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1001 deeds, sayings, curiosities and anecdotes of the ancient world

The Classical Humanism of Cervantes

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World Book and Copyright Day is celebrated on April 23 of every year. Some curious circumstance coincided the day of the death of Cervantes in Spain, of Shakespeare in England, of Garcilaso de la Vega, the Inca, on that day. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) considered it very suitable to celebrate the existence of books and promote reading; so it has been since 1995.

In a blog about the "Ancient world", as this is, it seems appropriate at this time to spend some commentary on the relationship between Greek and Latin literature and Cervantes and more particularly in his masterpiece "Don Quixote". And  I will devote a few lines to that.

The life of Cervantes and his entire work takes place in the framework of the Golden Age and Spanish Humanism, as it befits to the dates of his life. So  he is steeped entirely in classicism. No one chapter of Don Quixote is in which direct or indirect reference is not found to an old classic author or character
But not only it is interesting to collect mechanically the quotes, which I will refer below, but to detect the infinite details of that influence and overall harmony and find out to what extent affected Cervantes.

So Cervantes is certainly not a Latin scholar, but he is a large connoisseur of all classical topical literature of the time, which  he used profusely. For example when  he speaks, on Quijote, 9 about  historians, he builds  his definition of "history" from the topical and famous sentence of Cicero; of thath usually only it  is known and cited the most elementary part:  "Historia Magistra Vitae, the history is the teacher of life ":

Quixote, I, 9

which is ill done and worse contrived, for it is the business and duty of historians to be exact, truthful, and wholly free from passion, and neither interest nor fear, hatred nor love, should make them swerve from the path of truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, storehouse of deeds, witness for the past, example and counsel for the present, and warning for the future (Translated by John Ormsby

Cicero in De oratore, IX, 36

History vero testis temporum, Lux Veritatis vita memoriae, magistra vitae, nuntia vetustatis

Don Quijote, IX

…habiendo y debiendo ser los historiadores puntuales, verdaderos y no nada apasionados, y que ni el interés ni el miedo, el rencor ni la afición, no les haga torcer del camino de la verdad, cuya madre es la historia, émula del tiempo, depósito de las acciones, testigo de lo pasado, ejemplo y aviso de lo presente, advertencia de lo porvenir.

His first novel, Galatea, which Cervantes himself considered a “virgilian eclogue",  is a direct descendant of the Greco-Roman bucolic; his " The Works of Persiles and Sigismunda" is an imitation of the novel "Aethiopica" (imitating Homer's Odyssey ) of Greek Heliodorus, who lived in the third or fourth centuries.

Even it is more evident his  debt in his plays, especially the Numancia, which of course is set in the time of old Hispania. The precepts of ancient rhetoric and poetics, from Aristotle to Cicero and Horace, set the tone of the creativity of Cervantes.

The knowledge of ancient history, the discussions about the relationships between arms and letters, between poetry and history, are raised on numerous occasions. Countless statements, aphorisms, moral precepts, sayings that are being used as topoi from antiquity, references to classical mythology, dotted everywhere life of sane mind Don Quixote.

Moreover, some authors believe that Cervantes tries to imitate the process of creating that some see also on Virgil himself, who began writing his pastoral poetry, the Eclogues, then didactic poetry, Georgics, and finally epic poetry, Aeneid.

This process in the Middle Ages was called the "rota Virgilii" or "wheel of Virgil" which was represented as three concentric circles. The circles correspond to the three styles of ancient rhetoric: humble (humilis), medium (mediocris) and sublime (gravis). This should be the process of every good poet. The Galatea, Don Quixote and The work of Persiles and Segismunda would be the three steps or circles of "rota" that Cervantes would have completed. But we have no evidence that this was the plan of Cervantes, though certainly he was knowledgeable of this so called "rota Virgilii" and Virgil was  the classic author most cited on Don Quixote.

I dedicate this first article to reproduce only the idea that Cervantes has  of the importance of Greek and Latin classical studies by mouth of his characters. In a second article I will refer, by way of example, the myth of the "ages of man" and third and last (at some point I must vary from case) the famous episode of attack of "gentleman" to a large and fierce army of tame sheep, which bears some resemblance to what Homer and Sophocles told of Greek hero in the Trojan War, Ajax, of great strength and remarkable persistence and stubbornness in their decisions.

