Nearly 400 years since the death of Spain's most famous writer, scientists are using ground-penetrating radar to search for Miguel de Cervantes' body.
It's believed to be buried in the foundation or walls of a 17th century convent in downtown Madrid — the Convent of the Barefoot Trinitarians — built in 1612 and now surrounded by 21st century tapas bars and traffic.
On Monday, NPR got a sneak peak inside the convent, where a dozen cloistered Catholic nuns, ages 23 to 92, live. They sing at Mass each morning, hidden behind a second-floor screen, out of public view. And they are the keepers of the legend of Cervantes' final resting place.
"For 400 years, we have kept Cervantes' last dying wish, to be buried here," says Maria Jose, the nuns' secretary and the only one allowed to speak to visitors. "We have passed down the memory of the documents that registered his burial here, even though the documents themselves have all since been lost."
Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra was born near Madrid around the year 1547 and went on to pen the Spanish language's most famous book, officially titled The Adventures of the Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, in two volumes, published in 1605 and 1615. It's considered history's first modern novel, and its author the Shakespeare of the Spanish-speaking world.
But money didn't come as quickly as fame for Cervantes.
"This novel, everybody immediately recognized as a masterpiece, and a new turning point," says Fernando de Prado, a historian who has devoted most of his own life to studying that of Cervantes. "But Miguel de Cervantes was a soldier without luck — a man without fortune. He was an extremely nice person, but he was a poor, handicapped man."
Cervantes served in the Spanish navy and survived gunshot wounds to his chest and arm — which left his left hand crippled. He was kidnapped by pirates and held captive for five years. The ransom required for his release bankrupted him and his relatives. He died penniless, a year after the final volume of Don Quixote was published.
But Cervantes is believed to have had one stroke of good luck, with his last dying wish to be buried inside the Madrid convent of the nuns who helped negotiate his freedom from pirates.
Four centuries later, a small plaque outside the convent notes that Cervantes is believed to be buried there. But no one knows precisely where — or even if the legend is true. The convent has undergone renovations several times since 1616, when Cervantes died.
Compare this to the Holy Trinity church in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, where Shakespeare is buried. It gets thousands of tourists each year. Spain wants to do something similar for its own bard and wouldn't mind cashing in on the tourist revenue that could come from it.
So it's hired geophysicists to find Cervantes' body once and for all. Technicians began work on Monday, using ground-penetrating radar and infrared scans to probe the convent's foundation and walls. Local officials say they've wanted to launch such a search for decades, but that the technology to do so didn't exist until now.
"It's magnetic impulse machinery, like an X-ray. We put this strong signal into the ground, and X-ray the shape of the cavities, structures and graves," says Luis Avial, technical director of Falcon High Tech, a geophysics company hired to do radar scans of the convent. "It's like you go to hospital with a broken leg. The doctor, the first thing he/she makes is an X-ray to see the information of your leg. This is the same."
Excavations could follow. The whole project, including scans, excavations and analysis could take up to a year, and cost $138,000. The first phase has been paid for by Madrid's town hall.
The injuries Cervantes sustained in life could help scientists identify him now.
"Cervantes was nearly 70 when he died, and he'd described himself physically in his own writings," notes Francisco Etxeberría, a forensic anthropologist who helped exhume the body of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda last year. "Cervantes had a curved nose, a hunchback — and only six teeth! Not to mention his injuries: gunshot wounds to his chest, and a crippled left hand. Whatever's left of his bones should show some signs of these injuries."
If they find him, the plan is to keep Cervantes' remains inside the convent — respecting his dying wish.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
It's nearly 400 years since the death of Spain's most famous writer, Miguel de Cervantes. He who wrote "The Adventures of Don Quixote." Legend has it that he is buried under a convent in downtown Madrid. And today, technicians started using ground-penetrating radar to try to solve this enduring mystery in Spain's literary history. Lauren Frayer brings us the story.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: "The Adventures of the Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote of La Mancha." Before the musical, the ballet, the film, it was a 17th century book, considered the first modern novel, and its creator, Miguel de Cervantes, the Shakespeare of the Spanish-speaking world.
FERNANDO DE PRADO: This novel, everybody immediately recognize as a masterpiece and a new turning point. But money don't came so quickly as the fame.
FRAYER: Historian Fernando de Prado says just like Cervantes' hero Don Quixote, the author had some quixotic adventures of his own. He served in the Spanish Navy. He was kidnapped by pirates and held captive five years.
PRADO: Miguel de Cervantes was a soldier without luck, a man without fortune. He was a very, extremely nice person. But he was poor and he was a handicapped man.
FRAYER: War wounds left him crippled. A year after the complete "Don Quixote" was published, Cervantes died penniless in 1616. But he's believed to have gotten his last dying wish, to be buried inside the Madrid convent of the nuns who helped negotiate his freedom from pirates.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in Spanish)
FRAYER: Nearly 400 years later, that convent still stands with a dozen cloistered nuns inside. This morning, the nuns sang from behind a screen out of public view at a mass in memory of Cervantes.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Spanish spoken)
FRAYER: For all those laid to rest inside this monastery, especially Miguel de Cervantes, the priest said. A small plaque outside says Cervantes is buried here but no one knows precisely where or even if the legend is true. Compare this to the church in Stratford-upon-Avon, England, where Shakespeare is buried, which gets thousands of tourists each year. Spain wants to do something similar for its own bard. So, it's hired geophysicists to find Cervantes' body once and for all. Luis Avial is using ground-penetrating radar and infrared scans to probe the convent's foundation.
LUIS AVIAL: It's like you go to hospital, no, with a broken leg. The doctor, the first thing you make is an X-ray, no, to see the information of your leg. And this is the same.
FRAYER: Excavations could follow. The team includes Francisco Etxeberria, a forensics expert who helped exhume the body of the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda last year. He says Cervantes' injuries in life could help scientists identify him now.
FRANCISCO ETXEBERRIA: (Spanish spoken)
FRAYER: Cervantes was nearly 70 when he died, and he described himself physically in his own writings, he says. He had a curved nose, a hunchback and only six teeth. And then were his injuries: gunshot wounds to his chest and a crippled left hand, he says. Whatever's left of his bones should show some signs of these injuries. If they find him, the plan is to keep Cervantes' remains inside the convent, respecting his dying wish. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Madrid. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.