Research project proposal of Prof. Dr. Francesco Vossilla, MRI grant 2020

Research project proposal of Prof. Dr. Francesco Vossilla, MRI grant 2020


  1. General Statement of Topic

In the last decades, scholars opened specific avenues for academic research to illuminate the long history of Catholicism in China and its legion of international protagonists.

According to Fr. José Rodriguez Carballo, Minister General of the Order of Friars Minor, Giovanni da Montecorvino, Odorico da Pordenone, and other illustrious Franciscan missionaries operated in medieval China as ambassadors of Peace and ambassadors of the Faith. Undoubtedly, the same was true for lesser-known men and women who belonged to several religious orders and labored in the Middle Kingdom in different historical periods.

The goal of this project is to prepare an academically grounded book-manuscript that might be of interest even for non-specialist readers.

New tensions are growing between nations to the side of the immense tragedy of the COVID 19 pandemic. In this context, it seems useful to disseminate information about exemplary figures of missionaries who served in China as ambassadors of Peace and ambassadors of the Faith.

My account is to highlight few episodes of diplomacy and cultural mediation that have left artistic or cultural traces on the Silk Road and on the Spice Road.

Given the complexity of the subject, I have selected a handful of Italian missionaries whose legacy might be recognized as common heritage within the grand interpretative theme of Sino-Western relations. Clearly, their efforts were the result of distinctive historical, academic, devotional, and social backgrounds. Yet, they all shared the fervor for communicating with a sophisticated remote culture.

It is my intention to signal their various actions for peace in dedicated chapters of an extended chronological narrative. Avoiding hagiographic terms, I wish to motivate a contemporary reflection about the universality of the human condition encountering other cultures in times of tension and fear. I will draw attention to the comparable challenges faced by those motivated individuals as they attempted to relate and make peace with a civilization radically different from their own.

Beyond the account of determined historical conditions, their ventures are of great teaching for our fragile interconnected world especially in a moment when nations must keep distance. The more people and nations stay remote, the more we feel the necessity to elucidate historical encounters between cultures to promote a less grievance-driven understanding of our past.


  1. Contents of the research and manuscript 

My aim is to write a medium length book manuscript (maximum 148 pages including notes, bibliography, and images) comparing some Dominican, Franciscan, and Jesuit missionaries from Italy. Variant historical factors, born of both Chinese and Western circumstances, were behind their vicissitudes as missionaries and diplomats. Nevertheless, they suffered similar reversals of fortune even if they avoided to present the Christian message in a stiff Eurocentric cultural format.

I will take under consideration Western sources on the topic, and I will integrate my research with Chinese materials with the scholarly aid of Zhang Zheng-Ying.

To better communicate with Chinese readers, the English text will be adapted by Zhang Zheng-Ying as she would be the co-author of the Mandarin book-manuscript. We have used the same strategy for several publications dedicated to Giuseppe Castiglione SJ as well as for the Chinese guide of Santa Croce of Florence.

Zhang Zheng-Ying will also add a specific essay to the Chinese version.

As an introduction, I will explain how the idea for this project has risen in 2019 visiting the impressive ruins of the OFM mission in Tongyuan, Gaoling County, near Xi’an. There I met with the local priest of the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, and I came to know that about 400 Franciscan and Jesuit missionaries were once buried in Tongyuan.  Indeed, entering the little cathedral, one finds eight tombs of OFM bishops counting six Italians. According to Chinese documents, the Franciscan diplomat Odorico da Pordenone was in the central area of Shaanxi and in Gaoling in 1328 when he converted many locals. In the seventeenth century, Jesuit and Franciscan missionaries operated in the same area as they met with a still active Christian community. In 1696 the Italian Franciscan Basilio Brollo built a new church in Tongyuan. Between 1844 and 1888, other Italian Franciscans, such as Alfonso Donato and Amato Pagnucci, enlarged the site, soon nicknamed Little Rome on the Silk Road. There was a cathedral (Tongyuan Fan, meaning Lead to Heaven and Lead to Far Away Land), the bishop’s residence, a seminary with a small church, a convent for nuns, a school, an hospital, an orphanage, a post office, an observatory with an earthquake station. The community has survived difficult moments, and yet is very welcoming to Italians because of the special legacy of those missionaries.

The first chapter of the book is dedicated to the Franciscan Friar Giovanni Marignolli (c.1290 Florence- c.1359 Prague) who was in Yuan Dynasty China between 1338 and 1347. After the death of Giovanni da Montecorvino, Toghon Temür, the Shundi Emperor, sent an embassy (1336) to Pope Benedict XII requiring new missionaries. The Pope appointed four legates counting Marignolli. In 1342 Fr. Giovanni presented fine gifts to Shundi including European horses sent by Robert of Anjou, the French king of Naples. Even the Chinese annals mentioned the episode. One of those steeds, the Tianma (天馬the Celestial Stallion), was so imposing to be depicted by the court painter Zhou Lang (周朗) and celebrated by some Chinese poets.

