Padre Matteo Ricci

The Sections of the Exhibition


Section A


Land of Birth

Matteo Ricci is born in Macerata, in the Marche region, on the 6th October 1552, His town is positioned in an area which stretches from the Apennine Mountains down to the Adriatic Sea to the East and, throughout the centuries, has sent dozens of great and distinguished travellers, missionaries and men of science to Eastern Asia. From his home town does Ricci get nourishment and sustenance for the education of his mind, and his sensitive nature as well as for his outlook on the world. It is here that he completes his private initial studies and attends, from the age of nine to fourteen, the new college of the Jesuits. For two years, he assists his herbalist father, before being sent off to Rome to study law (1568). In Macerata he forges his use of the language, which emerges in the form of expressions typical of dialect in writings in Italian of recent years. From here he draws certain characteristics typical of his personality. Chinese interlocutors describe him as being a retiring, reserved and silent person; a person of endless industriousness as well as having an extraordinary degree of physical and mental resilience. One capable of grand dreams, yet a man wary and realistic, he is endowed with a subtle vein of self-irony and a disenchanted look on the world.

The rebirth in Rome

After having completed the three-year course of law studies, on 15th August he serves his novitiate near the Church of Saint Andrew's at the Quirinal in Rome , promising absolute obedience and "indifference" to the orders which will be given him. In the initial months in the Society of Jesus, which are marked by the epoch-making event of the Battle of Lepanto (7th October 1571) between Christians and Ottoman Turks, the new novice also has to resolve the question of the initial opposition of his father to his decision.

Being sent to Florence in the Autumn of 1572, for approximately a year, to perfect his studies in classical letters, he begins to attend courses in rhetoric and philosophy in the Roman College in October 1573. These are to be the defining years for his humanistic education. Already having a good grounding in Latin and Greek, he prepares himself for the arts of good orator and author through the understanding of rhetoric.   The preferred maestro, among the Latins, is Cicero, whose works are diligently studied and many of which are learned by heart. Ricci reads Horace and Quintilian and, among the Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. On the course of philosophy and mathematics, the undisputed masters are Aristotle, annotated by Thomas Aquinas and Euclid, annotated by Christopher Clavius.

From Macerata to Peking

Ricci leaves Rome for Portugal in May 1577. Having spent nearly seven months in Coimbra, after having pledged an oath to the king of Portugal, he embarks for India from Lisbon on 24th March 1578, reaching Goa on 13th September the same year. Here he teaches Latin and Greek to the students in the Jesuit College and he studies theology. He suffers an attack of malaria and overcomes it.

Having received holy orders at Cochin in July 1580 and having completed his theology studies, in the Spring of 1582 Ricci is called to Macao to assist his Jesuit fellow-brother, Michele Ruggeri who has already, for three years, been trying to gain entrance into the kingdom of China. Ricci arrives at the Portuguese base, regarded as "the doorway to China", on 7th August 1582. Macao is a Chinese city, governed by Chinese authorities, where permission was granted to the Portuguese to build a small community (approx. a thousand people), which was almost entirely given over to trade with China. It is also the base for ships en route to Japan.

My master

During the time in the Roman College, Ricci has the fortune of meeting an extraordinary teacher of mathematics and natural sciences: the German Christopher Clavius, (Bamberg 1538 - Rome 1612). He is friends and corresponds with some of the greatest mathematicians of the time, from Kepler to Galileo. Ricci always refers to him as "my master". At his school he learns geometry and arithmetic, astronomy and cartography, sciences of time and space measurement. He learns how to construct geographical maps, globes of the earth and the heavens, armillary spheres, astrolabes, sundials and mechanical clocks. We may say that he introduced all the mathematics and applied sciences learned from Clavius into China. He translated Geometry by Euclid together with Xu Guangqi, published and prefaced by the master in 1574; in astronomy, he translated parts of the On the Sphere of the World by Sacrobosco annotated by Clavius; with Li Zhizhao he translated the Geometria Practica of Clavius and the treatise by Clavius On the astrolabe. Ricci transmitted to China, that geocentric model of Aristotle and Ptolemy, which in these years was beginning to collapse in Europe in the face of the new heliocentric one of Copernicus. Yet the most important scientific contribution to China remained the introduction of the method of mathematics into the observation of nature.

