The Dreams of the Melancholic Are True. Matteo Ricci’s Ascent to Beijing
1595 was a crucial year for Matteo Ricci, the Italian Jesuit missionary who introduced the Christian faith to China by way of friendship, culture and scientific dialogue. That was the first time that he had a real chance to reach Beijing. But once he arrived in Nanjing, Ricci was abandoned by the minister who previously had included the missionary in his entourage, and Ricci was expelled from the city of Nanjing. In that same ill-fated trip, he also lost his companion, who was drowned, and Ricci himself nearly died in the same accident. Everything was going wrong and then the Jesuit had a dream. It was the 25th or 26th of June 1595. Matteo told the story to his friend Girolamo Costa in a letter dated October 28 of the same year, just four months after the event:
I do not want to omit telling you of a dream I had a few days before I arrived in this land [the city of Nanchang]. While I was melancholic for the sad failure of the attempt (of reaching Beijing) and for the hardships of the journey, it seemed to me that an unknown man came to me. He said: “Do you still want to go ahead in this land to destroy its old law, and plant God’s law?”. Wondering how he could have penetrated into my heart like that, I replied : “Oh, you must be the devil or God to know this.” And he said: “I am not the devil, but God.” Then I threw myself at his feet and weeping bitterly, I said: “Then, Lord, since you know this, why haven’t you helped me so far?” He said: “Go then into the city – and it seemed to me that he showed me Beijing – , and there I will help you.” This is the dream.
This episode is remarkable for two reasons: the explicit indication of Beijing as the final aim of Ricci’s mission; and the mention of the melancholy state he had fallen into.
The dream of a melancholic
This is the only dream concerning himself that Ricci narrated. He warned his disciples against paying attention to dreams. This is also the only Jesuit dream that we know about in 200 years of mission in China. At that time, Ricci wrote letters to his superior general and others, but he did not mention the dream. For Matteo it was an intimate confidence to be shared with one of his best friends, Girolamo, who came from his home town, Macerata.
Ricci proves to have intellectual honesty during all his life and in all his writings. This dream is to be considered authentic because the missionary could in no way anticipate that prediction about Beijing. Neither could Costa could have been interested in a detail concerning Beijing. During those months everything was going wrong, and, instead of getting closer to Beijing, Matteo was dramatically going farther from Beijing. The prediction, in fact, was accomplished only six years later, on January 24, 1601. In no way, we repeat for the umpteenth time, could Matteo have anticipated that one day he would enter the capital city.
Beijing new Rome
The dream echoes the vision of Ignatius of Loyola at La Storta (Rome) in 1537, in which the Lord had encouraged the founder: “I’ll help you in Rome.” It seems that for Ricci the introduction of the Society of Jesus in China was nearly equal to the very foundation of the Society!
The dream also recalls two experiences of the Apostle Paul, reported by Luke in the Acts of the Apostles: the vision of the Macedonian man (Acts 16:9) and especially the vision of Jesus predicting Paul’s going to Rome (Acts 23:11). As Paul’s mission is described as a journey from Jerusalem to Rome, so Ricci’s venture was a trip from Rome to Beijing. It is a missionary project that Matteo deeply internalizes, convinced as he was of the divine will. The same Visitor [superior of all Jesuits in Asia] and friend, Alessandro Valignano, ordered him to reach Beijing and to obtain permission to preach the Gospel from the emperor (we will describe at some length Matteo’s journey from Rome to Beijing in a succeeding paragraph).
The ascent to Beijing was a goal that could have discouraged anyone. China was a country tightly closed to foreigners; and initiating a Catholic mission there posed cultural challenges and adaptations never experienced before. But Ricci was not an ordinary person. He was an extraordinary man, animated by intelligence, zeal and uncommon determination. In only 18 years, he accomplished his task, amid difficulties, setbacks and all sorts of opposition. Some consider Ricci as one of the greatest men in the history of humankind, the first who drew together two of the most celebrated civilizations in history: the European Renaissance and Humanism and the Chinese Ming Dynasty era. At the Millennium Monument in Beijing, he is remembered as one of the 100 greatest men in Chinese history. Yet such a brilliant man confessed to suffering from melancholy.
