A Great Man from Macerata Who Went Far: Giuseppe Tucci, the Marches Region and the East

I am author of the first biography of Giuseppe Tucci, a man so unique and complex. It was published both in Italian and in English, in the magazine Identità Sibillina -n. 2, year 2006. Below you’ll find the English text of A Great Man from Macerata Who Went Far: Giuseppe Tucci, the Marches Region and the East.


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Below is the full text of the article.

by Enrica Garzilli

The scientist and explorer Giuseppe Tucci thus wrote about his journeys to Asia and his passion for travelling and experiencing “the far”: far from the banality and superficiality of everyday and massified relationships. And he really did go far, as he was the greatest expert in oriental studies that Italy has ever had and one of the best internationally recognised experts on Tibet, he was one of the first scientists in the world to explore the hitherto unexplored regions of Tibet and Nepal, he was an anthropologist, archaeologist, and he disseminated Asia culture, both ancient and contemporary – and he was a journalist too.

Tucci, the only legendary Italian oriental expert in the whole of Asia, gave the world a better understanding of the greatest Asiatic religions, and his critical editions and original translations of valuable texts in Sanskrit and in Tibetan opened up southern Asia to scholars. With his legendary scientific expeditions to Tibet, Nepal, Ladhak, Sikkim, and Bhutan he opened up these countries to geographers and modern travellers.

His work of discovery, restoration and preservation of rare manuscripts, which are today kept in Rome in the Tucci Foundation of the Oriental Library of IsIAO, the former IsMEO (Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East), safe from the inevitable dangers of the Asiatic climate, worms and rats – as specified in the descriptions of the microfilms that reproduce the manuscripts –, and from the even graver threat of destruction by man, due to both the Cultural Revolution when China annexed Tibet, and the greed of merchants and ignorant neglect, and his expeditions to the then almost inaccessible territories in the Himalayas, gave those countries a final place in history, and not only in the work of scholars. Moreover, following in the footsteps of his mentor Formichi, he updated the ways of studying oriental languages, with a first-hand understanding of the culture expressed by those languages, enriching the patrimony of knowledge of the world.

Tucci was born in Macerata on the 5TH of June 1894. His father Oscar and his mother Ermenegilda Firmani had emigrated to the Marches from Puglia. Something much stronger than birthright ties Tucci to the Marches. Perhaps it was the proximity of his native town and land to the sea, which has always brought different peoples, altough very distant, together as much as it has separated them; or perhaps, belonging to a region which has produced so many travellers and explorers of the East; whatever the reason, Tucci was immediately acclaimed as an ‘infant prodigy’ towards the East and, as he himself said, when he was only twelve he already knew Sanskrit, Hebrew and Iranian.

Macerata was made famous by the Ricci family with Father Matteo (1552 – 1610), a famous Jesuit missionary who introduced the oldest Chinese civilization to Europe, wrote important treatises on astronomy and geography, and died in China. His tomb in Beijing was destroyed and rebuilt at three different times in history ( the last time was after the Cultural Revolution, some ten years ago), and his name is among the few foreigners in the National Chinese Encyclopaedia.

The town of Pennabilli, also in the Marches region , was the birthplace of Father Francesco Orazio della Penna (1680 – 1745), the Capuchin missionary who arrived in Lhasa on 1st of October 1716 with Father Domenico da Fano, the Prefect of the evangelical mission in Tibet. And they weren’t the first. Other Capuchin fathers from the “province of the Marca” had set off for Lhasa in the steps of the French Father Francesco Maria de Tours who, on his return from Indian missions, suggested to his superiors, and through them to the Congregation de Propaganda Fide that a mission be established in Tibet, where he had heard that an ancient Christian community still survived. Thus it was that a group of Capuchin friars from the Marches left for India overland. They were literally decimated by the terrible conditions of the journey; some gave up, others died on the way. But on the 12th of June 1707 the friars Giuseppe da Ascoli and Franco Maria da Tours arrived in Lhasa. They had to leave in 1711 as they were summoned to Chandagar, in western Bengal, by the Vice Prefect who was reluctant to let them die of cold. The Marches region has never been famous for a sea or land lineage of conquerors, but rather for many monks – Cassiano da Macerata, Carlo da Castorano, Vito da Recanati, Costantino da Loro, Cassiano Beligatti and many others – who set off for unknown or little known lands, which were mere sketches even on the maps of the great 17th century Dutch merchants.

