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. Joined S.J., from 1700 studied in Rome and from 1706 taught literature in Jesuit colleges in Orvieto, Arezzo and Rome. In 1712 went to Goa. In 1714 he left together with a Portuguese colleague, Manuel Freyre 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, decided immediately to return — 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. 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. An especial importance was given to the works of Tsonkhapa, and ID 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 ID refused to leave, they complained to Rome, but because of the long route the answer came only after several years. In 1721 it came and confirmed Tibet as Capuchin territory. Disappointed ID had to leave for India. Now he worked as priest in Agra and from 1725 in Pondichery. In 1727 sent to Rome to help the canonization of João de Brito. 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 ID’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 ID did not hesitate to explain it and its supposed miracles as the work of the Devil.
Publications: Posthumous MSS. published in the 20th century:
– 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. L. 1932 (see BSOS 6, 1932, 1066-71).
– 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. 1981-89.
Sources: Karttunen, Itää etsimässä. 1992; *G. Tucci, “The Travels of I.D.”, JRAS 1933, 353-358; Wikipedia.
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