1616 - 2016

Miguel de Cervantes: From Life to Myth

Acción Cultural Española, AC/E

Miguel de Cervantes was a man of his time. A man of what was a unique period in Spain – the 16th and 17th centuries, known as the Golden Age. An age that witnessed the emergence of a new model of society, a new model of culture. And in its midst, a Miguel de Cervantes who gradually shaped himself from the established script of a period that needs to be revisited to find out a little more about Cervantes the man. *All the works in this exhibition belong to the Biblioteca Nacional de España (The National Library of Spain)

Virtual Tour 360º of the exhibition at the Biblioteca Nacional de España (Madrid, Spain).

Everyone thinks they know which is Miguel de Cervantes’s real face. But which is the face that is remembered? The one the author sculpted in words in the preface to his Exemplary Novels in 1613, which is none other than Cervantes the character? Or the hundreds of portraits and representations that have progressively given shape to Cervantes the myth since 1738 to the present day? 

Miguel de Cervantes, true to his particular style of tampering with publishing customs of the day, included at the beginning of the prologue to the "Novelas ejemplares" (1613) (trans. "Exemplary Novels") a portrait in words as opposed to the common practice of drawing strokes and gravers. It is a special portrait that is notable for its realistic details such as the loss of most of his teeth and his stoop. This portrait in words would be turned into an image in the 1738 edition of "Don Quixote".

Finding the “true” portrait of Miguel de Cervantes has been an obsession since the 18th century. Despite the various proposals put forward over the years, all of which are shown in this exhibition, today it may be said that we only have a portrait of Cervantes the character, not of Cervantes the man.

Given the difficulty of finding a true portrait of Cervantes (“however much care has been taken”, as was stated in 1738), Lord Carteret, the promotor of the first luxury edition of "Don Quixote", proposed that the English painter William Kent translate into an image the pen portrait Miguel de Cervantes wrote in the prologue to his "Novelas ejemplares" (1613). This explains the “by himself” in the title.

This 1739 edition of the "Novelas ejemplares" (trans. "Exemplary Novels") included a version of William Kent’s drawing made by the engraver Jacob Folkema, where the background with the characters of Don Quixote and Sancho is replaced by a bookshelf. The portrait was copied time and time again in dozens of editions, thereby establishing a particular image of Cervantes from the 18th century onwards.

This print was part of the series of "Portraits of illustrious Spaniards" with an epitome of their lives, which was printed in 1791. Two of the most renowned artists of the time were involved in its execution: the painter Gregorio Ferro and the engraver Fernando Selma. It portrays the triumph of Cervantes the legendary writer and his “original, admirable ingenuity in the Spanish language.”

How many autographs by Cervantes – that is, documents written in his handwriting – still survive? Only eleven. And nearly all of them are linked to his professional life as a tax collector in various Andalusian towns. They have nothing to do with his literary life and, less still, with personal details.

An example is this autograph, the only one held by the Biblioteca Nacional de España. One of the major problems of tax collection – which led Cervantes to serve a spell in prison – was the financial guarantees he had to provide, and treasurers’ constant demands for further guarantees.

Cervantes pledges his reputation and the fact he was married in the town: “I have no more guarantees and four thousand ducats is enough, and I am well-known, reliable and wed in this place”.

Cervantes was a man who, as we will see, rose from his origins in Alcalá de Henares in search of a livelihood (secretary, soldier or civil servant); a man who would be an outstanding witness of his age from the vantage point of captivity in Algiers and the subsequent years spent following the court to Madrid and Valladolid. Writing in all its aspects (plays, novels, narrative poems, prizes and academies) would be the realm in which he could realise all the dreams that life denied him. 

Until 1752 it was not known where Cervantes was born. That year the entry in the baptism register of the church of Santa María la Mayor in Alcalá de Henares was discovered.
The “native of Alcalá de Henares”, as he is described in several documents, now had a date to go by: he was baptised on 9 October 1547. As Saint Michael’s feast day is on 29 September, scholars take this to be his likely date of birth.
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Cervantes spent nearly five years serving in the Italian regiments, climbing the ranks in a promising military career. The constant reminders in his oeuvre of his involvement in the Battle of Lepanto (1571) as a raw recruit have overshadowed his subsequent military career.