The evangelists and the Marches travellers took Catholicism to the East, and sometimes healed with western medicine; and they brought back from Asia much more than religion, gold and spices: they introduced new languages with strange scripts and strong aspirate, dental and guttural sounds; they recounted the extravagant wedding in Lhasa of a Chinese princess to a Tibetan king – an inter-racial wedding unthinkable in those times – of inaccessible monasteries with great Buddhas, their gold faces smothered in incense, of giant statues 60 metres tall and stone statues of Bodhisattvas lying flat with the blissful and indefinable smile of the Illuminated. The humble monks from the Marches redrew the astronomical charts with their newer and more sophisticated knowledge of mathematics and astrology. As Father.Matteo Ricci wrote, “ they told us about certain Saracens from the West who knew things about Europe, India and Persia” and who, like him, visited the court in Peking, and he talked about the many Muslims he had met in China who “are in almost all the provinces with their sumptuous mosques where they act, practise circumcision and other ceremonies”.

Despite the fact that many others of his illustrious countrymen focused their attention on Asia, and that he soon had picked up difficult and abstruse languages, Tucci’s early studies were on the Romans and the Marches region. In 1911 at the age of seventeen he published his first work, an article on Latin inscriptions recently found in the countryside around Macerata, in the prestigious Mitteilungen of the Germanic Archaeological Institute. The following year he published “Research on the personal Roman name in the Picene area” in Atti e Memorie della Regia Deputazione di Storia Patria per le Marche (Acts and Memoirs of the Royal Deputation of the Nation’s History for the Marches). Right from that age, which is normally a period of transition, of self-discovery and of dreams, and marks the twilight of childhood and the immature beginning of manhood, Tucci’s character and personality, however, were clearly delineated: he was already outlined as a scholar.

In his early writings we could perhaps catch his admiration of the Marches, even though he always insisted he was not bound to any place in particular – and actually he was not bound – not even to his own place of origin: he tried to be above and beyond them all his life. And yet, in the twilight of his life, after having mostly lived in the East since 1925, on the 14th of March 1959 in a speech he gave in Ancona at the Merchants’ Loggia, Tucci finally declared his love for the Marches, for its skies – pure and almost translucent – and its hills – the gentlest in all of Italy – and said that he often returned to his homeland and Macerata to take in its vital air:

“This is why – let me end my speech with a vow – I wish that from this homeland of mine, which I always return to, to feed on its vital air, to discover new beauty in its generous womb, to feast my eyes upon its pleasant hills, and dream beneath its skies, someone else might continue this tradition of which we should be proud.”

And on the 29th of June 1961 in another speech in the same town in the Marches he said:

“I’m not easily moved, even though when I’m far away nostalgia inevitably makes me think of our skies and hills; there’s a deeper reason , which for a scientist is more plausible: I mean that if ever there was a place where there ought to be a section of IsMEO, then that place is here in the Marches region. We people of the Marches are naturally curious and wandering; and are particularly attracted to the East, invited by the sea”.

As a boy, Tucci had to leave his home town in order to attend courses at the R. University of Rome where his teacher was another great oriental expert, Carlo Formichi from Naples (1871 – 1943). Formichi soon became spokesman for Italy and, as he himself put it, “bearer of Mussolini’s message abroad”. Meanwhile, Tucci had learnt more: in 1913 and 1914, on the eve of the First World War, he published works on Asian anthropology and prehistory, and on the rites and customs of the ancient Persians. This young 20-year-old became a leading Italian expert on Iranian culture and Sanskrit. He published “Osservazioni su Fargard II del Vendidad (Studies of Fargard II of the Vendidad)” and “Nota sul rito di seppellimento degli antichi persiani (Communication on the Burial Rites of the Ancient Persians)”. During the same period a lifelong passion of his started: the work of Lao-tzu and Chinese philosophy. He also published a short essay on “Il Tao e il Wu-wei di Lao-tzu (The Tao and the Wu-wei of Lao-tzu)”, as well as “Note sull’Asia Preistorica (Notes on Prehistoric Asia)” in Rivista di Antropologia (The Anthropological Review).

