Many statues and landmarks in Spain and Italy reflect his importance to the people of Spain.
Cervantes in Lisbon
Cervantes lived in Lisbon sporadically in 1581, after that he went to Orán, he came back to Lisbon and, in 1582, he moved to Madrid. How he lived and what he did there remains something of a mystery.
Most biographers note that he followed King Philip II there in hopes of gaining an appointment in the royal court. But, while Philip was busy solidifying Spanish rule over Portugal, Cervantes was out of luck.
Ancient towers of the Royal Palace of Ribeira
Lisbon’s Ribeira Palace had been around for about 250 years by the time Cervantes arrived in the Portuguese capital. The palace was the main residence of the Portuguese kings.
In the 1580s, King Philip II of Spain moved in to assert Spanish rule over Portugal. Over a century and a half later, in 1755, the Ribeira was destroyed in the Great Lisbon Earthquake.
Today, all that remains of the palace are the two towers located in corners of the Praça do Comércio, Lisbon’s primary square.
The Tajo River once made Lisbon one of the top port cities of Europe. Lying directly on the Atlantic coast, the Portuguese capital had enormous access to trade from Asia, Africa, and the New World.
In his novel The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda, Cervantes wrote that Lisbon was: “(...) the gateway to the treasures of the Orient, which from here flow to the world. Its busy harbor accommodates countless vessels and an undulating forest of ship masts.’’
Battle of Ponta Delgada
While in Lisbon, Cervantes is rumored to have participated in the Battle of Ponta Delgada, in which Spain fought Portugal and its ally France for control of the Azores islands.
It is well known that Cervantes’ brother, Rodrigo, was one of the first Spanish fighters to come ashore on the islands.
Wedding in Esquivias
In 1584, not long after the birth of his biological daughter with Ana de Villafranca—an actress and the wife of a tavern owner—Cervantes traveled to Esquivias in the Castile-La Mancha region of Spain.
There he married Catalina Palacios Salazar and settled down for a few years, from 1584 to 1587. “Without Esquivias, Don Quixote would not exist.” So wrote Cervantes' biographer Luis Astrana Marin, summarizing the special relationship Cervantes had with Esquivias.
The full title of the author’s most famous work is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.
Our Lady of the Assumption Church
Cervantes and Catalina de Palacios were married on December 12, 1584, in the parish church of Esquivias. A book of marriage preserved in the church sacristy collects the documental evidence of this union:
“Year 1584. On December 12, the senior reverend Juan of Palacios, deputy, married Mr. Miguel de Cervantes, resident of Madrid, and Miss Catalina de Palacios, resident of Esquivias. Witnesses: Rodrigo Mexia, Diego Escribano, and Francisco Marcos.”
The new family’s home in a small town gave Cervantes a brief respite from the financial pressure and chaos that usually marked his life. This may have contributed to the writer’s prolific production during this period.
It is during these years when he published his first fiction, the pastoral novel La Galatea, just before his wedding in Esquivias.
All was not peaceful in Cervantes’ marriage. Before his wedding, his affair with Ana Franca had produced a daughter, Isabel de Saavedra, who later ended up living in Cervantes’ home. Cervantes and his wife Catalina never had children of their own.
Words in print
The printing of the first part of Cervantes’ novel La Galatea was completed in 1585 in the workshops of Juan Gracián. It was paid for by a bookseller from Madrid, Blas de Robles. The novel was a “pastoral,” a popular type of fiction.
Pastorals often included the romantic adventures of shepherds and other rural people, who were held up to be pure and simple. The novel was not a failure, but it didn’t make Cervantes famous either.
The printing press of Juan Gracián, calle Libreros, 9
La Galatea was printed in the workrooms of printer Juan de Gracián at No. 9 Calle Libreros. Today, a bank branch occupies that spot, but a plaque reminds visitors of the historical importance of the site.
Though bookseller Blas de Robles paid Cervantes a relatively good price for the novel, at the time there was no such thing as “royalties.” That meant that Cervantes saw no money from actual book sales.
Hoping for patronage, he had dedicated the book to a local noble, but the noble did not respond. The author never bothered to write the sequel to the novel that he had promised.
Back to Work
Between 1587 and 1600, the most important writer of Spanish literature lived in Seville and other several places in Andalucia.
As tax collector for the Royal Navy, his job involved going from town to town and collecting grain, olive oil, and other commodities claimed by the armies for use in feeding the soldiers.
In the late 1580s, Seville was a wealthy and politically powerful town. While Cervantes’ job took him all across the Spanish countryside, he also observed urban life.
Many scenes in the novellas collected in The Exemplary Stories and in the novel The Dialogue of Dogs are set in real places in Seville.