7 October 1571 was the date of the Battle of Lepanto, “the most memorable and lofty occasion that past centuries have beheld or which future ages hope to see”, as Cervantes glowingly describes it in the prologue to the second part of Don Quixote. This colossal battle was progressively magnified in propagandistic literature such as this magnificent manuscript codex containing an epic poem dedicated to Philip II.
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When the coast of Catalonia was in sight, the galley El Sol in which Miguel de Cervantes was travelling with his brother Rodrigo was captured by Barbary pirates.

Cervantes spent five years in Algiers, a city totally unlike the Europe with which the author was familiar. The thousand adventures he experienced during these five years are known in detail through a document which some critics hold to have been written by Cervantes himself – the Información de Argel (1580) – and through scattered information provided in the verses of the Epístola a Mateo Vázquez (1577) (Letter to Mateo Vázquez). These are the foundations on which the life story of Cervantes the character was progressively built.

The more than 47 indications in the lower part (written in Italian) specifying the city’s most important buildings, constructions and streets give an idea of the complexity of Algiers when Cervantes arrived there as a captive. At the time Algiers was much larger than Rome or Palermo and had an estimated population of 120,000 inhabitants, more than half of whom were renegades. A land of opportunities. A land of possibilities.
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Antonio de Sosa was taken captive in Algiers in April 1577. He was Cervantes’s companion and can also be considered his first biographer (and even his hagiographer), as his "Diálogo de los mártires" (Dialogue of the martyrs) gives an account of Cervantes’s second attempted escape in Algiers, that of 1577.

Antonio de Sosa’s work, published by Diego de Haedo in 1612, is clearly aimed at encouraging readers to support the captives in Algiers and at spurring the king to complete his control of the Mediterranean begun at the Battle of Lepanto.
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Following his period of captivity in Algiers, Cervantes arrived at the court in 1580 with one idea in mind: to achieve a "merced" (favour) – that is a post of official in the bureaucratic labyrinth of the court of Philip II. From the outset he had set his sights on one of the vacant posts in the Americas, as he wrote to the secretary Antonio de Eraso in 1582. In this handwritten letter he confesses that his pastoral romance, the "Galatea" – which came out only three years later – is at a very advanced stage.

The first copies of the "Galatea", this special book on shepherds and the first work Miguel de Cervantes published, came on sale on 13 March 1585 (the date of the “appraisal” establishing the selling price of the book). In addition to the songs and love stories between various characters, Book VI included what is known as the “Song of Caliope”, a compilation and praise in verse of a hundred poets. It paints a veritable portrait of the literary scene, in which Cervantes was keen to triumph.
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"Don Quixote", which came on sale at the beginning of 1605 in Francisco de Robles’s bookshop – in both Madrid and Valladolid, the seat of court since the previous year – was Miguel de Cervantes’s major publishing success. It was the triumph he was able to enjoy the most and on which he pinned new hopes for a different life, which were only realised on paper by his characters. "Don Quixote" is one of the best chivalric novels ever written.

"The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha" was destined to become a bestseller. This was the dream of the bookseller Francisco de Robles, who applied for the licence and privilege, signed by Cervantes, to print the work. It was granted, and the second edition of "Don Quixote" began to be printed in April 1605, extending the privilege to Aragón and Portugal. Its success was only relative: copies of this second edition still lay unsold in Francisco de Robles’s bookshop when a later edition came out in 1608.
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Would we still remember Miguel de Cervantes, 400 years later, if his literary career had ended at this point? A pastoral novel, a chivalric novel, several plays and hundreds of poems is a paltry record for an author in a period known as the Golden Age. It was the snippets of life he published eight years after the triumph of the first "Don Quixote" that raised him above other writers of the day and laid the foundations for Miguel de Cervantes the legend.