Although he never gave up his passion for Taoism and Lao-tzu, Confucius and Chinese language and literature, most of the time he dedicated to them was up to 1922. His extensive knowledge of that language and culture was useful for his famous comparative studies and his translations from Sanskrit and Tibetan, which he continued until the 1950s. He compared the Tibetan and Chinese versions of manuscripts to correct or complete the Sanskrit texts, the originals of which had been destroyed or lost.

From 1916 to 1918 he took part in the First World War, and was discharged as a reserve lieutenant. While he was a soldier he wrote his first letter to Giovanni Gentile (1875 – 1944) whom he had met through Formichi. He became a colleague and, so to say, a friend of the philosopher’s until the death of Gentile, who supported Tucci’s missions in India, Tibet, Nepal and the minor states in the Himalayas, and together with him in 1933 he was able to found the Institute for the Middle and Far East (IsMEO).

Tucci’s particular interest was in Buddhist texts which had been translated from the original Sanskrit into Tibetan in the early centuries A.D., and taken to Tibet and from there to China and then Japan, and to south-east Asia by itinerant monks and learned men who wanted to spread the Good Law, the Dharma of the Buddha. And he became a Buddhist because, as he said,

“I found Buddhism much simpler. It is simply an ethical doctrine. Everything is based on sincerity and you are completely free.”

Thanks to his vast knowledge of the East and to his 58 works including translations, essays and scientific reviews which he had already published in 1925, Tucci, who was secretary in the Library of the House of Deputies, was appointed professor at the University of Rome and then was sent by the Ministry of Education to Shantiniketan, the famous “Abode of peace”, which was founded and financed by the Bengalese Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore (1861 – 1941). Here Vishva-bharati flourished, the school of universal culture based on traditional Sanskrit schools, and the best of Indian and international cultures mingled. Tucci had been summoned by Formichi who taught Sanskrit; there he was to teach Italian language and culture.

In Shantiniketan he distinguished himself for his vast knowledge, which he increased with discussions in Sanskrit with local pandits, by studying Bengali and Hindi, and with his learned yet empathetic interest in the local culture, so much so that Tagore told Formichi:

“ I must mention your former pupil, Dr. Tucci, who is still with us and for whose services I cannot thank your Government enough. He has brilliantly studied and deeply understood the greatest period in Indian history, as well as the biggest part of the other phenomena of ancient Indian culture; he has pursued the triumphal spread of Buddhism to remote regions, guided by practically illegible signs on ancient ruins buried in the sand, through documents of an amazed history, which has forgotten its own language. Better than anyone he can remind Indians today of their ancestors’ most glorious self-revelations. I’m talking about the ideal of universal sympathy put into practice… ”

Tucci left Shantiniketan and went to live in Kolkata, Dakka and the northern regions, particularly Kashmir, until early 1931. But, as another great man of the time, the historian of religions Mircea Eliade, was to say in the obituary a few months after his death, he was a “prodigious traveller and a tireless explorer”. Around 1928 Tucci made his first exploratory trip to Tibet, forerunner of the actual scientific missions that were to follow. He made at least eight such trips to the Land of the Snows and six to Nepal, a compulsory stop on the way to Tibet. Tucci took with him a doctor and photographer, who on the expeditions to Tibet in 1937 and 1948 was the then very young and astonishingly handsome future professor and writer Fosco Maraini (1912 – 2004); a cook; porters; servants; a guide and a “lama” – a Tibetan monk who negotiated the purchase of manuscripts and works of art with the abbots of the monasteries, and interpreted and explained to Tucci the complex symbolism and the composite religiousness of Tibetan Buddhism. Sometimes his wife went with him. They were “comfortable” journeys, well-equipped, in countries where roads – where they existed – were mule tracks, and whose peoples were hospitable but spoke local languages, with inevitably strange food and customs, with a caravan of between 60 and 70 people and dozens of animals such as mules, horses, chickens and dogs; all the photographic and film equipment; crates of food such as pasta, olive oil – “an indispensable source of vitamins”, as Tucci said – tinned tomatoes and parmesan cheese; and boxes of weapons, rifles to be precise, as this was a land of saints but also of robbers who raided the caravans especially, and they too had pistols, as Tucci wrote in his travelogs.

