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Cervantes's Persiles and Sigismunda

"I Want to Marry the Ugly Girl!"

... because the blessing of a grandparent may bring about a positive outcome in things  .... (PERSILES: Book 3) 

Ambrosia Agostina llegando a Barcelona.j

The Pilgrims observe the arrival of Ambrosia Agostina to Barcelona

Book  4 


One of the most humorous moments of Cervantes’s 1616 novel, Persiles and Sigismunda, is a double wedding that takes place in Book I, in a semi-tropical island unexplainably located in Scandinavia. Before the ceremony begins, yes and just in the nick of time, one of the two grooms set to marry their respective brides pulls aside the hero Persiles and humbly admits he does not love his beautiful fiancée.


    “I want to marry the ugly one!”


    Sure enough, Persiles swallows dry and pulls his beloved Sigismunda into the huddle. The Icelandic princess, without a moment of hesitation, steps in and rearranges the four young people’s hands so that now everything is criss-crossed, with Carino gripping his – ugly -- true love’s hand and his buddy Solercio holding in his grip that of the fairer looking bride!


    All this takes place in the wink of an eye, as the priest in charge of the ceremony simply looks on.


Los peregrinos a punto de entrar a Roma.

The  Romers enter the Eternal City by way of Porta del Popolo 

Book  4

pen & ink

    You would think everything would be fine from that point on, each lover with his or her other half, to have and to hold till death do them part,  but later that night, following the reception festivities, two pirate ships come out of nowhere from between the trees and huts where the islanders and visitors are sleeping, and they carry off Sigismunda and the two recently wedded brides in one direction, and  swashbuckle Persiles and the two disgruntled grooms in another.


    Thus begins a one-year separation of the heroes of Cervantes’s last novel, which similarly due to some form of piracy as well, the famous One-handed Hero of the Battle of Lepanto never saw published before he breathed his last – by some accounts on the same date, more or less, as William Shakespeare in London.

Mas quiero ser Mala aforismo imagen.jpg

Maxim left by Luisa, the Prostitute of Talavera, in the dictionary of aphorisms collected by a pilgrim in the novel

Book  4

pen & ink sketch

    Written in four books or sections, The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda deals very decidedly with affairs of the heart and the quest to meet and keep the love of one’s life, but plays out these themes in the context of a pilgrimage to Rome organized by Persiles’ queen mother in Norway, who had done some switching of couples of her own. Sigismunda, it turns out, had been betrothed to the problematic older brother of Persiles, one Massimino, yet by the end of the novel when all the pieces of this mad dash “destination wedding” have come together, we see that everything is going to be all right. Well, almost everything, but I will not spoil the fun by giving this essay’s reader those details!  



Retrato de la Princesa Peregrina Sigismu

Sigismunda as Pilgrim AURISTELA, this portrait painted from memory by a French artist who catches a glimpse of her briefly as she passes by France on her way to Rome on the Via Francigena 


Book 3


    For me, reading this tale of many tales and painting it did not occur simultaneously, nor were the book I love at first sight. For one thing, the action opens in medias res after the island wedding party and the novel’s heroes are whisked away by the corsairs. Sounds a little like A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Forum, the great 1950s Broadway musical.  And it is, if you reread the previous sentence and consider that the island episode had happened before the book begins, yet I am here telling you about it because I read about it some twenty or more chapters into the novel! Like back to the future.


Map of Part 1 PERSILES.jpg

A "MAP" of the First Half of the novel, showing the main track of the Pilgrims'  sea travels from Norway to mainland western Europe, inside an "outer frame" showing the adventures of Periandro/Persiles during the year of his separation from Auristela/Sigismunda

Part ONE Books 1 and 2

color pencil

Interior de la nave de Arnaldo.jpg

   Yes, like Homer’s Odyssey, the narrative of Persiles and his girl is by no means told chronologically, and, to spice up things, the interlocking pieces are often set inside – or framed – as adventures or stories told both by the Rome Pilgrims or a motely array of pious and sinner travelers they meet on the road. There is a central track, of course, where Persiles and Sigismunda travel neck to neck to their Pilgrimage destination under the assumed identities of brother and sister -- Periandro and Auristela – she having made a vow of chastity until she receives the sacraments in the Eternal City.  But Cervantes perhaps suggests here that saying “I do” to a lover or to a catholic Heaven is not a simple affair. At any rate, this is one reason why the girls’ rape or ravishment after the wedding ceremony landing them in the hands of a sect that seeks to dominate the world by way of a marriage is so important. It is also why these Scandinavians run into so many battered women and hypocrites on their way.