A history of clocks

The mission in China, designed and strongly supported by the Visitor of Jesuit missions in the East, Alessandro Valignano, began the teaching of timepieces, both mechanical and sundials. Ricci himself remembers the entrance into Zhaoqing was favoured by the gift of a mechanical clock to the viceroy. In the eighteen years of his journey from Macao towards Peking, Ricci constructed hundreds of sundials of every kind as well as various, different mechanical clocks. Regarding the mechanical weight clock which will be given as a present to the Emperor, which comes from Macao, he observes: "Even though it was of less worth than the other, smaller spring-driven one, it was greater, and thus did it make greater noise and seemed something of more import and of more stature" ( Della Entrata della Compagnia di Giesù e Christianità nella Cina , Macerata 2000, 326; hierinafter E).

The Wanli Emperor appreciated the two (both weight- and spring-driven) clocks given to him, to such an extent, that he ordered certain eunuch mathematicians to learn of their structure and workings. Ricci disassembled them with their help, the parts thereof were named, thus giving rise to Chinese mechanical clockmaking: "And especially, they wanted the names of all the wheels, iron pieces, keys and everything inside the clock, and the whole operation done by two Fathers, inventing various names, so they could tell him everything in words and use the written word too" ( E 349).

The clock here presented was built in 2003 by Alberto Gorla for the first exhibition of Macerata on Matteo Ricci. Produced following the model of Ricci tower clocks, it has three toothed drums with weights attached via strings, one for time, one for the hours and one for marking every fifteen minutes. Originally set upon a five- meter tall tower, in order to make maintenance easier it was later lowered and equipped with an electric motor to re-position the weights. Shown in exhibitions of Macerata, Rome (the "Vittoriano") and Berlin, it has recently been presented in the Italian pavilion at the Shanghai Expo. It is one of the pieces to make up part of the permanent exhibition of Macerata.

Zhaoqing, the first residence

Zhaoqing, seat of political government of the Province of Guangdong, was the first city to welcome Ricci and Ruggeri in September 1583. They received a piece of land, where they built the first European house on Chinese soil. Since they declared being religious men, they were asked to assume the dress of Buddhist monks. Ricci and Ruggeri shaved off their beard and hair and wore the grey habit of the Buddhist monk. They began to translate Western religious texts into Chinese (Ten commandments, the Creed); including a good part of the first Portuguese-Chinese Dictionary; in 1584 Ricci gave Wang Pan the first Universal Map of the World in Chinese. In 1588 Ruggeri was sent to Rome to organise the Embassy of the Holy See to China. Ricci is responsible for writing the letter that Pope Sixtus V should have sent to the Emperor Wanli. Though, for various reasons, the Embassy never came to fruition. A new viceroy fell in love with the European house at Zhaoqing and he decided to take possession of it. At the end of a brave fight, Ricci accepted a laughable price in exchange for the permission to move further North, to the city of Shaozhou.

Ricci and Buddhism

Introduced into China from India in the first century AD, following alternate events, Buddhism was widespread in Ricci's time, exercising a strong influence on men of letters at court. Organised along ritualistic and associative forms (male and female monasteries) which were very similar to Christian ones and, especially, founded upon the conception of the world being incompatible with that Christian form, the "religion of idols" was considered the main antagonist to Christianity by Ricci. Thus he states the basic thesis: "But the opinion that is now more followed - seems to me to be taken from the sect of the Idols for five hundred years hence - is that all this world is made up of a single substance, and that its creator with the skies and the earth, men and animals, trees and grass, together with the four elements, all go to make up one continuous body, and everyone is a member of this body; and from this unit of substance do the Buddhists make charity derive, which we have to have for one another; for this every man may become similar to God, because he is of the same substance. All this we try to rebut not only with logic, but also with the authority of their ancient works which clearly taught a very different doctrine." (E 95)