These expeditions are recounted not only in scholarly books like the four volumes of Indo-Tibetica (1932 – 1941) but also in the two famous books Tibetan Painted Scrolls (1949) on Buddhist scroll paintings called “tangkas”. The 798 pages and 256 colour plates in these books are still today essential reading for the study of Tibetan culture and are a valuable testimony of the religious iconography of Tibetan Buddhism, which has been largely lost, dispersed or stolen.

Tucci also wrote travel diaries which, although pleasant to read, are books of a lofty tone. I want to cite some of the best known: Santi e briganti nel Tibet ignoto (Saints and Brigands in Unexplored Tibet) 1937) and A Lhasa e oltre (To Lhasa and Beyond) (1950) on Tibet, and Tra giungle e pagode (Among Jungles and Pagodas)” (1953) and Nepal: alla scoperta dei Malla (Nepal: To the Discovery of the Mallas) (1960) on Nepal. He also wrote articles, and by 1953 he had published 227; one of these is on Matteo Ricci, published in the Annals of the R. University of Macerata in 1941.

Meanwhile, on his return from India he had become professor of Chinese at the Oriental University Institute in Naples and then, thanks to Gentile, he became Full Professor of Indian Philosophies and Religions at the University of Rome “La Sapienza”.

In 1933 Tucci and Gentile founded the IsMEO and became respectively Vice-President and Director of the language, culture and economics courses, and President. The main aim of this Institute was to promote cultural relations between Italy and south, central and eastern Asia, and to study the economic problems of those countries. The activity concerning political-economic aspects is recorded in numerous monographs and in the periodicals Bollettino dell’Istituto italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente (Bulletin of the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East) (1935), and Asiatica (1935 – 1943). The economics programmes, however, took second place to the cultural and scientific ones which, right from the start, were inspired and influenced by Tucci’s activity. In 1944, when Gentile was killed, the Institute ceased its activities and started up again in 1947 with Tucci. He started a fruitful dialogue with Sen. Giulio Andreotti, who at the time was already the Vice-President of the Council. The relationship ended only at Tucci’s death.

In 1933 he started to publish also on Japan; all in all, several articles and two books. For political reasons, in 1937 Mussolini ordered the Minister for the Press and Propaganda, Dino Alfieri, to create the “Society of the Friends of Japan” in Rome. This was as a friendly reply to Baron Okura, President of the Italo – Japanese Society, who had donated several works to the Museum of Oriental Art, founded by Tucci as part of the IsMEO (and now named after him). In 1937 Tucci was sent to Japan to strengthen ties between the two countries. Over there he also made a speech in Japanese, giving greetings from Mussolini, who was heard on the radio “as far away as Manciukuò”, in China. He established the Italo-Japanese Cultural Institute in Tokyo and in Kyoto, obtained study grants for Japanese students and scholars to come to Italy to study Italian culture, he established a programme of cultural exchanges for teachers and students, and tied up economic agreements. Between 1941 and 1943 Tucci founded the monthly magazine Yamato to strengthen the ties between Italy and Japan, where he also published 12 short articles. As well as being a voracious scholar, an insatiable traveller and a tireless explorer, he was also an untiring worker and writer endowed with marvellous energy and health.