Philologists studies devoted to these issues on the relationship of Cervantes, and more specifically the Quixote, with classical literature are numerous. Let me quote the doctoral thesis of Antonio Barnes VázquezYo he leído en Virgilio. Análisis sincrónico de la tradición clásica en el Quijote. Granada, 2008),"I read Virgil. Synchronic analysis of the classical tradition in Don Quixote”. Granada, 1008), from which I extract some data I offer below.

Antonio Barnes notes in Donl Quixote 1274 references to the classical world, 531 in the first half and 743 in the second. Of these 472 relate to any Greek or Roman author. According to Barnes there they appear 62 Greek or Roman authors, 37 Latin and 25 Greeks. The most represented are: Virgil 94 times, 58 Ovid, Homer 47, 46 Aristotle, Horace 45, Plato 32, 31 Cicero, Pliny the Elder 30, Seneca 19, Plutarch 12, Titus Livius 10, Aesop and Cato 9, Caesar 8; Ptolemy and Quintilian 6; Lucian, Aulus Gellius and Juvenal 5; Demosthenes, Isocrates, Apuleius, Marcial, Suetonius 4; Hippocrates, Xenophon, Pythagoras, Phaedrus, Quintus Curtius, Tacitus, Terence 3; Herodotus, Boethius, Claudius Donatus, Lucan, Macrobius, Plautus 2; Achilles Tatius, Arrian, Democritus, Strabo, Heliodorus, Hesiod, Pindar, Sextus Empiricus, Socrates, Theopompus, Tirteus, Zoilus, Appius Claudius, Catullus, Frontinus, Hyginus, Nepos, Papinianus, Persius, Pliny the Younger, Pomponius Mela, Propertius, Publilius Syrus, Sallust, Tibullus 1 (one time).

And all this just in Don Quixote. So the field in which the curious reader can glean is immense.

herefore, by way of summary I reproduce Chapter XVI of the II part where Cervantes leaves us his vision of the importance of the humanities.

From this last observation of Don Quixote's, the traveller began to have a suspicion that he was some crazy being, and was waiting him to confirm it by something further; but before they could turn to any new subject Don Quixote begged him to tell him who he was, since he himself had rendered account of his station and life. To this, he in the green gaban replied "I, Sir Knight of the Rueful Countenance, am a gentleman by birth, native of the village where, please God, we are going to dine today; I am more than fairly well off, and my name is Don Diego de Miranda. I pass my life with my wife, children, and friends; my pursuits are hunting and fishing, but I keep neither hawks nor greyhounds, nothing but a tame partridge or a bold ferret or two; I have six dozen or so of books, some in our mother tongue, some Latin, some of them history, others devotional; those of chivalry have not as yet crossed the threshold of my door; I am more given to turning over the profane than the devotional, so long as they are books of honest entertainment that charm by their style and attract and interest by the invention they display, though of these there are very few in Spain. Sometimes I dine with my neighbours and friends, and often invite them; my entertainments are neat and well served without stint of anything. I have no taste for tattle, nor do I allow tattling in my presence; I pry not into my neighbours' lives, nor have I lynx-eyes for what others do. I hear mass every day; I share my substance with the poor, making no display of good works, lest I let hypocrisy and vainglory, those enemies that subtly take possession of the most watchful heart, find an entrance into mine. I strive to make peace between those whom I know to be at variance; I am the devoted servant of Our Lady, and my trust is ever in the infinite mercy of God our Lord."

Sancho listened with the greatest attention to the account of the gentleman's life and occupation; and thinking it a good and a holy life, and that he who led it ought to work miracles, he threw himself off Dapple, and running in haste seized his right stirrup and kissed his foot again and again with a devout heart and almost with tears.

Seeing this the gentleman asked him, "What are you about, brother? What are these kisses for?"

"Let me kiss," said Sancho, "for I think your worship is the first saint in the saddle I ever saw all the days of my life."

"I am no saint," replied the gentleman, "but a great sinner; but you are, brother, for you must be a good fellow, as your simplicity shows."