Some accounting problems eventually landed Cervantes in debt. Though he constantly applied for new jobs, even some in the far away Americas, he could not quite make a living. At the time, failure to pay one’s debts was a crime, and, twice, Cervantes found himself in jail.
At the end of 1597 he ended up in the Royal Jail of Seville, on Sierpe Street. There, he learned the language of the criminal underworld that he later went on to express in his works.
Statue of Cervantes
The Royal Jail of Seville began as a medieval building, and was remodeled in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries.
It was kept in use up until the nineteenth century. It once held many distinguished prisoners of the Spanish Golden Age, and it is said that Cervantes began to develop his work Don Quixote there. Today, the building is gone, but a statue of Cervantes marks its location.
Sometime around 1601, Cervantes once again followed the royal Spanish court and moved to the city of Valladolid. The author and his wife, two sisters, and two nieces moved into rooms above a tavern not far from the municipal slaughterhouse.
In this crowded atmosphere and under pressure to earn money, Cervantes finished the first part of Don Quixote.
Hoping for patronage
Cervantes spent much of his adult life looking for patrons. These nobles or wealthy families would pay artists or writers to work, often in exchange for flattering depictions. This is why Cervantes followed the Royal Court of Spain and why he often dedicated his published books to different nobles whom he hoped would sponsor him. Don Quixote was dedicated to a local aristocrat, the Duke of Bejar.
Finding Cervantes’ home
Because of Cervantes’ chaotic life, it is often difficult to find exactly where he lived and worked. Historians searching for Cervantes’ home in Valladolid had few clues to go on.
But in 1862, Professor Don Jose Santa Maria de Hita located with fair certainty Cervantes’ family’s rooms. In 1866, a plaque was placed on the building’s facade, and in 1912, the property became a museum.
The Ezpeleta Affair
On June 27, 1605, Don Gaspar de Ezpeleta, a Spanish nobleman and knight in the Order of Santiago, was murdered in front of the building where Cervantes lived with his family.
At one point during the police investigation, the entire family and others who lived in the building were briefly incarcerated. Public documents related to the case give a rare glimpse of the personal life of Cervantes.
The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, Cervantes’ masterwork, ran some 664 pages. The bookseller Francisco de Robles bought the rights to sell the book, and despite hundreds of printing errors, the novel quickly sold out.
Eventually, the novel became massively popular around the globe. Today, it is widely considered to be the single greatest work of Spanish literature, and one of the most important works of fiction in the world.
Don Quixote was printed at the Juan de la Cuesta printing house at No. 87 Atocha Street. Today, this is the home of the Cervantes Society of Madrid, founded in 1953 by Cervantes biographer Luis Astrana Marin. The plaque on the façade of the building shows the misguided knight Don Quixote and his servant Sancho Panza.
Don Quixote, Part II
Unlike La Galatea, the sequel to Don Quixote was completed and published. It became nearly as popular as the first installment. (Today, the works are almost always published together as a single volume.)
Part II was published in 1615 also by the Juan de la Cuesta printing house, which by then had moved from Atocha Street just around the corner to this side street, Calle de San Eugenio.
A poor print
The first edition of Don Quixote included an enormous number of printing errors. Many readers assumed that Cervantes was responsible for these mistakes. In truth, the printing house had done a sloppy job of setting the movable type.
In addition to this embarrassment, Cervantes had also signed away his rights to the novel. Its wild success brought him no money except for the original sum de Robles paid for the first printing.
Cervantes’ final years
Since February of 1608, Cervantes and family were living in Madrid, settled down in what is known today as the Barrio de las Letras (The Literary Quarter), and never moved out, although they changed dwelling places four times. In mid-April, 1616, Cervantes became ill.
He received the last rites, signed the dedication of Persiles, and three days later on April 22nd, he died. The following day he was buried in the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians in Madrid.
Cervantes and other authors of his time, including Lope de Vega, Quevedo and Góngora, were part of a golden age of Spanish literature. Many of these prominent authors lived and worked in what is now the Barrio de las Letras, a fashionable neighborhood in the old city of Madrid.
Cervantes’ funeral service was held in the The chapel at the Trinitarian convent, in the heart of the Literary Quarter. It was not just convenient to Cervantes’ home; his only daughter also served as a nun in its convent.
Cervantes may have felt connected to this church for other reasons. The Trinitarian Order was the group that raised the ransom money that freed him from slavery in Algiers in 1580.
The exact location of Cervantes’ grave is not known. The chapel at the Trinitarian convent was rebuilt in the 17th century, all the graves from the site were moved, and many identifying markings were lost.
But in 2015, researchers found a previously unknown crypt under the building containing the remains of several humans. Scientists hope that DNA tests will identify Cervantes’ remains among them, which is all the more difficult as we know Cervantes didn’t have any descendants...