March 10, 2014 / 5:10 PM / 6 years ago

Searching for Cervantes in a Spanish convent

MADRID (Reuters) - Historian Fernando Prado says he is not just tilting at windmills in his quest to find the remains of Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, the creator of “Don Quixote”.

People have their photo taken around the statue of Don Quxjote and Sancho Panza at a monument that honors Miguel de Cervantes, one of Spain's most important literary figures and author of the famous novel 'Don Quixote' at Madrid's Plaza de Espana square in central Madrid March 7, 2014. REUTERS/Susana Vera

Almost 400 years after Cervantes’s death, Prado is set to use ground-penetrating radar to peer into the sub-soil beneath an old convent in the heart of Madrid to look for his remains.

A dozen elderly nuns cloistered in the 17th Century walled convent have agreed to the search, which will start next month.

Born in 1547, Cervantes was buried in Madrid after his death in 1616 - the same week in which William Shakespeare died.

He requested to be buried in the convent as the Trinitarian religious order had helped to pay a ransom to release him from slavery after he was captured by Moorish pirates. But the exact site of his grave was lost in subsequent rebuilding.

In Cervantes’s novel, which has delighted readers around the world and is considered a precursor of the modern novel, the delusional Quixote, his mind addled by his obsession with fantasy stories about knights - sets out to perform acts of chivalry in honor of his imaginary ideal love, Dulcinea.

Prado said Spain should have a fitting honor for the author of “Don Quixote”, one of history’s greatest literary works and an iconic fictional character.

“We have a moral obligation to Cervantes, we have been benefitting from his work and glory for a very long time,” he said.

At the moment, two small plaques, outside the convent and inside the church, mark Cervantes’s theoretical resting place - in contrast to more elaborate tombs in England, France and Germany for literary greats Shakespeare, Moliere and Goethe.

There could also be more tangible benefits.

“It can bring money, attract tourism, produce enormous publicity and promotion, create a pilgrimage site for Don Miguel’s grave, generate jobs,” he told Reuters.

Cervantes’s work has had a huge influence on authors, painters and composers down the centuries, inspiring operas by Jules Massenet and Manuel de Falla, a tone poem by Richard Strauss, the American musical “Man of La Mancha” and aspects of the literary works of James Joyce, Mark Twain, Flaubert, Dickens and Jorge Luis Borges, to name just a few.


Prado had been in talks with potential U.S. financial backers for the Cervantes project but broke them off when the Madrid local government in September last year agreed to provide 12,000 euros ($16,600) for the first phase.

The initial search will be conducted by Luis Avial, who has used ground-penetrating radar equipment in crime scene investigations and body searches in Spain. The equipment directs pulses into the ground and can map artefacts beneath the surface without damaging them.

“This is one of the most thrilling cases we have dealt with,” said forensic anthropologist Francisco Etxeberria, whose Aranzadi Scientific Society will analyze the results of Avial’s radar search.

Etxeberria has worked on more than 100 exhumations of graves from the Spanish Civil War.

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Prado said it should not be difficult to verify the author’s remains if the radar detects bones.

Cervantes’s left arm was injured when he fought in the Battle of Lepanto that pitted southern European Catholic states against Ottomans in 1571. Cervantes also spent time in jail and the first part of “Don Quixote” was not published until he was in his late 50s. Ten years later a second part was published.

“If in this place where there are so few people buried we find more than one man older than 50, who has an injury in his left arm and a gun wound in the chest, I will eat the Bible,” Prado said. ($1 = 0.7214 euros)

Editing by Fiona Ortiz, Michael Roddy and Angus MacSwan

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