The most eloquent melancholic text by Matteo is to be found in the first few lines of the letter, dated November 29, 1580, that he wrote from the city of Cochin in India to his classmate Ludovico Maselli.
It does not cause me such sadness, for thus I want to call it, to be far from my relations secundum carnem [of the flesh], although I am very carnal, so much as to be distant from Your Reverence whom I love more than my father. From which you can judge, Your Reverence, how welcome your letter was to me. I do not know what imaginings come to me sometimes, and I don’t know why a certain sort of melancholy comes over me – though I think that it is a good thing, and I would have scruple not having it – thinking that my fathers and brothers, whom I loved and love so much, of that college where I was born and brought up, have forgotten about me, while I hold all of them so fresh in the memory. To win over my misery I can’t but remember, with many prayers and with many tears, Your Reverence and the fathers and brothers of the college.
This short piece contains remarkable elements, starting with the explicit acknowledgment of his own melancholic state. In just a few lines, Matteo put together an impressive long series of words and verbs rather melancholic: sadness, be far, very carnal, be distant, I love, imagination, a certain sort of melancholy, scruple, thinking, I loved, I love so much, have forgotten, memory, misery, many tears, remember.
In particular, as he does in other texts, Ricci brings together “imagination” and “melancholy.”7(we shall return later to this point). The statement about “a certain sort of melancholy -a good thing- I would have scruple not having it”, is rather disconcerting as the medieval Catholic tradition, which extended its influence until the seventeenth century, considered melancholy as associated with sloth (laziness/indolence), wich was one of the seven deadly sins.
There were various types of melancholy then, good and not good. Matteo is aware of the versatility of the word and, almost cautiously, declares that he is suffering from a good one; and indeed it is certainly good, as “he would have scruple not having it”. Of which kind of melancholy does Matteo write?
The invention of melancholy
The term melancholy, which literally means black bile, was born in Greece. The traditional medicine derived four fundamental personality types from four humors: sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic and melancholic (caused by an excess of black bile). Melancholy is, therefore, the malady of the weak and sad.
Aristotle is the first who wonders why many men of excellence are melancholic. The idea of the existence of a link between genius and melancholy leads to surprising results. By studying dreams, the Greek philosopher deduces that the dreams of the melancholic come from the excess of the power of imagination, and through a complex argument, he concludes that “there are melancholic men whose dreams are true”.
Influenced by Greek medicine transmitted through Europe in Arabic textbooks, the Christian thought of the Middle Age associated melancholy with sloth, the reluctance to do good, particularly insidious for contemplatives, and the tendency to boredom and inertia. Melancholy afflicted those suffering from depression and on the verge of madness.
In fact melancholy made its debut in poetry as a feeling of extreme despair. One day Melancholy came to me is a famous sonnet in which the poet Dante foreshadows the death of Beatrice:
One day Melancholy came to me / saying: ‘I wish to stay a while with you’, / and it seemed to me she’d with her too / Sorrow and Anger in her company / I said to her: ‘Off, away from here’.
Un dì si venne a me Malinconia / e disse: ‘Io voglio un poco stare teco’; / e parve a me ch’ella menasse seco / Dolore e Ira per sua compagnia/ e io le dissi: ‘partiti, va via’.
The melancholy of Dante is a omen of death, grief and anger. The slothful, next of kin of the melancholic, were duly placed by Dante in Inferno:
We were sullen / in the sweet air, that is gladdened by the sun, / bearing indolent smoke in our hearts: / now we lie here, sullen, in the black mire.
Tristi fummo / ne l’aere dolce che dal sol s’allegra, / portando dentro accidioso fummo: // or ci attristiam nella belletta negra.