Persiles en la balsa al comienzo del Lib

As this 17th-century novel begins, we meet poor “Periandro” facing his own unexpected fate as he is hoisted up to the sunlight from a dank dungeon, and escorted by three or four savages to a place where they will pluck out his heart, for the grand Messianic ceremony. However, in many ways the scenes of his or his supposed sister’s jealousy for each other, quite often resulting from the advances of those rogues and lechers, are just as momentous.    



    Until recently, and even with a Master’s Degree feather in my humanities B.A. cap, I had no idea of ​​the existence of this work by Cervantes, well, at least not of its content. The pen & ink, pencil, watercolor, and pastel drawings that appear on these pages cost me some sleepless nights and plenty of dead-end moments of reader despair.  Plus, I truly think that the so-called Byzantine genre of the novel, from Page One, applies to the way it reads as well as to how the book finds us readers!  This is an elegant but convolutedly mysterious book, and it was packed that way, I believe. so it could land in my path like a parcel from some Merlin while I was minding what I thought was my business some ten years ago.  

Dibujo con puntos de fuga.jpg

Vanishing points -- some demo sketches around Popolo Gate


Sfere analitiche.jpg

When the reader is ready, the book appears. Here I was: teaching a "freehand" drawing class on vanishing points and one- and two-point perspective to a group of architecture students in Rome.

That day, seeing that my ten or twelve students were having some difficulty visualizing the lesson on perspective and vanishing points, it occurred to me to make a quick dash into the landscape (we were in the Piazza del Popolo) to show the group where the right vanishing point was located. But here was the catch: directly in back of where I stood, a slightly crooked tourist information sign with letters in Spanish writ large: CERVANTES ENTERS ROME. The title was followed by several stanzas from a poem by 20th-century Spaniard Rafael Alberti, which in turn cited a sonnet by Miguel de Cervantes from 1600. And this quote within the quote was from The PERSILES!

Peregrino canta Soneto a Roma.jpg

A pilgrim singing his sonnet to Rome: "Oh great, oh mighty, oh sacrosanct / Soul-city of Rome, I bow to you ..."

Book 4

pen & ink

That night I phoned Ivo Domínguez, my professor of the Master's Thesis of Spanish literature, in Delaware, and he quickly put in: “Persiles y Sigismunda was his masterpiece, José. Cervantes himself stated it several times! "

Peregrinos ante Cenotafio del Enamorado
Borrasca ... con todo si os faltare la e

The verse about "Hope" in the sonnet that the Pilgrims hear sung one night at sea by the forlorn Manuel de Sousa Coutinho

Book 1, chapter ix

pen & ink thumbnail sketch

In Lisbon, the Pilgrims visit the funeral  memory monument -- or cenotaph -- of the Portughese sailor who dies in a remote Scandinavean seascape after he sings them a song about Hope and tells them the woebegone story of his love for Leonora


Book 4

color pencil

La Isla Nevada y el cantor Portugues 3.j

From their ship, the Pilgrims listen to the song about "Hope" sung by the lovesick Manuel de Sousa Coutinho right before he dies

Book 1, chapter ix


   But I am going too quickly; back in the Piazza, before I had this information, all I could do was tell the students that the right vanishing point where half of their drawing’s angled rooflines, window sills, and sidewalk lines converged, literally converged inside a whole narrative about the urban space that I had not known before. "Cervantes,” I eagerly told my architects, pointing, “entered Rome through that piazza gate overthere. Cervantes!" But the name raised neither an eyebrow nor a freehand hand from their sketching boards. “Look,” I confessed, “I have told you about the twin churches, the Egyptian Obelisk, the Caravaggio paintings here, but Cervantes…!" I practically sang.

"Sir Who?" one of the future architects in the class asked me, pretending to be funny. Yes, I replied a bit disheartened: Sir Vantes."  And we concluded the freehand drawing lesson. 


    Plot-wise, PERSILES finally began to make sense, the AHA!-Moment in the story that got me in the heart and made me pick up pen and pencil to draw it came as a reward after much searching on the internet, copying in my notebook like some old scribe entire passages in the novel that mystified me,  and reviewing my tour-guiding Rome notes on the Battle of Lepanto,  I said “AHA!” one day, when I hopscotched to one of Cervantes’s final chapters and read one more time, but in light of earlier scenes in the pilgrimage, the descriptions of the lovers finally entering Piazza del Popolo.



     To my surprise, the Scandinavian converts to Catholicism one day strolled – in the novel – along the Via dei Banchi Vecchi where I often sipped cappuccino as I puzzled over my Aguilar edition of their novel. La calle de Los Bancos, Cervantes calls it. Back to the future indeed.  


    My sketchbook and pencils were ready. I felt like a haunted child.

