The Oriental School of Rome


The Oriental School of Rome: History, Figures, Cultural Scene, Manuscript and Book Collection

Research project funded by Sapienza University in 2020 (Large Projects)

1. Abstract

The project proposes an articulated study of the last two centuries of the history of Oriental Studies in Rome. That of Oriental Studies in Rome is a unitary tradition, also known as the Oriental School, which has continued uninterruptedly from the 14th c. to the present day. This tradition constitutes a fundamental part of the history of the University of Rome and, more generally, of the Italian university. The project will focus on three thematic areas related to this tradition, taken into consideration from the first decades of the 19th c. until today: the events, the prominent figures, and the manuscript and book collections. The area of the events will include an investigation into the history of the chairs of Oriental languages in a period of great transformations, which encompass, among other things, the transition from papal to royal government and the era of Italian colonialism. It was during this period that the denomination of the Oriental School, which was already in use informally, was officially adopted by an association of chairs of the University of Rome (1903). Subsequently, this association assumed the configuration of the Department of Oriental Studies, then that of the Faculty of Oriental Studies, and finally that of the Italian Institute of Oriental Studies (2010). This area of investigation will also include an examination of the influence that the School has suffered from the cultural context, and, more importantly, the influence that the School has exercised over the Italian cultural and political scene. The area of prominent figures will include in particular the bio-bibliographic study of scholars, whose work, despite its scientific relevance, is not yet sufficiently known within the international academic sphere. The third area will include the description and history, which cannot be separated from that of the School, of extremely important manuscript and book collections preserved in Rome, and in particular in the library of the ISO.

2. National-international framing of the research program

In relation to the national framework, the project is part of a sporadic reflection on Oriental Studies in Italy that began as early as the first half of the 19th c. with an essay, by the Lombard librarian F. Predari, dedicated to the Italian tradition, already many centuries old at that time, of the study of near and middle-eastern languages (Origine e progresso dello studio delle lingue orientali in Italia, Milano 1842). According to Predari, no one more than the Italians had the responsibility of composing a history of linguistics, since no other nation had as effectively cooperated in the progress of the study of Oriental languages in Europe. A wide-ranging essay on the history of Oriental Studies in Italy was composed only many years after that of Predari, by one of the central figures in those same studies, namely the Indologist A. De Gubernatis (1840-1913) (Matériaux pour l'histoire des études orientales en Italie, Parigi 1876). In his book he claimed that the Italian city where Oriental Studies were cultivated the most, and which gave hope for the best results, was Florence. From then on there would again be a lack of extensive essays on the topic for a long time. However, a bibliographic repertoire, although dedicated to a limited period of the 20th c., by the Arabist from the Oriental School of Rome, G. Gabrieli (1872- 1942), should be mentioned (Bibliografia degli studi orientalistici in Italia dal 1912 al 1934, Roma 1935). Another extensive study can be found only at the end of the 20th c. This was edited by the archaeologist M. Taddei and focused not so much on Oriental Studies in Italy, as on their most well-known exponent of the late 19th c., namely De Gubernatis himself, and his cultural sphere (Angelo De Gubernatis: Europa e Oriente nell'Italia umbertina, Napoli 1995-2001). According to Taddei, thanks to De Gubernatis Oriental countries such as India began to lose, in the eyes of the Italians, their image of being objects of a mere anthropological perspective, to be viewed more as producers of culture on the same footing as European countries. More recently there are traces of a revival of interest in the history of the School. In 2017 P. Cannata (among the members of this project) edited a volume of selected writings (Eurasica, Rome 2017) of P. Daffinà (1929-2004), a distinguished exponent of the School. Still on the subject of a renewed interest in the School, the conference dedicated to C. Schiaparelli (1848-1919), Arabist, among the founders of the School (understood as a formal association of university chairs) should be mentioned. The conference (Celestino Schiaparelli: His Legacy & the Oriental School of Sapienza), which took place at Sapienza University in December 2018, was attended by some of the participants in the present project: M. Casari, A. Crisanti, A. Fallerini, B. Lo Turco. We should also mention A. Crisanti's biographical volume on G. Tucci (1894-1984), a Tibetologist, Indologist, art historian, archaeologist, explorer, essayist, who was among the best known exponents of the School in the 20th c. (Giuseppe Tucci: una biografia, Milano 2020). His figure, however, remained little studied, or even misunderstood, until the aforementioned volume, which reconstructs his historical path thanks to careful investigation into substantial archive materials, previously completely ignored. Again in relation to the national framework, it should be noted that the first conference dedicated to the School (A Oriente della Sapienza. Storia, fonti, ricerca. Per il decimo anniversario dell'Istituto Italiano di Studi Orientali) will be held in Rome in the autumn 2021 (originally scheduled for June 2020). Several of the participants in the project will also be attending the conference, which will serve to take stock of current knowledge about the School. Coming to the international framework, in recent years the interest in Oriental Studies in Italy has grown. More specifically, there have been studies done on the Oriental School of Florence, which thrived especially in the years in which Florence was the capital of Italy (1865-1871). This interest has culminated in an extensive essay by F. L. Vicente (Altri orientalismi: l'India a Firenze 1860-1900, Firenze, 2012). This essay is also part of an international reflection, albeit only at an early stage, on the relationship between Oriental Studies and colonialism in Italy, and, more generally, on the perception of the "other". According to Vicente, Florentine Orientalism managed to free itself from "colonial knowledge". In this regard, besides L. Vicente's essay, a short, very recent piece of writing by Eva-Maria Troelenberg, which once more focuses on Florentine Orientalism, should be mentioned ("Introduction: Constructions Of 'Otherness' Between Idea and Image in 19th- and 20th-Century Italy", Mitteilungen Des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 59.1, Visualizing Otherness in Modern Italy - XIX-XX Century, 2017).

