Thus the French desecrated the tomb of the Great Captain and smashed his bones

Updated:14/01/2021 01: 41h


Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba died at the age of 62 in Granada, isolated politically and militarily, due to an outbreak of Quartan fever, a disease he had contracted during the wars in Italy against the French. Weeks after his death, dozens of letters of condolence reached his family, including that of King Ferdinand, who invoked his old friendship and tried to hide with thick words the fact that he had failed to fulfill all his promises of reward, one after another. ; and that of the young man Charles of Ghent, who had heard the story of his Italian odyssey as a child.

The hero nicknamed the Great Captain became a living myth after defeating the French in two successive wars in Naples and sign victories as brilliant as that of Ceriñola or Garellano. Castilians and Italians joined forces in extolling his figure and presenting him, in the case of the latter, as the defender of Italy against the French “barbarians.” The Gauls themselves recognized the courteous style of warfare by the Cordovan and their King did not even hesitate to praise his talent publicly.

In June 1507, the French King organized a banquet to which he invited Fernando El Catolico, Germana de Foix and Fernández de Córdoba, where he sincerely admired the man who had defeated their armies. «Send Your Honor to the Great Captain who sits here; that whoever defeats kings with kings deserves to sit down and he is as honored as any King, “he said. King Louis XII when inviting the military.

There was not even a portrait or visual memory of what he was like physically, apart from the fact that it took four hundred years for a monument to be dedicated to him

However, as he points out Henry Kamen in his work “Power and glory: the heroes of Imperial Spain” (Austral), the great reputation of the Great Captain did not survive the passing of the centuries either inside or outside of Spain. “He did not leave a mark in Europe (not even in France, whose troops he fought against), and it would be useless to search for important texts or works of art in which he is present,” he says. Kamen ignores, intentionally or out of ignorance, that part of his adventures are outlined by Miguel de Cervantes in a work as well-known as Don Quixote, but he is right in the disinterest shown by some authors later. Not even a portrait or visual memory of what he was like physically remained. It took four hundred years to find his image, mythologized, in a public monument.

Without a trace of his memory

The oldest statue on him is in Madrid and dates from 1883, a period in which the past was looked back to form a coherent and uniform national story. Nineteenth-century authors like Jose de Madrazo, painter of the painting “The Great Captain in the assault on Montefrío” or Federico Madrazo, painter of “The Great Captain observes the corpse of the Duke of Nemours after the battle of Ceriñola”, tried to give life to the passages of his military career.

In 1909, a Cordovan official called on his city council to erect a statue of the Great Captain to celebrate the fourth centenary of his death. In 1915, the Government granted financing for Córdoba, and not Granada, which also requested that honor, to carry out a full program of events and tributes. Only then did his figure begin to recover.

The statue of the military man that it was built for this purpose in Córdoba attracted some criticism for the strange whiteness of the head, carved in white marble for creative reasons, but in general it served to mend the historical neglect surrounding its memory. In 1927, the statue was moved to its current location in the Plaza de las Tendillas.

Monument to the Great Captain, by Mateo Inurria, in the Plaza de las Tendillas de Córdoba.
Monument to the Great Captain, by Mateo Inurria, in the Plaza de las Tendillas de Córdoba.

Although Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba died in Granada on December 2, 1515, his remains were not definitively buried until 1552 in a pantheon of the church of San Jerónimo de Granada, where his wife and several other relatives would also end up resting. In 1810, however, the French troops of General Horace Sebastiani desecrated his tomb, mutilating his remains and burning the 700 flags that, as a trophy, were buried next to his remains. The French revolutionaries had made it fashionable in Paris to desecrate tombs, including those of the Bourbon Kings, and the French military man did not resist destroying the corpse when he saw that on the Great Captain’s shield it was said “victorious of the French and the Turks … ».

In the middle of the War of Independence, the Napoleonic troops converted this church into their headquarters and seized all the works of art and jewelery in the place. The weapons of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba suffered the same fate … The scholar says Jose Gimenez Serrano in his work «Manual of the artist and the traveler» (1846):

“The Great Captain’s sword disappeared, his tomb was desecrated for the first time, the bronze boxes were broken, the flags were stolen and the other trophies scattered or broken.”

After turning the bones, the Napoleonic general, in his flight from Spain in 1812, took his skull and supposedly his gala sword, objects that still remain unaccounted for today. The bones that remained in Spain suffered yet another humiliation. In 1835, with the exclaustration, what little the French left standing was looted by the Grenadians. A monk was able to collect the bones and give them years later to Messrs. Láinez and Fuster, belonging to the Academy of Noble Arts. These, in turn, were taken to the Provincial Monuments Commission, which also handed them over to the civil government.

Horace Sébastiani wearing the lieutenant's uniform.
Horace Sébastiani wearing the lieutenant’s uniform.

In 1848 he occupied the position of captain general of the district of Granada General Fermín de Espeleta, who inquired about the remains of the illustrious military man and requested a complete medical report. This is how it was discovered that, for now, “heads were missing, everything was mixed up, without being able to specify exactly which bodies the bones corresponded to. In the crypt of the church they found cedar wood from the boxes, iron plates, nails, shreds of dresses, velvet, silk, satin, braid, stockings … ».

The lost sword

Horace Sebastiani he believed he had taken the most emblematic sword of the Great Captain from Spain, but in truth he took a copy made from one stolen in 1671. As Gabriel Pozo Felguera explained in an article by “The Independent of Granada”, signed in 2017, there were originally two swords at the burial site: the one for ceremony was nailed to the wall on the Gospel side and the one for combat, located on the opposite wall, on the side of the Epistle. The ceremony was a gift from Pope Alexander VI to Cordoba for defending Christianity. And the combat one, with an ivory hilt, wide and thin blade, of little weight, it seems that it was used by the general in life.

Precisely this second sword was withdrawn by someone from the Duchy of Sessa, that is, by relatives of the Castilian nobleman, before the year 1671, since in March of that year the monks declared that long ago he was gone. Today it is still in the hands of the descendants of the Great Captain, although there are theories that say that it was given to the Cathedral of Santiago to make a lamp.

The other, the ceremonial one, is the one Sebastiani thought he had taken to France. But, it was not true. Points out Gabriel Pozo Felguera in his excellent article that in the mid-17th century it was discovered that this ceremonial sword had been stolen and replaced by a wooden one. The investigation was closed without finding the person responsible, although the monks accused themselves of having seen the object in each other’s cells years ago. The whereabouts of the sword could not be found either and, the only thing that is clear, is that when Sebastiani took it with him to France he already it couldn’t be the original, but a simple copy.

Royal Monastery of San Jerónimo (Granada)
Royal Monastery of San Jerónimo (Granada)

In total there are five swords that are claimed as those of gala attributed to the Great Captain. Two are in the Army Museum in Toledo (copies of the one in the Royal Armory of Madrid); another is the one Sebastiani took, missing, probably some private French collector; the fourth is in Mexico, in the hands of one of the descendants of the Great captain and the last one, the one that has the best chance of being the authentic one, is that of the Real Armory of Madrid.

This sword consists of its presence, already in the old Alcazar of Madrid, from at least 1621, probably as a gift from a family nobleman to the Crown. It is cited in the inventory of that year and in the catalog of 1793, made by Ignatius of Abbey, which indicates its use for “the oath of the Prince of Asturias, and for when the King our lord arms knights.” Its beautiful workmanship and the representation on its shield of the great military hero with scenes of classic battles suggest that it is a piece of great value.

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