Italy and the Levant, Italy and the East, Italy and Asia in general, Italy and northeastern Africa: there is so much to say. But from what point can you start talking about Italy and Italians? The historical question is much debated: yet there is a matter on which there is a fair degree of consensus. Italy, as a socio-cultural reality, begins when you start to see the emergence, within its regions, of a language that qualifies as Italian. We can look to the poet and religious figure St. Francis of Assisi, who was in his own way and avant la lettre a missionary or even a true diplomat, for the start of our history.
Francis and the Sultan: between political reality and oral tradition
By 1217, during the Capitolo delle Stuoie [Chapter of the Mats] from his Fraternitas which has now become the Ordo, Francis of Assisi had ordered the deployment of many brothers to lands overseas, not only to Palestine, but also to the areas of the southeastern Mediterranean basin (from Egypt to Greece). The ultramarine province included Constantinople, Greece and its islands, Asia Minor, Antioch, Syria, Egypt and the island of Cyprus. Contemporary accounts tell us that in 1219, a meeting was held in Damietta between Francis and the Sultan. Whether this meeting really took place, as well as its purpose and meaning, have been debated ever since. Did Francis of Assisi and the Sultan of Egypt really meet between the summer and autumn of 1219? It is likely, since the episode is recalled in non-Franciscan sources. There are in fact 5 testimonies that are not late and non-Franciscan: the Historia occidentalis of the bishop of San Giovanni d’Acri Giacomo da Vitry; the reporter Ernoul, continuer of the Chronicle by William of Tyre; the reporter Bernard the Treasurer, epitomator of Ernoul; the anonymous Histoire d’Eracles empereur et la conqueste de la terre d’outremer, of 1229-31, known to Francis, does not speak of the visit to the Sultan but alludes to the "evil" and "sin" that was growing among the people of the camp; finally, the funerary inscription of Fakhr ad-Din Muhammad ibn Ibrahim Fârîsi at the City of the Dead in Cairo, which appears to allude to Francis. These testimonies are corroborated by a later one by Thomas of Celano, and those more recent still, of Jordanus of Giano and of Bonaventure. All 3 were missionaries, and so unlikely to have been trying to create a pious tradition for the Order.
Although it is impossible to say a definitive word on the episode, there is no doubt that this moment can at least be taken symbolically as an initial step towards an interest in the East that is not just military; although, to be honest, cities such as Genoa, Pisa, Amalfi and Venice had for a couple of centuries commercial and diplomatic exchanges with the southern and Eastern Mediterranean. But from the thirteenth century, the golden age for European development, these relations certainly increased. One cannot help but remember the most successful example of diplomacy, namely, the visit to the Sultan (the same one that would meet Francis) by Swabian Emperor Frederik II. Following the failure of the Fifth Crusade (1217-1221), Frederik, who had no interest in antagonizing the Sultan of Egypt (with whom he had a diplomatic friendship, and whose territories were close to Sicily), was careful not to come to the aid of the Crusaders. But the new Pope, Gregory IX, unhappy with this, demanded that Frederik immediately leave for the crusade and, when a shipboard epidemic prevented Frederik from doing so, excommunicated him. The papal excommunication released Frederik’s subjects’ obligation of loyalty towards him: any political opponent of Frederick in Germany, Italy or Sicily would then have been able to rise up in arms for their own interests, proclaiming to do so in the name of faith. This forced Frederick to leave (1228), but not without taking certain countermeasures. First, he obtained a dynastic stake in the Holy Land by marrying Isabella, the heiress of the crown of Jerusalem; he then went to Palestine as the legitimate pretender to the crown and, as such, planned to bring order among the lords and commoners of the coastal towns from which the kingdom was by then formed. He then grasped the opportunity to strengthen his friendly relations with the Sultan. In fact, with al-Malik al-Kamil, he drew up a treaty by which Jerusalem would be granted to him: but without walls, and with the exception of the area of the Mosque of Omar (considered by Christians as the Temple of Solomon) which was a Muslim holy place. It was in Jerusalem that he solemnly took the crown of that kingdom (1229), despite the opposition of the local clergy and almost all of the feudal lords. He then remained a few months in the Holy Land, trying - without succeeding - to restore order to the then tragic situation of the kingdom.
