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Quixote's Code

Spring 2014 | By Stacey Mickelbart. Photo by TEDxPurdueU.

Massimiliano Giorgini, a doctoral student in the School of Languages and Cultures, shares his theory on Don Quixote's secret code on the classic round red rug often seen in TED Talks. 

What do Don Quixote, intelligence work in coding, and punk rock have in common? If you answered “nothing,” then you haven’t met Massimiliano Giorgini yet. Giorgini, a doctoral student in Peninsular Spanish literature in the School of Languages and Cultures, recently explained the connections in his TEDxPurdueU talk “The Quixote Code: Oppression and the Art of Subversion.”

TED (technology, entertainment, and design) talks—those snappy, polished, visually engaging, 18-minute talks about new “ideas worth spreading”—grew out of a one-off conference in 1984 focused on the convergence of these three fields. Since then, the talks have become a global juggernaut, spawning an annual meeting and million dollar prize, a YouTube channel, a National Public Radio program, and countless independently organized mini-conferences, like the one held at Purdue in March. In its third year and organized by a team of students, TEDxPurdueU aims to share innovative ideas from Purdue students, faculty members, and alumni. Giorgini spoke to a packed Loeb Playhouse about his theory of a secret code in the classic Cervantes novel Don Quixote, which points to Quixote as a Christlike figure.

It’s amazing that Giorgini even had time to develop the talk, because he’s a human analog of TED, with expertise in multiple fields. Still conducting his doctoral research, he’s also an assistant professor of Spanish at Ivy Tech Community College in Lafayette, a federal linguistic intelligence analyst, a punk rock musician, and owner of a recording studio—all of which influence how he approaches his scholarly work.

His understanding of coding helped him see the connections between Don Quixote and transgressive texts from the seventeenth century. But it was also punk rock’s ethos of fighting against the establishment that encouraged him to look more closely at the text.  “We are the sum of our experiences,” he says in the opening of his talk. “As it turns out, in punk rock, almost everything is socio-political, and sometimes it’s nothing more sophisticated than ‘smash the system,’” he continues, raising a fist. “But, at its best, the message moves through more subtly and as powerful as a tidal wave.”

Cervantes published Don Quixote in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, during the Spanish Inquisition. The tribunal’s established purpose was to maintain Catholic orthodoxy, but it was used to attack those spreading any ideas or materials considered heretical at the time—including “vulgar” Bibles or Bible passages that were written in anything besides Latin.

In addition, many artists, philosophers, and authors have felt for a long time that the character Don Quixote exhibits Christlike qualities, explains Giorgini, but as a ridiculous figure in the novel, such a depiction would also have been blasphemous during Cervantes’s time.

But a footnote on the first page of Don Quixote, the book’s dedication, caught Giorgini’s attention. That footnote suggested that several lines of the dedication had been taken from another book by Fernando de Herrera. Wondering why Cervantes would do so, Giorgini began to look more closely, finding new borrowed passages emphasizing not only the importance of Biblical texts, but also Herrera’s nonorthodox assertions that Spanish should replace Latin as the formal language of the Empire.

Examining some of the earliest Bibles translated into Spanish and smuggled into Spain with fake Inquisitorial seals of approval, Giorgini discovered one with two figures on the cover who resembled the descriptions of Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza—the latter just to the right of the text spelling out “Sancho” from top to bottom.

Detail image of Cervantes work.
Pictured is the cover of an early Spanish translation of the New Testament (El Nuevo Testamento de Nuestro Señor y Salvador Jesu Christo, 1556) published by Juan Pérez de Pineda and based on a translation by Francisco de Enzinas. The figures resemble Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, with the “Sancho” text detail shown.

He developed a theory that Cervantes may have been using ekphrasis, or the process of describing a visual work of art with words, to refer to banned topics. This called to mind the ichthys, or the fish shape Christians secretly used to communicate with one another under Roman persecution. The Greek letters that spell the word “fish” also form an acrostic indicating “Jesus Christ, son of God, savior.”

Giorgini continued to follow every hunch, looking for visual or coded clues. One was an offhand remark by professor of Spanish Howard Mancing that the letters inside the ichthys looked similar to the last five letters of “Quixote”—though he also pointed out that he knew of no connection to the book. Another was a specific reference in Don Quixote to a gallo, or rooster, which is also the name of a fish Christ referenced in the Gospel of Matthew. Continue the adventure of discovering all of Giorgini’s fun clues by watching his talk. Viewed more than 22,000 times in the first two weeks after it was posted, it has already been watched more than any other TEDxPurdueU talk.

Though TEDxPurdueU is the first forum for the general public where Giorgini has discussed his findings, he published a 2012 article detailing his early research in the journal Cervantes, and has presented his work at conferences, including one on banned or destroyed books in Cervantes’s hometown. He has since discovered several more coded links in Don Quixote and other Cervantes texts.

It’s not so far-fetched to think that Cervantes may have used coded messages, explains Giorgini, because Cervantes served in the military for several years, and is suspected of undertaking intelligence missions at a time when coding was widely used. Giorgini’s own government work with coded text demonstrates his facility with languages, and the agile wordplay of his talk hooked his audience, just as the fishy coincidences of the Cervantes mystery had netted his attention. 

“In intelligence work, there’s a limit to the number of unusual simultaneously occurring events that we can write off as coincidence,” said Giorgini during his talk. “We must at least consider the possibility that the ex-spy Cervantes was back to his old tricks—maybe even writing a Quixote code.”

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