Communal harmony and prudery about sex: An Italian composer’s impressions of 17th-century India

Jagadeesh Tamilselvan 17 Aug 2021 192

Pietro Della Valle travelled along India’s west coast, reaching as far south as Calicut. His letters provide an intriguing account of the country of the 1620s...

From the 13th century, a handful of Italian merchants travelled eastwards to Asia, often documenting their voyages and sharing their impressions of the landscapes, peoples, customs and traditions of what were exotic lands for Europeans. More than 200 years after Venetian explorer Marco Polo’s late 13th century visit to India came Florentine merchant Andrea Corsali. Then followed Filippo Sassetti, another resident of Florence, who travelled to India in the 16th century and studied Sanskrit.

But it wasn’t just medieval merchants from the Bel paese who ventured as far as India. Among the visitors who came calling from Italy was one romantic adventurer whose story and chronicles of the visit stand out. A privileged man, born into immense wealth and travelling the world to recover from heartbreak, may not seem outlandish in the 21st century, but it was quite unique 400 years ago. The man who would undertake this journey was Pietro Della Valle, born in 1586 to Giovanna Alberini and Pompeo Della Valle. Such was his lineage that the Sant’Andrea Della Valle church and street in Rome get their name from his illustrious family, which also boasted of two cardinals.

Like any person born into an elite family in Rome in that era, Della Valle learned Latin, Greek, the classics as well as the Bible. Historical records indicate that he enrolled at the Academy of Umoristi, a prestigious scientific and literary academy in Rome. He even served in the military. By the time he was 25, Della Valle was already a well-known composer and musicologist, writing librettos and texts for musical spectacles.

This life of a typical Italian nobleman would change after a disappointment in a love affair. Della Valle moved to Naples, where Mario Schipano, a professor of medicine, convinced him of the idea of travelling to the East. And travel he did, making a vow to visit the Holy Land. In 1614, aged 28, he left for Constantinople and Asia Minor from Venice, and visited Egypt, Palestine and Iraq before travelling across Persia and then to India. His letters to Schipano were later compiled into books.

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Tags: History, Sex, India,
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