Renaissance and melancholia
The fate of melancholy turns for the better with Humanism and Renaissance, to the point that the Renaissance can be called the golden age of melancholy. Leon Battista Alberti rediscovers the Aristotelian theme of the relationship between genius and melancholy, and imposes it on fifteenth-century literature. At the same time, infatuated with Neo-Platonism and astrology, Renaissance thought associated melancholy with Saturn. The distant planet, considered responsible for depression and madness, is also seen as promoting the qualities of the genius, combining genius and madness.
Marsilio Ficino, a leading intellectual at Lorenzo de’ Medici’s court, was the greatest proponent of Renaissance melancholy. Melancholy, according to Ficino, is the creative impulse of the intellect; the temperament of genius; the reflective capacity that induces clairvoyance. Ficino describes the link between imagination and melancholy. Imagination has the power to set human being free from the determinism of astrology and fate. Thus the creative power of imagination discloses the exceptional dignity of human condition. And the melancholic knows imagining more than anybody else.
The philosopher Tommaso Campanella was a Dominican friar who was subjected to the Inquisition. He was a contemporary of Ricci, and was interested, like Aristotle, in dreams and melancholy. Melancholy is typical of the sagacious spirits in such a way that, in their dreams, the melancholic are able to foresee events.
The imaginative melancholia
In 1514, melancholy makes its iconographical debut, with the engraving Melencolia I by Albrecht Dürer, the greatest German Renaissance painter. Dürer’s angel of melancholy seems to gather his painful thoughts, an autobiographical expression of the limits in which the thinker feels wrapped. Dürer wrote “There is deceit in our knowledge, and the darkness is so firmly ingrained in us that even our groping search fails”.[ 5] The melancholic knows the constitutive instability of the world and even of science, and therefore prefers to keep them at a distance and imagines a different world. “The melancholic despairs, and at the same time he imagines: he is therefore provided with imaginative power, he imagines other worlds, better than this one”.
Melancholy reaches its modern and even contemporary meaning: it is the aching perception of darkness and of the fragility of the human condition; a perception which sensitive persons such as artists and poets are more acquainted with. The following consideration will confirm this: the title Melencolia I refers to De occulta philosophia, the alchemical treatise by Cornelius Agrippa. In the sixteenth century’s ‘alternative’ text, melancholy is linked to three categories of genius: imaginative melancholia (the creativity of the artists); rational melancholia and mental melancholia. Dürer’s engraving could have been entitled ‘imaginative melancholia’.
There is a vital relationship between image, imagination and the Jesuits. Imagination is, in fact, fundamental in Jesuit training and spirituality, centered on the use of images for the contemplative exercise of ‘composition of place’. The latter is the technique of putting oneself within an imaginative space by contemplation, by the use of sacred images narrating the Gospel stories. The images have the power of conducting the person out of his own world, creating new mental images and, subsequently, a displacement of the self. This exit from the self creates a new space, and allows for an encounter with the divine.
This is how Ricci was trained, and it could not but have had an impact on his missionary outlook. The adoption of sacred images and belief in their miraculous power; the printing and dissemination of images that represented the life of Jesus; and the confidence in their imaginative, evocative and persuasive power were by far one of the most innovative features of Ricci and his Jesuit companions’ missionary activity of in China.
Hamlet and Don Quixote, melancholic heroes
The indefinite and novel malaise described by Dürer as melancholy becomes one of the most popular literary and psychological themes in late sixteenth century Europe. A feeling of spiritual catastrophe looms over the world. Life and death, the divine, the evil and the hurt come back as insoluble problems. Melancholy for the vanity of things and doubt about the capacity of reason, inspire the minds of thinkers and artists.
In 1586 Timothy Bright published a Treatise of Melancholy, which significantly influenced William Shakespeare. The British dramatist employed the theme of melancholy to deepen the personality and the psychology of his characters. Hamlet (1603) is, par excellence, the melancholic Shakespeare’s hero, as Victor Hugo said: “he could have been named ‘Melancholia’, just as the image of Dürer”.