Ricci and Confucianism

The decisive meeting of the Ricci mission is with Confucius and his teachings. Born in 551 BC, Confucius had been the true spiritual guide for two thousand years in China. His works and those of his disciples (Four Books, The Five Classics) proposed the rules for the good conduct of the State and social living. For this reason, did they constitute the main focus for men of literature who aspired to roles of employ within the public administration. More than a religion, Confucianism appeared as a moral and political philosophy to Ricci: not dealing with metaphysical questions nor with the destiny of the soul after death, it did not put itself in a position of opposition to Christianity. Thus does he reconstruct the history and the doctrine: "In those times in which Plato and Aristotle flourished among us, according to my time calculations, also among them certain men of letters and of good life flourished, who wrote some books concerning moral themes, not by way of science rather of fine principles, with the most important of these books they then made the Four Books which now are the most esteemed and read books by day and night, even though they will not surpass the greatness of Cicero's Epistulae ad familiares; anyway, commentaries and glosses, and commentaries on commentaries as well as other essays and discourses thereon are already infinite in number". ( L 349 )

Shaozhou, the second residence
Ricci's stay at Shaozhou is marked by four main aspects. 1. He loses, due to endemic malaria in the city, over a period of two years, two young colleagues to whom he had begun to teach Chinese as well as read the classical works of Confucius: the Portuguese Father Antonio de Almeida and the Italian Francesco De Petris. 2. He studies the classics of Confucius intensely, The Four Books and The Five Classics. He translates the former into Latin and pens a paraphrase for the benefit of the fellow-brothers who arrive from Europe. 3. He employs teachers to learn how to write books in Chinese. Indeed, he understands that his work will always be ineffective should he remain bound to purely moral teaching. 4. He decides to transform his dress as well as his status of foreign monk into the status and position of a preaching man of letters (Daoren). Ricci understands that to be admitted into court he must earn the respect of the Confucius governors of the city, with whom he forms a tight alliance. Together with his erudition, perfectly assimilating the culture and customs of the city, but also displaying his modesty and loyalty, he attracts their admiration and respect.

Section B

The Western Confucian

Having reached Nanchang towards the end of June 1595, Ricci appears as a preaching man of letters and in this light is he welcomed by the Mandarins of the city. In the month of November, he offers the Prince of Jianan his first work in Chinese, a collection of Western phrases entitled On Friendship. This work had great success and was the subject of many editions. The men of letters Qu Taisu and Feng Yingjing, whose prefaces have come down to us, celebrate Ricci as the man of friendship ("he has come to China in search of friends") underline that he has the extraordinary merit of having made China understand being, together with Europe, the other half of one, single human civilisation.

The following year (1596) Ricci gives the viceroy, Lu Wangai, the Western Mnemotechnics, translated into Chinese beginning from a text he had written in Italian during the year of the Roman College. The request of the viceroy came after Ricci had offered phenomenal proof of his memory: after having made his eating companions write, during a banquet, more than four hundred Chinese characters devoid of any logical connection, having read them just once he was able to repeat them exactly both forwards and backwards.

Civilisation of the book The symbol of the meeting of European and Chinese civilisation has undoubtedly been the book. The wonder of ascertaining that also the other civilisation was founded on the book, was reciprocal. Ricci expresses his own astonishment recognizing that in China the book represents the privileged tool of communication and encourages his fellow-brothers to learn the art of writing books in Chinese. However, the Chinese men of letters could not believe their eyes when they saw the Western books which testified the existence of a society of men of letters also outside China: "It seems to them that a contradiction is implied in being a man of letters not through their books, and they cannot but ask who made these books. Nevertheless, seeing them so beautiful, they arrive at confessing that something good will be written in them" ( L 316 ).

With his books, Ricci is definitely accepted into a world of the Chinese men of letters, to which he adapts in every way. The first fundamental element of a man of letters's life is to be part of a community based on the study of Confucian Classics, on a selection made by the examination system, on being officials of the State (but not always, because a good number of men of letters do not have official duties) and on the practice of certain activities.

