Various Illustrations from the 1617 novel Persiles and Sigismunda, by Miguel de Cervantes
charcoal , 70x 95 cm
Pilgrim Princess SIGISMUNDA ...or...."This is Not a Pipe"
One of the more interesting "little" episodes of Cervantes' 1617 novel PERSILES & SIGISMUNDA involves the portrait that an artist in Lisbon had painted of the heroine when she arrived in Portugal with her small troupe of pilgrims and donned the habits of pilgrims in order to begin their land-leg of the journey to Rome, asking alms and contributions in order to make their destination a reality. In those days, such acts of devotion ("walking the talk," we would say nowadays!) also could win the devotee POINTS or indulgences, eventually earning what Christians of this persuasion call Salvation.
Because Sigismunda and her company are so stunningly beautiful and rare, wearing still Scandinavian clothing and hairdos as they disembarked in Lisbon, and not being very fluent in the Latin languages, Cervantes tells us that crowds followed them or stood outside their places of lodging in the various cities in order to behold them from up close. One of these admirers was a painter who ASKED that he be allowed to paint Sigismunda from "life" -- but he was denied his request.
What does the obsessed painter do? He paints Sigismunda from MEMORY, nonetheless. And here is where the plot thickens.
A few chapters later in the book, when the "romeros" or Rome-bound hikers are in France, lo and behold they bump into a young nobleman who has a copy of the Portuguese Portrait --- and, as he is himself looking for a beautiful woman to be his wife, he has fallen in love, head over heels, with both the picture of Sigismunda from memory, and , now, with the girl herself when he meets her on her pilgrim route.
I will spare you more details for now---but fast forwarding to the end of the novel, when Sigismunda and her her group finally arrive in Rome, they are startled to see on exhibit along a Roman street, that a large, life-size painting of LADY FORTUNE, wearing a "broken" Crown, and standing on the globe of the Earth, is a perfect likeness of Sigismunda ! The Pilgrims see this painting hanging outside a gallery in the Banking district of Rome---the contemporary Via dei Banchi Vecchi, or Way of the Old Banks (where to this day I have my espresso coffee at the Bar dei Banchi Vecchi!). The gallery owner in the novel explains to the shocked Sigismunda that a painter friend of his in France had painted "her" as LADY FORTUNE with the Broken Crown, using as reference the painting done from memory by the Portuguese artist beforehand.
After a moment of silence and awe at how much of a trail Sigismunda had left in her wake, on the way to Rome, the Italian gallery owner further tells Sigismunda, as he points to his large life-size oil, which in fact was up for sale: "This painting is really what you would call an artist's fantasy or folly; and the maiden has on her head the crown she won as the most beautiful woman of the Earth that she is standing on in the picture." The gallery owner then continues and tells Sigismunda: "But in my opinion, Lady, YOU ARE THE ORIGINAL, and you in fact deserve the real, unbroken crown, and you should reign not over a painted world but the real and true world." (Book II, chapter 6)
..... My CHARCOAL portrait of Pilgrim Princess Sigismunda measures 70 x 95 cm, it is life-size, and it took me outside my small-format comfort zone into the realm of large portraiture. But beyond that, my charcoal image purports to be a picture of the picture of the picture, IN THE NOVEL --- which as readers we do not in fact "see," but merely read about. This project in fact made me think of Rene Magritte's "CECI N'EST PAS UNE PIPE," from the Surrealist painter's Treachery of Images series of 1929. This is not a pipe...but the representation of a pipe, or the subtitled illustration of a pipe, etc., etc.
The Sky Is Falling
Life, in fact, imitates art, said Oscar Wilde. The "real" French countryside started to LOOK like landscapes "painted" by Miller, Monet, and Manet, ushering into mainstream culture the Impressionist Movement in the mid-1800s !
But I would like, in a sort of parallel "wildean" way, to show a similar phenomenon that I became aware of inside my own illustrator's mindstream when I set out to depict in 2020 the following scenes from Cervantes' novel PERSILES, set sometime at the close of the 1500s in France.
My memories intertwining art and reality go back to Camagüey, Cuba.
One early morning in 1960, first the cries of a woman, followed by the heavy thump sound of her bones as she fell to the cement alley along the backside of my grandparents’ chalet in the Vista Hermosa neighborhood of my native Camagüey, Cuba, startled me from my otherwise fun sleepover at Papaco and Mamachacha’s.
Soon, from amidst the sounds of frantic footsteps and voices, I heard the sobs of the young woman named Chelín, who had just broken her leg, as I later learned, wishing to literally fly out her back balcony to warn her husband that he was in danger. To this day, the morning of this “political” event in my own place of joy and comfort, where my cousins and I roller-skated and played hide and seek, plenty, marked the end of my childhood.
Shortly before this frightening wake-up call to me, two or three civilians had visited the porticoed home of Chelin’s father-in-law, Serafín, in Avenida de La Libertad, knocked on the middle-class family door asking to greet to him, and opened fire on him point-blank, as they eventually claimed, for his “counter-revolutionary activities” In Camagüey. This was when the Cuban Revolution began to show its true colors.
Serafín may have been, like other Camagüeyanos, against the new Rebel government— but he was, above that, a gentle man, as well as our family friend and paramedic in times of necessary blood-tests or Vitamin vaccine injections. But once Chelín’s own perilous fall from what to me was the Cielo, or the sky, and she was somehow rushed to a clinic, all I could think about and “see” was the end or Fin of Serafín, lying in a pool of his own blood. A few blocks away from Vista Hermosa.
