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The Italian connection

Friday, 29 March 2013 - 7:06pm IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna webdesk

Way before the outrage of Bofors and AugustaWestland, the emergence of the polarising figure that is the Italian-born Congress President Sonia Gandhi and the diplomatic row brought about by the outrageous Koch fishermen killings, the two young nations shared a special relationship.

Way before
> The outrage of Bofors and AugustaWestland,
> The emergence of polarising figure  Italian-born Congress President Sonia Gandhi, and
> The diplomatic row brought about by the outrageous Kochi fishermen killings;
India and Italy shared a special relationship.

Did you know that there is a bridge in Florence called Ponte all'Indiano or the Bridge of the Indian?

It is named after Rajaram Chatrapatti, Maharaja of Kolhapur whose ashes were scattered in the Arno river in Florence.

Ponte all'Indiano

India and Italy’s golden days

The relationship of Italy and India goes back as early as the first century AD, well before the Middle Ages, when all roads in Europe led to Rome. After Augustus conquered Egypt in 30BC, maritime contact with India began. Before this, caravans were the main means of trade.

The name of Pompeii is renowned in history for bearing the brunt of the furious Mount Vesuvius. But it was from the city’s ashes where an ivory statuette of the Goddess Laxmi was recovered in 1939.

Roman coins such as those bearing the likenesses of emperors Caligula and Nero were found in Pudukottai (TN) and Roman merchant's settlements in the ancient Tamil kingdom, present day South India, point to the kind of relationship in the first and second century. The port of Puteoli (now called Pozzuoli, where Sophia Loren grew up) was an important hub between the Eastern World and the Mediterranean civilizations in terms of trading. 

Romans get a taste of vibrant Gujarat!

But ties went beyond trade. Engagement also occurred on a diplomatic level with the kingdom of Barygaza (Now the city of Bharuch in Gujarat, situated on the mouth of the river Narmada) sending an embassy to Rome in 25 BC. Among the cargo that set sail were tigers, snakes, tortoises and an armless boy who could shoot arrows with his toes!

Embassies were sent to Trajan  one of Edward Gibbon’s ‘5 Good Kings of Rome’, who vanquished Parthia (North-eastern Iran) and almost came close to going where Alexander hadn’t by conquering India, but gave up due to old age.

India would send more embassies to Antoninus Pius, Julian the Apostate and even the Eastern Roman Empire's Justinian.

After the fall:

Then in 476, though the date is disputed by historians, the Ostragoths brought about the end of the Western Roman Empire.

The Tabula Peutingeriana, a 5th Century road map of the cursus publicus or State-sponsored transportation service of Rome reveals that there was a temple dedicated to the first Roman emperor Augustus in South-West India in the legendary seaport of Muziris (now destroyed, but once thought to be in the village of Pattanam in Kerala).


With the Italian Renaissance, 13th Century Italian merchants started revisiting Roman trade routes. Most famous of these is the Venetian Marco Polo whose 24-year long excursions in Asia would influence Genoa’s Christopher Columbus.  There is some debate over whether Polo went to China, as he has claimed in his Travels but it is certain that he visited India after serving in the court of Mongol emperor Kublai Khan for more than 2 decades.

Describing the Pandyan kingdom under Lord Emperor Jatavarman Sundara Pandyan I as the richest empire in existence, Polo visited ports like Kayak, Comorin, Quilon, Thana, Somnath and Cambay. Of the Brahmins, Polo writes: “The best and most honourable merchants that can be found. No consideration whatever can induce them to speak an untruth, even though their lives should depend upon it.”

Venetians like Nicolo de‘Conti who set sail for West Asia in 1419 and visited Vijayanagar among other places like Kollam, Kochi, Kozhikode and Khambhat. (Finding words in the local tongue ending with vowels, he dubbed Tegulu the Italian of the East)

Visitors from the Republic of Venice remained prominent. Just to mention a few, in 1419 Nicolo’ de’ Conti set sail from Venice to visit the Middle East, Persia and then India. He crossed the Peninsula from coast to coast, moving also inland to Vijayanagar; back in Italy. He related his travels to the Papal Secretary Poggio Bracciolini in return for pardon for posing as a Muslim for the duration of his travels.

The chroniclers:

As the centuries went by Conti’s Venetian paisans such as adventurer Cesare Federici Viaggio, merchant, jeweller Gasparo Balbi and nobleman Ambrosio Bembo visited and wrote important texts describing their stay at India.

In 1720s, Antonio Vivaldi composed his concerto The Great Mogul or Il Grosso Mogul. This probably had something to do with the 18th Century traveller Niccolao Manucci whose Storia do Mogor which captured the imagination of Europeans.

Another individual to publicise India under Aurangzeb was the Neopolitan lawyer Giovanni Francesco Gemelli-Careri who in 1699 published the bestseller Giro Intorno al Mondo, an account of a 5 year trip across the world.

The arts

The Indian cultural icon the Taj Mahal is a witness to the diffusion of Italian techniques over the world. The Pietra dura (literally hard rocks), the decorative art of the Romans of inlaying polished stones to create images was used by the Moghuls who called it parchin kari and adapted it to native styles.

When it came to storytelling, Giovanni Boccaccio in as early as the 14th century included compiled stories found in Pandit Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha.

It is well known that the Italian Neo realist style of the 20th century influenced Satyajit Ray who spurred the parallel cinema movement with his groundbreaking Pather Panchali.

Numbers and words

Leonardo Pisano aka Fibonacci, who is famous for his Fibonacci numbers where each number is the sum of the previous two numbers, in 1202 introduced the Hindu-Arabic numeral system known as Hindse in European mathematics. It was path-breaking.

While Leibnitz and Newton were battling out over who invented Calculus after 1700. It was the 14th century Kerala school of astronomy and mathematics’ Madhava whose pioneering work in that field of Mathematics preceded Newton’s Method of Fluxions. It was postulated that the Jesuits in Kerala brought this knowledge to Europe.

Consider the Sanskrit and Italian words for
> God (deva/dio),
> snake (sarpa/serpe),
> seven (sapta/sette),
> eight (ashta/otto) and
> nine (nava/nove).

These intrigued Florentine merchant Filippo Sassetti in 1585. His observations unheeded at the time were ahead of the Indo-European family of languages, which would gain credence more than a century later. Sassetti who left Lisbon for India in 1582, died in Goa six years later.

And while Sassetti was pondering over language similarities, Galileo Galilei was attempting the Latin translation of Brahmagupta’s Brāhmasphuṭasiddhānta or as it was known in Arabic Sindhind, which  was the first book to mention the calculation with positive numbers, negative numbers and zero.

The art of war also saw the Italian touch with Jewish-Italian General Giovanni Battista Reuben Ventura, who fought under Napoleon, helped the Sikh empire by contributed to the organization of the infantry in the army of Ranjit Singh in the 19th century. 

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