Honour the dead to educate the living

Common to all Chinese religions and therefore significant expression of this civilisation is the cult of the ancestors. This is how Ricci describes it:

"The most solemn thing among all these men of letters, and used by the king in the minutest detail, is the offers that every year they make of meat, fruit, perfumes and cuts of silk, or paper among the poorest people, and of perfumes to their dead ancestors, in a certain period of the year, and in this they place their respect to their parents, that is to serve them dead as if they were alive. Neither for this do they think that the dead come to eat the said things or that they need them; but they say to do this because they do not know any other way to show the love and the grateful heart that they have for them. And some of them told us that this ceremony was established more for the living than for the dead, that is to teach the children and the ignorant people to honour and serve their living parents, seeing that serious people serve them after they are dead, as they used to when they were alive. Since neither they recognise any godliness in these dead people nor do they ask or hope for anything from them, all this is totally beyond all idolatry, and maybe we can also say, there is no superstition, although it will be better to change it into alms to the poor for the soul of such dead people whenever they will be Christian".   (E 96).

A new Ptolemy

Once the threat of the Japanese invasion of Korea has ceased, the conditions to found the fourth residence in the Southern capital are created. The brief stay of Ricci in Nanking is characterised by the teaching of Mathematics and Natural Sciences and by renewed preparations to be admitted to giving presents, as European ambassador, to the Emperor Wanli.

He visits the astronomical observatory situated within the walls of the city and collaborates with the court astronomers building some instrumentation for them. He opens a school of Mathematics attended by eminent scholars. In Nanking he meets one of his most important friends and patrons, Xu Guangqi, for the first time. In this period, Ricci writes the Essay on the Four Elements , draws a second edition of the Universal Geographical Map and translates one part of The Handbook by Epictetus, which he will publish in the following years under the title of Twenty-five Sentences.

During the month of March 1600, the fellow-brothers Lazzaro Cattaneo and Diego de Pantoja arrive from Macao carrying the new gifts for the Emperor. On 18th May, together with Pantoja, and with the permission of the Nanking authorities, Ricci leaves again directed towards Peking.

World Map with China at its centre

Ricci started drawing a small universal geographic map in Chinese in 1584: it was an epoch-making event for China. To this another five editions, more and more perfect, followed, every single one was printed in thousands of copies. In the 1600 Nanking edition there are no surviving specimens; of the 1602 Peking edition, realised together with his friend Li Zhizao, four complete examples are known, one of which is kept in the Vatican Library and here an exact copy is on display; of the 1603 edition in eight panels two specimens are known; of the 1608 edition desired by the same emperor one later copy remains which is kept in the Provincial Museum of Nanking; of the 1609 edition, which is a re-working of the previous one on two panels placed on the right and left of the throne, there are no remaining examples. Ricci used world maps not only as tools of scientific knowledge, but also as tools of philosophical and religious teaching as well as effective tools of persuasion as far as the value of Western sciences was concerned.

The clearest datum in Ricci's maps is the positioning of China at their centre with Europe and Africa to the left and the Americas to the right. Should it no longer be the biggest country of the Earth, at least, it confirmed itself to be "The Centre Country", in such a way also respecting the meaning of the name of China (Zhongguo).


The legend here below allows us to understand the main themes confronted by Ricci in his maps.

1. Title: Geographic Map complete with all kingdoms
2. General notions of cosmology and geography
3. Diagram of the nine heavens
4. Moviments of the nine heavens
5. The four elements
6. Sun rising and setting according to the story of the Yuan
7. Explanation of the Sphere
8. Armillary sphere
9. Preface of Wu Zhongming
10. General notions on the Li and on the minutes in each degree of longitude
11. Preface of Li Zhizao
12. Preface of Yang Jingchun
13. Epilogue of Chen Minzhi
14. Preface of Matteo Ricci
15. Method for observing the North Pole
16. Preface of Qi Guangzong
17. Second method for finding the height of a place
18. Solar and lunar eclipses
19. Method for measuring the size of the Earth and the Moon
20. Map showing the northern hemisphere
21. Distance and size compared between the globe of the Earth and the planets of the nine heavens
22. Southern hemisphere
23. The 24 periods of time in the Chinese year

The Ambassador of Europe

On 24th January 1601, Ricci is admitted into the Ming Dynasty Forbidden City. The gifts are examined by a commission of eunuchs, are approved and after three days are presented to the emperor. Wanli orders that the foreigner, Li Madou, remain at his disposal within the palace. He orders the court painters to portray him standing, life size, and he demands the four eunuch mathematicians to learn the workings of the two clocks. Four eunuch musicians learned to play the Western clavichord and Ricci composes Eight songs for vocal accompaniment.

