"No European traveller had lived so long in India. Normally the firangis' travels to India didn’t last more than two or three years," says author Marco Moneta. This is perhaps what fascinated him to delve deep into and learn more about Nicolo Manucci's life. Moneta's work, A Venetian at the Mughal Court -The Life and Adventures of Nicolo Manucci, traces the life of a European, who made India his home for more than seventy years.
This work of non-fiction is a detailed account of the traveller’s life in the country when it was under the Mughal rule - during the times of Shah Jahan, Aurangazeb and Shah Alam (Bahadur I). From being an inexperienced teenager who wanted to travel the world to becoming a self-taught medical practitioner and a renowned diplomat, the book narrates the story of a man who has witnessed India's power struggle in the 16th Century and watched it rise to power in an unknown world.
How did you learn of Nicolo Manucci?
I was particularly interested in Indian culture because it was a different kind of encounter than the one which Columbus experienced in the New World at the end of the 15th Century, a world that was totally unknown before then.
The Indian world was certainly not unknown to Europeans, on account of relations dating back to antiquity (Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire…). Nonetheless, until the first European ship, of Vasco da Gama's, reached the Malabar Coast, the European presence in India had been practically zero.
The European presence in India became relevant only from the beginning of the 16th Century. Many wrote accounts of their travels and sojourns in India. It was by reading these accounts that I came across Nicolo Manucci and his Storia do Mogor.
What prompted you to write non-fiction?
It was immediately clear to me that Manucci's figure, his manuscript, and his Indian experience, stood out from those of other European travellers. Mainly because of the length of his stay in India. Secondly, Manucci's manuscripts stood out for the width, quality and richness of the accounts in the Storia do Mogor.
The manuscript consists of thousands of pages and furthermore, it contains an extremely articulated narrative of Manucci's life as well as of the historical vicissitudes of his period, which is during the regencies of Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb and Bahadur I. They also stood out because of Manucci’s strong personality, which transpires from the pages of the manuscript.
As I have written, it is "an absorbing account, overflowing with exuberant, uncontainable subjectivity and represented as an uninterrupted long take, of the experiences, the thoughts and emotions of an extraordinary firangi".
Tell us about your research.
I was engaged in this project for about four to five years, which, it took up more than 50 per cent of my time. Reading Manucci's manuscripts (that had been partially transcribed by William Irvine and published in 1910 with the title Storia do Mogor), comparing his two drafts (the one sent to Catrou in France and the one sent to the Venetian Senate), and reviewing the critical literature, I travelled several times to India on Manucci's footsteps, following the many itineraries that he had travelled along and stopping in the places where he had lived: Goa, the Deccan, the North, and in Tamil Nadu.
It has not always been possible to cross-test Manucci's statements. When speaking about himself Manucci is often prone to exaggerating his own adventures, his successes and the role he played in events. He doubtlessly held a very high opinion of himself. But when he speaks of actual events his testimony appears to be substantially reliable.
One example concerns the house and garden in the Blacktown of Madras (that is, the part of Madras inhabited by Catholic Europeans, Armenians and Hindus); this is where Manucci claims to have lived with his wife Elizabeth before moving to the house on Big Mount (or St. Thomas Mount). If one checks the map of the city produced by Herman Moll in 1726 on the basis of the one commissioned by Governor Thomas Pitt in 1710, the place where Manucci lived with his wife is clearly indicated as 'Manoucha's Garden'.
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