Martino Martini

Martino Martini

Portrait of Martino Martini by Michaelina Wautier
Born (1614-09-20)20 September 1614
Trento, Bishopric of Trent
Died 6 June 1661(1661-06-06) (aged 46)
Hangzhou, China
Cause of death Cholera
Nationality Trentine (Italian)
Occupation missionary, cartographer and historian
Religion Christianity

Martino Martini (simplified Chinese: 卫匡国; traditional Chinese: 衛匡國; pinyin: Wèi Kuāngguó) (20 September 1614 – 6 June 1661) was an Italian Jesuit missionary, cartographer and historian, mainly working on ancient Imperial China.[1]

Early years

Frontpage of Novus Atlas sinensis, by Martino Martini, Amsterdam, 1655.

Martini was born in Trento, in the Bishopric of Trent. After finishing high school studies in Trent in 1631, he entered the Society of Jesus, from where he was sent to study classical letters and philosophy at the Roman College, Rome (1634–37). However his interest was more in astronomy and mathematics which he studied under Athanasius Kircher. His request to be sent as a missionary to China had already been granted by Mutius Vitelleschi, the then Superior General of the Jesuits. He did his theological studies in Portugal (1637–39)already on his way to Chinawhere he was ordained priest (1639, in Lisbon).

In the Chinese Empire

He set out for China in 1640, and arrived in Portuguese Macau in 1642 where he studied Chinese for some time. In 1643 he crossed the border and settled in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, from where he did much traveling in order to gather scientific information, especially on the geography of the Chinese empire: he visited several provinces, as well as Peking and the Great Wall. He made great use of his talents as missionary, scholar, writer and superior.

Soon after Martini's arrival to China, the Ming capital Beijing fell to Li Zicheng's rebels (April, 1644) and then to the Manchus, and the last legitimate Ming emperor, the Chongzhen Emperor, hanged himself. Down in Zhenjiang, Martini continued working with the short-lived regime of Zhu Yujian, Prince of Tang, who set himself up as the (Southern) Ming Longwu Emperor. Soon enough, the Manchu troops reached Zhejiang. According to Martini's own report (which appeared in some editions of his De bello tartarico), the Jesuit was able to switch his allegiance to China's new masters in an easy enough, but bold, way. When Wenzhou, in southern Zhejiang, where Martini happened to be on a mission for Zhu Yujian, was besieged by the Manchus and was about to fall, the Jesuit decorated the house where he was staying with a large red poster with seven characters saying, "Here lives a doctor of the divine Law who has come from the Great West". Under the poster he set up tables with European books, astronomical instruments, etc., surrounding an altar with an image of Jesus. When the Manchu troops arrived, their commander was sufficiently impressed with the display to approach Martini politely and ask if he wished to switch his loyalty to the new Qing Dynasty. Martini agreed, and had his head shaved in the Manchu way, and his Chinese dress and hat replaced with Manchu-style ones. The Manchus then allowed him to return to his Hangzhou church, and provided him and the Hangzhou Christian community with necessary protection.[2]

The Chinese Rites affair

Further information: Chinese Rites controversy

In 1651 Martini left China for Rome as the Delegate of the Chinese Mission Superior. He took advantage of the long, adventurous voyage (going first to the Philippines, from thence on a Dutch privateer to Bergen, Norway,[3] which he reached on 31 August 1653, and then to Amsterdam). Further, and still on his way to Rome, he met printers in Antwerp, Vienna and Munich to submit to them historical and cartographic data he had prepared. The works were printed and made him famous.

When passing through Leyden, Martini was met by Jacobus Golius, a scholar of Arabic and Persian at the university there. Golius did not know Chinese, but had read about "Cathay" in Persian books, and wanted to verify the truth of the earlier reports of Jesuits such as Matteo Ricci and Bento de Góis who believed that Cathay is the same place as China where they lived or visited. Golius was familiar with the discussion of the "Cathayan" calendar in Zij-i Ilkhani, a work by the Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, completed in 1272. When Golius met Martini (who, of course knew no Persian), the two scholars found that the names of the 12 divisions into which, according to Nasir al-Din, the "Cathayans" were dividing the day, as well as those of the 24 sections of the year reported by Nasir al-Din matched those that Martini had learned in China. The story, soon published by Martini in the "Additamentum" to his Atlas of China, seemed to have finally convinced most Europeans scholars that China and Cathay were the same.[4]

On his way to Rome, Martini met his then 10-year-old cousin Eusebio Kino who later became another famed Jesuit missionary explorer and the world-renowned cartographer of New Spain.

