Lodovico Nocentini: A Rereader of Modern Italian Travellers to China
From Firenze University Press Book: Rereading Travellers to the East
Aglaia De Angeli, Queen’s University Belfast, United Kingdom
In 1882, Lodovico Nocentini published Il primo sinologo: P. Matteo Ricci (The First Sinologist: F. Matteo Ricci) in which he researched the historical figure of Jesuit father Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), who, alongside Marco Polo, received credit for the European discovery of China. Intended for an Italian readership, Nocentini’s biographical work strove to reveal Ricci not only as a missionary figure, but above all as the first scholar to provide a bridge between Chinese and western knowledge. Nocentini’s work on Ricci has long been forgotten, being regarded as of little scientific value.
Yet, the text deserves our attention as it was the first to focus on the status of sinology in Europe, particularly Italy, in the second half of the nineteenth century, and more generally it explains the contribution of modern Italian travellers to Sino-western relations.
Nocentini’s remarks on Matteo Ricci and his contribution to the establishment of sinology as a field of study are reread in this paper through theories proposed by Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes and Vladimir Nabokov. Nabokov emphasizes that a good reader is someone who rereads. But rereading has two, non-exclusive meanings: to read again and to reinterpret. To reread and so to reinterpret an author, topic and publication such as Nocentini’s Il primo sinologo: P. Matteo Ricci is a complex interpretative exercise that will be assisted by Derrida’s and Barthes’ theoretical approaches to rereading. In Of Grammatology (1967), Derrida affirms that rereading is a process corresponding to four actions: reinterpretation, new interpretation, appropriation and adding a new meaning. In his S/Z (1970), on the other hand, Barthes assumes a semiotic approach to rereading. For Barthes, rereading is a process of decoding in which the reader appreciates the plurality of meanings offered by the author right from the text’s very drafting. Derrida and Barthes’ quest for meaning will lead us to be rereaders of Nocentini, who in turn reread Matteo Ricci.
By examining these rereadings over the long span of time between the sixteenth and the nineteenth centuries, we find ourselves opening a long series of Chinese boxes. These boxes take us from philology to semiotics, to discover the meaning of rereading Italian modern travellers to China. Ultimately, therefore, to analyse Nocentini is to understand his research as relating the legacy of Ricci to the formation of sinology as a field of study and to successive generations of sinologists. Furthermore, to discuss Nocentini’s life and literary production is to acknowledge the journey in space and time and history that we are taken on when rereading Il primo sinologo: P. Matteo Ricci, and to acknowledge what the re/reader of Nocentini’s Il primo sinologo: P. Matteo Ricci is offered by travel literature more in general.