3. Description and objectives of the project, knowledge of the state of the art and methodology

The project takes as its object the recent history of Oriental Studies in Rome in its various phases and will focus on three thematic areas: the events, the exponents, the manuscript and book collections. The research will benefit from the collaboration of at least four structures within Sapienza University: the Italian Institute of Oriental Studies (ISO, represented by ten participants in the present project), the Library of the Institute (represented by its acting director A. Fallerini), the Doctorate in Civilization of Asia and Africa (represented by nine members of its board and two doctoral students), the Historical Archive of Sapienza. The thematic area of the events will include an investigation into the 19th-20th c. history of the chairs of Oriental languages and the various configurations taken by the Oriental School of Rome, an examination of the influence that the School has suffered from the Italian cultural context, and the influence the School has exerted on the Italian cultural and political scene. As for the history of the chairs of Oriental languages, some key moments can be mentioned here. The turning point was the change of status of the Roman university, when the pontifical university became a royal institution (1870). It should be noted that in the immediately preceding years, the center of Orientalist activity became Florence, capital of the Kingdom (1865-1871). Nevertheless, the capture of Rome ended up radically changing the situation. The best proof of this is the fact that in 1899 the 12th International Congress of Orientalists was held at the University of Rome, at the behest of the Indologist De Gubernatis. From here on, the prominent role of Rome in Italian Oriental studies would become unequivocal. A second fundamental breakthrough was the formal establishment of the Oriental School of Rome, which was already known informally by this name, in 1903. The School united various chairs, each of which had already a specific tradition, sometimes extraordinarily ancient, sometimes recent. The School was formally established on the initiative of five professors of the Faculty of Letters and Philosophy, namely A. De Gubernatis (Sanskrit), I. Guidi (Hebrew), B. Labanca (History of Christianity), L. Nocentini (Chinese) and C. Schiaparelli (Arabic). In 1960 the chairs of the School were grouped into three institutes: Ancient Near East, Islamic Studies, Studies of India and East Asia. In 1982 the three Institutes were brought together in the Department of Oriental Studies. About twenty years later, the establishment of a Faculty of Oriental Studies represented a prompt response to the renewed public interest in Asian civilizations. The subsequent transformation of the Faculty into the ISO (2010) was instead imposed due to a controversial reform of university education. To date, all these events have been investigated little, or not investigated at all. Furthermore, the above-mentioned administrative divisions have never encompassed the entire activity aimed at Oriental Studies at Sapienza University of Rome, which requires even wider research. As for the examination of the influence that the School suffered from the cultural context and vice versa, it is possible to give at least an essential example of the relevance of this area of reflection, namely the issue of the relationship between the School and Italian colonialism. Especially due to the academic activity of the Sanskritist G. Lignana (1827-1891), the thriving current of Indo-European linguistics, a young science based on the romantic idea of language as an expression of national identity, came into the limelight in Rome. The Indo-European and Semitic linguistic groups began to be viewed as vast racially identifiable entities, each with a precise cultural identity. We must therefore ask ourselves if this kind of perspective paved the way for Italian colonialism and, later, for racial hatred, which during the first half of the 20th c. would be promoted by the totalitarian regime. Moreover, it should be noted that in the same year in which Italian troops landed in Massaua and the city was annexed to the Kingdom of Italy (1885), I. Guidi (1844-1935), who would become the most celebrated orientalist of the School, inaugurated African studies, traditionally considered part of Oriental Studies. Guidi came from the tradition of studies which went back to the Vatican Library and the pontifical university. Thus, Guidi represents an element of continuity between the two epochs of Oriental Studies in Rome. Probably, the study of African culture appeared to Guidi as an opportunity for growth for a country like Italy, desirous to align itself with the group of dominant European countries. The connection between Oriental studies in Rome and rampant Italian colonial aspirations has yet to be investigated. Among other things, it will be necessary to decide whether colonial