- Editors' Introduction
October 14–15, 2017, the city of Pistoia in Tuscany hosted an international symposium to honor the legacy of Fr. Ippolito Desideri (1684–1733), the first Jesuit missionary to Tibet who engaged in sustained interreligious dialogue with local Buddhists and whose extraordinary command of the local language even enabled him to author Christian theological treatises in Classical Tibetan. Desideri's name is perhaps not as well known to the educated public as those of his confreres—and compatriots—Matteo Ricci and Roberto De Nobili, whose missionary efforts marked an important moment in the history of cultural and intellectual exchange between Western Christianity and the cultures and religious traditions of Asia. Desideri's achievement, however, is no less impressive, and his intellectual legacy as a pioneer in the field of comparative theology and interreligious dialogue is gradually becoming better known to the English-speaking public thanks to a number of translations of his works that have appeared in print over the last ten years.
Desideri's early life and education followed the usual trajectory of Jesuit missionaries from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Born into an aristocratic family from the city of Pistoia, in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Desideri joined the Society of Jesus at the age of sixteen and embarked on the usual Jesuit educational curriculum at the Collegio Romano, which included extensive study of the theology of Thomas Aquinas, but also of mathematics, geography, and the natural sciences. In 1712, he left Italy for India, having been chosen by Michelangelo Tamburini, the 14th General Superior of the Jesuit Order, to reestablish the Jesuit mission in Tibet. While a number of members of the Society of Jesus had visited Tibet in the seventeenth century—we know of the journeys of Antonio de Andrade, Estavão Caella, and Albert d'Orville—there had been no stable Jesuit presence in the country since 1642, and the Capuchins had taken control of the local mission. After spending some time in Goa, Desideri set out for Tibet in September 1714, leaving Delhi in the company of the Portuguese Jesuit Manoel Freyre and reaching Leh in Ladakh in June 1715. From Leh, Desideri traveled another eight hundred miles through the Tibetan plateau during the winter, finally reaching Lhasa on March 18, 1716. Freyre would soon return to Delhi, but Desideri remained in Tibet until April 28, 1721, when, in obedience to instructions from Rome, he set out for India again. The indefatigable Jesuit would remain in India for another five years, until he was summoned back by his superiors. [End Page vii] Desideri reached Rome in January 1728 and spent his last few years pleading with Vatican authorities to grant official control over the Tibetan missions to the Jesuit order. Unfortunately, Desideri's efforts were in vain. He would die in Rome in 1733, at the age of forty-eight, without returning to Tibet or even publishing the account (Relazione) of his travels.
Desideri's Relazione was eventually published by the Italian scholar Luciano Petech as part of his anthology I Missionari Italiani nel Tibet e nel Nepal (Italian missionaries in Tibet and Nepal), parts V–VII (Roma: Libreria dello Stato, 1952–1954). An excellent English translation by Michel Sweet with an extensive introduction and critical apparatus by Leonard Zwilling was published by Wisdom Publications in 2010 under the title Mission to Tibet: The Extraordinary Eighteenth-Century Account of Father Ippolito Desideri S.J. Trent Pomplun's Jesuit on the Roof of the World: Ippolito Desideri's Mission to Tibet (Oxford University Press, 2009) also offers a full-length study of Desideri's travel and works. More recently, the interest of scholars has turned to the publication of Desideri's Tibetan works. In the 1980s, Fr. Giuseppe Toscano, SX published Italian versions of four of Desideri's Tibetan works: Tho rangs (The dawn), Snying po (The essence of Christian doctrine), 'Byun K'uns (The origin of living beings and of all things), and the Nes Legs (The highest good and the final end). In 2017, under the title Dispelling the Darkness: A Jesuit's Quest for the Soul of Tibet, Harvard University Press published Donald S...