ANCIENT KINSHIP: Bonds between India and Italy through the ages - 2
by Come Carpentier de Gourdon on 09 May 2010 10 Comments

From the Renaissance to Risorgimento

Conti’s vivid and enchanting description of the wealth and refinement of the Vijayanagar court and of the prosperity and beauty of the India he explored (which he reported to Pope Eugenius IV on his return to Italy) did much to motivate the West to find a new way to that Eldorado, bypassing the Islamic states of West Asia, especially after the fall of the last Byzantine bastion in 1453. Italians were involved in the scientific and financial dimension of the Portuguese and Spanish endeavours to reach “Las Indias” towards the end of the XVth century.


Impetus for those expeditions was provided by the study of the geographic sources of Antiquity that were made available in Italy by the Byzantine scholars. Ptolemy’s Geographia in particular, first translated into Latin by Giacomo da Scarperia in 1406 in Florence was published with engraved maps at Bologna in 1477. It became a vade mecum for Christopher Columbus and his fellow seafarers and discoverers and even after his fourth and last voyage, the “Admiral of the Oceanic Sea” still thought that he had explored the eastern seaboard of the East Indies, near the port of Catigara, going by the coordinates provided by the Egyptian geographer.


As another observant traveller, the Bolognese Lodovico de Varthema, reported shortly after 1500 CE, the Portuguese by then had established themselves in several strategic points on the Western Indian coast and at the mouths of the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea. Varthema visited Vijayanagar too, then at the peak of its power, and saw the start of a growing commercial and military collaboration between that Deccanese empire and its Portuguese neighbours in Goa.


Italian gun-makers are known to have worked in the foundries of the kings of Vijayanagar and some western mercenaries may have fought in their armies. However, the alignment of the Portuguese with that paramount Hindu power prompted their Dutch economic and religious rivals to seek agreements with the Muslim Sultanates to the north, which had arisen in the previous two centuries. The curtain fell on that mighty empire after the battle of Talikota in 1565 when the five allied Turco-Iranian “Shahs” of the Deccan inflicted a crushing defeat on the ageing Hindu monarch, Ramadeva Raya. The connection between Italy and the Vijayanagar culture found an echo in 1623 when the Roman Patrician Pietro della Valle visited the Western coast of India and was received at the court of the Nayak King of Keladi (in Karnataka, near Hampi), the descendent of a vassal of those mighty Dravidian monarchs.


For the Portuguese and Italians, it was far harder to find acceptance from Muslim rulers who often required conversion to Islam and would not generally tolerate Christian proselytisation among their subjects. The challenge was illustrated by the biography of Rodolfo Aquaviva, the Jesuit from Tuscany, a younger son of the Duke of Atri, who tried unsuccessfully for three years in Agra and Fatehpur Sikri, with his Portuguese colleague Monserrate, until 1583 to convert the Mughal Emperor Akbar to Catholicism, at the very time when Matteo Ricci was in Goa, soon to leave for China to spread the faith there like Saint Francis Xavier had done in the Malay archipelago and in Japan a few decades earlier.


Aquaviva who belonged to a prominent family related to Saint Lugi Gonzaga, a scion of the powerful ruler of Mantova, and to the fifth general of the Company of Jesus, Claudio Aquaviva, had arrived in Goa in 1570 and was apparently given the very important mission to attempt to make India Christian by convincing its hegemonic monarch of the supreme truth of the revelation. Akbar, as an eclectic spirit interested in all religious traditions was seemingly tempted by the representations of the Jesuits, but dissuaded by his influential mother who feared a popular rebellion, or at least the uprising of the Muslims that would surely have overthrown the Timurid dynasty in the event of the Padshah becoming an apostate.


Eventually Akbar, desirous of creating harmony (Sulh e Kul) among the many confessions practiced by his subjects, forged a synthesis based on the doctrines of the various faiths practiced in his realm and called it Din I Ilahi (the truth of God). Though his attempt at founding a state religion focused on himself, as an embodiment of divinity on earth, predictably failed, that syncretistic Hindu Sufi-inspired attitude remained alive with his successors for three generations until Aurangzeb, under the influence of conservative Mullahs, enforced a stricter Islamic orthodoxy and thereby precipitated the decline of his dynasty and the breakup of the empire of his forebears.


There are many parallels between Akbar and the equally intellectually original, creative, heterodox and free-thinking Frederick II who lived four centuries earlier but who showed equal passions for philosophical ideas, scientific experimentation and religious speculation. Indeed both potentates are reported to have carried out almost identical experiments on human beings


While the greatest political power in India was trying to find a compromise between Islam and the native creeds of the subcontinent, Christendom itself was hard at work to expand its own religious and economic presence all over Asia. Hopes were kept high at the Mughal court as persistent rumours made many believe that Emperor Jahangir, Akbar’s son, who loved Italian art and surrounded himself with Christian pious images, might convert and in fact for political reasons, he forced three of his nephews to embrace the Catholic faith in the middle of the 17th century.


