Eugenio Zanoni Volpicelli – An Italian Sir Edmund Backhouse?

Photo: Enrico Lucich
Photo: Enrico Lucich



A paper read at the Hong Kong Branch of the Asia Society on October 8th, 2013.


Photo: Gianna Bressan
Photo: Gianna Bressan



Ladies and gentlemen, good evening!

My name is Angelo Paratico and I am the author of the short essay in the book 500 Years of Italians in Hong Kong and Macau dedicated to the secular – meaning non religious – Italian travellers to South China.

Before the publication of this book this subject had been never been dealt in a systematic manner – albeit incomplete- as we have done, even if we start with Julius Caesar and we end with our Consul General Alessandra Schiavo. How could this be complete? The spread is too wide.


Tonight I have decided to concentrate on one subject only:  Eugenio Zanoni Volpicelli, Consul general of Italy in Hong Kong, Macau and Canton from 1899 up to 1919.

What you will hear tonight is basically new and unreleased. In Italy Zanoni Volpicelli is virtually unknown, probably because he always wrote in English, French and Chinese and only a little in Italian. He was nonetheless an eccentric character as well as a genius who would deserve a thick biography illustrating all his merits and achievements. I do hope that this talk will spur a more capable writer to dedicate his time to fill such biographic void.

The photo that you see here is not in the book. I found it in eBay just 3 weeks ago. It is a cutting from the Illustrazione Italiana dated around 1889. The caption is The Mandarin Zanoni Volpicelli, we’ll see later that this title is not an exaggeration. This etching was done using an Afong photo, Afong was a famous photographic studio, and his best pictures today cost thousand of dollars.


Most of what I’ll read tonight was taken from a paper published in Japan in 1965 by professor Kiyoshi Yamaguchi. I had it translated from Japanese into English. Professor Yamaguchi says that he found part of it in an Italian magazine printed in New York in the ’30s, Il Carroccio. Unfortunately I was unable to find that particular issue.

The title of Prof. Yamaguchi essay is The Man Who Brought Dante to the Orient. I am integrating it with some notes collected from Franco Pratesi where he calls Volpicelli The Italian Chameleon. Probably out of desperation for not having managed to find anything important about him.

Below is a picture on the cover of the book, the old Italian consulate in Hong Kong and our man is probably one of those lining out in front of the Italian consulate there, again sporting a pith helmet.

photo credit: Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
photo credit: Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The name of Eugenio Zanoni Volpicelli pops up here and there reading old travelogues written by Italians going to China at the beginning of last century. He was considered – even by the great Italian Journalist Luigi Barzini – the best Old China Hand available. Most Italians had a chat with him before entering China. We see an example of this in our essay when we are quoting the otherwise unremarkable merchant Domenico Antonio Mazzolani, in his book dated 1915.

Mazzolani had a meeting in Hong Kong with Volpicelli noting that, he was a vegetarian and a sort of fitness maniac who every morning walked down from the Peak to his office. ‘That’s the way he looks so young and fit’ he says.

Volpicelli was born in Naples in 1856 and lived a long life that ended in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1936 at the age of 80.


Italy in 1856, at the time of Volpicelli’s birth, did not exist yet as an united nation, he was thus a subject to the Bourbon monarchy ruling the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, with capital in Naples. It was due to another man related to Hong Kong, Giuseppe Garibaldi – we see him up here – that with his one thousand volunteers red shirts who single-handed in 1860 reunified Italy. Garibaldi visited Hong Kong, Canton and Macau in 1852, while waiting for a new uprising to start in Italy that will give him the change to get back and fight. He was on a ship from Peru, the Carmen and back to Peru he went.

Volpicelli studied physics and mathematics in Naples, graduating in 1875. He then received a scholarship to study Chinese for three years at the Chinese academy of Naples, later renamed Oriental Institute, graduating in 1878. This was the opportunity that tied Volpicelli with China and eventually to Japan. Volpicelli not satisfied with that he later travelled to Syria to learn Arabic.

He then made his way to China in 1881, where he worked in finance. In 1884 we find him employed as a official interpreter in negotiations over a treaty between Italy and Korea – Korean officials could speak mandarin back then -.

In 1885 he was appointed by the Guangxu Emperor of China to the National Council he was involved in diplomatic negotiations when when the Chinese army, under Li Hungchan, pulled out of Vietnam. Volpicelli was in essence a top-level diplomat for China much in the way that Marco Polo was retained by Kublai Khan a long time ago. Hence the name Mandarin on the photo is thus appropriate! He then travelled to Russia and the following year, in 1886, he authored an essay on the Sino-Russian War under the Russian pen name of Vladimir. Written in English, the essay was printed in London.