The adoption of the Holy Land and the papal intervention
At the same time, ecclesiastical diplomacy was making progress in the Holy Land. 1230 was a critical year for the establishment of the Custody of the Holy Land. In fact, in that year, the first official acknowledgement was made of the Franciscan work in those places, contained in the seal of Gregory IX. The King of Naples contributed to the establishment of the Custody in 1333 when he bought from the Sultan of Egypt the property of the Cenacle in Jerusalem, transferring it in 1342 to the Order of the Minors.
However, returning to the thirteenth century, we must not forget that this period also saw the expansion of a range of secular and ecclesiastical diplomacy all the way to the Far East. Around 1240, the Mongol armies had terrorized Eastern Europe. Elected in 1243, Pope Innocent IV took 2 approaches to the Mongol threat: on several occasions, he sent the crusades against the Tatars; but, at the same time, he tried to take the first steps toward a peaceful resolution by seeking diplomatic relations.
One of the first missions was that of the Franciscan Lawrence of Portugal towards the Tartar Ilkhanate of Persia; his confrère, John of Pian de Carpine, then left in 1245, reaching the Mongolian capital, Karakorum. Even St. Louis IX of France sent his emissaries to the Tartars, some of whom were religious people of Italian origin, such as the Dominican Ascelin of Cremona, who arrived in Persia in 1247; although the most famous journey was taken by the Franciscan William of Rubruck between 1252 and 1254. William, like John of Pian de Carpine, left a written account of what he experienced, though one longer than that of his confrère and of immense interest.
All this paved the way, in the second half of the century, for the great journey of the Venetian merchant-diplomat Marco Polo, who lived in China, moving also to other parts of Asia, for almost 20 years. Marco Polo placed himself at the service of the Great Khan and recorded his extraordinary adventures in the book known in Italy as Il Milione.
In 1286, a very important mission also left from Italy: that of the Franciscan John of Montecorvino, who stopped in India and reached China in 1294 to later found in Beijing, in 1307, the first diocese of the Catholic Church.
With the end of the pax mongolica and the fall in 1368 of the Sino-Mongolian Yuan dynasty, the missions in China became more difficult. They were launched again roughly 2 centuries later. This time arriving by sea and led by the Society of Jesus. But the missionary ideology of the second wave was based on very different conceptions from those of the Franciscans and Dominicans.
The first prominent missionary from this period was father Alessandro Valignano, appointed in 1572 as visitor of the missions of the East Indies. Valignano had an ambitious project: to embed Christianity in the 3 greatest powers of the East: in India at the Grand Mughal Akbar, in Japan and in the Chinese empire at the court of Beijing. The best interpreter of his method, based on acculturation between Christianity and local cults, was his disciple Matteo Ricci, who himself became the best-known Italian traveler in China after Marco Polo. In 1602, Ricci launched the first Christian mission in the capital. In 1609, work in the first public church in Beijing began. He died on May 11, 1610 at the age of 58, having achieved roughly 3,000 converts. In the following century, conversions went up to 200,000 and extended beyond the educated classes to the entire social strata. In the second half of the seventeenth century, however, the wave of success began to arrive in China with the arrival of the Dominicans and Franciscans, who soon entered into conflict with the Jesuits on what was by then referred to as Catholicism of "Chinese Rite." The Issue of Rites was presented to Rome, and in 1704 Pope Clemente XI claimed the Society of Jesus to be wrong. This gave rise to a long crisis that led, in 1724, to the abolition of this first attempt at planting Christian worship in the Empire.
The opening of Suez
Meanwhile, the Italian diplomatic penetration continued in the Near East. In 1422, a Florentine delegation went to the Mamluk Sultanate with the aim of opening the ports of Cairo to Tuscan merchants; subsequently, even Venice sent its representatives several times. The launch of a Florentine naval policy undoubtedly contributed to worsening relations between Florence and Venice, until then characterized by a solid alliance. As with the Ottoman Turks, who had conquered Constantinople in 1453 and who would repeatedly threaten Europe until the beginning of the eighteenth century, their diplomatic and commercial relations with Venice, Genoa, Florence and the kingdom of Naples were flourishing and their ambassadors were welcomed even during periods of war.
