The Iriarte family and La Casa Iriarte
In Puerto de la Cruz there is a traditional Canarian house called La Casa Iriarte (The Iriarte House) where, unsurprisingly, the Iriarte family lived. This family produced some illustrious sons who figured prominently at a national level in 18th century Spain during the reign of King Charles III, the father of the Spanish ‘Age of Enlightenment’. The Casa Iriarte is situated, appropriately enough, in the Calle Iriarte where an information board tells a little of the story, but it’s easy to pass the board by.
The Iriarte family came to Tenerife from the Basque country in northern Spain sometime in the late 17th century, probably through a diplomatic appointment. As such they were a wealthy and cultured family.
A rough family tree is above showing only the sons. The daughters of course, I’m sorry to say, didn’t count in those days, as in England of the time, they were useful only as bargaining tools for ‘suitable’ marriages that linked families socially and financially. I haven’t even been able to find their names.
This story begins with the brothers Juan (1702-1771) and Bernardo (1705-1814) who were born in Puerto de Orotava, now Puerto de la Cruz. As a young man Juan left Tenerife in 1724 for Madrid, as young men often did to finish their education and to become gentlemen, under the patronage of a relative who sent him to Paris and London. On his return to Spain Juan became a tutor to families of the Spanish nobility, but in 1729, due to his linguistic and literary talents he was appointed Officer Clerk to the Royal Library. By 1742 he was the official translator to the First Secretariat of State, a post he held until his death in 1771. He was a prolific writer and a diplomat who by his own patronage had a great influence on three of his nephews.
Back in Tenerife, what Juan’s brother Bernardo did I haven’t been able to discover, but he was obviously able to maintain the family fortune and its status. In his ‘Life of Tomas de Iriarte’, R. Merritt Cox* says, “Of the five sons born to Bernardo de Iriarte and his wife Barbara de las Nieves de Oropesa, three (Bernardo, Domingo and Tomas) went on to establish their names in either diplomacy or letters. The two who remained at home (Juan Tomas and Jose) did nothing to distinguish themselves.”
Of the two sons who stayed at home, Cox’s comment about Juan Tomas seems rather unfair. He had joined the Order of Preachers, or Dominican friars, at their convent in Orotava, and therefore had no further ambition than to serve God. Jose, however, does seem to be anonymous.
Bernardo’s oldest son, Bernardo, was the first to go to Madrid to live with his uncle Juan. His early career was closely associated with his uncle who provided him with the opportunities, but Bernardo soon made a name for himself. He went to join the Spanish legation in Parma, then in 1760, aged only 25, he became Secretary at the Spanish embassy in London. When he returned to Spain he joined the state secretariat and, for a hobby, he acquired paintings, eventually owning an important art collection. He recognised artistic talent and was one of those who espoused the career of Francisco Goya. Bernardo was also generous enough to recognise the literary talents of his youngest brother Tomas, for whom he was a great influence, acting almost as a father figure. Unfortunately, later in Bernardo’s life there was a change of personnel at the Spanish royal court after the death of Charles III, and he fell from favour and was obliged to move to France, where he died in 1814.
Domingo de Iriarte, twin brother of the anonymous Jose, grew up to be a linguist, a classicist and a diplomat. He also went to Madrid under the wing of Uncle Juan. On entering the world of 18th century diplomacy, Domingo he held posts in the embassies in Vienna and Paris before being appointed Spanish Ambassador to Poland. Like Bernardo, he too had an eye for art and supplied some of the paintings that went in to Bernardo’s collection.
As if three prominent Iriartes were not enough, their talents were outshone by the youngest brother, Tomas de Iriarte. At the age of 10, Tomas was sent from the family home in Puerto de Orotava to live at the Dominican convent in the town of Orotava to be educated by his brother Fra. Juan Tomas. Juan Tomas must have recognised the talents of his young brother and probably encouraged the family to send him to join his older brothers and his uncle, and so in 1764, at the tender age of 13, Tomas also went to Madrid. Here he showed an early talent for the composition of poetry and ‘fables’, as they were called, playwriting, language trans-lation and music appreciation. He had his first book published at the age of 20.
On death of his uncle in 1771, Tomas took over as Official Translator of the First Secretariat of State and he was appointed General Archivist of the Supreme Council of War. Tomas was only 21. Throughout his life he was a prolific writer and as a dramatist he could be ferociously satirical. It was just because much of his work was critical of the values of the upper classes and ‘society’ that he eventually made as many enemies as he made friends. But his health was impaired and he died just short of his forty-first birthday from a form of gout.
Tomas de Iriarte is renowned as a ‘poet-fabulist’, most famous for his seventy-six ‘fables’ “in which a number of animals are made to speak out against the author’s literary enemies.”**
LA CASA IRIARTE
When I first saw, or rather experienced, the Casa Iriarte it was a Maritime museum of sorts. One had to enter through a lace shop and go upstairs, where the floorboards in places were so thin and worn that you could see through to the floor below, the roof was held up by acroprops here and there, and daylight could be seen through gaps in the tiles. But what a wonderful place it was, it was a personal collection full of surprises, model dioramas, models of ships, plans of ships, flags of all kinds, ropes with various marine knots that formed door surrounds, there were photos of old Puerto de la Cruz, and all overseen by a moth-eaten bear skin hung on the wall. It was quite crazy and an absolute delight. But it is no more. The shop is empty, the building is empty and the attractive rear entrance is looking more and more like a miniature jungle behind its iron-barred gate.
The house is a treasure, not only as an untouched traditional building, but as the home of a nationally famous Spanish family, the Iriarte family. If it were in England, this historic house would be well qualified to form part of the National Trust, a scheduled monument, with four blue plaques adorning its walls.
The ultimate and appropriate accolade given to Tomas de Iriarte by his home town was in 2014, when the new library was named ‘Biblioteca de Tomas de Iriarte.’ Now what about doing something with the house to honour the whole family?
*‘Life of Tomas de Iriarte’, R. Merritt Cox, Twayne Publishers Inc., 1972
**Chambers Biographical Dictionary, 2002