In the first century of the missions of the early Society of Jesus in China, some better-known figures stand out, such as the Italian Matteo Ricci (1552-1610), the German Adam Schall von Bell (1592-1666) and the Flemish Ferdinand Verbiest (1623-88). But the well-deserved fame of these missionaries kept in the shadows for a long time numerous others who also made very important contributions in that fundamental period for the relationship between Christianity and China, between Western and Chinese culture, a “generation of giants,” as historian George Dunne has called them. One of these is Father Martino Martini (1614-61). A native of Trent, he should undoubtedly be considered among the leading contributors, not so much in promoting knowledge of Europe in China as of China in Europe. The recent publication of his Opera Omnia will provide a solid basis for more extensive knowledge of his life and work.
After attending the Jesuit school in his hometown, Martini entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus in Rome and continued his education in that exceptional hotbed of culture, the Collegio Romano, with its humanist, scientific and theological emphases, as well as being a place distinguished for its religious fervor. It later became the Gregorian University. Among the professors to whom he remained most attached was the famous Athanasius Kircher, a creative scientist and scholar of innumerable interests and fields of expertise. Like many of his companions, Martini asked to be sent on mission “to the Indies.” He wrote to the Jesuit Superior General, Muzio Vitelleschi, that “the greatest cause […] for which I was moved to enter [the Society of Jesus], was out of a desire for the Indies” (I, 53 f). His wish was granted. In 1638, having been ordained a priest, he set out.
The journey was difficult. The first ship on which he embarked at Genoa bound for Portugal had to return to port because of a storm. Even when, months later, he embarked in Lisbon, his ship had to return to its starting point because of the difficulties encountered in the Gulf of Guinea: “To tell the truth, […] that land and the sea along that coast, which is called Guinea, seem cursed from eternity, so intense is the heat there. The rain is so heavy and the periods of calm so prolonged that one can scarcely believe it!” (I, 80). When he later arrived in Goa, India, he had to wait a year before he could continue the journey to Macau. He arrived in 1643. Then it took more than four years to proceed further. After a period of language study, the journey continued, mostly by river, to the goal, the beautiful and noble city of Hangzhou, from where he was then sent to Nanjing and then to other locations.