Tuesday, June 2, 2009

China and Venice -- The Eternal Tango

(Venice, Italy) On May 26, the night before I went to a conference at the Giorgio Cini Foundation entitled, China and the West Today: Lessons From Matteo Ricci, I read an amazing news report on ANSA, which is a bit like an Italian Associated Press. The headline that caught my eye was:
Vatican Radio to go commercial
Pope's station will run advertising jingles for first time

The report went on to say that Vatican Radio had decided to take on advertisers, and the first sponsor was going to be ENEL, our electrical company here in Italy. To read the report, please click here:

(As of today, October 6, 2009, that link no longer seems to function:) Let's try the BBC: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8135753.stm)

Intrigued, I went to the Enel Wikipedia site and discovered another astonishing piece of information:

In the first week of March 2008, Enel has begun building the world's first hydrogen-powered thermal powerplant near Venice. The hydrogen will be harnessed from the byproducts of the nearby oil refinery of Porto Marghera. The projected output is in the megawatt range.

To read that article, please click here:


(Whoops! As of today, October 6, 2009, it seems like that page no longer exists. A similar story does, however, exist here in Italian on Finanza LIVE: http://www.finanzalive.com/notizie/enel-inaugura-il-cantiere-per-la-prima-centrale-a-idrogeno-mondiale/)

The world's first hydrogen power plant? In Marghera? How did I miss that incredible news? Many people in Venice complain about Marghera, which is an industrial zone on the lagoon, causing the types of havoc that industrial zones are notorious for. If a hydrogen plant could harness the by-products, it would be a quantum leap forward. I asked a few select people if they had heard about this information, and no one had.

What does a hydrogen power plant have to do with the conference at the Cini Foundation about China and Matteo Ricci? In true Venetian synchronicity, by the end of the conference, I found myself speaking to Corrado Clini, who is the President of the Global BioEnergy Partnership - G8+5 and Vice President of the International Partnership for the Hydrogen Economy, as well as a cornucopia of other impressive titles. I told him what I had read, and asked him if it was true. He said, yes, that the hydrogen plant should be ready within a month or two. He said to search "Hydrogen Park Marghera," and I suggest that anyone who is interested in more information to follow those instructions. I am certainly no expert on hydrogen, but my gut reaction was: a hydrogen power plant is thrilling, heroic; we are on the dawn of a new level of experience.

You regular readers will remember that I have written about the Giorgio Cini Foundation on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore before. It is a great honor and privilege to be invited to attend a conference there, and I always come away with a feeling of humility and respect. From Wikipedia: The San Giorgio Monastery is a Benedictine monastery in Venice, lying on the island of San Giorgio Maggiore. It stands next to the Church of San Giorgio Maggiore, and is now the seat of Cini Foundation.

The conference, China and the West Today: Lessons from Matteo Ricci was orchestrated by Michela Fontana, who is a scientific journalist, mathematician and writer. It was like a concerto, starting with historians and scholars, and ending with businessmen, with the same melody recurring throughout.

I know as much about China as I knew about the Middle East when I wrote about the Eurogolfe Forum I attended at the Cini Foundation last October -- which is, basically nothing. (Click here to read Men Like Gods http://venetiancat.blogspot.com/2008/10/new-world-order.html) I was pleased, however, to be told during a private conversation with one of the few attendants from China, "You are Chinese!" Now, of course, I am about as Chinese as I am Venetian:) The source of my information comes from the I Ching, or The Book of Changes, which I have attempted to understand for many years. This is from Richard Wilhelm's introduction:

The Book of Changes -- I Ching in Chinese -- is unquestionably one of the most important books in the world's literature. Its origin goes back to mythical antiquity, and it has occupied the attention of the most eminent scholars of China down to the present day. Nearly all that is greatest and most significant in the three thousand years of Chinese cultural history has either taken its inspiration from this book, or has exerted an influence on the interpretation of its text. Therefore it may safely be said that the seasoned wisdom of thousands of years has gone into the making of the I Ching. Small wonder then that both of the two branches of Chinese philosophy, Confucianism and Taoism, have their common roots here. ...

...Indeed, not only the philosophy of China but its science and statecraft as well have never ceased to draw from the spring of wisdom in the I Ching ...