The Marchigian Matteo Ricci sailed for China in 1582 in the footsteps of his recent Jesuit predecessor Alessandro Valignano. India, the Malaysian archipelago, and China, were closely connected in the plans of the Roman Church and Goa was a laboratory and a springboard for missionaries bound for the Far East. Ricci developed the novel Jesuit approach to evangelization in exotic lands, which consisted in adopting the language, way of life, dress and outer appearance of the local population in order to be accepted and gradually introduce Christianity in a familiar, native garb.


What Ricci did by crafting the “Chinese rites” and highlighting the common features between Confucianism and the Catholic doctrine, Roberto di Nobili was to do in South India in the first half of the 17th century with the Malabar rites, when he adopted the trappings and didactic methods of a Brahmin religious teacher with the aim of getting access to the upper castes. The Jesuit recipe for deep cultural immersion was controversial as it broke away with the austere and uncompromising, martyrdom-seeking attitude of the Franciscans and Dominicans who bitterly criticized it. The Papacy in the end forbade it, certainly fearing that its clergy would “go native” and indeed, in spite of the tremendous educational work carried out by the Order of Ignatius of Loyola throughout Asia, it could not convert the vast masses of either South or East Asia.


Whereas India, China and Japan were primarily entrusted to the ministrations of the Jesuits by Rome, Tibet was reserved as a land of mission for the Capuchins and in 1707, Brother Francesco della Penna, “following the Ganges towards its source” arrived at Lhasa in 1707 and returned twice to the roof of the world where he carried out a number of translations from Latin to Tibetan and vice-versa and established friendly relations with the Dalai Lama and his officials. However, the expected effects of conversions to Catholicism on some Tibetans who henceforth refused to honour the Living Buddha led to the flogging and expulsion of the Capuchins and Della Penna himself had to leave Tibet in 1745 via Nepal where he died.


While the Church and the Catholic monarchies proclaimed the hope that the souls of teeming Asia might in the future all be caught in the nets of the Divine Fisherman Ad majorem Gloriam Dei, some scientists and artists in Italy were not immune to the lure of the pagan Indian world. The invention of calculus for instance is now rightly credited to the 14th century Indian mathematician Madhava, and it seems that Jesuits and other European scholars in Kerala brought this scientific breakthrough to Europe well before Leibnitz and Newton published their papers on it. In 1202, Leonardo Pisano introduced the Arabic numerals known as Hindse (from India) in European mathematics at about the time when a number of Arabic scientific works based on Indian texts were rendered into Latin. Galileo in 1585 was to work on the Latin version of Brahmagupta’s Sindhind as compiled by an Arabo-Iranian translator.


In literature, Boccacio is one of the first Italian fiction writers to have included stories originally found in the Indian collection of tales and fables, Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha. Carlo Gozzi’s much later fiabbe also contain borrowings from Indo-Persian fictional folklore. Giovanni Battista Baldini, a great Florentine mecene gathered one of the largest collections of Mughal miniatures in Europe, at a time when Italian art and technique were in high favour at the court of Agra and Delhi. Apart from painting techniques, the art of pietra dura was adopted as parchin kari and Florentine craftsmen employed in the imperial manufactures, under the inspiration of the Galleria di Lavori opened by Grand Duke Ferdinand the First of Tuscany, a contemporary of Akbar, in 1588 to produce Opere di Commessi. The artistic influence of the Medici on the Timurid rulers of India is a scarcely remembered aspect of world art history.


Niccolao Manucci is probably the most famous traveller and chronicler from that era (1639-1737) and his Storia do Mogor made many Europeans familiar with the pageantry, intrigues and sports of the Indian Badshahs so much so that Antonio Vivaldi composed his concerto Il Grosso Mogul in 1720.


At this point in the historical review, we may consider why the exploration of India by Europeans seems to have been unreciprocated as no Indians are known to have reached the Mediterranean region in the Medieval and Renaissance period, and if a few did, no records survive of their travels. Yet Indians probably had an edge in terms of scientific and technical knowledge on the Europeans, so why did they not venture beyond the Near East?


