Miguel de CERVANTES (1547-1616): Life and Portrait
Prof. Jean Canavaggio, Director
Casa de Velázquez, Madrid
July 1997
  (revised March 2004)

Miguel de Cervantes, born in Alcalá de Henares in 1547, was the son of a surgeon who presented himself as a nobleman, although Cervantes's mother seems to have been a descendant of Jewish converts to Christianity. Little is known of his early years. Four poems published in Madrid by his teacher, the humanist López de Hoyos, mark his literary début, punctuated by his sudden departure for Rome, where he resided for several months. In 1571 he fought valiantly at Lepanto, where he was wounded in his left hand by a harquebus shot. The following year, after recovering from his wounds, he took part in Juan of Austria's military campaigns. Returning to Spain by sea in 1575, he fell into the hands of Algerian corsairs. After five years of captivity as a slave in Algiers, and four unsuccessful escape attempts, he was ransomed by the Trinitarians and returned to his family in Madrid. In 1585, a few months after his marriage to Catalina de Salazar, twenty-two years younger than he, Cervantes published a pastoral novel, La Galatea, at the same time that some of his plays, now lost except for El trato de Argel and El cerco de Numancia, were playing on the stages of Madrid. Two years later he left for Andalusia, which he traversed for ten years, first as a purveyor for the Invencible Armada and later as a tax collector. As a result of money problems with the government, Cervantes was thrown into jail in Seville in 1597. In 1605 he was in Valladolid, then seat of the government, just when the immediate success of the first part of his Don Quixote, published in Madrid, signaled his return to the literary world. In 1607, he settled in Madrid just after the return there of the monarch Philip III. During the last nine years of his life, in spite of deaths in the family and personal setbacks, Cervantes solidified his reputation as a writer. He published the Novelas ejemplares in 1613, the Viaje del Parnaso in 1614, and in 1615, the Ocho comedias y ocho entremeses and the second part of Don Quixote, a year after the mysterious Avellaneda had published his apocryphal sequel to the novel. At the same time, Cervantes continued working on Los trabajos de Persiles y Sigismunda, which he completed three days before his death on April 22, 1616—coinciding with Shakespeare’s death--which appeared posthumously in January 1617.

What we know of Cervantes's life is the result of a long series of inquiries begun during the first three decades of the eighteenth century. But the most significant contributions have been those of scholars in the early part of the last century, especially Cristóbal Pérez Pastor. The documents that have been published through their efforts come from public, parochial, and notarial archives, and they generally refer to Cervantes' captivity, the posts that he occupied in Andalucía, and certain other important private events in his life. Few of these documents, however, cast any light on his life as a writer, much less on his personality. We need a methodical commentary on these documents to bring up to date the one outlined by James Fitzmaurice Kelly published in Oxford in 1917: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra; reseña documentada de su vida. A positive step and that direction are the contributions of K. Sliwa: Documentos de Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Pamplona, 1998) and Documentos cervantinos: Nueva recopilación; lista e indices (New York, 2000). We also need a critical biography worthy of the name. Luis Astrana Marín's big book Vida ejemplar y heroica de Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Madrid, 1948-1958, 7 vols.) suffers from a less-than-solid methodology as well as a number of personal biases. Still it contains a considerable amount of information and so remains an essential work of reference. Rosa Rossi's essay Escuchar a Cervantes (Valladolid, 1988) attempts to do away with the idealized portrait of Cervantes by interpreting his life as the confluence of his supposed Jewish origins and his latent homosexual tendencies. Among recent biographers, some have continued the tradition of the sympathetic biography initiated a century ago by F. Navarro Ledesma, El ingenioso hidalgo Miguel de Cervantes, Events from his life (Madrid, 1905). Such is the case of Andrés Trapiello (Las vidas de Cervantes, 2a. ed. Barcelona, 2002) and Fernando Arrabal’s exceedingly provocative (Un esclave nommé Cervantes, Paris, 1995).

The biography written by the author of this note (Jean Canavaggio, Cervantes, 4a ed. Madrid, 2003) appeared first in French in 1986 and was translated into Spanish the following year, and republished with revisions in 1997. Unlike other studies, it does not attempt to plumb the depths of the irrational in order to decipher the symbolism that Cervantes's fiction presumably contains. Rather than "explain" Cervantes, a man who disappeared almost four centuries ago and whose creation has taken on a life of its own, this biography aspires to "tell his story" better. It aims first to establish with all the necessary rigor what is actually known of Cervantes' actions and experiences, while excluding all the speculations surrounding them. Then Cervantes, who was an obscure participant in a heroic adventure, a lucid observer of a time of doubt and crisis, and a very personal interpreter of Spain at a crucial moment in its history, must be placed in his own milieu and his own time, better known now because of the work of recent historians. We must do our best to find that man. As we trace this life which has become a destiny that we attempt to render comprehensible, my study offers the likely profile of a figure who is not the same individual that his friends and family knew, nor the "rare genius" whose profile Cervantes himself created, nor the figure which, since his death, has arisen from a series of myths which some day ought to be looked into.

(Translation by E. Urbina)