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Reviewed by:
  • Opera Omnia
  • Giovanni Vitiello (bio)
Martino Martini, S.J. Opera Omnia. Volumes 1 and 2. Edizione diretta da Franco Demarchi, a cura di Giuliano Bertuccioli. Trento: Universita' degli Studi di Trento, 1998. 547 pp. Paperback L 80.000, ISBN 88-86135-76-9.

After a first, aborted attempt in 1639 (their journey had been halted by lack of wind in the Gulf of Guinea, and six months later the ship was back in Genoa whence it had started), on March 23, 1640, Martino Martini (1614-1661) and twenty-four other Jesuit missionaries left Lisbon for Goa and eventually Macao. In a letter from India, Martini lists the names and nationalities of his brethren, and he introduces himself last as follows: ". . . and I, said by some to be German and by some Italian, since I am from Trent, a city on the border between Italy and Germany." This choice of a double identity that Martini uses to describe himself can be seen as an almost prophetic insight, one that foreshadows his entire career as a cultural interpreter—which is by definition a person who mediates between two worlds.

Although not as well known as other Jesuits who were in China in the late Ming and early Qing periods, such as Ricci, Schall, or Verbiest, Martino Martini played a major role in the history of both Western sinology and Chinese studies of the West. The opportunity to understand his role better is now made possible by the publication of his complete works, resourcefully gathered and meticulously edited and annotated by Giuliano Bertuccioli, Professor of Chinese at the University of Rome. To date, two of the planned five volumes have appeared. They include a variety of documents written in Latin, Italian, Chinese, and German, which are given in the original languages, with an Italian translation when the original is other than Italian. The first volume contains Martini's correspondence with his superiors in Rome, mainly concerning his two journeys to China and the situation of the Chinese mission, as well as a variety of other documents among which is Martini's memorial on the Chinese rites, presented in Rome in 1655. The second volume consists of Martini's "minor" works, the major ones being his atlas of China, Novus Atlas Sinensis, and his two historical works, De Bello Tartarico, to be published in volume 3, and Sinicae Historiae Decas Prima, to appear in volume 4.

Martini's letters from his first trip to China, mostly addressed to Athanasius Kircher, his professor of mathematics, physics, and Oriental languages at the Roman College, are filled with detailed notations on physical and astronomical phenomena. From them Martini emerges preeminently as a scientist, a role that would always be central to the "Western literatus" persona taken on by the Jesuit missionaries in China (accordingly, the seventeenth-century Chinese category of "heavenly studies," tianxue, or "Western studies," xixue, lumped together the [End Page 517] teachings of Christianity and those of European science). These first letters provide us with a fascinating record of life on board a vessel during the long transoceanic voyages—voyages made precarious by pirates, sickness, and the unpredictable winds. (When, about six months after their departure, the ships entered Goa's harbor, Martini describes the trip as a very lucky one, despite the deaths of eighty men, who, he hoped, had "entered a happier harbor.")

Scientific observations and religious practice alternate in Martini's shipboard routine. Martini writes that the missionaries were charged with the care of both bodies and souls: they chanted prayers and heard confessions, educated the children, assisted the ill, organized processions of sacred images and self-mortification sessions on critical occasions, told the lives of saints, and provided catechism (occasionally through drama, with children as the actors). Religious festivities offered a rare opportunity for entertainment and relaxation for the passengers; on a special holy day, various games were organized, including bullfighting— a man covered with a cowhide impersonating the animal.

In the letters written from China the focus shifts to a set of issues that would later be characterized as the "controversy over Chinese rites"—the questions concerning the best strategy for expanding the influence of Christianity in China...


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