Eugenio Zanoni Volpicelli

(To Mario Veronesi)
21/10/19

He was an orientalist, and polyglot, he translated "The Divine Comedy" by Dante and the book by Cesare Beccaria, "Delitti e delle pene" in Chinese and Japanese. He served in the diplomatic missions of Korea, Hong Kong and Canton. He lived a long life in the East, which ended in Japan in Nagasaki, where he died in the 1936 at the age of 80 years.

Eugenio Zanoni Volpicelli, was born in Naples in the 1856, studied physics and mathematics in Naples, graduating in the 1875. Thanks to a scholarship he studied Chinese for three years at the Chinese Academy of Naples, later renamed "Oriental Institute", and this was the occasion that tied Valpicelli to China and Japan. He went to China in 1881 where he worked in finance. But already from the 1884 his linguistic abilities led him to be employed first by Italy, during the signing of a commercial treaty with Korea and later, not having escaped the Chinese his diplomatic and linguistic talent, from the Chinese imperial government as an assistant of the viceroy Li Hunchang.

He traveled to Russia and the 1886, published under the Russian name "Vladimir" an essay on the Sino-Russian war. Written in English, the essay was printed in London eleven years later. In the 1897, he again crossed Siberia and Russia learning the language, to search for local folklore and customs. Using that trip, Volpicelli wrote another essay entitled "Russia on the Pacific" again in English and again under the pseudo name "Vladimir", perhaps not to interfere with his diplomatic position. We find it in the following years in Shanghai where it publishes new texts, both in French and English, including: "the first descriptions of Chinese chess and Wei-chi", the first book in a European language translated from Chinese. In 1897 he returns to Russia again and publishes a new book, also in London, entitled "Russia on the Pacific and the Siberian Railway" with maps and various photos, a text that can still be used today on a historical level.

His sagacity does not escape our consular representatives of Beijing, first of all the Marquis Salvago Raggi, who has him nominated in the 1899 consul of Italy in Macao. In the 1900, during the Boxer uprising, exploiting his friendship with Li Hungchang, he strives for peacekeeping in southern China. Few know that China declared war on Italy, but thanks to Volpicelli the order was held back by Li Hungchang.

In the 1904, during the Russo-Japanese war, we find it with the ship Elba, among the rescuers of the Russian sailors of the cruiser Varyag (photo), which sank in Incheon, Korea. In the 1911, Volpicelli passed again in Siberia and in Russia. That year a revolution broke out in China and in 1912, the Republic of China was born. During those tumultuous years, it became a staple for all Italians who visit the Far East.

Meanwhile from 1915 to 1919 at sixty, he finds time to study medicine at the University of Hong Kong and graduates in obstetrics and gynecology. the same year he retired from active diplomatic offices. Meanwhile he does not slow down his activity as a writer, he publishes an English text on the history of the Russian-Japanese war, drawing from original Chinese and Japanese sources. Translates the "Divine Comedy" by Dante Alighieri into Chinese, it seems that he did it mainly to connect this literary masterpiece, in the perspective of Buddhism with the afterlife. Translates into Chinese the book by Cesare Beccarla, "Delitti e delle pene". The treaty, famous throughout the world, which condemned torture and the death penalty. Published in 1764 in Milan then translated into French, English and German through numerous editions. A book that created a revolution in the field of criminology.

After leaving the post of Consul in Hong Kong and being named Commander of the Order of Saints Maurice and Lazarus, Eugenio Zanoni Volpicelli leaves for a mystical search for the afterlife. Volpicelli was a religious man, not just an intellectual with a mathematical mind, so he began his new adventure, the study of the Buddhist religion. Visit various Buddhist temples that rise on Chinese rivers using his small boat, which he baptizes 'Procida', and when the current was too strong and dangerous he had this small boat transported by train or by ship. Volpicelli visited the temple of the "wild geese" and the "temple of the lotus flower" where he saw engravings depicting the Buddhist paradise and hell. Finding a religious connection between China and Japan, he decided to continue his research on Buddhism in Japan.

In February of the 1920, Volpicelli left Shanghai for Nagasaki. In Japan he visits numerous temples including the temple of "Tiantong" on Mount Taibai in Ningbo, where the famous Japanese monks Eisai and Dogen practiced their Zen meditation. In Kyoto, he found a report written in the 934 by a Japanese monk Doken, a personal story of his journey to heaven and hell. Volpicelli also saw Nobumi Fujiwara's scroll painting of the sky and hell, which he said painted after reading Denko's report. It is interesting to note that in relation to his studies on Buddhism, he placed the year of the death of Nobumi Fujiwara in the 1265, the year Dante was born, suggesting his reincarnation.

Eugenio Zanoni Volpicelli dies in 1936 and is buried in the cemetery for foreigners in Nagasaki. His tombstone was engraved with his title "Commander of the Order of St. Maurice and Lazarus", his name, the year of birth and death, and a cross, a clear indication that he had not converted to Buddhism, but he remained a Christian.

His tomb was wiped out by the explosion from the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki of 9 August 1945 and his tombstone was shattered for about fifteen years, until a Chinese friend of his, asking where Volpicelli's tomb was, found the fragments of the tombstone and offered to pay for its restoration. This is still visible in a green corner of the cemetery for foreigners from Nagasaki.