Italy and Asia: An Historic Bond
It is not difficult to prove that, in the Middle Ages, the nations and peoples of Asia were known to and imagined by Europeans through Italian eyes, and that for many long centuries Italy was the reference point for Europe’s relations with China and the Orient in general.
Even before the major Italian explorations of the Asian continent that began in the 13th century, fertile contacts were established between the Roman Empire and the Kushan and Han Dynasties in India and China. Later, beginning in 1200, the first European travellers to discover the marvels of Asia were those courageous Italian missionaries, merchants and adventurers.
In an era in which the Asian continent was already very rich and powerful, the road to the Orient was paved by religious men such as Giovanni da Pian del Carpine, Giovanni da Montecorvino and Odorico da Pordenone, as well as Genovese and Venetian merchants in search of new markets and new travel routes.
Among these latter, Marco Polo leaps immediately to mind for his celebrated narrations of the splendours of the Mongolian court and the customs of that population that he left to posterity and that inspired countless other adventurers. The list of our glorious explorers in Asia, perhaps lesser known but no less courageous, is a long one and includes fascinating characters such as Nicolò dei Conti who, in the 15th century, reached the island of Sumatra, the Andamane Islands and Indochina; or Ludovico da Varthema who, according to some versions, was the first westerner to spread news of the existence of Australia in the descriptions of his travels; and Matteo Ricci, whose contribution was decisive to the European people’s knowledge of China and Asia.
In fact, at the turn of the 14th century the Venetian ducat was a currency being used throughout the Orient and, thanks to the experience gained by Italian merchants and missionaries, travel guides and oriental languages dictionaries were being written for use by travellers.
“Venice, gateway to the Orient” is not just a catchy way to describe the greatest mercantile city of those times, but marks the fact that much of the merchandise that entered Europe from Asia (textiles, spices, but also culture and knowledge) in those days had to pass through the “Most Serene Republic” of Venice.
The knowledge contributed by Italian travellers created an important tradition of Asian and the Pacific studies and led to the creation of historic institutions still in existence such as the ISIAO, the Oriental University of Naples and the Cà Foscari University of Venice. Therefore, if we intend to inject new dynamism into Italy’s image and role in Asia, and to represent ourselves on the Asian scenario as a driving European force in the Orient, it would be essential to reconnect with the wealth of knowledge and relations that sprouted in ancient times and to plant the seeds of our present and future relations with Asian countries on the fertile and glorious soil of the past. From this perspective we have an advantage in the fact that our historic contacts with the Orient have almost always been positive in nature, and are not weighed down by painful memories since Italy did not have a colonial tradition in Asia (if we exclude the TienTsin protectorate granted in 1902). Italy is thus immune, when it comes to the Orient, to the negative considerations often associated with colonialism and can therefore credibly assert its intention to form its relations with Asia within the context of a multi-polar vision based on respect for the sovereignty of all states and on mutual advantage, linking ourselves back proudly to the richness of our ancient rapport with that continent. This means not only that we intend to develop contacts with all Asian nations but also that we are ready to employ our good offices, with no hidden agendas, to resolve situations of crisis and tension in cases in which such intervention is considered useful and appreciated. This was one of the main sources of inspiration for the most recent initiatives of the Directorate General of the Countries of Asia (DGAO).