In the spring of 1655 Martini reached Rome. There, in Rome, was the most difficult part of his journey. He had brought along (for the Holy Office of the Church) a long and detailed communication from the Jesuit missionaries in China, in defence of their inculturated missionary and religious approach: the so-called Chinese Rites (Veneration of ancestors, and other practices allowed to new Christians). Discussions and debates took place for five months, at the end of which the Propaganda Fide issued a decree in favour of the Jesuits (23 March 1656). A battle was won, but the controversy did not abate.

Return to China

In 1658, after a most difficult journey, he was back in China with the favourable decree. He was again involved in pastoral and missionary activities in the Hangzhou area where he built a three naves church that was considered to be one of the most beautiful of the country (1659–61). The church was hardly built when he died of cholera (1661). David E. Mungello wrote that he died of rhubarb overdosing which aggravated his constipation.[5]


Below is a list of cities visited by Martini, traveling in at least fifteen countries in Europe and seven provinces of the Chinese empire, making stops in India, Java, Sumatra, the Philippines and South Africa. After studying at Trent and Rome, Martini reached Genoa, Alicante, Cadiz, Sanlucar de Barrameda (port near to Seville in Spain), Seville, Evora and Lisbon (Portugal), Goa (in the western region of India), Surat (port in the northwestern region of India), Macao (on the China's southern coast, administrated by the Portuguese), Guangzhou (the capital of Guangdong Province), Nanxiong (in northern Guangdong province, between the mountains), Nanchang (the capital of Jiangxi Province), Jiujiang (in northwest Jiangxi Province), Nanjing, Hangzhou (the capital of Zhejiang Province) and Shanghai, traversing the Shandong Province he reached Tianjin and Beijing, Nanping in the Fujian Province, Wenzhou (in southern Zhejiang Province), Anhai (a port in southern Fujian), Manila (in the Philippines), Makassar (Sulawesi island in the Dutch Indonesia), Batavia/ Jakarta (Sumatra island, capital of the Dutch Indonesia), Cape Town/Kaapstad (a stop of twenty days in the fort, the Dutch Governor Jan van Riebeeck had built in 1652), Bergen, Hamburg, the Belgian Antwerp and Bruxelles where he met the archduke Leopold Wilhelm of Austria, the Dutch Leiden (with the scholar Jacob van Gool aka Golius) and Amsterdam where he met the famous cartographer Joan Blaeu, almost certainly some cities in France, then Monaco di Baviera, Vienna and the nearby Hunting Pavilion of Ebersdorf (where he met the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand III of Habsburg), and finally Rome. For his last journey (from 11 January 1656 to 17 July 1658) Martini sailed from Genoa, the Hyeres islands on the French Riviera (to escape pirates), to Alicante, Lisboa, Goa, the Portuguese colony of Larantuka in Flores Island (Indonesia) resting over a month, Makassar (where he met a Dominican friar, Domingo Navarrete), Macao, and finally Hangzhou, where he died. [6]

Post-mortem phenomenon

Martini's grave in Hangzhou

According to the attestation of Prosper Intorcetta (in Litt. Annuae, 1861), Martini's corpse was found to be undecayed after twenty years. It became a longstanding object of cult, not only for Christians, until, in 1877, suspecting idolatry, the hierarchy had it reburied.[7]

Modern views

Today's scientists have shown increasing interest in the works of Martini. He is acclaimed as the father of Chinese geographical science. During an international convention organized in the city of Trento (his birthplace), a member of the Chinese academy of Social Sciences, Prof. Ma Yong said: "Martini was the first to study the history and geography of China with rigorous scientific objectivity; the extent of his knowledge of the Chinese culture, the accuracy of his investigations, the depth of his understanding of things Chinese are examples for the modern sinologists". Ferdinand von Richthofen calls Martini "the leading geographer of the Chinese mission, one who was unexcelled and hardly equalled, during the XVIII centuryThere was no other missionary, either before or after, who made such diligent use of his time in acquiring information about the country". (China, I, 674 sq.)