expansion favored Oriental studies or rather vice versa. The thematic area of the prominent figures will include in particular the archival and bio-bibliographic study of scholars whose figure and whose work, despite their scientific relevance, is not yet sufficiently known in the international academic panorama. What has always characterized Oriental Studies in Rome during their multiple transformations is the presence of various original scholars, each part not only of the tradition of a specific discipline, from which they came and to which they gave impetus, but also of the wider Roman tradition of Oriental Studies. There has been little or no study on many of these scholars. As for the thematic area of manuscripts and books collections, it must be noted that the history of these collections is an integral part of the more general history of Oriental Studies in Rome, also because traditionally the professors of oriental languages, at least until the transition from pontifical university to royal university, were also librarians. Coming to the state of the art, an overall reconstruction of the history of Oriental Studies in Rome has been lacking thus far. In spite of the fact that the Oriental School, of which the ISO is now the heir, has represented and still represents in the history of the Italian University one of the traditions of longer duration, success and productivity, so far no conferences, monographs or miscellanies have been dedicated to this specific subject. Only a couple of short articles can be pointed to. The aforementioned volume edited by P. Cannata contains, in the appendix, a posthumous, unfinished article by P. Daffinà (“La scuola orientale romana dal 1870 al 1936”), which synthetically reconstructs the history of the School in the years between the 19th and 20th centuries, relying on archival material, until then neglected. Furthermore, the Sanskritist R. Gnoli contributed with a brief presentation of the School to a conference on the history of the Faculty of Letters of Sapienza University (“La scuola di Studi Orientali”, in Le grandi scuole della Facoltà, Roma 1996). As for the methodology, in the first place a widely shared historiographic principle will be adopted, namely that of an individualizing investigation, which aims to reconstruct any specific traits of a phenomenon with respect to other phenomena grouped in the same class. Therefore, we will ask ourselves, for example, what differentiates the School of Rome from the Schools of Naples or Florence. Along the same line, we will investigate whether the School of Rome shows distinctive characteristics with respect to Oriental Studies in Italy as a whole. Again, the distinctive traits of the School of Rome under the papal government and the Kingdom of Italy will be sought in relation to great national schools such as the British or the French. In this respect, it should not be forgotten that Oriental Studies under the papacy, starting from the 16th c., were also intended as being useful to an undertaking quite as ambitious as the future British and French colonial aspirations: the evangelization of East and South Asia. Still in relation to the methodology, by virtue of the commonly accepted notion of interdependence between documents and historiography, particular importance will be given to archival research, which will focus primarily, but not exclusively, on the central Archive of Sapienza University and the archive of the former Oriental School and Faculty of Oriental Studies. We will investigate the archival material available on the basis of the historiographic hypotheses expressed below, so as to verify or invalidate any initial assumptions. A further essential operation, to which archival research serves as an indispensable aid, will consist in linking organically the scientific production of prominent scholars with their biography. The crucial relationship between the biographical dimension and intellectual reflection is a fundamental key to the constitutive structure of a scholar's personality. The biographical study allows for the reconstruction of experiences that are sources of conceptions which are then incorporated in the works. After having retraced an author's catalog of sources, it is also necessary to reconstruct the biographical key in which the sources were recalled. This will bring to light how the sources were understood on the basis of a specific judgment on their historical time. What matters is not only the fact that a scholar is interested in a certain text, but also the historical problem that led him to approach it. As far as planning is concerned, during the 1st year of the project all the historiographic hypotheses that will guide both research in general and archival research in particular will be formulated; moreover, evidence will be sought out and extracted from archival records; during the 2nd year the collected data will be analyzed; during the 3rd year, the initial hypotheses will be validated or invalidated.