Matteo Ricci was a Jesuit priest who traveled to China in 1583, about three hundred years after the Venetian merchant and explorer, Marco Polo, arrived in 1274. Ricci brought with him new ideas from Italy about science, astronomy and mathematics, and assimilated into the Chinese culture. Professor Timothy Brook, the Chair of the afternoon session of Day 1 of the conference asked this question: "Is it pure coincidence that the Europeans best remembered for their early travels to China, Marco Polo and Matteo Ricci, were both Italian?" Professor Brook points out that one similarity was that each journey took place in the immediate wake of the formation of trade networks.

Some years ago, I wrote a piece about the Ospedaletto Santa Maria dei Derelitti that might also shed some light on the question.

The Ospedaletto originated back in the winter of 1528 when famine struck the Venetian countryside and destitute mobs flooded into the city. Unlike hospitals today, caring for the sick was only one dimension of the ospedali. They also provided emergency food and shelter for men, women and children, particularly orphans. By 1542, the original wooden buildings of the Ospedaletto had been replaced by permanent structures. In 1575, they began to erect a church called Santa Maria dei Derelitti, the centerpiece of the compound. It is believed that the Ospedaletto rose due to the efforts of staunch Catholics involved in reformation, and was sustained entirely by voluntary donations and bequests from private citizens. Influential reformists such as Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and the powerful Contarini family were associated with the Ospedaletto. Venetian nobleman Girolamo Miani (later to become St. Jerome Emilini after being canonized in 1767 by the Venetian Pope Clement XIII), was appointed the director and responsible for the orphan's education. A former soldier, Miani is credited with originating catechetical teaching by question and answer. The religious instruction also included the singing of sacred music. The boys sang in the streets, spreading the word of God and soliciting funds from the nobility, and learned simple trades such as rope making for the Arsenale. The girls, however, were completely cloistered in the hospital, and required to follow a strict regime of prayer, domestic work and assistance in the wards. Their singing was confined to vespers and masses on Sundays and feast days.

[That image you see is Il Corpus Domini by Giorgio Giacobbi and from a photograph exhibit here in Venice called Donne! (Women!) by Il Circolo Fotografico La Gondola in the lobby of the bank, Cassa di Risparmio di Venezia, in Campo San Luca, which runs through June 10th.]

When I was six-years-old, I made my First Holy Communion and I remember very well those questions and answers! "Where is God?" "God is everywhere." The nun clicked some device and we stood, knelt and sat, just like little soldiers. Ha! Now I know who to blame:)

It may be surprising to learn that the Jesuits were ordained in Venice in 1537, about the same period of time discussed in my blog about Titian, Tintoretto & Veronese: http://venetiancat.blogspot.com/2009/03/ides-of-march-titian-tintoretto.html.

From Wikipedia:

They were ordained at Venice by the bishop of Arbe (June 24). They devoted themselves to preaching and charitable work in Italy, as the renewed Italian War of 1535-1538 between Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor, Venice, the pope and the Ottoman Empire rendered any journey to Jerusalem impossible.

Echoing the past even more, the Jesuits have a new Superior General, Adolfo Nicolás, elected on January 19, 2008, and who has spent much time in Japan and the East. From Wikipedia:

[Nicolás] once stated, "Asia has a lot yet to offer the Church, to the whole Church, but we haven't done it yet. Maybe we have not been courageous enough, or we haven't taken the risks we should"[10]. In an article on Nicolás, Michael McVeigh said that Nicolás has also expressed his wariness of missionaries who are more concerned with teaching and imposing orthodoxy than in having a cultural experience with the local people, saying, "Those who enter into the lives of the people, they begin to question their own positions very radically."[10]

I learned a tremendous amount of new information in a compacted period of time. What sums it up, to me, is this passage from the theatrical performance held the last night, Matteo Ricci. A Jesuit Scientist at the Ming Court, written by the organizer, Michela Fontana:

"Proof of the great prestige he eventually won at the Imperial court was the fact that the Emperor Wanli would grant him the right to be buried in the capital of the empire, Peking, in the cemetery now in the courtyard of the Administrative College, once the Chinese Communist Party school.

