Unifying Spirit between East and West: Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), Italian Renaissance painter in the Forbidden City.

By Matthew Ehret

“In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we should ensure that when it comes to different civilizations, exchange will replace estrangement, mutual learning will replace clashes, and coexistence will replace a sense of superiority. This will boost mutual understanding, mutual respect and mutual trust among different countries”

-Xi Jinping, Belt and Road Summit, 2017

The Italian Translation of this article can be downloaded here.

Now that a new paradigm of trust, mutual respect and cooperation amongst the various cultures of the world has taken on a new empowering life led by Xi Jinping’s vision of the Belt and Road Initiative, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the BRICS+, thinking citizens must take the opportunity now to embody the best character of this new renaissance spirit. This means that instead of looking only at what separates the various cultures of the world as distinct from their neighbours, the time has come to commit ourselves to a true universal renaissance, whereby each culture finds what is most beautiful, good and truthful in themselves and also in their neighbours. The best discoveries of each culture when cross pollinated in this way will create new and incredible wholes that will always be more than the sum of their parts, and contain greater degrees of potential for creative expression and understanding than each could sustain on their own.

A Renaissance Mind in the Forbidden City

For those who are not familiar with the figure of Giuseppe Castiglione (aka: Lang Shi Ning 1688-1766), it is extremely rewarding to explore his works and incredible life as the court painter of three emperors during the Qing Dynasty (Kangxi, Yongzhen and Qianlong) from 1715 to his death in Beijing in 1766.

Giuseppe Castiglione (aka: Lang Shi Ning), scientist and court painter to three emperors featured with scientific instruments introduced by the Jesuits into China

Although very little today remains of Castiglione’s original letters and writings, his genius can still be strikingly felt and studied. Born in Milan and trained in the renowned Botheghe Degli Stanpator art studio by master painters Carlo Cornara, and Andrea Pozzo, Castiglione was contracted to produce paintings for Jesuit churches in Italy before heading off to China at the age of 19. Emperor Kangxi had requested the services of Jesuit specialists in optical perspective, painting, mechanics, clock making, medicine, enameling and topographical projections.

Castiglione’s style harmonically blended the most powerful discoveries of the west with the east, including linear perspective, chiaroscuro (albeit in an extremely subdued form to satisfy Chinese aesthetic tastes), and refined Chinese pigments and poetic symbolism. Although missionary painters had been trying since the time of Matteo Ricci (1552-1610) to introduce western artistic styles into China, painting never found an organic form to take hold until Castiglione [1].

Castiglione’s “Bean Flowers and Millet.”

His use of oil techniques, renaissance realism with Chinese pigments and styles had never been accomplished in an organic manner before. His style became known as Xianfa or ”line method” [see Appendix], a technique which, while beautiful, was incredibly challenging as the tempura on silk process was much more unforgiving to mistakes compared to traditional canvases used in Europe. Castiglione not only revolutionized painting but also copperplate engravings, architecture, and even enameling, crafting new techniques and blending styles in eastern and western aesthetics in all domains [2].

Upon arriving in China, Castiglione was immediately called into the royal court and asked to paint a bird for Emperor Kangxi who was so impressed with the young man’s work that he soon assigned him ten students.

Emperor Kang Xi (1661-1722) had been educated both by the official Confucian scholars and by the Jesuit missionaries in the Court. He became a close collaborator with the Jesuits in the study of astronomy, science, music, and philosophy. He believed firmly in the coherence of the Christian teachings of the Jesuit Fathers and the core philosophic outlook of the Confucian tradition in China, and had issued an edict to allow the Jesuits to proselytize freely throughout the country.  

Like Matteo Ricci, who had first established the cooperation between the Jesuit Fathers and the Chinese Court during his time in China (1583 until his death in 1610), and also like Emperor Kang Xi, Castiglione believed in uniting and transforming both Chinese and European cultures through a pursuit of beauty and excellence in all domains of science, the arts, and engineering. It was recognized by these great thinkers that simply preaching a religious text was not sufficient to do justice to God’s will, and that nothing short of studying the book of nature in pursuit of the mind of God would suffice at truly winning converts and allies.