    To make bring the story of my illustrations come to an end, I should also add that theirs is not the typical pilgrim’s-progress story of Puritans exalting the Cross. It takes them almost two years to reach Lisbon and Terra Ferma, escaping the captor sex-traffickers who wish to make Sigismunda the mother of a New Messiah and meeting a whole cast of very bizarre yet endearing thieves, adulterers, and sorcerers who teach them not how to pray the rosary, exactly, but many lessons on humility and courage, being always ready for the unexpected, and, most importantly about freedom!

    The Catholic Nicene Creed in some way runs like a golden thread through the adventures, but in fact, there is only one priest in the entire book, and he is the one Sigismunda upstages to make sure Carino and Solercio get the right girl. Cervantes saves, in fact, for the scene in the  Royal Monastery of Guadalupe in the Extremadura region of Spain, his most poetic expressions of faith – where a girl who had just born a baby out of wedlock and was followed in fact inside that wonderful church by her enraged father and brother, carrying a huge dagger, to kill her for dishonoring her family, inside that revered old church.

    Beneath the splendid 17th-century Golden Age prose, much like that in the loftier passages of Don Quixote and knight errantry novels like Amadis of Gaul, Cervantes shows us what he probably saw as the underside of all that lofty literature and of religious piety itself. As a Catholic Pilgrim’s story, published, as it were, as the artist’s last confession before breathing his last Castillian breath, only Carino would have said it best: “But I want to marry the ugly girl!”

Additional illustrations

 When I drew my maps of the novel and stitched together like a quilt the clues of later chapters in order to better understand the novel's abrupt and seemingly disjointed opening pages.  This honing in, however, required me to read and reread these and other passages several times. Their descriptions by Cervantes were straightforward enough, but since the book opens in medias res, I was puzzled as to how they ended up in this junction.

The first group of images from  Persiles and Sigismunda which follow capture what I saw as important introductory scenes of the novel displaying the themes of courage, honesty and the ability to tell "good" lies.

Persiles en la balsa solo.jpg

Shortly after the novel opens Persiles escapes a first time from the Messianic savages and clings to a raft, before he is rescued by the Danish corsair, Arnaldo, who is also in love with Sigismunda

Book 1

pen & ink 

... y las compran a precio de oro y perl
Periandro presentado a Arnaldo.jpg
Periando se alza el velo.jpg
La reunificacion de Periandro y Auristel

The woman just given birth inside an Extremaduran oak tree Book 3

pen & ink

La muerte del joven enamorado con el ret

.... Later scenes of courage and humility ....

Guards of the Inquisition point their weapons in suspicion at the Pilgrims, just after they have gathered around a young man carrying a girl's portrait as he lay dying from a sword run through him

Book 3

pen & ink

Sketch for the scene of the woman thrown from a balcony by her jealous husband

Book 3


La mujer en la Encina PERSILES.jpg

The Pilgrims meet Feliciana de la Voz, a young woman who had just given birth secretly to a child and is protected from an outraged father and brother by goatherds in the hollow of an oak tree

Book  3

pen & ink

Los estudiantes impostores.jpg
Guiomar de Sosa esconde al Polaco en su

.... Later scenes of supposed courage .... where Cervantes laughs at himself ....

.... the tragedy of female victimization ....

Las bodas de Manuel Sosa Coutinho y Leon

The tragic reversal story of the Portuguese lover's wedding to Leonora, as the groom watches a group of nuns slowly strip the bride's wedding dress and shear her long blond hair to transform her into the "spouse of Christ"


Book  1

pen & ink

The Sky is Falling ... from a Tower  DRA

.... the tragedy of female victimization ....

La enlutada Ruperta jurando ante la cara

.... close portrayal of female victimization ... or a rather comic illustration that love conquers all ?


Ruperta se enamora del Joven Rubicon.jpg

.... Homecomings and freedom ....

El espanol cuenta su historia a los Pere
Los peregrinos llegando a Lisboa.jpg


       I cannot close this essay without posting on this page the portrait I painted of the character SOLDINO, the mysterious Hermit who comes into the Pilgrim's path immediately following Countess Ruperta's chapters, briefly summarized by the character's two illustrated scenes above. Those chapters occur in Book Three, before the Pilgrims at last enter Italy.


    Soldino lives in a sort of "vanishing point" space of his own, and, after an unexpected fire and explosion occur right outside the Ruperta scene locations,  the old man appears out of nowhere and saves them from harm, leading Persiles and his small squadron of Pilgrims by way of a garden cave down into his sort world.  There, hidden presumably from everyone else's view, the Romers marvel at the sight of another sun moon under ours, and at valleys' full of rivers and glades which provide for Soldino a paradise hideaway. Soldino is a seer; he sees past, present, and future at one glance, and speaks to the Pilgrim guests about not a few recent heroic events in their contemporary world. He speaks of Spain and of Emperor Charles V, grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella.  


