This site uses cookies to provide a better experience. Continuing navigation accept the use of cookies by us OK




                                Italians in India: Travels and Journals

  Italy and India are young nation States but ancient civilizations. Their relations consequently extend to remote times. References to India can be found in various works of authors from the Mediterranean world: Diodorus Siculus Library of History, Arrian’s Indika, Pliny the Elder’s Natural History.
Trade between the Roman Empire and India flourished, particularly in the first and second century AD. Hoards of Roman coins have been found all over the Peninsula and there is some evidence of permanent settlements in the South of India of merchants from the Roman world. Flows went both ways: an Indian ivory statuette has been found in the ruins of Pompeii, in Southern Italy.
Embassies were also exchanged: one sailed from Barygaza in 25 BC and reached Rome after four years; there are records of embassies being sent to Trajan, Antoninus Pius, Julian the Apostate and Justinian.
The fall of the Roman Empire brought trade and relations with the Mediterranean to a halt. But after a gap of a few centuries, in the Middle Ages Italian merchants started to ply again the same old routes to the East. Marco Polo from Venice remains the most famous among them, having published his Travels at the beginning of XIVth century, a book which proved a seminal source of inspiration and information for European travelers in the centuries to come. Marco Polo visited the South East of India and ports like Kayak, Comorin, Quilon, Thana, Somnath and Cambay.
His Travels depicts with fresh colours life and customs in India at the end of  XIIIth century. Marco Polo is only the first in a long series of Italian travelers to India having left a literary testimony of their experiences. Visitors from the Republic of Venice remained prominent. Just to mention a few, in 1419 Nicolo’ de’ Conti set sail from Venice to visit the Middle East, Persia and then India. He crossed the Peninsula from coast to coast, moving also inland to Vijayanagar; back in Italy, he related his travels to the humanist and Papal Secretary Poggio Bracciolini. In 1563 Cesare Federici left Venice and traveled East; in India he visited Vijayanagar and Kerala (Viaggio nell'India Orientale et oltra l'India nel quale si contengono cose dilettevoli, 1587). Gasparo Balbi, a Venetian merchant and jeweler, traveled to Persia and India in 1579-88 (Viaggio dell'Indie Orientali, di Gasparo Balbi, Gioielliero Venetiano, 1590). In 1671 Ambrosio Bembo left Venice for the Middle East, went further into India (Goa and Mumbay) and then back through Iran, after fours years  (Viaggio e giornale per parte dell'Asia di quattro anni circa fatto da me Ambrosio Bembo, Nobile Veneto). Nicolo’ Manucci is another Venitian deserving a special place, for his Storia do Mogor, the most detailed history of Mogul India in the period 1653-1708 written by a contemporary European observer. Manucci left Venice at the age of fourteen, never to return; he died in India after a long and adventurous life in the Sub Continent, at the service of the Moguls. But Venitians were not alone. Filippo Sassetti, a scholar and humanist from Florence, traveled to India, where he died in Goa, in 1588; some of his letters are extant, where he notes similarities between Sanskrit and Italian.
Pietro della Valle left Rome for the East and arrived in India in 1624, where he visited Surat, Goa and Keladi; his Travels in Persia and India were published between 1658 and 1663. The erudite lawyer Giovanni Francesco Gemelli-Careri, from Naples, started a world trip in 1693, which also brought him to South India. Gemelli-Careri’s experiences during his five year trip are related in his Giro Intorno al Mondo, published in 1699, which became a best seller in XVIIIth century Europe. He gives a vivid description of the camp of Emperor Aurangzeb during the Deccan campaign, in 1695.
All these Italians visited India in their quest for knowledge and wealth; they were not pioneers of an imperialist power, just individual merchants and/or curious observers. Many other Italians followed suit: their names resurface from old chronicles, as physicians, artillerymen etc, at the service of the Moguls and their successor States. One specific mention should be made of Italian General Ventura, who contributed to the organization of the infantry in the army of Ranjit Singh, in the Punjab State of the 1830s and 40s, as well as of his colleague Paolo Bartolomeo Avitabile.
In the following historical period, political conditions were no longer conducive to travel and trade. But Italian scholars participated in the world renaissance of Sanskrit studies, in the footsteps of Sassetti. In this context, it is worth recalling Gaspare Gorresio, who created in 1852 the first Chair of Sanskrit in Italy, at the University of Turin. Gorresio  left a complete translation in Italian of the Ramayana (Ramayana, poema indiano di Valmichi), published in ten volumes between 1843 and 1858.
 In XIXth century, Italy and India shared the same experience of struggle for independence from foreign rule. The Italian Risorgimento actually inspired some freedom fighters; the Italian patriot Giuseppe Mazzini was translated and widely read by the Indian intelligentsia. The independence of both countries would finally be realised at a distance of around 80 years (the Kingdom of Italy was created in 1861).    

Selected sources:
Romila Thapar, Early India, from the Origins to AD 1300, Penguin
Al Basham, The Wonder that Was India, Picador
Beyond the Three Seas, Travellers’ Tales of Mughal India, edited by Michael Fisher, Random House India.
The Oxford History of India, by Vincent A. Smith, edited by Percival Spear