The theme of melancholy also permeated deep into the ‘Spanish Golden Age’ in the XVI and XVII century. In Seville in 1585, Andrés Velásquez published the Libro de la melancolía. In 1605, shortly after Hamlet, Miguel de Cervantes published the first part of his Don Quixote de la Mancha, the most important melancholic anti-hero in Spanish literature. In 1611, the dramatist Tirso Molina published the play El melancólico. The golden age of Spanish melancholy includes Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, two contemplatives who have gone through the ‘dark night of the soul’ (the title of a poem by the latter, written in 1584-1585). As we have mentioned, the link between melancholy and contemplative life was known since the Middle Ages.
The Anatomy of Melancholy
There is a remarkable bond between Matteo Ricci and European studies on melancholy. In 1621, Robert Burton published The Anatomy of Melancholy. The book summarizes decades of studies on melancholy and, at the same time, is pivotal in its introduction to modern culture. Burton cites Matteo Ricci, who had died in distant Beijing only 11 years earlier, at least 16 times. Ricci is not mentioned for his melancholy (as Burton had not access to his letters), but for the description of the life and customs of the Chinese, showing how even China is affected by this ailment of the spirit. Ricci’s description of China (Della entrata della Compagnia di Giesù e Christianità nella Cina, written in 1608-1610) was largely available in Europe for a few years, thanks to its Latin translation and adaption by Nicolas Trigualt (De Christiana expeditione apud Sinas suscepta ab Societate Jesu, Augsburg, 1615).
A life’s journey
It was really a life’s journey! Sixteenth century missionaries embarked towards the East Indies on memorable and highly risky trips, and many of them did not even reach their destinations. The journey, a frequent metaphor for life, was also a prominent component in Ricci’s life. Between the nine years he spent in Rome (1568-1577) and the final nine years spent in Beijing (1601-1610), Matteo spent 24 years in constant traveling. He was born in Macerata on October 6, 1552. When he was 16 years old, Matteo left his hometown for good and reached the Eternal City to study Law at “La Sapienza” University. On May 18, 1577 he began his long journey from Rome to Beijing. He went first to Livorno; then to Genoa by sea, and from there to Cartagena, Spain, again by sea. In July of the same year he reached Lisbon, where, together with his companions, he waited until the following spring to board the ship for the East.
The route to the Portuguese East Indies circumnavigated Africa. He had a brief stopover in Mozambique and then a stop in Goa, India. From Cochin, another city in India, Matteo wrote a rather melancholic letter, to which we shall return soon. From India, Ricci went to Malacca and finally arrived in Macau on August 7, 1582. At the extreme Portuguese outpost in East Asia, Matteo studied Chinese and began his ascent to Beijing.
The stages of the ascent, after Macau, were Zhaoqing (1583-1589); Shaozhou (now Shaoguan, 1589-1592); Nanchang (1592-1595); Nanjing (1595-1600), Linqing (near Tianjin, 1600-1601) and finally Beijing (1601-1610).
Ricci and his first companion, the Apulian Michele Ruggieri, established their residence in Zhaoqing near Guangzhou, wearing clothes similar to those of Buddhist monks. There Matteo produced the first edition of his famous world map and the Chinese translation of the main catholic prayers. In 1589 he was expelled from Zhaoqing by the governor. Ricci refused compensation for the requisition of the Jesuit house and was given the permission to move to Shaozhou, in northern Guangdong.
In 1595, after the failed attempt to settle in Nanjing described above, the Jesuit established his residence in Nanchang, capital of Jiangxi Province. He dismissed his previous clothing, and dressed in the attire of Confucian scholars. He then published the treatise On Friendship, his missionary manifesto. He also published the book The Western Method of Memory (in which he excelled ). In 1596, Ricci began working on his most important book, which was published in Beijing in 1603 under the title The True Meaning of the Lord of Heaven.
After numerous and dangerous adventures, Ricci settled in Nanjing in February 1599. He established a close relationship with some of the most important scholars and intellectuals of the time. Above all, he met his most famous pupil, friend and supporter, Paul Xu Guangqi, the “main column” of Chinese Christianity.
On May 19, 1600 Ricci was stopped in Linqing (near Tianjin) by the eunuch Ma Tang, director of Tax Administration for the area, who mistook a crucifix, which was intended as a gift for the Emperor, for a black magic tool.