Centuries later, the Qianlong Emperor admired Zhou Lang’s Tianma (or its Ming Dynasty copy, now in the Beijing Palace Museum), as it is demonstrated by the presence of his seal over Zhou’s scroll. As a matter of fact, in 1757 Qianlong commissioned a comparable painting (Kazak envoys offering a tribute of horses to the Qianlong Emperor, now at the Guimet Museum in Paris) to his most trustworthy foreign acquaintance, the Jesuit Brother Giuseppe Castiglione.

The famous Jesuit missionary Francesco Sambiasi (Bi Fangji 畢方濟,1582 Cosenza-1649 Guanzhou) is the protagonist of the second chapter as a diplomat. He arrived in Macao in 1610. He then lived in Jiading as a guest of the Catholic mathematician Ignatius Sun (Sun Yuanhua 孫元化). Sun donated one of his palaces as a residence for training newly arrived Jesuits in Chinese language and Confucian doctrine. Sambiasi dedicated to Sun the neo-Aristotelian dialogue Shuihua erda (睡畫二答Two answers on sleep and images, 1629). Later Sambiasi moved on to Nanjing where he worked for the Astronomical Observatory. In 1639 he presented to the Chongzhen Emperor an innovative map of the world (Kunyu quantu, 坤輿全圖, Ghent University Library), which I will discuss in the chapter. Between 1646 and 1649, Sambiasi served as an ambassador for the last Southern Ming Emperors, Hongguang, Longwu and Yongli, as they were fighting the Qing invasion. He oversaw diplomatic activities with Macau to petition the Portuguese for military aid against the Manchu. The Longwu Emperor gave Sambiasi a special decree for praising Christianity and allowed him to build a new church in Guanzhou. When the Qing army attacked Guanzhou in 1647, Sambiasi was injured during the fighting. He died in 1649 and he was buried outside Guanzhou, on land donated to the Jesuits by the Yongli emperor.

In the third chapter I will focus on the Dominican Prefect Apostolic Vittorio Ricci (Li Keluo 李科羅1621 Florence- 1685 Manila) who lived an adventurous life in the Far East.

Between 1648 and 1655, Ricci carried on missionary work in the Philippines among the Chinese of Manila. Then he was in Fukien where he served with orphans and criminals.

Ricci gained the trust of Zheng Chenggong(鄭成功), the famous pirate Koxinga. Zheng resisted Qing conquest of China and established himself as the ruler of Taiwan fighting with the Dutch. In that troubled context, Ricci guided several diplomatic missions in China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. He attempted to establish peace between the Dutch, Koxinga’s family, and Spanish authorities in the Philippines.

He converted many Taiwan natives, and he also tried to protect the Chinese community of Manila from Spanish and local anti-Chinese sentiment. For this section, I will comment on few images depicting Koxinga and his fight with the Dutch, Formosa, Fujian, and Manila in the seventeenth century.

Brother Giuseppe Castiglione SJ (Lang Shining 郎世寧, 1688 Milano - 1766 Beijing), is the protagonist of the fourth chapter for his artistic diplomacy under three Qing Emperors: Kangxi, Yongzheng, and Qianlong. He had to avoid presenting his creative skills as Christian or in an exclusively Western fashion.

The diplomatic relevance of Castiglione’s friendship with the Qianlong Emperor is evoked in a letter (1741) by the astronomer and diplomat Ferdinand A. von Hallerstein S J (Liu Songling 劉松齡, 1703 Ljubljana–1774 Beijing,). Hallerstein remarked: <<We hope that the grace that this humble artist and Brother found in the eyes of the Emperor will favourably influence the general position of our Christian affairs >>.

After a slow start with Kangxi, Castiglione’s creative action for peace truly began under the menacing Yongzheng Emperor when all missionaries were in danger outside of Forbidden City. I will analyze two works of art of that perilous period corresponding to the proscription of Christianity in 1724. In the same year, Giuseppe painted The White Gyrfalcon (Beijing Palace Museum) to celebrate Yongzheng’s birthday. In 1727, Castiglione’s accurate depiction of foxtail millet illustrated Yongzheng’s rescript (Beijing First National Archive) attesting to the good productivity of Chinese agriculture under his rule.

In that tumultuous moment, Castiglione met with Prince Hongli, the future Qianlong Emperor.  It was the beginning of a sincere friendship grounded on the Emperor’s positive judgement on Castiglione’s rectitude. His effort was somehow separated from the progressive failure of the Jesuit mission. However, Castiglione’s long-lasting dialog with Qianlong is still honoured in China. I will propose novel interpretations concerning two paintings Castiglione devised for Qianlong: the so called Fragrant Concubine (now in Taipei National Palace Museum) and the already mentioned Kazak envoys offering a tribute of horses to the Qianlong Emperor (1757, Guimet Museum, Paris).

The fifth chapter is dedicated to two Florentine architects and engravers: Ferdinando Moggi SJ (Li Buoming 利博明, 1684 Florence – 1761 Beijing) and Francesco Folleri SJ (Fa Liang法良1699 Florence- c.1767 Lisbon).