Eleven years later, in 1897, he crossed again into Siberia and Russia researching folklore and local customs. By then he could speak Russian like a native. Using that trip Volpicelli wrote another essay; this time entitled Russia On the Pacific again in English and again under the penname of Vladimir, perhaps not to interfere with his position. It is still very useful when we study Russian history.


While in Shanghai, he found the time to publish the first descriptions of Chinese Chess and Wei-chi (another game) the first book in an European language. In 1899, he was appointed Consul to Hong Kong, Macau and Canton under the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The following year, in 1900, when the Boxer Uprising occurred, he had an important meeting with viceroy Li Hungchang; few Italian knows that China declared war on Italy but the order was kept back by Li Hungchang. His achievement was then praised by Italy’s Ambassador in Peking, the Marquis Salvago Raggi.

In 1904, during the Russo-Japanese War, Volpicelli lent a hand in rescuing crew members of a Russian warship, the Varyag which was scuttled by his crew in Incheon, instead of surrendering to a Japanese fleet. The Italian cruiser Elba was there and this might explain Volpicelli’s presence in the rescue operations. Irony of destiny another Russian ship with the same name was taken over by China as an half finished carrier, refitted and launched just a few months ago, the carrier Liaoning.

Then, in 1911, Volpicelli crossed into Siberia and Russia again. With few Italians around, clearly diplomats back then had a lot of free time. That year a revolution broke out in Manchu’s China and, in 1912, the Republic of China was born. Volpicelli knew Sun Yatsen and Chan Kaishek but, because of the unstable political situation, from 1912 to 1919, Volpicelli watched the events unfold and constantly worked to avoid civil war at the risk of his own life. For his efforts, he won the appreciation of Sun Yatsen and the Canton military government.

In the meantime, from 1915 to 1919, he studied medicine at the University of Hong Kong graduating in obstetrics and gynaecology. It is unknown what motivated Volpicelli to study and specialize in medicine at the age of sixty!


Vita Nuova

In 1919 Volpicelli  – the same year in which Volpicelli completed his studies of medicine at the University of Hong Kong – anD retired from active diplomatic duties saw his life take a new turn, a mystical one. He was seeking the road that lead to the Hereafter. He then became a sort of wandering scholar.

Denis Diderot – the creator of the French Encyclopedie – was an atheist and he argued that, not hoping in a heavenly reward, the only hope left open to him was to live in the memory of future generations. Volpicelli was a religious man, not only an intellectual with a mathematical mind, but he looked for a material way leading to the afterworld. He then begun his quest investigating the teachings of Buddhism. He then translated Dante’s Divine Comedy into Chinese, but it seems he did it mainly to connect this literary masterpiece with Buddhist reports of travel in Heaven and in the perspective of the afterlife. He was clearly not married and had no children (Italian journalist Eric Salerno informs us that he had a wife and children) as he could decide where to go and what to do without familiar bonds. Volpicelli combed the Buddhist temples and sanctuaries of Southern China while cruising the country’s rivers and canals. For these travels, Volpicelli had a small boat just big enough for one person. He named it Procida – the name of a small island facing Ischia in the Gulf of Naples – and when the current was too strong and dangerous he would havehis small boat  transported by train or by ship to a suitable location where he would then set it afloat again. During those travels he frequently encountered Italian priests who were doing missionary work in remote places. In the summer of 1919, he met Father Baimo of the Franciscan Order in a town called Laiyan. Father Baimo was familiar with the rivers in those parts, so Volpicelli had Father Baimo accompany him down a river called the Shan to a town known as Henchow where he met another missionary of the Franciscan Order by the name of Mondani. There were many Buddhist temples and sanctuaries in and around Henchow. Volpicelli visited the Temple of the Wild Geese and the Temple of the Lotus Flower where he saw carvings depicting the Buddhist heaven and hell. In the company of these priests, Volpicelli remained as a guest for a long period of time at various temples. He also visited the temples of Ningbo. He ended up staying one week in Putou on the East China Sea. There, too, were many magnificent temples. Tiantong Temple on Mt. Taibai in Ningbo is where the celebrated Japanese monks Eisai and Dogen practiced their Zen meditation, and Zhoushan Island adjacent to Mt. Putou was a seaport for Japanese ships in the Tang and Sung dynasties.When he saw Ningbo and Mt. Putou, Volpicelli detected a religious connection between China and Japan, and decided to continue his research into the Buddhist afterlife in Japan.

Dante in Hong Kong University 1922.
Dante at Hong Kong University 1922.