That question necessarily raises the matter of the reasons and motivations that drove travellers of all kinds to leave familiar regions and wander for years, often in trying and uncomfortable circumstances, about strange lands. Europeans were driven by the quest for commercial profit, curiosity, and more often than not, by the urge to spread their religion; but such an incentive did not exist among Hindus, at least with regard to the Mediterranean West where they let Jewish and later Arab traders carry out the exchange of goods. India found immense seas and territories lying within easier reach all around the Indian Ocean, from the East Coast of Africa and Arabia to the Malayo-Indonesian archipelago and the shores of Indochina and China, and its navigators seemingly did not see the need to compete with the canny intermediaries who traditionally carried out the business with the Red Sea and beyond.


The fact that India was more prosperous and had a more refined civilization than Europe after the disintegration of the Roman empire, which plunged large parts of the West into relative anarchy in the wake of the “barbarian’ invasions, is probably to account for the fact that there was no urge in the subcontinent to go West, at a time when a sprawling commonwealth of resource-rich states and virgin lands was open to Indian settlers around the ocean that still bears the name of their country.


Another factor for the relative absence of Medieval Indian visitors in Medieval Europe was the eclipse of Buddhism in the subcontinent. That missionary faith pursued its expansion in Central Asia, Korea, Japan and South East Asia, but without its native powerbase in India, and Hinduism was less inclined to export itself in the conviction that all regions and peoples have religions that express their own needs and are but specific aspects of the universal truth.


In a way, the effect of the medieval, rather mystical and quietist religious culture of India from the 8th and 9th centuries CE onwards was similar to that of Neo-Confucian state philosophy on the world exploring ventures of Admiral Zhen He and the so-called “Eunuch party”. The later Ming Emperors decided that the Heavenly Empire needed to focus on its internal wellbeing and security and forsook overseas commercial and military undertakings, thus taking a position opposite to that of the expansionistic Yuan Mongol dynasty that had preceded them.


Last but not least, the increasing power and reach of Arabo-Iranian Islamic kingdoms in the Indian Ocean and their gradual ascendancy on the costal areas of Gujarat, Maharashtra and Malabar effectively appears to have cut off the flow of travellers from the subcontinent towards the Red Sea and Mesopotamian ports which provided the links with the former Graeco-Roman area. Nevertheless, there are traces of the presence of mostly Muslim Gujarati merchants in the Egypt of the Mamluks, who were trading partners of the Sultans of Gujarat in the 15th and 16th century. The Arab and Ottoman screen remained in place until the Western colonial powers rent it asunder and reached India where they soon assumed a colonialist stance and their relations became increasingly unequal in the build up to the 1857 Indian revolt which triggered the imposition of formal submission to the British crown.


The Modern Age


British control of India had as a corollary the relative isolation of the subcontinent from all other European states, especially those regarded as potential rivals, such as France, Russia and the newly unified and ascendant Germany and Italy. As a result, contact with India in Italy throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries was restricted to individual scientific, commercial and “sporting” visitors who had to be approved of by the British colonial administration. That was quite a change from the period between 1730 and 1830 when, in the context of a disintegrating Mughal empire, several regional independent kingdoms arose, many of which sought the expertise of European mercenary commanders to train and lead their armies with the latest Western weapons and tactical concepts.


Some of those condottieri came from the yet to be reunified Italy and the most famous is the Savoyard Benoit Leborgne (alias De Boigne) who is generally regarded as French, but who fought under the banner of his native Piedmont when he commanded the armies of the Scindia of Gwalior, then the most powerful Indian prince, built the great fort of Aligarh, and retired in 1807 as an immensely rich man in his hometown of Chambery where he commissioned the monumental fountain of the elephants and the surrounding Piazza arcades. During his many years as a military commander in India, De Boigne employed other Savoians and Italians, including Michele Filoze, whose descendents remained great feudatories of the Scindia state of Gwalior.


Another such soldier of fortune was the Modenese Giovanni Battista Ruben Ventura who won the trust of the great Sikh King of Punjab Ranjit Singh and became commander-in-chief of his military forces and Governor and Kazi (head magistrate) of Lahore in 1843 before retiring to Paris to live his last days in opulence. In India he worked with several European brothers-in-arms, including the Amalfitan Paolo di Avitabile who governed Peshawar and the untamed region around the Khyber Pass which today separates Pakistan from Afghanistan, from 1834 to 1843 with an iron fist. Settling in Naples on that year with the great fortune the so-called Abu Tabela, - who had been the scourge of the Pushtun highwaymen - had won in India, he died in his native region, having been of great help to the British in their unfortunate attempts to extend their rule over Afghanistan.


