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The University of Naples “L’Orientale” has its beginnings in the Chinese College founded by Matteo Ripa. Lay priest and missionary worker, Ripa worked between 1711 and 1723 as a painter and cooper engraver in the court of the Manchu Qing Emperor Kangxi. Upon his return to Naples, in November of 1724, he brought with him four young Chinese men along with their one of their compatriots who was a master in spoken and written Mandarin. Together they formed the nucleus of the institute.
Clemente XII granted the Chinese College official recognition on 7 April 1732. The objective of the institution was to train young Chinese people as priests, so they could eventually spread the Catholic religion back in China.
One of the original aims of the College was also to train people as interpreters in the languages of India and China to work for the Ostend Company, which had been formed in the Netherlands with the support of Charles V of Hapsburg. The idea was to establish trading relationships between the Far East and the Hapsburg Empire, of which Naples was a part. Already during Matteo Ripa’s time a boarding school where young Neapolitans could pay to be educated had been set up within the college. During the 1700s, its students included Saint Alfonso, Maria de’ Liguori and the venerable Gennaro Sarnelli.
From 1747 onwards, young people from the Ottoman Empire (Albanians, Bosnians, Montenegrins, Serbians, Bulgars, Greeks, Lebanese and Egyptians) were also accepted to the College with the idea of training and ordaining them as priests so they could do missionary work back in their countries of origin.
From 1736 until 1888, a group of lay priests - the Congregation of the Sacred Family of Jesus Christ - provided the educating for both the College students and the boarders. After the unification of Italy in 1868, the Chinese College was transformed into the Royal Asiatic College and divided into two sections: The old one was responsible for missionary work, and a new one offered courses to young people interested in studying Eastern languages. Even before the reforms instituted in 1878 by the then Minister for Education, Francesco De Sanctis, the teaching of Arabic and Russian had already been introduced.
After the De Sanctis reforms, the teaching of Hindi and Urdu as well as Persian and Modern Greek were also introduced. In December 1888, a State decree transformed the Royal Asiatic College into the ‘Istituto Orientale.’ This reform led to the closure of the missionary section and the Institute was awarded University status ,whereas before the Royal Asiatic College had been considered a High School.
The University of Naples “L’Orientale” today is the oldest school of Sinology and Oriental studies in the entire continent of Europe: written and spoken Mandarin has been taught there since 1724, while Hindi and Urdu from 1878. Currently the University of Naples “L’Orientale” is specialised in the languages, literature, and art history of Asia and of Africa, without overlooking the cultures of the Mediterranean, Europe and the Americas.
(Historical information provided by Prof. Michele Fatica)