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from issue no. 12 - 2008

Mild civilizing

The foundation by the Jesuits of real cities in the heart of Latin America between the 17th and 18th centuries was an incredible experience in evangelization and civilizing

by Lorenzo Cappelletti

Gianpaolo Romanato, <I>Gesuiti, guaranì ed emigranti nelle Riduzioni del Paraguay</I>, Regione del Veneto - Longo Editore, Ravenna 2008, 104 pp., Euro 13.00

Gianpaolo Romanato, Gesuiti, guaranì ed emigranti nelle Riduzioni del Paraguay, Regione del Veneto - Longo Editore, Ravenna 2008, 104 pp., Euro 13.00

A small but valuable book by Gianpaolo Romanato has just been published, thanks to a contribution from the Regione Veneto, by Longo Ravenna under the title of Gesuiti, guaranì ed emigranti nelle Riduzioni del Paraguay [Jesuits, Guarani and emigrants in the Reducciones of Paraguay]. Underpinned by the author’s prolonged residence in the field, the book is devoted to the incredible experience, of evangelization and civilizing at the same time, that was the founding by the Jesuits of real cities in the heart of Latin America between the 17th and 18th centuries. Cities fashioned for the Guaraní Indians, according to the most loving and appropriate ways consistent with the mentality of the times, in tune with the characteristics of those peoples. “A mild civilizing”, Romanato says, “achieved by Jesuits who came from the whole ecumene of the time, i.e. a non-destructive and non-conflictual encounter of a strong culture with a weak one”(p. 48). The history of that area was crucial first of all for the missionary mode tried there by the Jesuits, which corresponded – Romanato notes that the connection is not always grasped (pp. 22, 47, 60-61 et passim) – with what they were doing at the same time on the other side of the world, in China. Crucial also for the dramatic story of the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773, caught up in the age-old struggle between Spanish and Portuguese for dominion of the new world that had its maximum point of friction in the lands of the Reducciones. And again, for the evolution of thinking on natural law and Enlightenment thought, the historical background of which, we could say, consisted precisely of that state of nature and… of grace that learned and humble Europeans, as the Jesuits were, engaged in not through intellectual debate but in the field, following the example of Saint Francis Xavier. And finally, the present configuration of Brazil itself, the State with the largest number of Catholics in the world – which merits for that reason alone special attention from those interested in the events of the Church and the world – is not comprehensible without scrutinizing those early days.
Romanato, a professor in the History Department of Padua University and recently co-opted by the Pontifical Committee of Historical Sciences, is author of numerous publications on contemporary history dealing with the Veneto and the Venetians. And based on his field he has turned to the topic in hand, one seemingly far removed from it in space and time. In fact, however, turning the pages of his book – more and more gripped, I must say – one discovers that the history of those lands, which go way beyond the south of Paraguay, including the province of the Misiones in northeast Argentina and much of the Brazilian State of Rio Grande do Sul (almost as large as Italy) is doubly bound up with the Italians, and in recent times especially with the Venetians (in the broad sense), who, in an epic undertaking no less daunting than that faced by the first Jesuits, again populated and civilized those lands between the 19th and 20th centuries. But already in the early days many Italians were at work in those regions. Starting from its first evangelization and its first historiography. Jesuit tradition, in fact, dates the foundation of the first Reduccion dedicated to Saint Ignatius back to Fathers Giuseppe Cataldino († 1653) and Simone Mascetta († 1658). And it was again an Italian, Ludovico Antonio Muratori from Modena, who first set down a history of the Reducciones on the basis of the letters of his fellow Jesuit Gaetano Cattaneo. In his Del cristianesimo felice nelle missioni dei Padri della Compagnia di Gesù nel Paraguay [Of happy Christianity in the missions of the Fathers of the Society of Jesus in Paraguay], published in Venice in 1743, at the height of the anti-Jesuit controversy, Muratori gives proof of that independence of mind and that insight that make the real historian when he writes that the true Church is about “to fill and sanctify a part of the world that is larger than Europe itself”, because in those lands “the spirit of the early Christians is reappearing” and “humility dwells” (see pp. 57-58). On the subject of humility, one should mention, among others, the musician from Prato, Domenico Zipoli, who, with a brilliant career as organist of the Gesù church in Rome in front of him, left for the missions in 1717 (dying of tuberculosis when not yet forty) and whose previously unknown importance is only now becoming clear, thanks to the accidental discovery of his manuscripts in Bolivia.
A glimpse of the surviving buildings in the Reduccion of Trinidad, Paraguay

A glimpse of the surviving buildings in the Reduccion of Trinidad, Paraguay

The book recommends itself on two levels. First, from a scholarly perspective, it constitutes a thoroughly up-to-date bibliographical review, of advantage to anyone needing to research the topic. For any monographic research, every teacher would like to recommend a first tool like the one Romanato offers on the characters and the events linked to the lands of the Reducciones. In fact, as well as providing a presentation raisoné of what has already been written, it also offers suggestions on unexplored avenues for research. Such as the “Jesuit architects born in Italy who worked in various cities in South America and in the Reducciones, creating the architectural style and shaping city planning: Giovanni Battista Primoli, Giuseppe Bressanelli, Giovanni Andrea Bianchi, Angelo Pietragrassa, Pietro Danesi” (p. 63). Or the other suggestion, equally interesting, as pendant to the previous one, on the destiny and influx of the hundreds of Jesuits, many of them non-Italian, who, exiled after the suppression of the Society, found acceptance in some cities in the Papal States, especially in Emilia-Romagna. “Those that took in the greatest number were Faenza, Imola, Bologna and Ravenna, and of course Rome… What mark they left on the Italian world of the time is a question still largely to be resolved. We know they wrote and published copiously and that among them were some of the best minds that had worked in the Reducciones” (pp. 66-67).
But, even apart from the academic level, Romanato’s book can be a recommended introduction for anyone who so far has only the film Mission (a splendid film and repeatedly cited by Romanato himself) as source of information on modern and contemporary history of the pivot – important not only to the South American world – that was and is the region of Paraná, Uruguay and Iguaçu. Information of interest to anyone wishing to understand the past so as to understand and love the present.

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