4. Innovation of the research and possible progress beyond the state of the art

The project poses itself as highly innovative since wide-ranging studies dedicated to the albeit very long and successful history of Oriental Studies in Rome have never been promoted to date. The advantage of undertaking a systematic study of this history and a reflection on its meaning is therefore evident: such a study can give at least some scholars from the Oriental School whose work was often pioneering the consideration they deserve. This is the case, for example, for I. Guidi, who brought Arabic and, more generally, Semitic studies in Rome to levels of absolute excellence. What matters most, this study will make it possible to verify a series of relevant historiographic hypotheses, never investigated before. Our central hypothesis is that a sort of ideal continuity was established in Rome: despite the obvious ideological opposition between papal power and the Italian government, Oriental studies, which for centuries had been driven by missionary activity, received a major thrust forward from plans linked to colonial growth, after the unification of Italy. These studies, therefore, could have been motivated continuously by expansionist programs, which were of a religious and cultural type in the phase of the papal government, and of a colonial and commercial type in the phase of the royal government. Furthermore, contrary to what is thought, the contrast between papal and Italian interests might not have been so irreducible and constant when it came to expansionist politics. For example, when some missionaries were taken prisoner in central Africa in 1883, the Società africana d'Italia, one of the greatest advocates of colonialism, organized a public conference aimed at paying the ransom. Furthermore, the recordings of the missionaries made Oriental and African prospects fascinating to the general public, as in the case of the diary, often reprinted or abridged, of the capuchin G. Massaja (1809-1889). A second historiographic hypothesis is based on the premise of the contiguity of the academic domain of Oriental Studies in Rome with politics. The Italian government and parliament were constantly involved, for better or for worse, in the development of Oriental studies, while in turn Oriental studies provided politics with parliamentarians, as in the cases of G. Lignana, G. Ugdulena (1815-1872), and I. Guidi. This phenomenon will be considered from two different perspectives. The contiguity between politics and Oriental studies can be understood as proof that the leaders of post-unification Italy attributed special significance to those studies. At the same time, the phenomenon could be a further indicator of the undue pressure that politics exerted on the university. Our assumption will be that it is not possible to trace a dividing line between the governing class's desire to self-reproduce in all dominant positions, including academic ones, and a sincere scientific enthusiasm for Oriental studies, albeit tinged with colonialist ideology. In the final analysis, according to our interpretation, which must be verified, it was not so much that the political upheavals influenced Oriental studies; rather, the sphere of politics and that of Oriental studies had large areas of direct overlap. The study of the interaction between the School of Rome and the national political scene in the second half of the 19th c. is of course vital for a broad reconstruction of the history of the School, which is one of the objectives of this project. Nevertheless, our hypothesis is that such an issue is even more crucial for a correct reconstruction of the Italian expansionist policy up to the Second World War. For example, I. Guidi, perhaps the most brilliant scholar in the period under examination, encouraged colonial expansion in an increasingly strident manner, and his support culminated in a notorious speech given in 1913 at the Accademia dei Lincei. It will therefore be necessary to examine to what extent the ideological position of this celebrated Roman scholar and other members of the School interacted with the planning of Italian colonial policy. Even with respect to this topic the project stands out as innovative, since no systematic reflection on the relationship between Oriental Studies and colonialism in Italy has ever been made to date. The project is highly interdisciplinary not only thanks to the variety of disciplines related to the School (Sinology, Arabistics, Indology, Yamatology, Tibetology, etc.), but also because these call into question the most varied branches of humanistic knowledge: history, archeology, paleography, epigraphy, codicology, linguistics, philology, philosophy, art history etc.

5. Research group members:

Bruno Lo Turco (PI)

Davor Antonucci

Ada Barbaro

Alessandra Brezzi

Patrizia Cannata

Cantù Degani Maria Elena

Federica Casalin

Mario Casari

Michela Clemente

Alberico Crafa

Alice Crisanti

Arianna D'Ottone

Antonella Fallerini

Chiara Ghidini

Giuliano Giustarini

Valentina Bella Lanza

Laura Lettere

Tiziana Lorenzetti

Federico Masini

Carmela Mastrangelo

Luca Milasi

Arturo Monaco

Chiara Neri

Federica Olivotto

Simone Petrillo

Mario Prayer

Donatella Rossi

Antonio Salvati

Giuseppina Aurora Testa


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