DESIDERI, Ippolito. Pistoia 21.12.1684 — Rome 14.8.1733. S.J. Italian Missionary and a Pioneer of Tibetology, in Tibet in 1715-21, in India 1714-15, 1721-27, last years in Rome. Son of Iacopo D. and Maria Maddalena Cappellini, a patrician family. Joined Jesuits in 1700 and studied in Rome, from 1706 taught literature at Jesuit colleges in Orvieto, Arezzo and Rome. Soon after ordination in 1712 he left via Lisbon to Goa. In 1714 he left together with a Portuguese colleague, Manuel Freyre (1679–176?), in order to reopen the old Ladakhi mission of —> Andrade. They travelled via Delhi and Kashmir, but the travel was so laborious that in Ladakh Freyre, an elderly man, as the leader of the expedition decided to return immediately – and not over the mountains. In order to avoid them they headed to the east. From Gartok they were able to travel fastly in a convoy of troops returning to Lhasa, where they arrived in March 1716. Freyre continued immediately through Nepal to India, but Desideri decided to begin a mission in Lhasa, which had been little earlier abandoned by the Capuchins. In Lhasa his skill as a physician was approvingly welcomed, but his attempt to preach met little success, although he quickly acquired the language. Following a courteous advice he began to study Lamaism at the monastery of Ramoche (Sera), being thus probably the first European to know Lamaist philosophy. A special importance was given to the works of Tsonkhapa, and later Desideri wrote himself several works in Tibetan.
The Jesuit work in Lhasa crashed not into Lamaist opposition, but to Capuchin rivalry. When they returned to Lhasa in 1716 they found, to their great chagrin, a Jesuit in their territory. When Desideri refused to leave, they complained to Rome, but because of the long route the answer came only after several years. In 1721 it finally arrived and confirmed Tibet as Capuchin territory. Disappointed Desideri had to leave via Kathmandu for India. Now he worked as priest in Agra and from 1725 in Pondichéry. In 1727 he was sent to Rome to help in the canonization of João de Brito (1647–1693, Jesuit missionary in India). There he still tried to defend the Jesuit position in Tibet, but without results. He had kept all his notes and Tibetan works and continued to work on them.
Were Desideri’s works printed during his lifetime, they would have greatly promoted the Western knowledge of Tibet, which only much later began to attain his level. Nevertheless, he was bound to the prejudices of his time and religion. Although Jesuits appreciated Confucianism, they generally detested Lamaism, and DesideriD did not hesitate to explain it and its supposed miracles as the work of the Devil.
Publications: A letter of 1716 telling of his stay in Tibet to Father Ildebrando Grassi was published in French transl. of Du Halde in Lettres édifiantes et curieuses 15, 184 and from this into English by Markham in Narratives of Bogle’s Mission to Tibet and Manning’s Journey to Lhasa. L. 1876, 302-308
– Posthumous manuscripts published in the 20th century (the very first by Carlo Puini, 1904):
– An Account of Tibet: The Travels of I.D. of Pistoia, S.J., 1712–27. Ed. by F. de Filippi. 18+475 p. xvii pl. Broadway Travellers. L. 1932 (see BSOS 6, 1932, 1066-1071).
– Historical Notices of Tibet and Recollections of My Journeys, and the Mission Founded There (Relation), and other works, edited by Luciano Petch, in his Missionari Italiani nel Tibet e nel Nepal 5-7. 1954-57.
– Opere Tibetane di Ippolito Desideri S.J. Edited by G. Toscano. 1-4. Rome 1981-89.
Sources: *G. Castellani, Nel Tibet. Il P. ID e la sua missione (1684-1733). Rome 1934; *L. Petech, “ID, Alexander Csoma de Kőrös, Giuseppe Tucci”, AOHu 43, 1989, 155-161; G.M. Toscano, “Contributo del Desideri alla conoscenza dell’Asia nel sec. XVIII”, La conoscenza dell’ Asia 1, 1984, 293-302 *G. Tucci, “The Travels of I.D.”, JRAS 1933, 353-358; Tucci 2005, 155-158; Walravens 2008, 155 (with some further references); Wessels 1924, 171-233; Wikipedia with further references.
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