Sancho went back and regained his pack-saddle, having extracted a laugh from his master's profound melancholy, and excited fresh amazement in Don Diego. Don Quixote then asked him how many children he had, and observed that one of the things wherein the ancient philosophers, who were without the true knowledge of God, placed the summum bonum was in the gifts of nature, in those of fortune, in having many friends, and many and good children.

"I, Senor Don Quixote," answered the gentleman, "have one son, without whom, perhaps, I should count myself happier than I am, not because he is a bad son, but because he is not so good as I could wish. He is eighteen years of age; he has been for six at Salamanca studying Latin and Greek, and when I wished him to turn to the study of other sciences I found him so wrapped up in that of poetry (if that can be called a science) that there is no getting him to take kindly to the law, which I wished him to study, or to theology, the queen of them all. I would like him to be an honour to his family, as we live in days when our kings liberally reward learning that is virtuous and worthy; for learning without virtue is a pearl on a dunghill. He spends the whole day in settling whether Homer expressed himself correctly or not in such and such a line of the Iliad, whether Martial was indecent or not in such and such an epigram, whether such and such lines of Virgil are to be understood in this way or in that; in short, all his talk is of the works of these poets, and those of Horace, Perseus, Juvenal, and Tibullus; for of the moderns in our own language he makes no great account; but with all his seeming indifference to Spanish poetry, just now his thoughts are absorbed in making a gloss on four lines that have been sent him from Salamanca, which I suspect are for some poetical tournament."

To all this Don Quixote said in reply, "Children, senor, are portions of their parents' bowels, and therefore, be they good or bad, are to be loved as we love the souls that give us life; it is for the parents to guide them from infancy in the ways of virtue, propriety, and worthy Christian conduct, so that when grown up they may be the staff of their parents' old age, and the glory of their posterity; and to force them to study this or that science I do not think wise, though it may be no harm to persuade them; and when there is no need to study for the sake of pane lucrando, and it is the student's good fortune that heaven has given him parents who provide him with it, it would be my advice to them to let him pursue whatever science they may see him most inclined to; and though that of poetry is less useful than pleasurable, it is not one of those that bring discredit upon the possessor. Poetry, gentle sir, is, as I take it, like a tender young maiden of supreme beauty, to array, bedeck, and adorn whom is the task of several other maidens, who are all the rest of the sciences; and she must avail herself of the help of all, and all derive their lustre from her. But this maiden will not bear to be handled, nor dragged through the streets, nor exposed either at the corners of the market-places, or in the closets of palaces. She is the product of an Alchemy of such virtue that he who is able to practise it, will turn her into pure gold of inestimable worth. He that possesses her must keep her within bounds, not permitting her to break out in ribald satires or soulless sonnets. She must on no account be offered for sale, unless, indeed, it be in heroic poems, moving tragedies, or sprightly and ingenious comedies. She must not be touched by the buffoons, nor by the ignorant vulgar, incapable of comprehending or appreciating her hidden treasures. And do not suppose, senor, that I apply the term vulgar here merely to plebeians and the lower orders; for everyone who is ignorant, be he lord or prince, may and should be included among the vulgar. He, then, who shall embrace and cultivate poetry under the conditions I have named, shall become famous, and his name honoured throughout all the civilised nations of the earth. And with regard to what you say, senor, of your son having no great opinion of Spanish poetry, I am inclined to think that he is not quite right there, and for this reason: the great poet Homer did not write in Latin, because he was a Greek, nor did Virgil write in Greek, because he was a Latin; in short, all the ancient poets wrote in the language they imbibed with their mother's milk, and never went in quest of foreign ones to express their sublime conceptions; and that being so, the usage should in justice extend to all nations, and the German poet should not be undervalued because he writes in his own language, nor the Castilian, nor even the Biscayan, for writing in his. But your son, senor, I suspect, is not prejudiced against Spanish poetry, but against those poets who are mere Spanish verse writers, without any knowledge of other languages or sciences to adorn and give life and vigour to their natural inspiration; and yet even in this he may be wrong; for, according to a true belief, a poet is born one; that is to say, the poet by nature comes forth a poet from his mother's womb; and following the bent that heaven has bestowed upon him, without the aid of study or art, he produces things that show how truly he spoke who said, 'Est Deus in nobis,' etc. At the same time, I say that the poet by nature who calls in art to his aid will be a far better poet, and will surpass him who tries to be one relying upon his knowledge of art alone. The reason is, that art does not surpass nature, but only brings it to perfection; and thus, nature combined with art, and art with nature, will produce a perfect poet. To bring my argument to a close, I would say then, gentle sir, let your son go on as his star leads him, for being so studious as he seems to be, and having already successfully surmounted the first step of the sciences, which is that of the languages, with their help he will by his own exertions reach the summit of polite literature, which so well becomes an independent gentleman, and adorns, honours, and distinguishes him, as much as the mitre does the bishop, or the gown the learned counsellor. If your son write satires reflecting on the honour of others, chide and correct him, and tear them up; but if he compose discourses in which he rebukes vice in general, in the style of Horace, and with elegance like his, commend him; for it is legitimate for a poet to write against envy and lash the envious in his verse, and the other vices too, provided he does not single out individuals; there are, however, poets who, for the sake of saying something spiteful, would run the risk of being banished to the coast of Pontus. If the poet be pure in his morals, he will be pure in his verses too; the pen is the tongue of the mind, and as the thought engendered there, so will be the things that it writes down. And when kings and princes observe this marvellous science of poetry in wise, virtuous, and thoughtful subjects, they honour, value, exalt them, and even crown them with the leaves of that tree which the thunderbolt strikes not, as if to show that they whose brows are honoured and adorned with such a crown are not to be assailed by anyone."

