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September 9, 2017

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An Italian’s Chinese love affair through art

IN 1601, an Italian missionary named Matteo Ricci entered the Forbidden City in Beijing, the Chinese imperial palace, opening a path for East-West cultural exchange that many more people followed on.

Inspired by Ricci’s legend, in 1986, Dionisio Cimarelli, then 21, boarded the Trans-Siberian train to Beijing for the first time.

“China has long been one of my passions. Since I was a student, I have been very interested in Chinese culture, Chinese art, Chinese people,” says Cimarelli, who now teaches sculpture at the New York Academy of Arts.

“So in 1986, I stopped my study in the academy and I decided to move to China. Matteo Ricci probably went to China to teach, but I went primarily to understand, which was also my way to try to understand and exchange, and explain to the Chinese my culture, my education, and Chinese can teach me their own culture.”

China at that time was not yet fully open to tourism and the streets of its cities were full of bikes, no busy traffic at all, he recalled.

“In 1986, I found China a poor country, it was coming out from a very difficult time in terms of economy and culture. But in 1986 I was also able to see the beginning of the change after the opening-up,” he says, referring to China’s adoption of reform and opening to the outside world in 1978.

Cimarelli returned to find a very different China in 2004 and stayed nine years.

Getting closer to Chinese culture

“I feel very lucky and I’m very, very proud that I was able to see this change which would not only be part of China, but also part of the world change,” he says. “I saw huge change. From 1986 to 2004, China already changed a lot.

“But during my nine years from 2004 to 2013, there was huge, enormous, amazing change. I was able to see every week the difference in Shanghai and Beijing, which I was going to very often.

“I would say that in 2007 and 2008, there were the biggest changes in Beijing before the Olympic Games — it was a complete 180-degree change.

“I could also see the change in people, the change in the attitude of the Chinese. They became more wealthy, they started to travel, they started to know. For the young people, they were able to do their PhD in Europe and the US. You almost can't recognize the country.

“China for me was an amazing experience, incredible. That’s why I was able to stay for such a long time. It is because I’ve always been interested and curious and have always been learning the history and the mentality of the Chinese people, to understand them.”

In Beijing, Cimarelli met Situ Jie, a renowned sculptor at the Central Academy of Arts. He was then introduced to other professors and students. In 2006, he moved to Shanghai to work at a cultural institute.

Soon his expertise and experience in China caught the attention of the Italian government which commissioned him to do a sculpture of Ricci for the Italy Pavilion at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai.

“Matteo Ricci came from close to my hometown,” said Cimarelli. “What he did was build a bridge between Western culture and Chinese culture.

“So when they offered me this opportunity, I was really excited. I said ‘of course I would do it. I tried to make it something unique, something different which could represent Italy and represent China’.”

Cimarelli finally created a 1.5-meter-tall bronze sculpture of Ricci adorned with gilded calligraphy — Cimarelli’s name in Chinese. It took him six weeks to model and another 12 to finish the sculpture which went to the Shanghai Italian Center in 2013.

Life in China also transformed Cimarelli’s pursuit of art, making figurative sculptures in Chinese porcelain instead of Italian ceramics.

“When I made my series of porcelain, that was probably the most important learning, because I never did any porcelain before,” he says.

“I was coming from a culture of ceramic, Italian ceramics, which looks similar but is completely different. So porcelain for me is an understanding of the culture of China, an understanding of a way of living, an understanding of a way of working.

“Porcelain was a step closer to Chinese culture.”

Italy is a nation with close cultural ties to China. So it is no surprise that in China the two most famous historical figures from the West are Italian — Marco Polo and Ricci.

He is confident that Italy, once an important terminal of the ancient Silk Road, would play a major role in Belt and Road. Apart from the economics, Cimarelli says, Belt and Road, just as the ancient Silk Road did, serves a deeper cause too — the exchange and understanding of cultures.

“I think primarily it’s business, he said. "That was the same in the Middle Ages when Marco Polo was traveling. But behind that, for me the culture is very important.

“It would be like a way, a road along which you can do business, but also cultural exchange which we need today. I think today we need more bridges than walls, we need more understanding rather than trying to avoid each other.”


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