Pre-unification Italian states - especially the Republic of Venice, the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, and the Kingdom of Naples - developed a discreet diplomacy towards Asia, above all - apart from the Ottoman Empire - against the Safavid Shah of Persia and then Qajar, at a time when both commercial proposals and proposals of military alliance against the Ottomans were often made. Instead, the young Kingdom of Italy, following a military appearance which was actually diplomatic, as in the Sardinian-Piedmontese participation in the Crimean War of 1854, turned fairly decidedly to assess its role in the Mediterranean. Piedmont had approached Napoleon III’s France, then leading the effort to cut the Isthmus of Suez, in which Italy was interested, mainly due to its existing proto-colonial relations with Eritrea. But after Napoleon’s defeat by Prussia in 1870, he was forced to sell his share of the Suez Canal, which had been opened the year before. As a result, the Kingdom of Italy identified its appropriate allies as the "Central Empires," (Germany and Austro-Hungarians) with which it contracted the pact known as the "Triple Alliance," and with Great Britain. The latter - by then owner of both Gibraltar and Suez - showed a keen interest in Italy, which was, in fact, a jetty dividing the Mediterranean into 2 basins and offered good prospects for industrial investment and shipbuilding. It also looked to France, but a failed agreement in 1882 for the conquest of Tunisia undermined the "good neighborliness" between Paris and Rome and suggested the latter to direct itself increasingly towards London. The ascent to the German imperial throne of the turbulent Wilhelm II, Italy’s hostility against Austria due to their shared designs on the Adriatic and Balkan Peninsula and, lastly, the war for the annexation of Tripolitania and Cyrenaica against Turkey, an ally of Germany and Austria-Hungary, drove Italy, which had begun to look to the Far East (and had sent missions to both Japan and China) to move from the "Triple Alliance" to the "Triple Agreement" with the French, English and Russians. This was the start, in 1915, of World War I.
The Great War was a huge tragedy, a terrible bloodshed. But the fact remains that Italy was a second-rate player in the conflict and that, for this reason, at the end of the war, the great powers treated it with much less regard than the Italian government had hoped; disregarding promises of financial benefits and territorial expansions. After the World War II, a still shaky Italy also took, among other things, a diplomatic path, the basis of which was, on the one hand, a remnant of international credibility (which had helped the country to acknowledge the trustworthy administration of Somalia until 1960) and, on the other hand, its NATO membership, which prompted it to move into America’s sphere of influence. In this context the country managed to take off again and gain credibility, not only by making cautious and calibrated diplomatic choices, but also through the likes of businessmen like Enrico Mattei. who managed to make Eni the center of a real "parallel diplomacy" and the lawyer Giorgio La Pira, the "Holy" Mayor of Florence, an austere Catholic proponent of a message of social justice and creator of the "Mediterranean Dialogues" which, in the 50s and 60s, marked the friendly relations between Italy and the Arab world.
The crisis of the "First Italian Republic" and the heated events of the last quarter of a century brought new, and not always positive, changes to an Italian foreign policy that seemed subordinate to US power and conformist to the aims of America and its allies. A somewhat scattered and disorganized symptom of originality, appeared, if at all, during the "20years of Berlusconi," with improvised openings to Russia and Iran, while only recently - in the wake of the Libyan and Syrian crises - the Italian government gave signs of a renewed interest in Africa and Asia, undoubtedly connected to the problems of migration and the terrorist threat, but also to the prospect of openings to resources and important markets. This could herald a new political-diplomatic era and, perhaps, new, broader alliances. In 1954, the discovery of methane off the coast of Egypt offered a wonderful opportunity to the original inventiveness of Enrico Mattei, Today, that of new oil and methane deposits identified in the international waters of the Eastern Mediterranean could, for Italy, be a provident economic and technological, but also diplomatic, opportunity.