When Tibet became inaccessible after the Chinese invasion, Tucci undertook scientific missions in extremely difficult and unexplored territory in western Nepal, birthplace of the Hindu civilization which had remained almost intact for a thousand years. The country was governed by the despotic family of the Prime Minister Rana alongside a puppet king. It was a xenophobic country with the borders closed around its own people and closed to foreigners, except for the very few who, as Formichi wrote, went there for ‘lofty motives of study’. Tucci was at once admired for his excellent Sanskrit which he spoke fluently and for the ease with which he learnt Nepalese. He became friends there with the greatest poets of the time and a follower of the learned Royal Preceptor Hem Raj Sharma, the court astrologer and astronomer, the head of all the Brahmins in the kingdom, the Prime Minister’s adviser, the King’s tutor, the supreme Judge and Minister for Sanskrit and Nepalese Education (the country is multi-ethnic with many religions even though the majority are Hindus). He lent and had valuable manuscripts of Indology and Buddhist logic copied for Tucci. For months at a time Tucci, eager to learn, read together with him extremely complex philosophical texts in his huge private library in the centre of Kathmandu of over 25,411 books, 10,000 of which were manuscripts.

From 1956 to 1962 he organized and led the archaeological expeditions in the Valley of the Swat in Pakistan; in 1957 he headed those in Afghanistan, and in 1959 those in Iran. He directed all these ventures, which included important restoration work and the foundation of local museums until 1978. During this period he founded and directed periodicals such as East and West (1950 – 1984). Thus at the age of 62 he began a new period of work and study with excavation work, a period which he himself admitted was one of the happiest in his life.

By the time he was 83 he had published 349 books and articles, mainly scientific; then, until a year before his death, ten reviews, encyclopaedia entries, introductions to other books and presentations. Among these was the speech he gave to the Academic Institute of Rome in 1976 when he was awarded the “Jawahrlal Nehru Prize for International Understanding” by the Indian government, a real prophetic spiritual testament. It was the only one among the nine prizes, the eleven honours and the twelve national and international academic titles bestowed upon Tucci that he really loved to show off.

In 1984, shortly before his 90th birthday, he died at San Polo dei Cavalieri, a village 651 m above sea level high in the southern mountain range dominated by Monte Morra, in the natural park of Monti Lucretili, situated 42 km to the east of Rome. He loved it because, as he used to say, it was “surrounded by bleak, steep mountains” which reminded him of Tibet.

I would like to finish this brief presentation with the words of my teacher’s teacher about the Marches region and its travellers. After a long circular journey which had taken him far away to explore the most inaccessible places in Asia, Tucci, who had set off from this region, came back to it, as if he himself was an ideal link between this land and the lands of the East:

“How can you explain that right in our region, the Marches, and above all in our province of Macerata, were born most of the few Italian oriental experts, or, better, those who penetrated the most inaccessible parts of Asia? Just think: Matteo Ricci from Macerata paved the way to China and an impossible Franciscan mission that lasted in Lhasa in Tibet from 1703 to 1745: it included Giovanni Francesco da Camerino, Domenico da Fano, Giovanni da Fano, Gregorio da Lapedona, Giovanni Francesco da La pedona, Orazio da Pennabilli, author of the first Tibetan dictionary, Cassiano Beligatti da Macerata, author of a basic Tibetan grammar book, Tranquillo da Apecchio, Costantino da Loro and Floriano da Jesi. It is as if, by some kind of arcane affinity active in the spiritual world or in the lightness of ether, certain sons of this most pleasant land replied to a call from remote civilizations; or, as they would say in India, it would be an unthought of return to a distant homeland, lost and rediscovered through the difficult path of continual death and rebirth.

This unexplained attraction between the Marches and the East, anticipated in the journeys of Ciriaco d’Ancona and which was to become the unwitting echo of the solitary poet from Recanati – who, once torn the veil of Maya, had the dubious privilege of discovering the infinite vanity of everything beneath the deceit of life – paid off over the centuries in the mission of Matteo Ricci.”


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The Author

Enrica Garzilli Enrica Garzilli is a scholar of classical and modern Asia. Harvard Alumna, she holds a degree in Sanskrit and Indology from the Oriental School in Rome, where she studied with Tucci’s most famous disciples. She has taught in leading Universities, and regularly publishes in national and international newspapers, magazines, and TV.

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