Bones of Contention

High-Tech Science in Search
of Body of Miguel de Cervantes

As the science of forensics gets more sophisticated, so does our contemporary interest in finding out more about the great masters of the past. For centuries, paintings and written accounts told us stories and tales, most done years after their deaths, of some of the seminal figures of art, literature and the sciences. There was not much we could do to find out more about them.
Until now. DNA, geo-imaging, penetrating solid-body analysis, even newly uncovered records about those influential characters are making possible to know who they really were, how they lived and what made them accomplish so much, all by studying their earthly remains.
Spain, for example, is embarking in a search for the bones of Miguel de Cervantes, the immortal author of Don Quixote de la Mancha, long thought to have been buried within the walls or under an old convent in Madrid.
Arguably, one of the most important writers of Western civilization, along with William Shakespeare and the Portuguese Luis de Camões, Cervantes is believed to have died in the same day of the bard of Stratford-Upon-Avon (if the records about him are accurate), in April 23, 1616. Since Spain was using the Gregorian calendar at that time, and England the Julian, they’re actually 10 days apart.
Of the three, Shakespeare is, of course, considered the most important, if anything for also being the most prolific. However, his very existence has been challenged, as the few records left of his life in England seem to offer a portrait of a completely different person.
At least, that’s the base for the argument defended by the Oxfordians, a group who claims the master was an invention concocted by a member of the court of Elizabeth I. Conspiracy apart, there’s no hope for historians to ever find any fragment of his bones, usually the most durable proof of anyone’s existence.
One of the most notorious cases is that of French philosopher René Descartes, who was a contemporary of them, and the convoluted record of his skeletal remains. For a variety of reasons, not all of them quite yet understood, in the years following his death in 1650, his body was dismembered and taken to different countries and locations a few times over by different groups of people, in the name of an assortment of faiths and beliefs.
The practice was, obviously, not exclusive of the Renascence and Enlightenment Era. Since ancient times, the Catholic Church, for example, had recognized the importance of “administering” the death of its saints, by determining in some cases, where they should be laid to rest, even if that meant more than one location.
Those body parts, mostly body fragments, really, preserved in various states of decay, remain till this day important relics that underline the faith, while allocating the power of representation to congregations that are geographically and politically relevant to the church’s hierarchy.
A gran master’s place of birth, once reasonably established, is also a factor of pride and, above all, revenue to any municipality, conflicts about Shakespeare’s real origin notwithstanding.
A good example is the recent identification of bone fragments of Michelangelo Merisi, the Italian painter known as Caravaggio, and what it meant to Port Ercole. Despite obvious shortcomings in DNA analysis of bones buried since 1610, when Caravaggio reportedly died of syphilis, the discovery attracted worldwide attention and now fuels the town’s profitable tourist industry.
Curiously, 1610 was also the year when the French King Henri IV was assassinated. Although known as “the good Henri,” he has the dubious honor of having been the only monarch who lost his head after his death. French revolutionaries unearthed his body in the 1800s and decapitated it for good measure (and, obviously, maximum dramatic impact on the crowd). It took another two centuries for his head to be reunited to the rest of his body, last year.
The least well known of the three important writers of the 16th century, Luis de Camoes, is also the oldest of them. Perhaps because the Portuguese with which he penned his masterpiece, Os Lusíadas, is spoken now by only a fraction of people who speak English and Spanish, there’s very little knowledge about him that’s public currency.
Portugal’s greatest writer, though, was the only one to chronicle the Discovery Era, narrating the epic of the first navigators, Portuguese like him. For some 50-odd years, Portugal did lead the world in conquests, and it was due to the feats of some of its greatest sailors, such as Vasco da Gama and Fernando Magalhães, that the whole era unfolded and it was made possible.
Back to the creator of Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza, Cervantes’s bones won’t be too hard to identify, if ever found, due to war wounds he suffered while fighting the Ottomans in 1571. He lost then the use of one of his hands, and it’s quite possible that the pain he suffered throughout his remaining years was at the root of his alcoholism and death of cirrhosis.
One of the goals of the search for Cervantes’s remains would be the reconstruction of his face. His only known portrait was done 20 years after his death by Juan de Jauregui. It’ll also serve for an enhanced celebration of the 400 years of his and Shakespeare’s death in 2016.
As the continuous digging of archaelogical sites throughout the world show, the existence of bones and the way they are disposed have been a human obsession since immemorial times. It wouldn’t be different with some of us who left also records of great beauty and transcendence.
But when it comes down to it, nothing compares to the reconstruction of someone’s likeness.
In that, as in many other areas, we’re not much different from apes and highly intelligent animals: most of us have the ability of recognize our own humanity on someone else’s facial expression. Specially if such person lived centuries ago and left a record of his or her existence to boot.
The writers of ancient holy and religious books may not have recognized then the importance of registering, in trace and drawing, the physiognomy of the mystical leaders who inspired their faith. But at least on the Bible there’s a crucial tenet of the Christian faith: that god made man to his own likeness.
That snippet of revelation gives the faithful instantaneous acess and identification with such a higher power. Someone who, ever the almighty, nevertheless, would sport the same physical manifestation as any human would. But we sincerely wish them all good luck trying to find any usable fragment of the bones of Jesus.
Cervantes face, thus, will have to suffice for now.

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