Gone Missing: The Leading Lights of the Spanish Golden Age

As a 2007 Reuters article on William Shakespeare’s grave noted, “Digging up bones of the dead was common in Shakespeare’s time, either for religious or research purposes. Often human remains were removed to make way for more graves, dumped in landfill sites, or even used as fertilizer.” The same article quotes Dr. Philip Schwyzer, senior lecturer at Exeter University, and author of Archaeologies of English Renaissance Literature as saying the bard of Avon “had an unusual obsession with burial and a fear of exhumation.” This may explain the curse inscribed on his gravestone in the chancel of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon that reads:

Good Friend, for Jesus’ sake forbear
To dig the dust enclosed here:
Blessed be the man that spares these stones,
And curst be he that moves my bones.

As fate, or the curse, would have it, the bard’s grave has remained untouched since April 25, 1616, the burial date recorded in the Stratford parish register, and has become one of the most visited literary grave sites in the world. Many more of Britain’s famous writers, including Geoffrey Chaucer, Ben Johnson, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling, are buried in the Poet’s corner of Westminster Abbey. Jane Austen rests in peace in Winchester Cathedral. The undisturbed tombs of distinguished artists also dot the British landscape; one may pay homage to Hans Holbein in St. Katherine Cree Church of London, or William Hogarth in St. Nicholas’ Churchyard in Chiswick. Writers and painters in Spain have not enjoyed the same enduring respect and undisturbed sleep. If you have ever thought of visiting the final resting places of Cervantes, Lope de Vega, or Diego Velásquez, make other plans: although their spirits live on in the works they created, their mortal remains have all gone missing.

Apparently the Cortes Generales were blissfully unaware of this situation in November 1837 when they approved the conversion of the Royal Basilica of San Francisco el Grand, a property that had been confiscated from the Franciscan order by the State a year earlier, into a national “Pantheon of Illustrious Men.” They soon discovered that the earthly remains of many of the illustrious men they had hoped to enshrine in Madrid were nowhere to be found. They eventually determined that the mortal remains of Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Velásquez, Luis Vives, Juan de Herrera, Tirso de Molina, and Juan de Mariana, among others, were impossible to locate and most likely gone forever. However, in 1869, after decades of delays, the remains of other distinguished Spaniards, including writers Calderón de la Barca, Garcilaso de la Vega, and Juan de Mena, were carried to the pantheon in a grand procession to the thunder of a resounding cannon salute. The Pantheon of Illustrious Men met the same fate as so many other grandiose projects launched throughout Spanish history: by 1847, the late distinguished gentlemen who had entered its doors with great fanfare had all been discretely returned to their points of origin or interred elsewhere. In a gesture not devoid of a certain irony, King Alphonse III returned the property to the Franciscan Order in 1926. A more recent version of the pantheon constructed in the 1890s houses the remains of various Spanish politicians and statesmen. As in the case of the first, most of illustrious corpses that have entered have later been returned to the autonomous regions that could lay the strongest claims to them.

The body of Calderón de la Barca, which had been disinterred four times before its short stay in the pantheon, was reinterred in a Madrid convent that was sacked by members of a leftist militia and later bombed by nationalist forces before the end of the Spanish Civil War. Although there are claims that it may be still be sealed up somewhere in the walls of the building or was secreted away by a rescuer prior to the disturbances in 1936, no trace of it has never been found.

Cervantes disappeared long before the Cortes Generales dreamed up the idea of a pantheon. His burial in the Convent of the Trinitarias Descalzas on April 24, 1616, is well documented. Nevertheless, both the stone that marked his grave and his remains were regrettably lost during a succession of alterations to the convent begun in 1639. It is now considered likely that the bones of one of the best-loved authors in the history of world literature were unceremoniously tossed on the rubble heap by workmen during this renovation.

