Michele Ruggieri’s Atlas of China

di Eugenio Lo Sardo

Pompilio Ruggieri was born in 1543 in Spinazzola, in the Kingdom of Naples, which at the time was part of the Spanish empire. He was the only son of the administrator of an important noble family, the Orsini from Gravina. He studied law in Naples and held public offices, such as that of judge. In 1570, he moved to Rome, two years later joined the Society of Jesus assuming the name of Michele and in 1573 decided to study theology with the Jesuits at the Collegio Romano. He arrived in Macao in 1579 and succeeded in founding his first missionary house, in Zhaoqing, in December 1582. In 1588 he was sent to Rome to organize a papal embassy for the imperial court of Beijing. He died in Naples in 1607.

The forty folios containing the maps he produced, which remained unpublished until 1993, constitute the oldest and most accurated map-making by a Westerner in China. This was not Ruggieri’s only groundbreaking achievement. He was the first European to have a book printed – Tianzhu shilu (天主實錄 , A True Record of the Lord of Heaven) in China and, in collaboration with Matteo Ricci, he compiled the first Portuguese-Chinese dictionary.

Ruggieri never finished the atlas, on which he worked for more than twenty-five years, from his arrival in Macao until 1606, the year before he died. Even though many plates have been lost or dispersed, those remaining describe all fifteen provinces of China in the Ming era. These are preceded by a general linking map, called Tamincuo, and a single Chinese map of Leautum. Other brothers must have collaborated on the work, and it is certain that an important contribution was made by a still anonymous Chinese colleague, who was undoubtedly well-educated. The work is based on a number of original sources, including an edition of the Guang yu tu (廣輿圖).
With extreme intelligence, Ruggieri grasped the extraordinary importance of the use of cartography by the Chinese for administrative purposes. This technique was completely unknown in Europe, where only several centuries later were geographical and cartographic descriptions of the countries produced. With the sensitivity he had shown in his years of residence in the great eastern empire – which he loved deeply, as can be seen in the poems he wrote – he succeeded in performing an essential role as a linguistic intermediary, which was not fully understood, because he was way ahead of his time. He was able to establish a profound dialogue with his Chinese friends, and when he returned to his native land he was welcomed by the highest political and religious authorities of the time. For essentially political reasons regarding the complex relations between Spain and the Papacy, he remained on the sidelines of his own society, although Antonio Possevino used him as a consultant for his fundamental pedagogical work, which was addressed to the missionary world.

Thanks to Ruggieri and his books, China began to get to know Europeans and they got their first inkling of the other half of the world.