<< Back to all articles
Articles in this series:
Foreign Scholarship – The Case of Italy
Let us turn this week to the history of foreign scholarship in Ethiopia, and consider today, and next Friday, the case of Italy.
Ethiopia and Italy were historically linked by both geography and religion. Italy, from the point of view of Ethiopian Christians, was the nearest major European Christian country, and as such, the most accessible. Ethiopia, virtually the only Christian polity outside Europe, was likewise, from the point of view of Italian Christians, within easier reach than many other lands of the Orient. Though Ethiopians looked spiritually to Jerusalem, where many over the years went on pilgrimage, and many hoped to spend their last days, there can be no gainsaying that Rome was a wealthier and politically more attractive city. It is, therefore, perhaps not surprising that over the centuries a steady procession of Ethiopians made their way to Rome, the “eternal city”.
Some of Europe’s first information on far-off Ethiopia was collected in the late thirteenth century by the Venetian explorer Marco Polo. Writing in 1298 he reported, albeit second hand, that Abash, i.e. Abyssinia, was ruled by a Christian king, who was in direct contact with Jerusalem, and in possession of “excellent soldiers” and “many horsemen”.
Relations with Co-religionaries in Europe
The Ethiopian rulers of this time were acutely interested in relations with their co-religionaries in Europe. Shortly after the appearance of Marco Polo’s account Emperor Wedem Ar’ad (1297-1312) despatched a large embassy of thirty men to “the King of the Spains”, with an offer of help against the infidels. The mission visited both Rome, and its then religious rival, Avignon. On their return journey, the ambassadors, while waiting at Genoa for a favourable wind, were questioned in 1306 by Giovanni da Carignano, rector of the church of St Mark’s, who embodied his findings in a treatise on Ethiopian government, customs and religion. This work, unfortunately no longer extant, had a major impact on European knowledge of Ethiopia. It established the country’s approximate geographical location, and for the first time indicated that the so-called Kingdom of Prester John was in the mountains of Northeast Africa, and not, as hitherto supposed, in the Indian region.
Italians likewise made their way to Ethiopia at an early period. A Florentine trader, Antonio Bartoli, is believed to have entered the country in the 1390s, and a Sicilian, Pietro Rombulo, in 1407. He reportedly spent no less than thirty-seven years in the country, before being despatched by its ruler on a mission to India and China. Rombulo subsequently returned to his homeland with an Ethiopian priest, Fere Mika’el, as part of an embassy from Emperor Zar’a Yaq’ob (1433-1468). While in Naples, Rombulo met a Dominican monk, Pietro Ranzano of Palermo, Sicily, who wrote up an account of the former’s travels, preserved in Palermo to this day, and still in need of scientific study.
Italian awareness of Ethiopia was meanwhile heightened when news spread that an Ethiopian delegation was to attend the ecclesiastical Conference of Florence in 1441. Two Ethiopian monks from Jerusalem duly appeared, and attended the conference.
Rome: Santo Stefano
Other Ethiopians later proceeded southwards to Rome. Many attached themselves to the church of Santo Stefano, which later became known as Santo Stefano dei Mori, that is to say St Stephen of the “Moors”, i.e. Oriental or coloured people. The Pope later gave the Ethiopians a nearby hospice, in 1539. The Ethiopians have a college, and residence, in the Vatican to this day.
Santo Stefano and the Ethiopian hospice between them were destined to be the nest in which Ethiopian studies, as we know them today, were largely incubated. It was at Santo Stefano that Joannes Potken, the renowned German typographer of Cologne, heard the Ethiopians celebrating Mass. He was so fascinated that he proceeded to set up a small printing press in Rome, where in 1513 he produced the first printed Ge‘ez Psalter, Canticles and some Old and New Testament hymns. Little more than a generation later another Italian scholar in Rome, Marianus Victorius, studied with an Ethiopian cleric, Tasfa Seyon, and published the first rudimentary Ge‘ez grammar, in 1548.
The coming of Ethiopians to Italy meanwhile did not pass unnoticed in scholarly circles. Several visiting Ethiopian monks were interviewed between 1519 and 1523 by an Venetian savant, Alessandro Zorzi. He recorded the itineraries they had followed, and thus made an important contribution to early sixteenth century Italian, and hence European, geographical knowledge of this part of Africa.
