to eradicate.” 

READ MORE: DIsney announces plans for Don Quixote action movie