A Tuscan Architect in Macao during the XVIII century: Francesco Folleri s.j.
“Macao’s College and Church of St Joseph. Splendour of the Baroque in China” by Dr. Cesar Guillen-Nunez. This book has been published in September 2017 by the Cultural Institute of the Macao SAR in collaboration with the Macao Ricci Institute. It is a great read for all people interested in the history of the cross fertilization between the East and the West. Macao, the place where the “twain met” to use the famous Kipling’s expression, was the primeval melting pot.
Dr César Guillén-Nuñez, is a researcher for the Macau Ricci Institute, and besides being an art historian and author with studies in London. Munich and Madrid, he is known as the top expert in the world on some of Macao’s landmarks, such as the Church of Saint Paul. He was born in Panama, then had landed in Hong Kong in the 70s working for the Hong Kong Museum of Art as Assistant Curator of Historic Paintings and Contemporary Hong Kong Art. Then he joined the Macao Museum of Art, then known as the Luis de Camöes Museum in the Casa Gardens, which was then in the process of expanding.
I had visited the St Joseph seminary and the Church attached to it together with historian Gianni Criveller but I wanted to know more about this baroque jewel hidden in Macao and this book give a full introduction to it. St. Joseph was declared the patron Saint of China right after the Canton Conference of 1668 and, therefore, there are several names and institutions bearing the name of Jesus’s putative father. After the Council of Trento, the importance of this saintly figure was promoted all over the Catholic world, in paintings, statues and churches. Guillén-Nuñez begins with a panoramic survey of the XVIII century and then he writes in detail the Seminary and the Jesuit Church.
The origins of this building are sketchy, but it seems it all begun with the munificence of a merchant named Jorge Miguel, of Greek of Armenian descent, who left his house to the Jesuits upon his death. Nothing more is known about him, save that in 1622 he had built a house, with his brother, near the convent of the Augustian friars on a hill then known as Matto Mofino. That is where we now find St. Joseph.
Then in 1730s there were demolitions and constructions on the Matto Mofino: we have documents showing that a college there was consecrated on October 10, 1746. The construction works were directed by Francesco Folleri s.j. Not much is known about this Jesuit architect, a Florentine, who built a late baroque church in the Macao with an elegant façade and a wonderful dome. We know that he was born in Florence on February 9th, 1699, then he entered the Society of Jesus in March 11, 1718, aged 19 and embarked from Lisbon in April 1720 together with 12 other Jesuits. They landed in Macao, after stopping in Goa, on September 6th, 1721.
We have a letter from him and dated October 22nd, 1724, written in Beijing where he had been put to work as an engineer. From January 18, 1733 Folleri is back in Macao, housed in the newly erected St. Joseph College. In 1741 he is still there because we find his name in a catalogue kept in Rome at the Society of Jesus. He had reached a certain prestige and rank there, since he is mentioned as an assistant to the Procurator of the China, and then in 1751 he is appointed Procurator. He was the architect building the church and he was an important person within his order and the Macanese community. But things turned dramatically to bad. In 1762, following the expulsion of the Jesuits from Macao, ordered by the Marquis of Pombal, he was arrested like a common criminal, put in chain with his brothers and loaded on a ship sailing to Portugal. After a 2 years long and harsh voyage, on landing in Portugal they were thrown in jail, waiting for the trial. He remained behind bars until the day he was freed, on July 9th, 1767.
We do not know what happened next, did he return to his native Tuscany or did he remained in Lisbon? We do not know but with his health and morale in tatters, after all those tribulations, he should have died soon after.