He of the green gaban was filled with astonishment at Don Quixote's argument, so much so that he began to abandon the notion he had taken up about his being crazy. But in the middle of the discourse, it being not very much to his taste, Sancho had turned aside out of the road to beg a little milk from some shepherds, who were milking their ewes hard by; and just as the gentleman, highly pleased, was about to renew the conversation, Don Quixote, raising his head, perceived a cart covered with royal flags coming along the road they were travelling; and persuaded that this must be some new adventure, he called aloud to Sancho to come and bring him his helmet. Sancho, hearing himself called, quitted the shepherds, and, prodding Dapple vigorously, came up to his master, to whom there fell a terrific and desperate adventure. (Translated by John Ormsby)

Desta última razón de don Quijote tomó barruntos el caminante de que don Quijote debía de ser algún mentecato, y aguardaba que con otras lo confirmase; pero, antes que se divertiesen en otros razonamientos, don Quijote le rogó le dijese quién era, pues él le había dado parte de su condición y de su vida. A lo que respondió el del Verde Gabán:

–Yo, señor Caballero de la Triste Figura, soy un hidalgo natural de un lugar donde iremos a comer hoy, si Dios fuere servido. Soy más que medianamente rico y es mi nombre don Diego de Miranda; paso la vida con mi mujer, y con mis hijos, y con mis amigos; mis ejercicios son el de la caza y pesca, pero no mantengo ni halcón ni galgos, sino algún perdigón manso, o algún hurón atrevido. Tengo hasta seis docenas de libros, cuáles de romance y cuáles de latín, de historia algunos y de devoción otros; los de caballerías aún no han entrado por los umbrales de mis puertas. Hojeo más los que son profanos que los devotos, como sean de honesto entretenimiento, que deleiten con el lenguaje y admiren y suspendan con la invención, puesto que déstos hay muy pocos en España. Alguna vez como con mis vecinos y amigos, y muchas veces los convido; son mis convites limpios y aseados, y no nada escasos; ni gusto de murmurar, ni consiento que delante de mí se murmure; no escudriño las vidas ajenas, ni soy lince de los hechos de los otros; oigo misa cada día; reparto de mis bienes con los pobres, sin hacer alarde de las buenas obras, por no dar entrada en mi corazón a la hipocresía y vanagloria, enemigos que blandamente se apoderan del corazón más recatado; procuro poner en paz los que sé que están desavenidos; soy devoto de nuestra Señora, y confío siempre en la misericordia infinita de Dios nuestro Señor.

Atentísimo estuvo Sancho a la relación de la vida y entretenimientos del hidalgo; y, pareciéndole buena y santa y que quien la hacía debía de hacer milagros, se arrojó del rucio, y con gran priesa le fue a asir del estribo derecho, y con devoto corazón y casi lágrimas le besó los pies una y muchas veces. Visto lo cual por el hidalgo, le preguntó:

–¿Qué hacéis, hermano? ¿Qué besos son éstos?

