Probably no modern travel guide to Madrid would forget to send us to the Café
de Gijón, where Spanish literati from the 1880s until well after the time of
Francisco Franco would talk about books and poetry while sipping their jerez
and café cortado. But no visit to Madrid would be complete without a broader
understanding of the importance of letters in this complex European country.
In 1492, when Christopher Columbus wrote his three or four travel letters
(“cartas de relación”) from the Americas to the Catholic monarchs of Spain,
Ferdinand and Isabella, he was not simply complying with protocol. Addressing
the patrons who had financed his voyage, his luminous and naive descriptions
of the coastlines and peoples of the Bahamas, Hispaniola, and Cuba actually
gave birth to a whole new world of literature—not only for the colonized lands,
but for Europe.

The publication of the letters following the Conquista soon transformed the
realm of literature, informing people’s minds about navigation and cartography,
architecture and urban planning, poetry and history, to name but a few. Soon, in
fact, even the court of Maximilian the Great in Austria was showcasing precious
artifacts from Moctezuma’s palace in Tenochtitlan, and scholars in Europe began
to study quechua, mayan, and many other non-Western languages in an effort to
discover undreamed of layers of world history.

The Plaza de Colón’s monument to the great Genovese admiral, near Recoletos
and the Paseo de la Castellana, is but one of many urban references in today’s
Madrid to that Golden Age of the 1500s and 1600s.

Even 20th-century Pablo Picasso’s iconic, almost calligraphic silhouette of Don
Quixote and Sancho Panza attests to Spain’s place in the world’s Republic of
Letters. The fact that Madrileño souvenir shops sell too many T-shirts and mugs
with this image should not get in the way of the visitor who is interested in
discovering just how much the art of writing and narrative continued to be at
the core of Spanish life well into the 20th century.

The two literary characters portrayed by Picasso are the quintessence of the
power of letters and narrative, and of man’s quest for liberty. When Picasso
painted his tribute to Guernica—today in the city’s Museo Reyna Sofia—to
protest the total Nazi destruction by bombing of the Basque town by that name,
he probably had very nearby his favorite edition of Miguel de Cervantes’ early-
1600s Don Quixote de la Mancha. Many of chapters of this famous novel address
the problem of freedom and censorship in the days of the Holy Inquisition, but
none as poignantly as the passage describing the burning of the Don’s personal
library by his niece, the town barber, and the priest—on the grounds that those
“evil” books had made him lose his wits.

Considering that the novel was an immediate bestseller at the beginning of the
1600s (seven different editions in the first year), the history of public literacy and
of the novel as a form of civic protest has its beginnings in those first editions of
Don Quixote… which were printed in Madrid.

This essay was written for
Madrid: Literary City  
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