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 The "Painted Screen" in Persiles and Sigismunda, by Miguel de Cervantes

Los episodios del viaje pintador por un pintor portugués en Lisboa .jpg
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 The "Painted Screen" 
pastel , 80x  100 cm

The painted adventures of Persiles and his fellow pilgrims...

One of the most curious passages of the 1617 novel by Miguel de Cervantes, author of the more famous work,  Don Quixote, occurs when -- halfway through the pilgrims' voyage to Rome from Norway, having managed to escape some narrow close-to-death experiences and/or listened to absolutely fantastic tales told to them by various characters who appear in the book, THEY FINALLY TOUCH LAND and disembark in Lisbon, Portugal. After they thank the Heavens for bringing them safely to this great port, Persiles and the other romeros ("romers"--as Rome-bound pilgrims are traditionally called)  pay a visit to the STUDIO of a well-known painter and ask him to paint in one composition -- a screen -- to depict visually some of the episodes of their perilous journey so far, as they head for Italy.


By doing this, Cervantes invites us readers to review the whole first half of the novel, of course. 


But, in my order to ILLUSTRATE in the pastel medium,  the Portughese painter's own illustration of the eight scenes  when I imagined myself to be that Portughese artist and sketched out the various moments that Persiles and his fellow travelers must have narrated to him so he could satisfy their request. 

"La Isla Bárbara": no sooner have the heroes of the story decided to elope and leave Norway in secret, in order to travel to Rome and be married in the Catholic faith, they are intersepted and separated, and she is sold to a band of "Barbaric" pirates who want to create a new race. After about a year Persiles is able to locate Sigismunda in an island prison of a sect whose chieftains have decided that his beloved is perfect enough to be the NEW "EVE" of their racial ideology, and he eventually cross-dresses in order to make his way as a female prisoner to where she is in bondage.

"Periandro": As the lovers embarked on their "destination wedding" assuming, for the entire novel, the names Periandro and Auristela, in this scene the artist painted the lover alone on the raft on which he narrowly escapes death -- during his separation from "Auristela" -- but is providentially found by a Danish corsair named Arnaldo, who had somehow met the girl during the separation of the lovers and fallen in love with her himself. Ironically, Arnaldo helps "Periandro" by selling him to the barbarians dressed as a female, so he can use his supposed brotherly courage to rescue "Auristela" from the barbarians! 

"El cantor portugués": depicts one of the most moving stories that cross the lovers' paths on the Scandinavian seas. The success of "Periandro" in saving his "sister" from the neo-nazi pirates is owed to his brave wiles and the help of a family of Spanish Robinsoe Crusoe types who lived secretly in a cave on the Barbaric Island, and who decide to travel as pilgrims to Rome with the couple. One night, on the frozen seas of their voyage, they hear the voice of a forlorn Portughese lover named Antonio who breathes his last shortly after the pilgrims welcome him to their vessel and hear his story of ill-fated love for a woman named Leonor who had left him to join a nun's convent.

"La Nave Interior": Quite a few chapters after the previous episode with the Portughese lover, the pilgrims are again separated, and the small skiff where "Auristela" and the women end up travelling in, in fact capsizes but washes up on the shores of a small island kingdom. There, the king and two daughters who govern this island order their subjects to saw open the shipwrecked vessel, and they are startled to see the heads and other body parts of the passengers inside the water-filled vessel.

"Oh dulcísimo esposo mío": The caption that underlines this vignette is the phrase of love sighed by "Auristela" some chapters prior to that of the illustration above, where the small ship where the heroine is travelling washes up, upturned and full of water, onto the shores of King Policarpo's island.  In this episode, when the girl sees her lover's boat drift away from hers, she calls to him: "Oh sweet my spouse!" -- she is so beside herself in fear of losing him forever that she lets slip her true "love" connection to him.

"El duelo por Taurisa": Taurisa is one of the many women in the novel PERSILES and Sigismunda who ends up being sold into slavery and thus separated from the protagonists of the pilgrimage to Rome. When they arrive in a desolate, frozen island of the Scandinavian seas, she makes her appearance and reunites with the group, with two mariners fighting to possess her just as they are dueling over her with their swords, one piercing the other's heart, and this one cutting his rival's skull with his blade. Taurisa herself dies in the arms of "Auristela" and will be interred in the island glacier before the pilgrims sail on.

"Siérrese luego il buco": Cervantes often uses archaic, mariner or knights-errant vocabulary to enhance the atmosphere of his narratives and transport the reader to realms of high fantasy: When the capsized ship floats to the island kingdom of the old, lewd King Policarpo, these are the words the monarch uses to order his guards to "saw" open the keel of the almost sunken boat.

"La castidad y la sensualidad": Chastitity VS. Sensuality. This illustration shows "Periandro" at a crossroads, having to decide a path to take -- and here, I looked for inspiration at the painting by Anibale Carracci of Hercules at the Crossroad, which I once admired in Rome's Palazzo Farnese. "Periandro" asked the Portughese painter in the novel to paint the moment when in search from "Auristela" in a dreamlike state, he disembarks on an island full of prodigious trees and brooks made of liquid pearls and diamantine stones that frame a theatrical apparition of his "sister" personifying Purity.

"Los Juegos del Rey Policarpo": Cervantes writes the first "realistic" prose texts of Western culture, and both his Don Quixote and PERSILES show how keen his eye and pen were for realism. But the same can be said for his power to paint realms of fantasy of varying degrees and types of fabrication that play against each other in such an effective way that, for example, the episode where the PERSILES text becomes a sort of "Simbad the sailor/ Thousand and One Nights" tale describing the hero's epic arrival in the island of lewd King Policarpo, reads as a perfectly realistic, believable event.

"...aquellos monstruosos pescados": those monstrous fish"

This illustration of one of the most Simbad-the-sailor like adventures of Cervantes' novel would have us believe that "Periandro" witnesses the gobbling up of several mariners on his ship by gigantic sea serpents and leviathans called náufragos (castaways) believed by some to inhabit the Scandinavian seas of his novel.

"En el Mar Glacial": I do not know what the painter hired by "Periandro" to compose on a Painted Screen the scenes of the travels and misadventures of the novel's pilgrims before disembarking in Lisbon at the end of the 1590s ...: it took me numerous readings and much note-taking and diagraming to finally make sense of the sequences of events. When I read the chapter of the huge ship frozen like a mount of ice that turns out to have belonged to the pirates that sequestered "Auristela" and sold her to her "Nazi" captors -- it all clicked, and broken threads fused back together!

"Desembarco en Lisboa": The last frame of The Painted Screen shows the "Rome-bound romeros as they take their first steps on  the port quays of Belem, seeing that they could even continue from there to Rome on foot, and thus end their pilgrimage. But this is only the end of Part One and start of Part Two of the novel, which proceeds soon after "Periandro" pays the Portughese artist for his visual recording of Book One's highlights! s

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