I once ate at a Chinese restaurant in Italy. It was late, I was tired and it was on my way back to the hotel. To me the food wasn’t very good but the Italians eating there seemed to enjoy it. Since 1260 when Venetian travelers first reached the court of Emperor Kublai Khan there has been a fascination and interest between East and West. Marco Polo, on behalf of the Emperor, sent a message of friendship and goodwill to the Pope at Rome with a request for one hundred learned priests and oil from the lamp burning over the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem.
The exotic opulence of the East and arts and sciences of the West would come together through an unlikely pairing between the court of the Khan and the Jesuits traveling to China on a mission of Faith. These Men of the West were appreciated in the Forbidden City because of their skills in various fields of learning, arts and sciences, geography, history, music and architecture. Arriving in 1715, the Milanese Jesuit Giuseppe Castiglione (1688 – 1766) found favor with Emperor Kang-hsi because of Castiglione’s painting. Although the Chinese were wary of foreign intrusion (at one time Castiglione was put under house arrest) the palace court was impressed with his talent for decorating enamels and painting in oils and watercolor. Castiglione and his fellow Jesuits were instrumental in designing the Baroque inspired Yuen-Ming Yuen, (Garden of Perfect Clarity) in Beijing with marble staircases leading to pavilions filled with remarkable works of art.
Castiglione was part of a group of little known European missionary-court painters whose traditions and techniques reflected both East and West. He was known for his paintings of animals and horses which were made into a series of stamps by the Chinese postal service. When he died Castiglione’s talent, dedication and faith were respected by the Emperor who erected a tombstone in his honor flanked by two dragons.