It was during the Yuan dynasty (c1260-1368) that knowledge of ancient Cathay (China) first filtered through to the west. Mongolian leader Kublai Khan gained the title Great Khan, by defeating his brothers and embracing Chinese culture.
In 1260 Kublai Khan (1215-1294) set about rebuilding the city of Peking as his winter capital, governing along Chinese lines and employing foreigners who travelled the Silk Road. It was often called the Pax Mongolica, because a single power dominated its length, which was a safe highway at this time.
Along this route also in 1260, the Venetian travellers, the Polo brothers travelled until they first reached the court of Emperor Kublai Khan.
On his behalf they sent back a message of friendship and goodwill to the Pope at Rome, as well as a request for one hundred learned priests and oil from the lamp burning over the Holy Sepulchre at Jerusalem.
Marco, Nicolo Polo’s 20 year old son, traveling with his father and his brother Matteo, delivered this rare gift to the great Khan. This historic meeting took place at Kublai Khan’s summer palace situated some 200 miles from Peking.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea*
Marco described it as ‘sumptuous pavilions set with a wall surrounding sixteen miles of land in which are fountains, rivers and lawns’. His description later inspired eighteenth century English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem about the palace entitled Xanadu, which over the centuries became a metaphor in Europe for exotic opulence.
Giuseppe Castiglione (1688 – 1766) arrived in China in 1715 where he would pass his life at the Court of three of its Emperors K’ang-hsi, Yung-cheng and Ch’ien-lung.
The arrival of any ship was a great event with much celebration, including a holy Mass to give thanks. When they embarked the Jesuits knew that they would be considered subjects of the Emperor of China and would never again be able to return to their former homes in Europe.
Castiglione became during his lifetime a painter of high accomplishment. In the course of his long stay at Peking (he died there in 1766), he managed to achieve a remarkable synthesis between the traditions and techniques of European painting and those of Chinese painting.
In China Castiglione became famous as a portraitist and genre painter. His paintings of animals, flowers and landscapes earned him an unprecedented honour – first painter at the Court of Emperor K’aing-hsi, who reigned from 1661 to 1722 and the Emperor Ch’ien-lung who reigned from 1735-1799.
Giuseppe Castiglione was born in 1688 at Milan in Italy. Of his family and birth there is very little recorded. At the age of nineteen he entered the society of Jesus at Genoa to commence his novitiate. His talent as a painter was quickly recognized, as well as works entrusted to him.
He painted two pictures illustrating the life of St. Ignatius and they were listed in a guide of Genoa in 1780. He joined an order of Jesuits, who had been sending missionaries to China for some time so that they could spread the Christian faith. He asked permission to be among them.
Completing his novitiate at Portugal where he is said to have painted portraits of young princes and murals for the Chapel of the College of Coimbra, Giuseppe Castiglione departed with some of his fellow brothers for Goa on 11 April 1714 to be part of an adventurous sea voyage.
The route followed the shore line of Africa where some encounters were terrifying, including colliding during the night with an enormous whale. It spurted great jets of water into the passenger’s faces while the Jesuit monks tried to calm and reassure everyone they weren’t being cast into the ‘fiery furnaces of Babylon’.
There were many calm moments when the trip resembled a cruise, but when the winds blew up the passengers had to join forces with the crew to avoid shipwreck and death. Vivid first hand accounts survive of the dramatic nature of these voyages and the courage of the men who battled storm and tempest and of the swollen legs and gums shredded in ribbons brought about by scurvy which ravaged the ship’s company.
Hsüan-yeh, born in 1654, reigned from 1661 to 1722 as K’ang-hsi Emperor. He was one of those rare individuals who, by acts of will, change the course of human history. He protected the foreign monks because he admired their skills in various fields, including the sciences.
Persecutions brought about through superstition meant that the presence of the ‘foreign devils’ ensured that they were blamed for all cataclysmic events such as earthquakes that hit the city of Peking during their period of residency.
Castiglione was presented to Emperor K’ang-hsi in November 1715. A contemporary description survives.
‘In November 1715, I was summoned into the presence of the Emperor to act as interpreter to two Europeans, a painter and a chemist, who had just arrived. While we were awaiting his Majesty’s pleasure in one of the anterooms, a eunuch addressed my companions in Chinese, and was angry because they returned no answer. I immediately told him the cause of their silence, upon which he said, that we Europeans were all so alike that it was scarcely possible to distinguish one from another. I had often heard the same remark from other persons, our resemblance being generally attributed to the long beards we all wore. The Chinese do not shave; but their beards are so thin that the hairs might be counted; the few they have, however, they value even to ridicule…’
At Court etiquette regarding presentation was very strict and custom dictated that gifts must be given. Emperor K’ang-hsi was 61 when Giuseppe Castiglione arrived in China.
A great lover of the arts and sciences he reputedly displayed sincere esteem for the Jesuits and appreciated the services they rendered to him.