According to the chronicles, a few days after Ricci's burial in 1611, a eunuch asked the Grand Secretary Ye Xiango, the supreme official in the Imperial bureaucracy, why Ricci had been granted this privilege never previously enjoyed by a Westerner. The Mandarin replied that the translation into Chinese of Euclid's Elements alone was enough to justify honouring the man who had come from the Far West."

The non-Asian speaker who impressed me the most was Professor François Jullien, who spoke in French, which was translated. The long and winding road that Professor Jullien had traveled to understand life in general and the Chinese culture in particular was inspiring. He spoke about using silent transformation, not harsh breaks and ruptures to change. That if you force a situation, you are not effective. He said that one must undergo a personal transformation to understand Chinese thought, and that patience and humility are required. This struck a chord with me, for I had to undergo a long personal transformation myself, together with a healthy dose of patience and humility, in order to catch a glimpse into the way Venetians think.

Professor Yongjin Zhang from the University of Bristol was denied a visa, so could not attend; his text was read, but had been edited. His recent publications include "The English School" in China: A Travelogue of Ideas and Their Diffusion, and System, Empire and State in Chinese International Relations. From the conference book: "I argue that in an increasingly globalised world, Matteo Ricci's ideas and practices remain valuable in informing the search by both China and Europe for a richer and more meaningful relationship both at present and in the future."

I felt that Luo Xiaopeng, a Professor of Economics at the China Academy of Rural Development at Zhejiang University was an informative and enlightened individual, as was one of the few female speakers, Professor Luo Hongbo, a specialist in European/Italian enterprises and Sino-European relations. She said she was going to recommend holding a similar conference in China next year, and that she had been trying to get to the Giorgio Cini Foundation for thirty years!

After the scholars came the Italian businessmen, and I will confess that I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by their attitude and demeanor, which was, honestly, very different from the Anglo-American point of view. Cesare Romiti, the former President of Fiat SpA (among other awe-inspiring titles) was refreshing. In 2003, he founded and became chairman of the Italia Cina Foundation, which brings together many entrepreneurs and firms interested in the Chinese market -- and, personally, I feel more optimistic about the future knowing that nugget of information! He is also the President of the Rome Academy of Fine Arts, and wants to greatly enlarge an exchange program with Chinese students. He said something that struck me: "China is a school." I feel the same way about Venice -- that Venice is a school, filled with exceptional knowledge. The privilege of living in Venice is like living inside a breathing institution, alive with precious, exclusive gems of wisdom. An exchange of knowledge between China and Italy in general, Venice in particular, is something thrilling to imagine!


Boris Biancheri, was the Chairman of ANSA, the news agency mentioned earlier, until just a short while ago, as well as being a former diplomat -- he was the Italian Ambassador in Tokyo, London and Washington.

Federico Rampini is a columnist and Chinese correspondent for La Repubblica, as well as many other publications that might ring a bell or two:)

Davide Cucino graduated from Venice's own Ca' Foscari, and has lived and worked in China since the late 1980s. He suggested that Italy concentrate more on promoting its technology and mechanical equipment, and less on the products that already sell themselves, such as wine and fashion, etc.

Renzo Cavalieri, a law professor also at Ca' Foscari, spoke about the legal difficulties between Italy and China, and felt some laws were there simply to create an obstacle.

Space does not allow me to mention all the excellent speakers, but it was generally agreed that Italy has a rich cultural history to offer China. I also agree -- the information that Italy holds in its treasure chest should be exchanged with enlightened thinkers all over the world, not just for the good of Italy and China, but for the good of the entire planet. I did, however, make my eternal comment: that one of Italy's greatest natural resources are its women, and there is still a dire lack of female mindpower up on the podium. To put things into perspective: the conference itself was conceived by a woman and I applaud Michela Fontana for her brilliant effort. Some of the men spoke to me afterwards, and assured me they were aware of the situation and were making efforts to improve it. And once Venice gets her hydrogen power plant up and running, well, the possibilities are tremendously exciting!

I want to thank the Giorgio Cini Foundation for allowing me to attend the conference. It is deeply appreciated, and I came away with a much wider perspective than before I arrived. By the way -- the conference was open to everyone until seating was full, so if you had been in Venice on May 27, 28 and 29, and were hooked into the right network, you could have been there and blogged about it, too. Plus, it was free!

Ciao from Venice,
Venetian Cat - Venice Blog