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Indian Career of an Italian Orientalist

Amar Farooqui

By Filipa Lowndes Vicente. Translated from the Portuguese by Stewart Lloyd-Jones
Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2012, pp. xiv 308, price not stated.


This fascinating book is a detailed study of the Indian ‘career’ of the Italian Orientalist, Angelo de Gubernatis (1840-1913). It is based on a systematic exploration of archival material on this subject available in Florence. The author has painstakingly pieced together the intellectual life of Gubernatis during the decade c.1878-1887. 1878 was the year in which Florence hosted the Fourth International Congress of Orientalists. Gubernatis was the key organizer of this event. About ten years later, the Indian Museum of Florence, a state-funded institution set up at the initiative of Gubernatis, was thrown open to the public. Shortly afterwards Gubernatis shifted to Rome, which is where Vicente’s narrative ends.   This is also a book about the relationship between Gubernatis and the Goan scholar and medical doctor, José Gerson da Cunha. Da Cunha’s multiple, and atypical, identities defy neat classification. A Goan Catholic, residing in British India (with a roaring practice in Bombay), he was an Orientalist in his own right. His association with Gubernatis was that of an intellectual collaborator rather than that of a passive ‘native informant’. In any case Vicente seriously questions the stereo-typical notion of the informant lacking agency, underlining the possibilities of mutual interaction which made the production of colonial knowledge a complex process. The fact that Gubernatis belonged to Italy, and not to Britain or any of the other western imperialist states, gave to his study of India an innocence that mainstream Orientalism lacked. It is in this sense that scrutinizing his career, and his relationship with da Cunha, is relevant for an understanding of ‘other Orientalisms’. Nevertheless, Vicente’s account also brings out the numerous ways in which Gubernatis’s location placed him in a privileged position in relation to colonial subjects, rendering him complicit in the exercise of power. Further, by the late 1870s Italy had joined in the scramble for Africa and Gubernatis became an enthusiastic supporter of the project. He was to later make out a case for the acquisition of Diu from the Portuguese so that Italy might have a toehold in the Indian subcontinent. These views contributed to cooling of relations between him and da Cunha towards the end of the century.   Florentine interest in Oriental studies was to some extent the consequence of its position as the capital of unified Italy between 1865 and 1871. The new nation-state was willing to extend patronage to scholarly endeavours in the ...

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