After the consolidation of London’s control over the subcontinent, we find only a few illustrious or obscure visitors from Italy in India, just as a few maharajas and other generally wealthy and sophisticated Indians went on their own “grand tour” to witness the marvels of Europe. Prince Scipione Borghese in 1902 and the pioneering mountaineer and explorer Prince Luigi Amedeo di Savoia-Aosta, Duke of Abruzzo in 1907 are among the bluebloods to have left their names in the annals. But half a century earlier, the photographer Felice Beato, real inventor of photo-journalism, and his brother Antonio who in 1858 and 1859 immortalized many picturesque locations and scenes from legendary Hindustan, including the gory evidence of the savage repression that British troops had carried out on the “native rebels” in 1857, are better known.


We must wait for the coming to power of Benito Mussolini in Italy to witness the shaping of a diplomatic and military policy intended to support Indian nationalists, represented by Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, in their struggle to overthrow the colonial yoke. That policy coincided with, though it appeared to contradict the Duce’s own colonial campaigns in Ethiopia, but it manifested Italy’s intent to carve out its own area of influence in the Indian Ocean on whose shores it already governed the Southern Somali coast together with Erythrea on the Red Sea.


One of most influential Italians to visit India was educationalist Maria Montessori who arrived with her son Mario, on the invitation of the Theosophical Society in 1939, in the last years of the British rule, and partly on account of the War, she stayed for ten years, setting up sixteen batches of courses designed according to her method. Her work was carried out after her departure by the Indian SR Swami whom she had trained.


After Independence, several Italians played seminal roles in developing Indian industry and manufacturing from its relative infancy. Probably the most influential was Cavalier Rossi who helped, from the early years after Independence, to bring Fiat into the Indian car market and created several consumer goods companies that have since become national icons. In the wake of the economic liberalization that began in 1990, an ever growing number of Italian firms, especially those involved in high quality or luxury manufacturing in the areas of fashion, household furnishings, design, food and beverages as well as defence and advanced technology have entered the country and seemingly taken root.


This historical journey has led us to the present in which, through a mysterious quirk of history, Italian born-Sonia Gandhi is now the head of independent India’s longest-lasting and most powerful democratic dynasty, heir to its first Prime Minister, Pandit Nehru and as such, probably the Italian who has reached the highest in the political hierarchy of India in all of its history, leaving far behind the Aquavivas, Di Nobilis, De Boignes and Venturas of centuries past. Neither a missionary nor a General, her ascent illustrates the enigmatic and unpredictable nature of India, a land where conquerors, prophets and fortune-seekers of all origins have tried their luck throughout history and often spectacularly succeeded.



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-        Gli Etruschi, Mario Torelli (ed.) Bompiani, Milano, 2000

-        The Hittites and Their Contemporaries in Asia Minor, JG Mac Queen (1986)

-        Periplum Maris Erythreae ( with Intoduction, Translation and Commentary by Lionel Casson) Princeton University Press, 1969

-        The Unity and Diversity of the Mediterranean World, George Sarton, 1996, Osiris 2 (406-463)

-        The New Platonists, Whittaker, Cambridge, 1901

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-        The Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes, JW McCrindle (ed.), Hakluyt Soc., Cambridge University Press, 2000.

-        Une Image de l’Orient au XIVeme siecle – Les Mirabilia descripta de Jordan Catala, Christine Gadat, Ecole des Chartes, Paris, 2005

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-        Cultural Foundations of Mathematics, The Nature of Mathematical Proof and the Transmission of the Calculus from India to Europe in the 16th Century, CK Raju, Pearson Longman, 2004

-        European Voyagers in the Indian Ocean and the Caspian Sea (12th-15th Centuries), J. Richard, J. Stor, Iran Vol. 6, British Institute of Persian Studies, London

-        The Travels of Lodovico de Varthema, AD 1503 to 15008,. George Percy Badger (ed.), transl. by J. Winter Jones (Hakluyt, London, 1863), reprinted by Adamant Media Corp., 2001

-        Pietro’s Pilgrimage : a Journey to India and back in the beginning of the seventeenth century, Wilfrid Blunt, London, 1953

-        Histoire generale de l’empire du Mogul, Francois Catrou, Paris, 1715

-        Robert de Nobili (articles on Robert de Nobili and Malabar Rites by J, Castets in Catholic Encyclopaedia .,

-        Ventura, Dal Ghetto del Finale alla Corte di Lahore, Maria Pia Balboni, Bibl. Nuova Series, (Aedes Muratoriana), Milano, 1993

-        Il Napoletano che domo gli Afghani, Stefano Malatesta, Vicenza, Neri Pozza, 2002

-        Splashes from Hindu Mahasagar, Chand K Sharma (unpublished collection of essays circulated on mailing list: media Monitors (yahoogroups), 2009-2010.



The author is Convener, Editorial Board, World Affairs Journal

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