Giuseppe Castiglione. Jesuit and Painter in the Celestial Empire

Giuseppe Castiglione (Milan 1688-Bejiing 1766) was an Italian Jesuit who served as court painter to three Chinese emperors of Qing Dynasty (Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong).

In 2015 we need to re-identify Giuseppe Castiglione, especially for the non-Chinese visitors to the Santa Croce virtual exhibition. Castiglione was a Jesuit low in the hierarchy of the Society of Jesus, but of great cultural and even diplomatic influence in Beijing. He was an outstanding creative mind, as well as the actor in the compelling drama of the failure of Jesuit missionary activity in Qing dynasty China.

Moreover Castiglione’s missionary and artistic endeavour was about caring. Castiglione cared about Jesus and the Society of Jesus, of which he was a proud member. He cared about his own art and he cared greatly about Chinese people, Chinese culture and art in order to become an inculturated Italian artist in Far East Asia.

In China Castiglione played the useful role of a ‘temporal coadjutor’. Being not priests, those brothers could not raise high in the hierarchy of the Jesuits. However some of them had (for example Castiglione’s hero, the painter and architect Andrea Pozzo S.J.) more time to glorify God through professional activities if talented with vocational gifts, like those Castiglione’s paintings do demonstrate.

The special relationship between a low rank Jesuit and some Chinese emperors continues to exert a fascination in our own day, when cultural barriers and religious differences tend to circumscribe authentic relations between persons of different class and ethnic origin. There was a subtle interplay between the Jesuit missionaries and the Oriental emperors, in which each side took advantage of the other for its own purposes. Yet Castiglione operated to the benefit of both the Jesuit mission and his mighty friends: especially the Qianlong Emperor. Castiglione was to accomplish something outstanding and innovative for Qianlong, who knew the Italian missionary since his childhood.

The Qianlong Emperor in the court dress

That is why Emperor Qianlong allowed Castiglione to devise paintings, engravings and buildings that possessed elements of sophisticated peculiarity. They were different from traditional Chinese painting, but they appeared consistent with the native ideas about beauty, because of brother Giuseppe’s  very understanding and respectful creativity.

Thence Castiglione’s paintings established something unique in the history of cultural relationships between West and China, since they show a clear accommodation quality consistent with 18th century Jesuit creativity. Through cultural exchange, intercultural dialogue, collaboration and mutual enrichment, Castiglione invented a new sense of beauty still inspiring in 2016.

Those paintings, prints and the buildings he designed in Beijing receive the greatest attention and appreciation even now, whenever his outstanding inventions become symbolic of modern encounters and fusions between cultures.

Francesco Vossilla, the curator of the exhibit “Nella lingua dell’altro”*

*This text derives from Francesco Vossilla’s articles in Giuseppe Castiglione. Jesuit and Painter in the Celestial Empire, edited by A. Andreini, F. Vossilla, Firenze 2015


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