The importance of such two-way travel, between Ethiopia and Italy, and Italy and Ethiopia, can vividly be illustrated by two famous fifteenth century Italian maps. The first was the Florentine painter Pietro del Massajo’s Egyptus Novelo map of 1454; the second the Venetian Fra Mauro’s Mappamondo of 1460. Both revealed a hitherto unsurpassed knowledge of Ethiopian geography, including the names of provinces and towns, mountains and rivers, churches and monasteries.
Contacts, such as those outlined above, flourished in the ensuing centuries. Italians in the early sixteenth century, whose presence was described by the Portuguese traveller Francisco Alvares, included two Venetian artists, Brancaleone and Bicini, both of great interest to historians of Ethiopian art, and the Florentine trader Andrea Corsali, who envisaged printing in Ge‘ez letters. The presence in Rome a century later of Ethiopians, and in particular of the renowned savant Abba Gorgoreyos, whose scholarly collaboration with Hiob Ludolf, the German founder of Ethiopian Studies in Europe, is too well known to need further discussion.
By then Italian scholarship in, and awareness of, Ethiopia, was on the wane. The principal travellers to Ethiopia were no longer Italians, but Jesuits from Portugal or Spain. The finest map-makers were likewise no longer Italians, but cartographers from Holland, England, France, and in due course Germany.
Baratti, Bruce, and Balugani
Two Italians, as far as Ethiopian studies are concerned, nevertheless stand out in this period. The first was the little known mid-seventeenth century Italian traveller Giovanni Barrati. His memoirs, known only in an English translation, provide virtually the sole foreign account of Ethiopia at that time.
Then in the following century, by a quirk of history, the great Scottish traveller, James Bruce, about to embark on his search for the “sources of the Nile”, decided to employ an Italian, Luigi Balugani of Bologna, as his draftsman. Bruce, ungenerously, kept the Italian’s identity almost entirely secret. The fact remains, however, that it was Balugani who produced virtually all the drawings, of plants, animals and birds, which contributed greatly to Bruce’s fame.
The early nineteenth century was a time when Italy and Ethiopia were both politically divided, and contacts between the two countries were for that and other reasons at a low ebb.
Four Italian missionaries, who visited Ethiopia in this period, and wrote about various aspects of the country, nevertheless stand out. They were the Lazarists, Giuseppe Sapeto and Giovanni Stella, and the Capuchins, Guglielmo Massaia and Ginsto d’Urbino. All four were in their differing ways significant, above all Massaia, who is most popularly remembered for his twelve volume work I miei trentacinque anni di missione nell’alta Etiopia. Another Italian, Raffaele Baroni, served at this time as secretary, at Massawa, to British Consul Walter Plowden, and helped the British in writing up reports.
The Suez Canal
The subsequent opening of the Suez Canal made the Red Sea, for the first time since the Pharaohs, an extension of the Mediterranean, and greatly facilitated Italian travel to Ethiopia and adjacent lands. Italian travellers to the north of the country in this period included Luigi Pennazzi, Gustavo Bianchi, Pellegrino Matteucci, Pippo Vigoni, Cesare Nerazzini, Augusto Salimbeni, Carlo Piaggia, and Arturo Issel, while those to Shawa and the southern provinces included Orazio Antinori, Antonio Cecchi, Giovanni Chiarini, Leopoldo Traversi, Vicenzo Ragazzi, and other members of a mission of the Societa Geografica Italiana, which established itself at Let Marafeya, on the outskirts of the Shawan capital, Ankobar. Their research is described in considerable, and very valuable, detail in Cecchi’s three volume Da Zeila alle frontiere del Caffa, as well as in many articles in the Bollettino della Societa Geografica Italiana, and other scientific and scholarly publications.
Following the Flag
Trade, it is often said, follows the flag. So, to some extent, does scholarship. Scholarship can, however, also precede the flag. Some Italian studies in fact preceded, and facilitated, Italian political expansion in Ethiopia, while others followed more or less directly therefrom.
The coming of the Italians to northern Ethiopia, and the establishment of the Italian colony of Eritrea, gave a considerable fillip to Italian scholarship in the area. The now famous International Conferences of Ethiopian Studies were thus preceded by a series of Italian Colonial Congresses, one of them actually held at Asmara. Papers delivered included serious studies of the colonial people, and their history and culture, as well as various aspects of colonial policy and administration. The later fascist-inspired colonial congress of 1937 was on the other hand marred by doctrinaire racism.
Italian colonial officials likewise collected, and published, a wealth of historical, geographical and other material, some of it recently published by Anthony d’Avray in his Lords of the Red Sea. The History of a Red Sea Society from the Sixteenth to the Nineteenth Centuries.