After six months of detention, on January 24, 1601, Matteo and his companions were allowed to reach Beijing and present their gifts to the Emperor. In the capital, Ricci displayed the best of his personality, charisma and knowledge, until he died on 11 May, 1610, aged 57. The solemn funeral and the permission for his burial on imperial ground were unprecedented privileges, evidence of the tremendous respect that Ricci had gained in China.
Portrait of Melancholy
I conclude the journey into Ricci’s life and into melancholy with a quote from Portrait of Melancholy (1928) a book by Romano Guardini. I had already initiated the writing of this paper when, rather unexpectedly, I came across this little and precious book, which I did not even know existed. I read it with great anticipation, and I found a surprising thematic affinity with the figure of the melancholic missionary Matteo Ricci. The great European humanist had passed through many borders, being himself a ‘living border’, as he wrote to his brother, Orazio, from Beijing: “we live in these lands as in voluntary exile.” We described melancholy as a malady of the soul, the spirit of the genius and the state of those who imagine and dream a different world. According to the German theologian, Guardini, there is yet another melancholy, the one suffered by those living through borders. The missionaries, such as Ricci, suffer of this sort of melancholy:
Then there are those who experience, in a deep way, the mystery of “a life on the border”. They are never clearly here or there. They live in no man’s land. They experience the anxiety of the one who passes from one side to the other. Melancholy is the anxiety of the one who feels a proximity to infinity which is, at the same time, bliss and threat.The meaning of human life is being a ‘living border’, and in taking upon him or herself this ‘life of the border’, and bring it to its end. By this he or she remains rooted in reality; he or she is free from the incantations of a false immediate unity with God. In this way the genuine human attitude is described: an attitude influenced by the border; an attitude which is, at the same time, the only one adequate to reality.
A talk by Gianni Criveller on this topic was jointly presented by Hong Kong Public Libraries and the Royal Asiatic Society, on May 16th 2014 at Hong Kong City Hall.
An Italian version of the essay was published on the online Review Samgha: http://samgha.me/2014/05/07/i-sogni-dei-malinconici-sono-veri-lascesa-a-pechino-di-matteo-ricci/
 Ricci, Lettere, p. 290.
 Ibid, p. 19.
 Inferno, 7, 121-124.
 Tommaso Campanella, Il senso delle cose e la magia, quoted by Cambi, Tommaso Campanella, p. 165.
 Klibansky, Panofsky & Saxl, Saturn and Melancholy, p. 341 (of the Italian edition).
 Natoli, Melanconia.
 Harrison, Elizabethan Melancholy .
 Guardini, Ritratto della melanconia, p. 78-79.
Roger Bartra, Cultura y melancolía. Las enfermedades del alma en la España del Siglo de Oro. Barcelona: Editorial Anagrama, 2001.
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy.London 1621. Online: Gutenberg Project: gutenberg.org/files/10800/10800-h/ 10800-h.htm (a. 18/4/14).
Alberto Giovanni Biuso, Melancholia, in Vita Pensata, http://www.vitapensata.eu/2012/03/12/melancholia/ (a. 15/3/14).
Maurizio Cambi, Tommaso Campanella: epilessia, malinconia e profezia. Università Ovidius, Constanţa, http://litere.univ-ovidius.ro/Anale/09%20volumul%20XX%202009/02.Literary%20and%20Cultural%20 Encounters/11_Cambi.pdf (a. 15/4/14).
Giuseppe Cambiano & Luciana Repici, Aristotele e i sogni, in Giulio Guidorizzi (a cura di), Il sogno in Grecia. Roma-Bari: Laterza, 1988.
Romano Guardini, Ritratto della malinconia. Brescia: Morcelliana, 1993 (5th edition 1999).
George Bagshawe Harrison, Elizabethan Melancholy, in University of California Santa Cruz. artsites.ucsc.edu/ faculty/bierman//elsinore/melancholy/melIntro.htm (a. 15/3/14).