Cervantes in Alcalá


The 450th anniversary of the birth of the most universal of all writers, Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (Alcalá de Henares, 1547-Madrid, 1616), this year is the perfect time to visit our city and retrace the author's footsteps and even his thoughts.

There are four places directly linked to the writer. Three of them, curiously enough, are located on Imagen (Image) Street, making this street the biggest/greatest Cervantes center in the world: Number 4 on Imagen Street is the house where the author was born, now with an entrance at the back, on Mayor (Main) Street. Known as the "Casa de la Calzonera" (House of Breeches), the house which belonged to his uncle Juan Cervantes, located just opposite Cervantes's birthplace, also on a corner but facing the opposite direction, between Mayor and Imagen Streets, was recently acquired by the University of Alcalá. At number five, right next to Cervantes's uncle's house--curious coincidence--the great Cervantes scholar/enthusiast Manuel Azaña was born. But Azaña died a few years before this information about Cervantes became known.

The third place related to the author is the convent of the Barefoot Carmelites of the Image (Carmelitas Descalzas de la Imagen), where Cervantes's sister Luisa de Belén served as abbess at three different times.

There are still other places connected to Miguel de Cervantes, among them the Capilla del Oidor (the Judge's Chapel)--what remains of the parish of Santa María la Mayor (Saint Mary the Great)--located at the end of the Plaza de Cervantes (Cervantes Square), where Miguel was christened on October 9, 1547, and where a replica of the baptismal font is displayed, incrusted with three fragments of the original salvaged from the destruction of the civil war. In the middle of the square which bears his name there is a monument to Cervantes created in 1879 by the sculptor Carlo Nicoli.

Libreros (Booksellers) Street must figure in any account of Cervantes and Alcalá. Cervantes's first published work, La Galatea, commissioned by the bookseller Blas de Robles, was printed on this street in the print shop belonging to Juan Gracián. Number 17 of the same street, formerly the Colegio Universitario del Rey (King's College), now houses the main office of the Instituto Cervantes (Cervantes Institute). Could there possibly be a better location for it? At the present time the Centro de Estudios Cervantinos (Center for Cervantes Studies), a public entity sponsored by the Spanish Ministry of Cultural Affairs, the state (Comunidad Autónoma) of Madrid, the University of Alcalá and the Alcalá City Council are all responsible for keeping alive the study of Cervantes's life and works.

Visiting Alcalá is like strolling through history with its most famous characters; few cities reflect as precisely as Alcalá the historical development of Spain. The city's privileged geographical position has given rise to human settlements since time immemorial, but it took on especial prominence in Roman times when it was known as Complutum. The splendor of Roman times did not ebb during the visigothic period in which Alcalá became a bishopric.

During the Arabic period the city's physical location experienced some fundamental changes. In the hills which bordered its southern flank, an important castle was built which gave it its present name Al-Qala (the castle) as well as its shield--a castle set above the ripples of a stream. When the Christians conquered the city, the king and queen donated it to the archbishops of Toledo by whom it was highly esteemed. It automatically became the second most important city under their jurisdiction and remained under their temporal rule until the early nineteenth century, a little over seven centuries.

So the bishops led Alcalá by the hand through the wide gate of history, first as an important market town and "resort" from the twelfth through the fifteenth centuries and then as a pioneering university town from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries with the university founded by Cardinal Cisneros. During the Golden Age its splendor was such that the layout and the architectonic personality of the city have been definitively marked by the buildings and monuments built at that time. For those wanting to know what Spanish cities were like at our time of greatest splendor, a visit to Alcalá is indispensable. It was no accident, therefore, that the most important personalities of the day could be found in Alcalá and that the Príncipe de los Ingenios (the Prince of Wit), Miguel de Cervantes, was born here.

The decadence which followed splendor was highlighted by the removal of the university to Madrid in 1836. But Alcalá was saved from complete ruin because of its transformation from university center to military establishment. Despite everything, in the last decades of the past century and the first of this century, the city experienced a silver age during which another exceptional figure appeared, Manuel Azaña.

The city's slow convalescence was delayed by the outbreak of the civil war in 1936, but it began to rise again in the sixties. Among the factors contributing to this renewal: The population has risen to 170,000. The city was declared a national historical-artistic treasure in 1968. Between 1975 and 1977 the university was reinstated. Alcalá once again became the seat of a bishopric in 1991. All these factors have been essential to the renewal of its monuments and to its once again achieving national importance.

Text: Vicente Fernández (Translation by Melvin Hinton)