It took Miguel de Cervantes eight years to publish his next work following the success of the first part of "Don Quixote". This is one of many mysteries surrounding Cervantes’s life. Would it not have been more usual to have taken advantage of how well the Ingenious Gentleman had sold to bring out a sequel soon afterwards? Would it not have been logical for Cervantes to have done so bearing in mind that the adventures recounted in the second part begin only a month after the character arrives back in his village? Cervantes returned to the printing press with a singular work: a collection of “novellas” without a narrative framework, beginning with "La gitanilla" (trans. The Little Gypsy Girl), one of his most fascinating and surprising works.
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Miguel de Cervantes was a magnificent poet and devoted much of his life to poetry. And this book (trans. "Journey to Parnassus"), written at a crucial time in his life when he aspired to become a member of the literary academy of the Count of Lemos in Naples, is a good example. It is full of irony, as illustrated by the “privileges, warnings and decrees” with which it ends:

The first is, that any poets may be known, as well as by the untidiness of their persons, as by the fame of their verses.

"Item, that if any poet should affirm that he is poor, he shall forthwith be believed on his simple word, without other oath or affidavit whatsoever."
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Miguel de Cervantes never again had his plays performed at the courtyard theatres after the playwright Lope de Vega, a “prodigy of nature”, made his triumphal appearance on the scene.

But at the end of his life, as Lope had laid down, Cervantes published the plays and entremeses or interludes he had written over the years, some highly unique and witty such as the "Gran sultana" (trans. "The Great Sultana"), where he turns to the familiar Arab settings about which he was knowledgeable.
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"The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha" of 1605 is a special kind of chivalric novel in which humour is central to the tale. However, the second part, which came out in 1615, is “something more” – a something more that establishes a dialogue with the first part (and its readers) but also with Alonso Fernández de Avellaneda’s spurious "Don Quixote" of 1614.

This prodigious story is, without a doubt, the finest of his literary works. It enabled him to explore more deeply the limits of fiction and laid the foundations for the modern novel.
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Cervantes carried on writing until the very end of his days, putting his life on paper. It is moving to think that, even with “one foot in the grave”, he was still promising new works, new products of his wit. To write is to be alive, and life only seemed meaningful for Cervantes if he threw himself into writing, into the real lives of these fictional characters he created throughout his lifetime. "Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda"(trans. "The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda") was not published until a year after his death.

This was the last of the works Miguel de Cervantes wrote and it came on sale at the end of 1616, according to the appraisal: “In Madrid, on the twenty-third day of the year one thousand six hundred and sixteen.” It is touching how the “complete cripple” and “delight of the muses”, as he describes himself in the prologue, continues to promise the Count of Lemos new works: “There are still some fragments and traces in my mind of the ‘Weeks in a Garden’ and the famous “Bernardo’, and if happily by good luck – though it wouldn’t be luck now but rather a miracle – Heaven should give me life, you will see them, and along with them the conclusion of the Galatea, of which I know Your Excellency is fond.”
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The little we know about Cervantes the man and the continual references with which Miguel de Cervantes peppered his literary works laid the foundations for Cervantes the character. It was only a question of time before Cervantes the myth began to be built on these foundations. A myth that started out with the English readers who rescued the writer and made him the model of a new conception of storytelling. And he was eventually hailed as the expression of “national genius” beginning in the 19th century, when the character’s “heroic life” was stressed in order to disseminate a particular model of conduct.

“Written in imitation of the manner of Cervantes” is how Henry Fielding highlights the strong dependence of his novel Joseph Andrews on the style of fiction devised by Cervantes. It was in England where admiration for Cervantes’s manner of writing prevailed over the overwhelming appeal of the character of Don Quixote, who triumphed in the rest of Europe. It was England that hailed Cervantes as a masterly writer.

Don Quixote is the most widely translated literary work: into 146 languages since 1612 to the present day. English was the first foreign language in which Don Quixote’s adventures could be read: in Thomas Shelton’s translation published in London in 1612. If we are to believe what is stated in the prologue, the translation was made in 1606 or 1607, and the translator took 40 days “Being thereunto more than halfe enforced, through the importunity of a very dear friend, that was desirous to understand the subject.”
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Gregorio Mayáns y Siscar finished writing the first biography of Cervantes in 1737, including a study of Don Quixote. It was published the following year. Its few pages attest to the scarcity of historical data and the abundance of literary references on Miguel de Cervantes. The first biographies of Cervantes, all designed to preface the luxurious standard 18th-century editions of "Don Quixote", followed the same pattern.