Li Madou will never personally meet Wanli; but he protects him demanding he remain in the capital without going away and maintaining him at the public exchequer's expense till his death.

As Xu Guangqi will write, the foreigner Matteo Ricci, was likened to the phoenix arisen once again, symbol of the prosperity of the empire and protection of the court: "In ancient times, the kiosk where the phoenixes built their nest was considered by the court to be a precious object for the succession of the empire. Today, we have a real wise and great man who makes our virtue evident and protects the court: is not he, maybe, an even more precious treasure for the world? Let us raise up our praises. The day in which we will cease to praise our civilisation can still wait, can still wait!".

Xitai, the Western Master

In the Peking years, Ricci produces his most important works with his Chinese friends. In 1602, he publishes the great universal map of the whole world on six panels with Li Zhizao, republished with new text on eight panels in 1603. In the same years, also thanks to the pressures of his friend Feng Yingjing, he publishes The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven; two years later, the Twenty-five sentences; in 1607 with Xu Guangqi he translates the first six books of Euclid's Geometry, the work which by itself, according to the judgement of the Chinese magistrates, would have deserved the entitlement of a plot of land for burial and for the eternal gratitude of China. In the same year, with Li Zhizao he publishes Clavius's Treatise on the Astrolabe. In 1608, the Ten Discourses by a Paradoxical Man see the light of day, his moral work of greatest success. In the same year, the Emperor Wanli asks for twelve specimens of the 1602 World Map on silk. Ricci begins producing the history of the China mission, About Entrance of Christianity and Jesus Society into China , transmitting a faithful and heartfelt description of "The Centre Country" to Europe for the first time in history.

Collecting the eternal prize

In the Spring of 1610, year of the examinations, Ricci undertakes a wearisome rhythm of visits, up to eighty everyday, which the Mandarins and the men of letters coming to Peking from all over China pay him.

On 3rd May, coming home from one such visit, he goes to bed exhausted, announcing that he will not get up again. The treatments of the finest doctors of the city are all to no avail. He has already prepared the document for his succession. On 10th May, he receives the last rites. To one of his fellow-brothers who asks him if he realises the situation in which he leaves them, he answers: "On a door open to great merits, but not without many dangers and hardships". The following day, according to the account of De Ursis, who was there, "persevering in the same happiness, sitting at the centre of his bed with great peace and serenity without any movement, closing his eyes as if to go to sleep or contemplate, he offered up his soul to his Creator, after having kissed the Crucifix and the image of Our Blessed Father, Ignatius, Tuesday 11th May   at 7pm".

Having learned of the death of Ricci, on the request of the fellow-brothers and with the favourable nod of competent ministers, for the first time in the history of China, the Emperor grants a piece of land for the burial of a foreigner on Chinese soil. The tomb of Ricci is still honoured in Peking to this day.

The portrait and condemnation

In the hours immediately following the death of Ricci, the Chinese fellow-brother, Yan Wenhui, alias Manuel Pereira, painted the first portrait of the "Western Master". It was also one of the very first oil paintings done in China by a Chinese painter. In 1614, the portrait was brought to Rome and put on display in the Church of Jesus together with those of St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier. An exact copy is displayed here.

Already during Ricci's life and to a greater extent after his death, doubts and criticism on certain points of the missionary method of the great man from Macerata had been raised. They especially regarded three subjects: 1. The translation into Chinese he did of the word God, rendered by Tian and Tianzhu, which mean Heaven and Lord of Heaven. 2. The positive judgement that Ricci had pronounced regarding Confucian morality, considered substantially consistent with Christian morals, with few exceptions. 3. The concession to the Chinese people converted to Christianity to keep on practising the rites honouring Confucius and their ancestors which Ricci thought had an exclusively civil value. Especially other religious orders which arrived in China around 1630 believed that in such a way the door to idolatry and superstition would be open. The controversy of the last three points concluded in 1704 with the formal condemnation of the method used by Ricci by the Court of the Inquisition and with a definitive one in 1742. Silence fell upon Ricci and his work until 1939, when Pius XII returned to the question of Chinese rites and recognised the justice of Ricci's method. Now the Church points to the founder of the Church in China as an example of the Apostolic way for the future.


The Sections of the Exhibition

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