Cervantes is said to have died on the same day as Shakespeare. Buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid, 399 years later his bones have been found – just in time for the quadricentenary.
Widely acknowledged to be one of the greatest books of world literature, The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha is also cited as the first novel. In A Writer’s Diary, the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky said:
“There is nothing deeper and more powerful in the whole world than this piece of fiction. It is still the final and the greatest expression of human thought, the most bitter irony that a human is capable of expressing… only one such book is sent to humanity in several hundred years. And such perceptions of the profoundest aspects of human nature you will find on every page of this book…”
While 23 April 1616 was recorded as the date of Cervantes’ death, in fact he died in Madrid the previous day, 22 April and was buried on 23 April. However, these dates refer to different days. Spain had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but England was still using the Julian calendar. Shakespeare’s death on 23 April 1616 (Julian) was equivalent to 3 May 1616 (Gregorian) – 10 days after Cervantes was buried and 11 days after he died.
Cervantes asked and was granted special permission to be buried in the convent because, having been captured by Algerian corsairs, its religious order had helped secure his release. His bones went missing in 1673 when building work was being done. They were known to have been taken to a different convent and later returned. Strangely, the exact location of his grave was lost and until recently no extensive effort was made to find it.
Now, forensic scientists are examining the contents of what they say is the tomb of Spain’s beloved author. They believe they have found the remains of Cervantes, his wife and others recorded as buried with him. The scientists say that separating and identifying his badly damaged bones from the other fragments will be difficult.
The team of 30 researchers used infrared cameras, 3D scanners and ground-penetrating radar to pinpoint the burial site in a forgotten crypt beneath the building. Inside one of 33 niches, archaeologists discovered a number of adult bones matching a group of people with whom Cervantes had been buried, before their tombs were disturbed and moved into the crypt.
Spain will celebrate the find and there will doubtless be a public commemoration when the bones are finally laid to rest in a tomb befitting the writer’s stature. But one wonders if anyone is taking note of the final pages of Don Quixote where, in the translation by Edith Grossman (2004), the writer makes the plea:
“…to let the weary and crumbling bones of Don Quixote rest in the grave, and not attempt, contrary to all the statutes of death, to carry them off to Castilla la Vieja, removing him from the tomb where he really and truly lies, incapable of undertaking a third journey or a new sally; for to mock the many undertaken by so many knights errant, the two he made were enough, and they have brought delight and pleasure to everyone who knows of them, in these kingdoms as well as those abroad.”