The watercolor illustration (34 x 28 cm) and two preliminary pencil drawings exhibited below depict an episode in Cervantes’ PERSILES Y SIGISMUNDA, where his four main protagonists, somewhere in France, have stopped to rest and eat some of their victuals on their Road to Rome (or “romería”) and are abruptly prevented from doing so when their humble baggage boy screams to them:
“Apartáos, señores, que no sé quién baja volando del cielo, y no será bien que os coja debajo!” (“Stand aside, folks, there’s someone falling from the sky, and I would not let them fall on top of you!”).
The falling figure turns out to be a very beautiful female, Cervantes tells us, whose skirt billows out like a parachute so that she lands in slow motion and soundly on her two feet.
But that is merely the beginning. It turns out a man had pushed “Claricia” out the second or third-floor window of their family tower, and when the Pilgrim protagonists look up, they see another woman resisting the same fate as she screams: “Socorro, señores, que este loco quiere despeñarme de aquí abajo!” (“Help me, please, this madman wants to throw me down from here!”)
The novel PERSILES..., here and in so many other places on the “romería” or road to Rome, is a denouncement of gender abuse and of political brutality on so many levels, and the few readers of this long FACEBOOK post are encouraged to investigate why these ladies were being abused, etc., by turning to Chapter 14, Book III of the book.
Sixty years after my poor Chelin’s brave jump to reach her husband Arnaldo, to alert him that those hit-men had killed his father mercilessly and now were after Arnaldo’s trail— I think about how The Sky Was Falling on us that morning in Vista Hermosa, and to what extent the New Man or Hombre Nuevo heralded by Fidel Castro’s Rebels and Bullies, was illustrating the pages of its own story with this kind of crime. Sadly, the Revolution manipulated the press and “nationalized” all information as it garnered international admiration for its new “free” educational programs largely targeting the role and image of women, to end oppression.20
The Pilgrims see a woman falling from a Tower"
38 x 28 cm
preliminary pencil sketch
The "Pilgrim" of Aphorisms
The "Pilgrim" of Aphorisms
Making CHOICES: in the course of my illustration work of Cervantes' 17th-century novel, PERSILES and SIGISMUNDA, these were the last two images that my pen and hand came up with to render a picture of an extremely interesting character that the Pilgrims meet at an Inn, the night before they reach their long-desired goal, the City of ROME. End of their pilgrimage.
(NOTE : The noun for pilgrim in Spanish, peregrino, when used as an adjective, means "curious, bizarre." Author Cervantes often plays on this double meaning when he refers to his main "pilgrim" characters, in order to underline the unusual, indeed outlandish figure they made when they arrived in certain settings!)
There are 2 or 3 personages in the novel who serve as almost "alter egos" of Cervantes himself, underlining special powers or life-purposes of his. For example SOLDINO, a hermit magician much like Merlin who lives under the earth in spaces like those of Jules Verne, where there are trees, rivers, skies and clouds, night and day.
Below, then, are my two last depictions of an "un-named" Pilgrim who enters the Inn's dining room as the tired pilgrims are about to have some dinner before retiring to their rooms, and, in perfect Castillian Spanish -- mind you this is taking place in the outskirts of Rome!-- tells his small audience that, like them, he is doing his own "caminos" and that he accepts as alms or donations, to make his journey possible, instead of money, the contribution by those he meets along the way, of a phrase or aphorism which they think sums up a golden tenet to live by.
When I read the novel the first time, I thought this odd pilgrim was a filler, a rather weak character in the novel, but the more I have allowed myself to enter the Camino of the novel, the more amazing this Pilgrim of Aphorisms has become. For one, he is making his journey to the Eternal City for what one would call "secular" reasons, not as an act of devotion. (So many folks today "do the Camino of Santiago in Spain" for non-Catholic or Christian reasons!). In addition, he is indeed looking, as he tells us, to find a book publisher for his now-300-strong "Argosy of Aphorisms" ---but that he will NOT hand over his large cartapaccio or leather-bound album of autographed sayings to a publisher for a pittance. "I won't sell the copyrights of my book to just any printer in Madrid," and be robbed--- where even my name would not be listed in the book's credits! Obviously, Cervantes as an independent author faced these same realities when he did his own pilgrimages to find the way to publish DON QUIXOTE, or the Exemplary Novels, or the PERSILES itself, so that this Pilgrim of Aphorisms, though less magical, is like his Merlin-like Soldino. To conclude, as we the readers look over the shoulder of Cervantes and peruse the sayings and aphorisms of his 11 protagonists as they are about to arrive in Rome, each of those autographed maxims open up deep worlds of meaning, and some, in fact, hide very insightful as well as unorthodox truths about the human condition, not at all politically correct. Take, for example, that of the Prostitute from Talavera, who writes: "I would rather be BAD, with hope of being good, than good with the intention of being bad." For Cervantes, hope was a serious thing, a concrete force that cut through blah-blah-blah and hypocritical, hollow posturing.
The two choices for the portrait I thought best captured Cervantes' own creation of this --secular-- philosopher traveller is the one done in sepia watercolor, the one in lighter colors. The black-ink rendition seemed too somber, almost more appropriate for a Nathaniel Hawthorne sinister villain of 1600s New England. My choice of the more light-filled illustration expresses best the flesh and skin of the Castillian Spanish of splendid Cervantes. But I confess I had a very hard time deciding to lighten up my palette, and essentially starting over after I had created the black-ink Pilgrim of Aphorisms that the protagonists meet at the Inn on their way to Rome.