Gregorio Mayáns y Siscar’s first biography of Cervantes was published in the luxury edition of Don Quixote printed in London in 1738, under the auspices of Lord Carteret. This is one of the 25 copies printed by Mayans to send to Lord Carteret and is the basis of the text that was printed in London according to one of his customs: not to trust manuscripts and typesetters’ interpretations of his handwriting.
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In January 1773, when the Real Academia Española embarked on its project for a standard edition of Don Quixote, Colonel Vicente de los Ríos read out to the institution an “Elogio de Cervantes” (Eulogy to Cervantes) that was the basis of his future biography of Cervantes published in 1780, a year after his death. The project for a biography of Cervantes began a few years earlier, as is stated in this autograph letter, where Vicente de los Ríos establishes with the publisher Antonio de Sancha the terms and conditions for publishing the "Memorias de Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, sacadas de sus escritos originales, de documentos auténticos y de autores contemporáneos" (Memoirs of Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, taken from his original writings, authentic documents and contemporary authors).

In contrast to the model of annotated edition, which was followed by Reverend John Bowle in his 1781 edition of "Don Quixote" and subsequently by Juan Antonio Pellicer in his own edition of 1797–98, the Real Academia Española decided to take as a basis the London luxury edition of 1738, and accordingly included a new biography at the start of the book, accompanied by a thorough literary analysis of "Don Quixote". Vicente de los Ríos’s biography was one of the most widely followed and respected until Martín Fernández de Navarrete’s was published in 1819.
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Martín Fernández de Navarrete was Cervantes’s most influential biographer, at least throughout the whole of the 1800s and much of the 1900s. His network of librarians, archivists, scholars and friends enabled him to access 31 unpublished documents which shed light on very specific aspects of Cervantes’s life that were hitherto unknown or widely debated. It may be deduced from his way of working that he was a biographer who never moved from his study, as he did not see the original documents but worked with transcriptions sent by his friends and correspondents.

In 1819 the Real Academia Española published its fourth edition of Don Quixote. The main novelty was its new biography of Cervantes by Martín Fernández de Navarrete, which made up the 644-page long fifth volume accompanied by transcriptions of the new documents discovered. This biography provides so much new information that Navarrete proudly claimed “to have shed so much new light on the events of Cervantes’s life that it seems to be the life of a different person if compared with the previously published [biographies]”.
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The search for new documents on Cervantes following the publication of Martín Fernández de Navarrete’s biography became an obsession. Collections of records such as those compiled by José María Asensio (11 documents), Cristóbal Pérez Pastor (161) Francisco Rodríguez Marín (more than 122) and José de la Torre y del Cerro (40)… form the basis of a good many of today’s biographies. Jerónimo Morán incorporated 17 new documents into his biography of Cervantes, nearly all of them from the Archivo General de Simancas.

They include the"Provisión de los alcaldes de Casa y Corte mandando prender a Miguel Cervantes condenado en rebeldía por haber herido a Antonio Segura datado en Madrid el 15 de septiembre de 1569, que había sido enviado a la Real Academia de la Historia en 1840, que no lo tuvo en cuenta porque consideraban que un duelo podía “manchar” el honor de Cervantes" (Provision of the royal judges ordering the arrest of Miguel Cervantes convicted in absentia of wounding Antonio Segura in Madrid on 15 September 1569, which had been sent to the Royal Academy of History in 1840 and which was not taken into account because it was considered that a duel could “tarnish” Cervantes’s honour).
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Miguel de Cervantes, who died and was buried practically alone in the convent of Trinitarian nuns, lives on through his works and his characters – especially Don Quixote, who has become almost a mirror image of Cervantes himself. Both lie dead. One recovered from the madness caused by his constant reading of chivalric novels. The other driven to distraction by words – all those he was never able to write, all those that life dealt him.

Miguel de Cervantes spent his last years in Madrid in a rented house in Calle León, at the corner of Calle Francos (now Calle Cervantes).

On 23 April 1833 Mesonero Romanos complained of the haste with this this house, the last trace of Cervantes’s presence in Madrid, was demolished:
“Cervantes’s house…! […] How can it be?!” he exclaimed resolutely. “And who dares to profane the dwelling of the joyful writer, the muses’ delight?
“Interest, sir, no doubt interest”.
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