July 26, 2011

The search for Cervantes' bones


Miguel de Cervantes, by Juan de Jauregui

“Historians and archaeologists,” says a story in the Guardian, “plan to reveal the true face of the author of Don Quixote of La Mancha, Miguel de Cervantes— that is, if they can find him.

It seems Cervantes’ body was lost in 1673 during a renovation of the convent near his home in Madrid where he’d originally been buried when he died in 1616.

But finding his body “would allow forensic archaeologists to reconstruct the face of a man only known from a picture painted by artist Juan de Jauregui some 20 years after his death,” notes the Guardian story. Also, “The bones may also reveal whether Cervantes, who is believed to have died of cirrhosis and was accused by rivals of being a notorious tippler, drank himself into the grave.” As historian Fernando Prado puts it, “They may not just help us to discover what he looked like, but also why he died.”

Hmm, could it possibly have been due to the “blast from a harquebus” that hit him in the chest when he found himself in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571? The same battle where his left hand was so badly hacked he was unable to use it for the rest of his life? (We won’t even get into the five years he spent afterward as a slave in North Africa.)

In any event, the search for Cervantes’ bones will involve “geo-radar technology to search for hidden niches in the convent’s walls and to scan up to five metres below ground.” And experts say that due to the wounds, they’ll know him when they find him.

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House. Follow him at @mobylives