Dialogo è accettare l'altro come è e come egli stesso si definisce e si presenta a noi, di non cessare di essere se stessi mentre ci si confronta con il diverso, di essere consapevoli che la nostra identità esce arricchita e non sminuita da chi di questa identità non accetta alcuni elementi, magari anche quelli che noi riteniamo fondamentali. La riconciliazione è possibile, tra i cristiani e nella compagnia degli uomini. (Enzo Bianchi, priore della Comunità di Bose)

Missionary to the Forbidden City

di Sheila Melvin

MACAO — In early May of 1610, the renowned Italian missionary Matteo Ricci took to his bed in the small Beijing rectory he shared with his fellow Jesuits.

It was the Confucian exam season, when candidates from around China flocked to the capital to be tested, and Ricci had been besieged by visitors — sometimes 100 a day. The men who knocked unbidden were drawn by his knowledge of astronomy, mathematics, mechanics, philosophy, literature and rhetoric; the widely popular books he had written — in Chinese — including “On Friendship” and “Ten Discourses of a Strange Man”; his Chinese translation of Euclid’s “Geometry”; annotated maps of the world; deep knowledge of the Confucian classics; phenomenally trained memory — he could scan a list of 500 Chinese characters once and then recite it from memory — backwards — and, no doubt, his reputation for sincerity and modesty.

Ricci met them all — and reciprocated each visit within four days, as etiquette demanded. But his exhaustion was so extreme that he knew the end was near. As the sun set behind the Forbidden City on the evening of May 11, Ricci breathed his last.

“The Master From the West: An Exhibition Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the Passing of Matteo Ricci” marks the Jesuit’s death by celebrating his remarkable life. Initiated by the Marche region of Italy, where Ricci was born in the hillside town of Macerata in 1552, the exhibition has been held in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing. It opened at the Macao Museum of Art on Aug. 7 — the day Ricci first landed there, then a Portuguese colony, 428 years ago — and runs through Oct. 31.

The exhibition is intended to reconstruct the first encounter between the Chinese and European civilizations, at the end of the Ming dynasty, according to its curator, Filippo Mignini.

“It is a symbolic gesture of gratitude to China for its reception of one of the greatest children of the distant West, as well as for the respect it has shown for his memory,” he said in interviews in his office in Macerata and by e-mail from Beijing.

Mr. Mignini and Chan Hou Seng, director of the Macao Museum of Art and co-curator, present a diverse group of 183 artworks and other objects — some priceless originals and others replicas — divided among four sections. Two of these are unique to the Macao exhibition: “Early Catholicism in Macao,” which includes paintings, porcelains, religious objects and books; and “Calligraphy by Matteo Ricci’s Friends,” which gathers together calligraphic works by such friends and contemporaries as Xu Guangqi, who helped translate Euclid, and Tang Xianzu, author of “The Peony Pavilion.”

The core of the show, however, are two sections that, in Mr. Mignini’s words, “show the meaning and the importance of the first encounter between Chinese and European culture.”

“The Resplendent Era” explores the vibrant, and closely intertwined, religious and intellectual world of late Renaissance Europe. It includes paintings by Titian and Raphael, religious tapestries, architectural models and etchings, scientific instruments — Ricci often made sundials, astrolabes and celestial globes to present as gifts to his Chinese friends — and a beautiful selection of rare, ancient atlases and books critical to Ricci’s education. Among them are works by Christopher Clavius, the famed German mathematician and friend of Galileo who was Ricci’s teacher at the Roman College.

The second section, “Matteo Ricci’s Missionary Trip to China,” starts with Ricci’s arrival in Macao in 1582, a time when Chinese converts to Catholicism were obliged to wear Western clothes, speak Portuguese and abandon their culture. Perhaps unsurprisingly, European priests were not welcomed in China.

With the encouragement and support of his superior, Allesandro Valignano, Ricci revolutionized the Jesuit approach by mastering spoken and written Chinese — original editions of the books he wrote in Chinese are on display — assuming the Chinese name Li Madou, by which he remains widely known in China, and generally adapting himself to local customs.

He initially dressed like a Buddhist monk, but later switched to the purple robes of a Confucian scholar; samples of both garments are shown. This respectful attitude won him permission to live in southern China. He slowly worked his way northward and was finally allowed to live in Beijing in 1601.
Among the highlights of this section, and the show, are a 1603 edition of the annotated world maps Ricci produced for Chinese friends, scholars and the Wan Li emperor. The 203-by-58-centimeter map, about 80 by 23 inches, which is in the collection of the Liaoning Provincial Museum, is on loan for the first time and was not included in the earlier shows. Divided into eight panels, it includes a drawing of the nine concentric spheres of the universe as conceived by Ptolemy, plus two.

Ricci added two spheres, Mr. Mignini said: “The ‘First Movable’ and the sphere where God, the angels and the blessed live.”

Also on loan from Liaoning is a four-paneled painting, ink and color on silk, “Cottage in Plain Forest” which is attributed to Ricci, an attribution that Mr. Chan of the Macao museum accepts but that Mr. Mignini acknowledges is controversial, since Ricci never mentions the work in his voluminous writings and was not known to be an artist.

According to Mr. Mignini, the painting was stolen from the Forbidden City during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 and entered the collection of a mandarin who, on sending it out for restoration, discovered Ricci’s signature hidden on the back. It was then sold to a history teacher and a painter, confiscated during the Cultural Revolution, and ultimately donated to the Liaoning museum in 1982.

Rounding out the show’s treasures is a portrait of Ricci by a Macanese lay brother named You Wenhui — a.k.a. Emmanuele Pereira — drawn just after Ricci’s death when, it is recorded, those present “got on their knees, imploring [You] to make a likeness of [Ricci] that would be true to nature.”

The painting depicts a gray-bearded Ricci dressed in a tall hat and flowing robe with his arms hidden in the sleeves.

“The portrait of Ricci is very well authenticated,” said César Guillén-Nuñez, a research fellow at the Macao Ricci Institute. “It is Ricci in a state of bliss. It looks a lot like the portrait of a Chinese scholar.”

Ricci’s colleagues still faced the sad task of burying him. It was his desire to be interred in China — a privilege never before granted a missionary and rarely accorded any foreigner — because he believed it would strengthen Jesuit missionary efforts. His colleague Diego de Pantoia implored the emperor, “As in life we were nourished by your royal bounty, so in death we trust that you will grant us a clod of earth for a shroud.”

The emperor acceded and Ricci was buried in Beijing where his grave — a 1928 photograph of which is included in the exhibition — and those of his many successors, stands to this day in the Zhalan Cemetery on the grounds of the Beijing Administrative College, previously the Beijing Communist Party School. A sundial placed near his tomb has been lost, but the words inscribed on it — thought to be Ricci’s own — have survived:

“Time passes quickly. The past cannot be clung to; the future cannot be foreseen. We must do good in the present moment and not concern ourselves with useless things.”


The New York Times

27 settembre 2010