In February of 1920, Volpicelli left Shanghai for Nagasaki. He did not, however, decide at this time to reside in Nagasaki, as he settled down there only in 1933. In order to visit the temples, sanctuaries and museums of Japan, Volpicelli went from Nagasaki to Miyajima, Osaka, Kyoto. In Kyoto, he found a report written in 934 by a Japanese monk by the name of Doken. It was Doken’s personal recount of his journey to heaven and hell. Volpicelli also viewed the scroll painting of heaven and hell by Nobumi Fujiwara, which is said to have been painted after reading Denko’s report. Volpicelli took special note of the fact that the year that Fujiwara died, 1265, was exactly the year in which Dante was born, hinting at reincarnation…

Here is a cutting from a Japanese newspaper, showing him close to age 80. We can see that he is now gone native.



Surprisingly enough he looked like one of his contemporaries, an English scolar living in Beijing, Edmund Backhouse. The famous Hermit of Peking, defamed by Hugh Trevor-RoperThe two men had several traits of their characters in common.


Photo: Atsuko Nakamura
Photo courtesy: Nagasaki City Hall.

Eugenio Zanoni Volpicelli died in 1936 and was buried in the cemetery for foreigners in Nagasaki. His tombstone was engraved with his title of Commendatore  – he was a Commander of the order of St. Maurice and Lazarus, a very high title as it was conferred sparingly, only 500 Commendatore in the 85 years of Italy’s monarchic era under the House of Savoy – his name, his year of birth and death, and a cross, an indication that he had not converted to Buddhism, but was still a Christian.

His tomb was blown away by the blast from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in August of 1945 and his tombstone remained shattered on the ground for about fifteen years, until a Chinese man – enquiring about Volpicelli’s resting place – found the tombstone’s fragments and offered to pay for its restoration. The authorities in Nagasaki restored Volpicelli’s gravesite with that money. We don’t know his name but he mist have been a friend of Volpicelli’s during his time in China.

Other than the works he wrote under his own name he also used the pen name of Vladimir, here is a short list:

-Early Portuguese Commerce and Settlements in China on the (Journal of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society.

-The Silver Question in China and Fluctuations of Prices (Shanghai, in English). This essay was prepared from research that Volpicelli did Royal Asiatic Society.

-Chinese Phonology, An Attempt to Discover the Sounds of the Ancient Language and to recover the Lost Rhymes of China.

We often hear that probably Cantonese is closer to old Chinese spoken a thousand years ago; Volpicelli was one of the first westerners to put forward a study.

– Also as Prononciation Ancienne du Chinos. Volpicelli presented this essay at the International Congress of Orientalists in Paris on behalf of the China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society. The year that the International Congress of Orientalists was held.

-The China Japan War compiled from Japanese-Chinese and Foreign Sources. Still important for the study of this conflict.

Le Impressioni di un Cinese in Italia (Brano di Giornale Hsie-Fucheng, March 10 April 3, 1891. Translation by Z. Volpicelli, Naples, 1902). This work was a translation into Italian that Volpicelli did of the section dedicated to Italy from the diary of Manchu Ambassador Hsie Fu Ceng, who recounted what he saw and heard during his diplomatic duties in England, France, Belgium and Italy.

-Translation into Chinese of Cesare Beccaria’s On Crimes and Punishments the world-renowned treatise by Cesare Beccaria that condemned torture and the death penalty. One of the best book on the Enlightment who created a revolution in the field of Criminology. This was a bestseller published in 1764 in Milan and that was then and then translated in French, English, German going through countless editions.

I have been unable to locate the translation in Chinese of Dante’s Divine Comedy and Beccaria’s treatise on Crime and punishment perhaps with the help of some Chinese bibliophiles a copy could be found and republished, especially Beccaria’ great work which is important today as it was in 1764, when it was first released.

Thank you for your attention and good night.




Presentation at RTH3 Hong KOng
Presentation at RTH3 Hong KOng




5 commenti su “Eugenio Zanoni Volpicelli – An Italian Sir Edmund Backhouse?

  1. Thanks to your job and your publications I feel a bit more acculturated 🙂
    Really interesting and well done.
    Thank you Angelo.

  2. Molto interessante la sua ricerca. Da qualche tempo anche io sto cercando di ricostruire la vita di Volpicelli (una specie di parente acquisito). Ne ho parlato anche con Alessandra Schiavo che mi ha fatto avere il libro che ha curato sugli italiani di Hong Kong etc. Contrariamente a quanto lei scrive, Volpicelli era sposato e sua moglie per un lungo periodo ha vissuto con lui in Oriente.
    Mi può contattare a

    cordiali saluti
    Eric Salerno

Lascia un commento

Questo sito usa Akismet per ridurre lo spam. Scopri come i tuoi dati vengono elaborati.