He called them ‘The Men of the West’ but while he admired their many talents he was deeply reserved about their religious beliefs. He wrote ‘Is it possible that you are always concerned about a world you have not yet entered and count for almost nothing the one in which you are now living? Believe me, everything in its own time’. Emperor K’ang-hsi appreciated not only poetry and painting, but also music and the Jesuits introduced him to certain European instruments.
What the Jesuits achieved and accomplished in China is striking in both its scope and diversity. When Emperor K’ang-hsi died on the 30th December 1722 the Jesuits believed they had lost a benevolent master and protector. It would have been difficult for them taking part in the funeral knowing it was to their mind, a pagan rite, but nevertheless they joined in the lamentations of officials and servants.
The Jesuits in China were patient men of science who wrote books on the subjects of mathematics, physics, geography, history, music, perspective to name a few, as well as numerous books on religion.
These included translations of Chinese classics, which they sent to Europe. Their pioneering works on subjects such as anatomy were viewed with complete suspicion in China where Emperor K’ang-hsi considered a Treatise on Anatomy written by Father Parennin in 1698 as too ‘strange’ to be acknowledged officially.
In Europe at this time, and right throughout the eighteenth century, established facts were being questioned, whether they were history, astronomy or religion.
By way of contrast in China their culture was still dominated by a nostalgic and devoted veneration of the past. This meant that instead of viewing an expansion of knowledge, as introduced by foreigners as a stimulant that would bring about a fresh outlook.
Chinese literati who were forever wary, superstitious and fearful of earlier wars, which had brought about the fall of the Ming dynasty and placed a foreign dynasty on their throne, were entirely suspicious.
While the Jesuits were in China they were conscious of the hostility of the Chinese.
They sought to expand knowledge of their faith, but not to impose their own culture on one, they believed, was not only not ready to receive it, but also would have been contrary to the evangelical spirit of their mission.
Giuseppe Castiglione had exceptional talents that won him favour, especially with the last Emperor whose court he was part of Emperor Ch’ien-lung.
The major part of all his works went to enrich the collections of the Imperial Palaces. The story of the survival of the majority of his works, which are to be found in the National Palace Museum of Taiwan, built to house the collections saved from the destruction of the Forbidden city, is extraordinary in itself, but for another day.
The daily routine of the Jesuits included presenting themselves every morning at the Palace where the guards informed the eunuchs of their arrival.
After a long wait they passed through several gates until they reached the courtyard where they had to paint until five in the evening.
The eunuchs did not miss opportunities to spy on them or give them a hard time as they were jealous of the attention they received from the Emperor who sometimes also made tyrannical demands.
He was however, enchanted by the enamels they produced and insisted that Castiglione and other monks teach the beauty of European enamels to Chinese artists, the knowledge of they quickly absorbed and the skill of they quickly acquired.
Emperor Yung-chen (1722 – 1736) was the fourth son of K’ang-hsi and during his reign the persecution of the Christians continued. The Portuguese mission where Castiglione was living particularly had a difficult time. The were all put under house arrest so Castiglione made the best of it and decorated St. Joseph’s Church built with donations from Europe. Said to be among the finest in Peking, it was later destroyed.
He was employed during all these years in the palace daily decorating enamels or painting in oils and watercolour. Emperor Ch’ien-lung (1711-1799) was the fourth emperor of the Manchu dynasty; a man of letters, a calligrapher and a poet he was devoted to art and architecture; his name was associated with works of literary importance and he had thirty six thousand volumes from imperial and private collections copied and assembled in a vast encyclopedia.
He corresponded with Louis XV and was a collector of French clocks. During his reign pottery production became completely industrialized. His reign was characterized by courtly splendor, prodigious accomplishments in literary compilations, and vigorous expansion of the Chinese frontiers to the west and the south.
The buildings of the precinct included the so called Palace of Delights and Harmony which the French Jesuits declared ‘would bear comparison with the Chateau of Versailles and Saint Cloud’.
Built of marble and majolica with motifs deriving from antiquity, the structure was symmetrical flanked by pavilions to house the musicians that were linked to the main building by a glazed gallery.
The Emperor could sit on his throne contemplating the wonderful water work display provided by Father Benoist where bronze sheep and wild geese spat out jets of water. In the second precinct there was a maze with a central kiosk all built of marble where on the day of the Feast of Lanterns, the 15th day of the eight month, the Emperor organized a lantern race for the young girls of the palace.
In the centre of this Garden of Lanterns and Yellow Flowers rose the Palace of the Calm Sea, so called because of a vast reservoir placed on the terrace to feed the fountains and all water displays.
This building seemed inspired by the Trianon at Versailles and an extraordinary water clock decorated the foot of the monumental staircase. At midday the water spurted from 12 animals, a rat, bull, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog and a wild boar. Castiglione also built other less important pavilions one called the House for Gathering the Waters which concealed the hydraulic machinery.
The Emperor set the scene himself, attracting Italian and French painters for the court and the European style palace known as the Yuan Ming-Yuan.