Cervantes’ contemporary and arch-rival Lope de Vega came up against the time-honored Spanish practice of renting out burial niches. To this day in Spain, if the survivors or descendants of the deceased fail to pony up when the rent of a cemetery niche comes due, this or her bones are pulled out and thrown into a common grave and the space is subsequently let out to a new tenant. The Duke of Sessa, whom Lope had served as a secretary, had promised to keep up the payments for his niche in the church of San Sebastián in Madrid, but at some point in time failed to do so.

The painter Diego Rodrigo de Silva y Velásquez was buried in the Church of San Juan in Madrid in 1660. The destruction of his tomb in 1811 can be blamed on Joseph Bonaparte. During the French occupation of Madrid during the Peninsular War, Bonaparte ordered the demolition of the Church of San Juan in order to create a new plaza near the royal palace. Velásquez’ grave was cavalierly destroyed during this demolition. The site of the church, which was one of the oldest in the city, has since been excavated to construct an underground parking garage. Several attempts were made to locate remnants of the tomb during the latest renovation of the plaza, but no traces were found.

If the French are to blame for the disappearance of the final resting place and bones of Velásquez, they can be credited with preserving the gravestone and remains of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes to the best of their ability. Goya died in France in 1828 and was buried in Bordeaux, where he had lived in exile since 1824. His remains, along with those of his faithful friend Martín Miguel de Goicoechea, were exhumed in 1899 and returned to Madrid, where a year later they were placed in a mausoleum in the cemetery of San Isidro. Not content with this initial arrangement, government authorities eventually translated them to the chapel of San Antonio de la Florida, whose dome is adorned with frescoes executed by the artist in 1798.

Although the French had obligingly dispatched everything they found at the grave site, including the gravestone, to Madrid in 1899, the Spanish consul who negotiated the transfer was horrified to discover that a skull was missing from the two sets of skeletal remains exhumed from the grave. The theory put forward at the time was that grave robbers had pillaged the painter’s grave at the behest of craniologists eager to uncover the secrets of genius. This argument is supported Evan S. Connell, who mentions the existence of a painting of Goya’s skull executed in 1849 by an artist named Dionisio Fierros in his biography of Goya. Connell’s research turned up an interview with one of Fierros’ descendants that appeared in the February 20, 1943 edition of the Madrid newspaper El Español in which the interviewee stated that the skull had remained in the possession of the his grandmother, “until 1910 or thereabouts when it was broken up by some anatomy student who didn’t realize what he was destroying.” Such a story makes the curse carved on Shakespeare’s grave stone sound less like an outbreak of hysteria and more like an act of prudent forethought. Interest in the fate of Goya’s skull has never faded. In August 2000, contemporary composer Michael Nyman premiered a speculative four-act opera titled Facing Goya that mixed the mystery surrounding the disappearance of Goya’s skull with skullduggery involving eugenics.

Most of the online sources I have been able to find regarding the Pantheon of Illustrious Men in Madrid state that it housed the remains of Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas when it was inaugurated. This assertion is repeated in Connell’s biography of Goya. However, more recent accounts of the exhumation of Quevedo’s bones from a common pit in the crypt of Saint Andrés Apóstol Church in Villanueva de los Infantes (Ciudad Real) in the 1990s would seem to refute these claims.

According to his last will and testimony now in the collection of the Casa Museo de la Torre de Juan Abad, the writer asked that his remains “be deposited in the chapel of the church of the Convento de Santo Domingo of this city, in the same tomb that holds those of doña Petronila de Velasco, widow of don Gerónimo de Medinilla, from where they should be transferred to the Church of Santo Domingo el Real in Madrid to the tomb of my sister.” Little heed was taken of his last wishes, however, and he ended up interred in the chapel of the Bustos family in the nearby church of San Andrés Apóstol. A century later, the Bustos family vault was “cleaned” to make way for new tenants and the remains it contained were transferred to larger crypt in the chapter house of the same church.