Gentlemen, states Soldino, this is not an enchantment.  I dug the entrance cave  with my own arms and with my continuous work, and I made this valley my own .... Here, fleeing from war, I found peace; and  here, instead of the princes and monarchs who rule the world, whom I have served, I have found these silent trees, which, although tall and stately, are humble; here, the disdain of  emperors and the anger of their ministers do not ring in my ears.  Here, I do not see any lady who despises me, nor any servant who serves me badly; here, I am the lord of myself; here, I have my soul in the palm of my hand; and here I direct my thoughts and my desires to heaven by a straight path. 


Finally, I am Spanish, which forces me to be courteous and to be true.

    Hermit Soldino may be seen as one of the author's various masks, and his speech may be read as the secret of the creativity of Miguel de Cervantes himself.  Further, as he affirms, his carving out of such an underground realm has been full of practical consequences in our world upstairs! Take this book, for example, Don Quixote, or The Little Gypsy Girl (La gitanilla).   But the magic of such achievements is not fairy dust. It is more like  the invisible networks of passageways and living quarters one might find nowadays in one of today's large amusement parks, say Disney, where so many of the events and special effects of the park above are produced from below. Living in Rome, I also think of the ancient village city of 2nd-century Roman Emperor Hadrian in TIVOLI : a grand archaeological site in and of itself, but built on top of the streets and work areas of the so-called "Hundred Rooms" spaces which lie under the fountains, pleasure domes, and gardens where that brilliant architect-emperor often resided and entertained.  


    Character is destiny, so certain philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome assure us. Heraclitus, Marcus Aurelius, and Plutarch.  The character of SOLDINO the Magician, then, as may be regarded as one of light and wisdom, illuminating even some of the darkest parts of the map of The PERSILES.


   One of those areas, of course, is that of the author's own death, which in part is the main topic of the novel's Prologue and Dedication.  Cervantes's timely quote there of the old Spanish ballad which begins  Puesto ya el pie en el estribo,/ y con ansias de la muerte, / gran señor esta te escribo....(*) expresses determination and purpose, as well as the avowed awareness of mortality and resignation with which he seals and delivers his work.   

    The other phrase with which I subtitled this essay, regarding the power of a grandparent's blessing to make some difference in the events in a child's life, is rich, too, in prophetic wisdom. In the context of what I purport to offer as one key -- one of many -- that can open the treasures of this novel to a reader, the quoted phrase is the genetic code of that key. 


"I want to marry the ugly girl!"


Mine here is a very distant English-paraphrased echo of the fisherman's actual words to Persiles in Book 2, chapter 11.  The chapter's literally enchanting speeches and descriptions of Carino's confession to Persiles (whom he has just met!) followed by the rich clusters of details that then lead us to the wedding ceremony are spectacular. The fisherman groom's confession, indeed, benefits the two couples, since they would have otherwise married partners chosen, says Cervantes in the episode, not by themselves but by their parents and relatives. This issue of marriages against the will of the married is a preoccupation of the entire novel. As is the topic of "Beauty."


   Sigismunda, for instance, is described as donning for the wedding occasion her journey's very heirlooms --  on her forehead, we see the jewel-studded crucifix, and on her ears, the two royal pearls that will somehow pay for the completion of the pilgrimage once the protagonists arrive there. ....  However, when Cervantes, in the process of writing the scene, tells us that Sigismunda, looking stunning and wearing these jewels, elegantly sidesteps her way into the wedding ceremony of the fishermen couples as the Catholic priest watches, she is in essence fixing this problem of mix-matched spouses. The Icelandic princess rearranges or edits the ending before the priest resumes the ritual, as she criss-crosses their hands into a sort of X inside the Wedding Ring or Circle. This is truly courageous writing, all things considered. The gesture X's out the insistence on Beauty-Beauty-Beauty, so typical of Cervantes's literary culture, too, in many ways exactly as Don Quixote does!


    Thanks to that courage the wedding of Carino and the other 3 islanders is genuine, and they owe not a small part of their joy to the sincerity inspired in them, no questions asked, by Persiles and Sigismunda and their own at-that-point unspoken vows to each other. The courage to be different and to speak what is in their soul.


(*)  Puesto ya el pie en el estribo,/ y con ansias de la muerte, / gran señor esta te escribo....

       With my foot in the stirrup/ and death finally at hand/ I write thee, Sire, this letter...

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