–Déjenme besar –respondió Sancho–, porque me parece vuesa merced el primer santo a la jineta que he visto en todos los días de mi vida.

–No soy santo –respondió el hidalgo–, sino gran pecador; vos sí, hermano, que debéis de ser bueno, como vuestra simplicidad lo muestra.

Volvió Sancho a cobrar la albarda, habiendo sacado a plaza la risa de la profunda malencolía de su amo y causado nueva admiración a don Diego. Preguntóle don Quijote que cuántos hijos tenía, y díjole que una de las cosas en que ponían el sumo bien los antiguos filósofos, que carecieron del verdadero conocimiento de Dios, fue en los bienes de la naturaleza, en los de la fortuna, en tener muchos amigos y en tener muchos y buenos hijos.

–Yo, señor don Quijote –respondió el hidalgo–, tengo un hijo, que, a no tenerle, quizá me juzgara por más dichoso de lo que soy; y no porque él sea malo, sino porque no es tan bueno como yo quisiera. Será de edad de diez y ocho años: los seis ha estado en Salamanca, aprendiendo las lenguas latina y griega; y, cuando quise que pasase a estudiar otras ciencias, halléle tan embebido en la de la poesía, si es que se puede llamar ciencia, que no es posible hacerle arrostrar la de las leyes, que yo quisiera que estudiara, ni de la reina de todas, la teología. Qu[i]siera yo que fuera corona de su linaje, pues vivimos en siglo donde nuestros reyes premian altamente las virtuosas y buenas letras; porque letras sin virtud son perlas en el muladar. Todo el día se le pasa en averiguar si dijo bien o mal Homero en tal verso de la Ilíada; si Marcial anduvo deshonesto, o no, en tal epigrama; si se han de entender de una manera o otra tales y tales versos de Virgilio. En fin, todas sus conversaciones son con los libros de los referidos poetas, y con los de Horacio, Persio, Juvenal y Tibulo; que de los modernos romancistas no hace mucha cuenta; y, con todo el mal cariño que muestra tener a la poesía de romance, le tiene agora desvanecidos los pensamientos el hacer una glosa a cuatro versos que le han enviado de Salamanca, y pienso que son de justa literaria.

A todo lo cual respondió don Quijote:

