De Isla y Rojo, padre Jose Francisco

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de Isla y Rojo, padre Jose Francisco (1703-81). Spanish, Satirist.

The Jesuit priest Jose Francisco de Isla belonged to a group of reformers consisting of Feijoo y Montenegro, Benito Jerónimo, Jovellanos y Ramirez, Gaspar Melchor de, Cadalso and Forner. Along with another Jesuit, padre Petisco, he greatly contributed to the effort to restore the study of Humanities in Spain. He dedicated the majority of his works to the spiritual and material preparation of his compatriots. His works are written in a variety of genres: essays, doctoral dissertations, novels and philosophical speculation. They use a variety of tones ranging from noble advice to agile and violent satire.

He was born in Vidanes (Leon) the 24th of March 1703 to an affluent family. At the age of twelve he graduated with a degree in Law. At sixteen he broke an engagement and entered the Jesuits at Villagarcia de Campos. After two years the Jesuits sent him to study at the prestigious University of Salamanca. In Salamanca, he studied philosophy for two years and theology for four. Upon graduation he was immediately appointed to the chair of exegesis and later to the chair of philosophy. His literary career began at nineteen when he translated, without knowing French, using only a dictionary, the History of Teodiosio, by Flechier. He also translated the Compendio de la historia de España by padre Duchesne and began translating Año Cristiano by Croiset. His first original work, La juventud triunfante (1727), was an exaggerated description of the excessively elaborate preparations made to celebrate the canonization of San Luis Gonzaga and San Estanislao de Kostka. His second publication, Cartas de Juan de la Encina (1732), is a pure satire of the methods of surgery used in his day and were a comic reply to Metodo racional y gobierno quirurgico para curar los sabanones written by doctor Carmona. His next work, Triunfo del amor y de la lealtad o Dia grande de Navarra (1746), was a satire describing the excessive and pompous celebration of Ferdinand VI’s accession to the throne by the people of Navarra.

After leaving Salamanca, he became a professor and earned the reputation of being a popular preacher in Segovia, Santiago and Pamplona. In 1750 he was sent to Valladolid to preach. In recognition of his ability as a preacher, the marques of Ensenada nominated him to be the confessor of the queen, doña Barbara de Braganza. Isla rejected this office, considering himself to be unworthy. Isla’s literary talent was recognized by the Spanish court, who thought that the talented writer should devote himself entirely to literary works, and in 1752 he was assigned exclusively to write.

In 1758-59 three of his greatest patrons died--Queen Maria Barbara, King Ferdinand VI and Pope Benedict XIV. Additional problems arose in 1758 when Portugal began persecution of the Jesuits which quickly spread to Spain. A royal decree in 1762 forbade any Jesuit to publish a new book and in 1767 the Jesuits were banished from Spain. Padre Isla was exiled, first to Corsica for fourteen months and then to the Papal States. While in Corsica he translated the Cartas, by Jose Antonio Constantini in eight volumes, Gil Blas by Lesage, Alain-René and the Arte de encomendarse a Dios by padre Bellati. He wrote Sermones, consisting of six volumes (1792), an excellent model of sacred oratory not always purged of the vices that the author was censuring, and the Cartas Familiares (1786-89). The Cartas of Padre Isla, written following the style of Santa Teresa, are known for their graceful spontaneity using a tone that falls between serious and ironic. His most original work, which makes Padre Isla one of the greatest writers of his century, is Historia del famoso predicador fray Gerundio de Campazas.

Historia del famoso predicador fray Gerundio de Campazas, whom Islas called “a preaching Don Quijote,” is published in two editions, 1758 and 1770. The first part is published under the name of Francisco Lobon de Salazar, a friend of Islas, due to the edict against Jesuits publishing books. The second edition appeared while Padre Islas was in exile and was forbidden by the Santo Oficio because he did not have the appropriate ecclesiastic license. It is a clever satire in which he exposed the complete decay of pulpit oratory in Spain. Isla exposed in this work all of the extravagances, irreverent jokes, anecdotes and nonsense that were being preached. In doing this Isla ridiculed many of the vices and errors used in popular oratory (i.e. the mania for laudatory prologues and pedantic erudition). He proposed that the perfect orator should be well versed in rhetoric, geography, history, philosophical systems, theology, music, medicine, and even poetry. Isla’s desire to expose bad preachers was successful. The incredible speed at which the first edition was sold, the protests from Religious Orders, the intervention of the Santo Oficio to censor his book all attest to his accomplishment. The first edition was sold out in three days and raised a furor of pro and con pamphlets which caused the Holy Office in 1760 to forbid any further polemics on the subject.

Isla especially excelled at retelling popular stories of the times using a naturalistic style with such vivid descriptions and details that he has been viewed as a precursor of realism.

He was pursued in the Papal States and exiled again by the ecclesiastical curate in 1773. Upon the death of Cardinal Malvezzi in 1775, he returned to Bologna, where the Count of Tedeschi took him into his palace and attended to him until his death in 1781.

Further Reading

R. S. Boggs: “Folklore elements in “Fray Gerundio”, Hispanic Review, IV, 1936.

C. Eguia Ruiz: “El estilo humanistico del autor de “Fray Gerundio”, Humanitas, III. Comillas, 1951

Christine Bridges-Esser

Lamar University