A journey to the East

Added On June 17, 2017

For thousands of years, people, goods and culture have flowed between Italy and China on the ancient Silk Road.
One man continuing that tradition is the artist Dionisio Cimarelli, who has created a sculpture of one of his heroes.
In 1601, an Italian missionary named Matteo Ricci became the first European to enter Beijing's Forbidden City. 
As the first Western scholar to study Chinese literature, Matteo Ricci began a path that many have since followed. 
Dionisio Cimarelli is one of them, who even as a student, was fascinated by the East.
"China is one of my very old passion. Since I was a student, I was very interested in Chinese culture, Chinese art, Chinese people. I met some Chinese people in Italy and I always get close to them very easily, even we are so far, we are able to talk very easily and nicely, we had a very good understanding right away. So in 1986 I stopped my study in the academy and I decided to move to China for a big trip."
Inspired by Matteo Ricci's experience, the 21-year-old Italian art student boarded a Beijing-bound train in 1986. A journey that would take a week.
In Beijing, he met Situ Jie, a renowned sculptor at the Central Academy of Arts. 
He was then introduced to other professors and students at the academy.
By 2010, Cimarelli was in Shanghai working in a cultural institute.
His expertise and experience had caught the attention of the Italian government. And they proposed for him to do a sculpture of Matteo Ricci. 
"Matteo Ricci was coming very close to my town, from Macerata. For me when I came to China for the first time, I got a big inspiration by Matteo Ricci, his attitude, his way of traveling, his way of thinking, it was very inspiring, even though he was not an artist, as a person, his amazing personality. So always I was thinking about this wonderful person, and what he did as a bridge between the Western culture and the Chinese culture. So when they offered me this opportunity, I was really excited, I said, of course I would do it."
The sculpture proved to be challenging. 
For authenticity, Cimarelli switched from the usual Italian ceramic, to the more Chinese-style of porcelain. A material he had never worked with before.
And to help, he even moved town: from Shanghai to Jingdezhen, China's porcelain city. 
From materials to design, everything was different from what Cimarelli had learned in Italy.
"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. So for me to choose porcelain is a step forward closer to the Chinese culture. So that's why I decided to move from Shanghai to Jingdezhen, which is the most important city for porcelain in China. It was not easy to do that because it was far away, it was in the countryside, but it was an amazing, incredible experience. I was so excited to understand, to put together my Italian experience, my Western experience with the Chinese technique with porcelain."
After six months, the sculpture was ready, and Cimarelli says he is happy with the result.
It was displayed in the Italy Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010, and collected by the Shanghai Italian Center in 2013.
In his 30 years in China, the Italian says he has seen China change greatly, through opening up, economic development, and the Olympics in 2008.
A new driver of change is the Belt and Road Initiative. 
But with so much attention and investment going into the initiative, Cimarelli says it is important to remember the original wasn't just about trade...but also ideas and culture.
"For me the culture is very important. It would be like a way, a road along which you can do business with countries, but there is also cultural exchange which we need today. I think today we need more bridges than walls, we need more understanding than trying to avoid each other. So I think this is a very wonderful idea, this is exciting, and I really hope we'll work as soon as possible, and we'd like to see the results of cultural exchange."
And if there is one symbol of what cultural exchange really is... a statue, made in Chinese porcelain, by Italian hands, of the first man inside the Forbidden Palace...could just be it.