–Los hijos, señor, son pedazos de las entrañas de sus padres, y así, se han de querer, o buenos o malos que sean, como se quieren las almas que nos dan vida; a los padres toca el encaminarlos desde pequeños por los pasos de la virtud, de la buena crianza y de las buenas y cristianas costumbres, para que cuando grandes sean báculo de la vejez de sus padres y gloria de su posteridad; y en lo de forzarles que estudien esta o aquella ciencia no lo tengo por acertado, aunque el persuadirles no será dañoso; y cuando no se ha de estudiar para pane lucrando, siendo tan venturoso el estudiante que le dio el cielo padres que se lo dejen, sería yo de parecer que le dejen seguir aquella ciencia a que más le vieren inclinado; y, aunque la de la poesía es menos útil que deleitable, no es de aquellas que suelen deshonrar a quien las posee. La poesía, señor hidalgo, a mi parecer, es como una doncella tierna y de poca edad, y en todo estremo hermosa, a quien tienen cuidado de enriquecer, pulir y adornar otras muchas doncellas, que son todas las otras ciencias, y ella se ha de servir de todas, y todas se han de autorizar con ella; pero esta tal doncella no quiere ser manoseada, ni traída por las calles, ni publicada por las esquinas de las plazas ni por los rincones de los palacios. Ella es hecha de una alquimia de tal virtud, que quien la sabe tratar la volverá en oro purísimo de inestimable precio; hala de tener, el que la tuviere, a raya, no dejándola correr en torpes sátiras ni en desalmados sonetos; no ha de ser vendible en ninguna manera, si ya no fuere en poemas heroicos, en lamentables tragedias, o en comedias alegres y artificiosas; no se ha de dejar tratar de los truhanes, ni del ignorante vulgo, incapaz de conocer ni estimar los tesoros que en ella se encierran. Y no penséis, señor, que yo llamo aquí vulgo solamente a la gente plebeya y humilde; que todo aquel que no sabe, aunque sea señor y príncipe, puede y debe entrar en número de vulgo. Y así, el que con los requisitos que he dicho tratare y tuviere a la poesía, será famoso y estimado su nombre en todas las naciones políticas del mundo. Y a lo que decís, señor, que vuestro hijo no estima mucho la poesía de romance, doyme a entender que no anda muy acertado en ello, y la razón es ésta: el grande Homero no escribió en latín, porque era griego, ni Virgilio no escribió en griego, porque era latino. En resolución, todos los poetas antiguos escribieron en la lengua que mamaron en la leche, y no fueron a buscar las estranjeras para declarar la alteza de sus conceptos. Y, siendo esto así, razón sería se estendiese esta costumbre por todas las naciones, y que no se desestimase el poeta alemán porque escribe en su lengua, ni el castellano, ni aun el vizcaíno, que escribe en la suya. Pero vuestro hijo, a lo que yo, señor, imagino, no debe de estar mal con la poesía de romance, sino con los poetas que son meros romancistas, sin saber otras lenguas ni otras ciencias que adornen y despierten y ayuden a su natural impulso; y aun en esto puede haber yerro; porque, según es opinión verdadera, el poeta nace: quieren decir que del vientre de su madre el poeta natural sale poeta; y, con aquella inclinación que le dio el cielo, sin más estudio ni artificio, compone cosas, que hace verdadero al que dijo: est Deus in nobis..., etcétera. También digo que el natural poeta que se ayudare del arte será mucho mejor y se aventajará al poeta que sólo por saber el arte quisiere serlo; la razón es porque el arte no se aventaja a la naturaleza, sino perficiónala; así que, mezcladas la naturaleza y el arte, y el arte con la naturaleza, sacarán un perfetísimo poeta. Sea, pues, la conclusión de mi plática, señor hidalgo, que vuesa merced deje caminar a su hijo por donde su estrella le llama; que, siendo él tan buen estudiante como debe de ser, y habiendo ya subido felicemente el primer escalón de las esencias, que es el de las lenguas, con ellas por sí mesmo subirá a la cumbre de las letras humanas, las cuales tan bien parecen en un caballero de capa y espada, y así le adornan, honran y engrandecen, como las mitras a los obispos, o como las garnachas a los peritos jurisconsultos. Riña vuesa merced a su hijo si hiciere sátiras que perjudiquen las honras ajenas, y castíguele, y rómpaselas, pero si hiciere sermones al modo de Horacio, donde reprehenda los vicios en general, como tan elegantemente él lo hizo, alábele: porque lícito es al poeta escribir contra la invidia, y decir en sus versos mal de los invidiosos, y así de los otros vicios, con que no señale persona alguna; pero hay poetas que, a trueco de decir una malicia, se pondrán a peligro que los destierren a las islas de Ponto. Si el poeta fuere casto en sus costumbres, lo será también en sus versos; la pluma es lengua del alma: cuales fueren los conceptos que en ella se engendraren, tales serán sus escritos; y cuando los reyes y príncipes veen la milagrosa ciencia de la poesía en sujetos prudentes, virtuosos y graves, los honran, los estiman y los enriquecen, y aun los coronan con las hojas del árbol a quien no ofende el rayo, como en señal que no han de ser ofendidos de nadie los que con tales coronas veen honrados y adornadas sus sienes.

Admirado quedó el del Verde Gabán del razonamiento de don Quijote, y tanto, que fue perdiendo de la opinión que con él tenía, de ser mentecato. Pero, a la mitad desta plática, Sancho, por no ser muy de su gusto, se había desviado del camino a pedir un poco de leche a unos pastores que allí junto estaban ordeñando unas ovejas; y, en esto, ya volvía a renovar la plática el hidalgo, satisfecho en estremo de la discreción y buen discurso de don Quijote, cuando, alzando don Quijote la cabeza, vio que por el camino por donde ellos iban venía un carro lleno de banderas reales; y, creyendo que debía de ser alguna nueva aventura, a grandes voces llamó a Sancho que viniese a darle la celada. El cual Sancho, oyéndose llamar, dejó a los pastores, y a toda priesa picó al rucio, y llegó donde su amo estaba, a quien sucedió una espantosa y desatinada aventura.


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