A European artist's impression of a Manchu warrior devastating China, from the title page of Martini's Regni Sinensis a Tartaris devastati enarratio. Modern historians (e.g. Pamela Kyle Crossley in The Manchu, or D.E. Mungello) note the discrepancy between the picture and the content of the book; e.g., the severed head held by the warrior has a queue, which is a Manchu hairstyle (also imposed by Manchu on the population of conquered China), and is not likely to be had by a Ming loyalist

See also


  1.  Herbermann, Charles, ed. (1913). "Martino Martini". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
  2. Mungello, David E. (1989). Curious Land: Jesuit Accommodation and the Origins of Sinology. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 106–107. ISBN 0-8248-1219-0.. Also, p. 99 in De Bello Tartarico Historia.
  3. Mungello, p. 108
  4. Lach, Donald F.; Van Kley, Edwin J. (1994), Asia in the Making of Europe, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ISBN 978-0-226-46734-4. Volume III, "A Century of Advance", Book Four, "East Asia", p. 1577.
  5. David E. Mungello (January 1994). The Forgotten Christians of Hangzhou. University of Hawaii Press. pp. 30–. ISBN 978-0-8248-1540-0.
  6. Opera Omnia, 1998, pp. 509–533, with maps p. 59, p. 96, p. 156, p. 447, p. 470-471 and pp. 534–535; Masini, 2008, pp. 244–246.
  8. "Martin Martini" in Notices biographiques et bibliographiques sur les jésuites de l'ancienne mission de Chine (1552-1773), par le P. Louis Pfister,Tome I, XVIe et XVIIe siècles -Impr. de la Mission catholique (Shanghaï)-1932, pp. 256-262.
  9. A very high quality zoomable scan can be seen at "Quantung imperii sinarum provincia duodecima". Retrieved 13 July 2016.
  10. Paternicò, Luisa M. (2013). When the Europeans Began to Study Chinese, Leuven Chinese Studies XXIV, Leuven: Ferdinand Verbiest Institute, KU Leuven. ISBN 9789081436588


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LENTINI, Orlando, Da Martino Martini a Zhang Weiwei, pp. 45–64; Von COLLANI, Claudia, Two Astronomers: Martino Martini and Johann Adam Schall von Bell, pp. 65–94; RUSSO, Mariagrazia, Martino Martini e le lettere portoghesi: tasselli per un percorso biografico, pp. 95–112; GOLVERS, Noel, Martino Martini in the Low Countries, pp. 113–136; LINDGREN Uta, Martini, Nieuhof und die Vereinigte Ostindische Compagnie der Niederländer, pp. 137–158; PIASTRA, Stefano, Francesco Brancati, Martino Martini and Shanghai's Lao Tang (Old Church): Mapping, Perception and Cultural Implications of a Place, pp. 159–181. WIDMAIER, Rita, Modallogik versus Probabilitätslogik: Logik der Tatsachenwahrheit bei G. W. Leibniz und Martino Martini bei den virulenten Fragen im Ritenstreit, pp. 183–198; CRIVELLER, Gianni, Martino Martini e la controversia dei riti cinesi, pp. 199–222; MORALI, Ilaria, Aspetti teologici della controversia sui riti e loro attualità a 50 anni dal Concilio Vaticano II: contributo ad una Teologia delle Religioni autenticamente cattolica, pp. 223–250; ANTONUCCI, Davor, Scritti inediti di Martino Martini: ipotesi di lavoro e di ricerca, pp. 251–284; PATERNICÒ, Luisa M., The Manuscript of the Sinicae Historiae Decas Prima in the Vatican Library, pp. 285–298; CASTELNOVI, Michele, Da Il Libro delle Meraviglie al Novus Atlas Sinensis, una rivoluzione epistemologica: Martino Martini sostituisce Marco Polo, pp. 299–336; BERGER, Katrien, Martino Martini De Bello Tartarico: a comparative study of Latin text and his translations, pp. 337–362; YUAN XI, Una ricerca terminologica sull’opera teologica martiniana Zhenzhu lingxing lizheng, pp. 363–388.

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