By the time the city fathers of Villanueva de los Infantes received the order from Madrid to bundle up the bones of Quevedo in preparation for their transfer to the Pantheon of Illustrious Men in 1868, the shift in tenants of the Bustos family vault and the existence of this common crypt had been long forgotten. Searching among the remains of the nine persons they discovered in the Bustos chapel, they identified the only corpse not clothed in a religious habit as Quevedo’s and proceeded to prepare it for its glorious journey to the capital. When the remains were unceremoniously returned to the city at the close of the century, they arrived with a note that cast doubt on their authenticity. It seems that the skull sent to Madrid had a full set of teeth—something that historians all agreed Quevedo lacked at the time of his death—and even more embarrassing, appeared to be that of a young woman. These remains were tucked away and forgotten until 1920, when the city government had the inspiration to organize a grand funeral and burial in the Ermita del Cristo de Jamila in what is now the site of the Park of the Constitution.

In 1955, a technical architect employed by the city of Villeuva de los Infantes discovered a document dating back to the seventeenth century that mentioned the existence of an oratory dedicated to Saint Thomas of Villanueva located below the chapter house of the church of San Andrés Apóstol. Excavations carried out to find this oratory revealed the long-forgotten crypt in which the remains of more than one hundred fifty human souls lay in a jumble mixed with the bones of animals, old shoes, stones, and scraps of wood, metal, and cloth. In May 2006, a team of researchers from the school of forensic medicine of the Universidad Complutense of Madrid began the labor of sifting through this sea of wreckage in search of the remains of Francisco Gómez de Quevedo y Santibáñez Villegas. As the absence of any known direct descendants made DNA testing useless, they used a deductive method to ferret the remains of the illustrious author out of the mountain of more than 40,000 bones extracted from the common burial pit. First, they ruled out any bones that did not fit the physical profile of a man in his mid-sixties. The researchers then fell back on period descriptions of Quevedo, relying heavily on commentaries regarding the writer’s notorious limp. The scientists found a right femur that was notably twisted and a left femur that appeared to be deformed due to an extended period of compensation for an injured right leg. In the end, they identified these two femurs, a forelimb, a collarbone, and six vertebrae as possibly belonging to Quevedo with the caveat that “the skeleton was in an advanced state of decomposition” that prevented them from definitively declaring the remains to be those of the writer of La Vida del Buscón and La Providencia de Díos. Nevertheless, these fragments were gathered and interred once again with great pomp and ceremony in another chapel in the Church of San Andrés.  Today one can visit both what is now considered Quevedo’s “apocryphal” grave in the Ermita del Cristo de Jamila—perhaps inhabited by unknown female of the Bustos clan—and his slightly less apocryphal grave located in the Church of San Andrés Apóstol.

Although Quevedo maintained friendships with Cervantes and Lope de Vega, he engaged in a lifelong battle of wits with other contemporaries. He waged the most acrimonious of these wars against the poet Luis de Góngora y Argote, who suffered an endless hail of insinuations and criticisms launched by Lope de Vega and Quevedo that went well beyond literary differences. The erratic lifestyles and less than exemplary morals of all three gentlemen provided fodder for the mutual fires of enmity they so assiduously tended; Quevedo publicly suggested that Góngora was a Jew and a sodomite, serious charges given the power of the Inquisition, and Góngora fired back with verses that portrayed both Lope and Quevedo as drunks, such as “Hoy hacen amistad nueva, más por Baco que por febo, don Francisco de Quebebo y don Félix Lope de Beba.” When Góngora’s addiction to gambling brought him to such ruin that he was forced to sell his house in Madrid, Quevedo stepped in as the buyer, just to have the satisfaction of throwing the poet on the street. Broken and defeated, Góngora returned to Cordoba, where he died a year later. Ironically, Quevedo’s fleeting victory seems to have ensured that his Cordovan enemy was to enjoy the uninterrupted sleep of the just: to this day what are unquestionably the remains of the poet Luis Góngora y Argote lie peacefully in great pomp and glory in the Great Mosque of Cordoba whereas those of Quevedo have suffered almost every indignity imaginable.