The only known representations of what this Palace and its gardens was like are copies of the original drawings made by the Jesuit missionaries. They had brought with them to China engravings of European palaces, which fascinated the Emperor.
He instructed Castiglione, who was his favourite painter, to draw up plans and choose his collaborators. Here is Castiglione now taking on a role that many European artists before him had done, for that of architect.
To assist the missionaries sent away to Europe for works on architecture that included three versions (Latin, French and Italian) of Marcus Pollio Vitruvius famous first century Roman treatise De Architectura.
Castiglione’s designs for the Yuen-Ming Yuen, which means Garden of Perfect Clarity, a name applied to the totality of the buildings and gardens, were presented to the Emperor for consideration.
They were of a fascinating kind of exuberant Baroque palace set in the midst of a multitude of jets of water, cascades and fountains.
These were worked by hydraulics designed by Jesuit Father Michel Benoist. He was assisted by two other Jesuits and for the heavy labour made use of Chinese craftsmen he had trained.
Their work began in 1747 and would go forward until 1759 and although their movements were at first highly regulated, as time and experience went forward, they were given the freedom to come and go as they pleased in the vast precincts.
They had a house half way between Peking and the Yuan Ming Yuan and traveled the distance through beautiful gardens on mules in all weathers if hot, raining, windy the Emperor would accept no excuse for the pace of work to be slowed.
The Belvedere had monumental stairs built in marble similar to the one at Fontainebleau.
This became a mosque for the beautiful Hsiang Fei, who came from Aksu in Turkestan. A widow brought by force, she held all at bay with a dagger including the emperor who conceived a passionate lover for this young Muslim woman.
He asked Castiglione to build her a pavilion and “The View of the Distant Lake”, which included multiple mirrors and paintings of sites at Asku, her homeland, endeavoring to give her comfort. These pictures created an allusion of perspective and a system of runners meant they could be interchanged. However all he achieved was to make her more homesick.
One day when Ch’ien-lung was absent the Dowager Empress decided to bring matters to a head and asked the young princess her intention ‘ to die’ she answered and the Empress had her taken to a room where she hung herself from the beams of the ceiling. The Emperor’s grief was so immense he ordered a funeral like that of a concubine of the first rank.
Castiglione became pre-eminent among a group of European missionary-court painters who combined the propagation of the Christian faith (in the face of daunting difficulties) with professional dedication to the artistic commissions of the Emperors.
Castiglione was not allowed to include internal staircases in any of his buildings because Ch’ine-lung did not want to ‘live in the air’ like Europeans.
Louis XV sent Gobelins tapestries in 1767 with full length portraits of the beauties of the French Court. He also sent mirrors which the Emperor had cut up and used as window panes. Pilasters of white marble contrasted with walls of brick scrimmed with red plaster. The roofs were covered with tiles of yellow, blue or green respecting Chinese tradition.
For its time the Yuen-Ming Yuen was a state of the art creation, nothing seen like it before in China. It was packed with remarkable treasures, which were later carted off when this extraordinary group of buildings were pillaged, ravaged and destroyed by the British and French during the 1860’s and the opium wars.
There is hardly anything left today except a few stone fragments embellished with relief carving, to bear witness to the magnificence of the work of Castiglione or his brother Jesuits in the Palace complex.
In the three courts that Giuseppe Castiglione graced in China they had only partly opened their doors to the west.
At the beginning of the eighteenth century they were on an equal footing with the west, having an extraordinarily advanced civilization. By the end of the eighteenth century the Chinese were a hundred years behind western civilization, which was advancing rapidly.
If they had embraced new knowledge and new ideas they would have quickly mastered them.
However instead they became more timid, more prudent and more conservative which in the end endangered not only their national sovereignty but also Chinese culture itself. This led to all the calamities that brought about the end of the dynasty system in China and the people’s revolution of 1949.
In China growing old brings with it great honour. It is a time when recognition of services rendered is acknowledged, especially on your birthday. Castiglione would have surely enjoyed the festivities attached to celebrating momentous milestones in his life each decade after he had turned 50.
The fantastic summer palaces of the Emperors of China finally went up in flames and the delirious soldiers tore down the glorious tapestries threaded with silver to put out the blaze.
Those jades, bronzes and porcelains that were not pillaged and miraculously survived are now displayed in the Victoria and Albert Museum at London and at the Palace of Fontainebleau at Paris.
The Jesuit Priest Giuseppe Castiglione at the Court of the Chinese Emperors excelled at painting both horses and flowers. While many may not embrace his style, he did have great success and influence on the creativity attached to Chinese painting during his lifetime.
When he died the Emperor, who was sincerely attached to the old missionary wrote the epitaph that is engraved on his tombstone.
It was discovered by a missionary early in the twentieth century, who reported the inscription was flanked by two dragons and engraved with the two characters that indicated it had been erected by order of the Emperor.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011 – 2014
* Quote from English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem entitled Xanadu