Matteo Ricci

Sadly, none of Castiglione’s works from the period in Kang Xi’s court have survived. The earliest works preserved by Castiglione begin in the reign of Kangxi’s son Emperor Yongzheng (1722-1735). This includes the 1723 hanging scroll “Gathering of Auspicious Signs” [see figure 3] produced for the new emperor’s inauguration, and his famous One Hundred Steeds (1728). During Emperor Yongzheng’s reign, Castiglione worked intensively on flowers, birds, landscapes and other animals taking each subject to new poetic and technical heights along the way.

Gathering of Auspicious Signs (1723) the earliest known work by Castiglione which masterfully blends chiaroscuro and renaissance realism with Chinese aesthetics

During this process, Castiglione’s works on portraiture also attained incredible realism never before seen in China, despite the challenge of not being permitted the right to employ chiaroscuro (light and shadow) techniques as Chinese aesthetics during the Qing period considered such uses of shadow in portraiture as morally inferior. Even with this restraint, Castiglione was able to convey a deep realism and spirit in the personalities of his figures, more of which will be discussed below.

One Hundred Steeds features a stunning example of Castiglione’s achievement of three dimensionality. The large (94cmx7.5 meters) silk scroll features three vanishing points to allow for the immersion of the viewer into the rhythm of each part of the painting which they could experience at once while still harmonizing with the whole.

Following in the tradition of Leonardo Da Vinci, Castiglione is also credited for producing the first treatise on Perspective in China, The Science of Vision (Shixue) in 1729. He designed many murals in the Forbidden City for Emperor Qianlong using the Trompe l’oeil effect (Quaduratura) which was popularized in European cathedrals and theatres [see figure 5]. Castiglione’s collaborator in the publication of Shixue was a brilliant Chinese mathematician, painter and government official named Nian Xiyao who wrote in the book’s preface:

“China has cultivated a great tradition of depicting nature in landscape paintings but neglected the accurate representation of projection and the measurement of buildings and implements. If one desires to depict these objects correctly, one must use the western technique.”

One of the many examples of the “Trompe l’oeil effect” in the Forbidden City painted by Castiglione features the illusion of a much greater space than the physical boundaries of a room provide.

The Rites Controversy: The Threat to Renaissance Science and Art in China

The close collaboration between the Qing Court and the Jesuit Fathers was fundamentally destroyed by a process known as the Rites Controversy, which began during the reign of Kang Xi and came to its drastic end during the reign of his grandson Qianlong. The fault lies entirely with the Venetian faction within the Church in Rome. Since the time of Matteo Ricci, who was the first to recognize the profound nature of the Confucian tradition, both in its philosophic and religious nature and in its embrace of a scientific outlook toward the development of man and nature, he and the Jesuits who followed him over the next century were given leading positions in the court, especially in the Bureau of Astronomy, which played a central role in Chinese society.    

Gottfried Leibniz, whose correspondence with several Jesuit Fathers in China led him to publish detailed comparative studies of Christian and Confucian beliefs and practices (see Leibniz, Novissima Sinica, 1697), described Kang Xi as a monarch “who almost exceeds human heights of greatness, being a god-like mortal, ruling by a nod of his head, who, however, is educated to virtue and wisdom…, thereby earning his right to rule.” Leibniz wrote, anticipating the New Silk Road:

 “I consider it a singular plan of the fates that human cultivation and refinement should today be concentrated, as it were, in the two extremes of our continent, in Europe and in China, which adorns the Orient as Europe does the opposite edge of the Earth. Perhaps Supreme Providence has ordained such an arrangement, so that as the most cultivated and distant peoples stretch out their arms to each other, those in between may gradually be brought to a better way of life. I do not think it an accident that the Russians, whose vast realm connects Europe with China and who hold sway over the deep barbarian lands of the North by the shore of the frozen ocean, should be led to the emulation of our ways through the strenuous efforts of their present ruler [Peter I].”[3]

In 1692, Kang Xi issued an edict granting all Christians the right to teach, preach, and to bring Chinese subjects into the Catholic Church, requiring only that civil servants, who were chosen for their positions based on national examinations in Confucian moral and social teachings, would Maintain moral allegiance to the Confucian principles and continue to perform the rites and ceremonies appropriate to their offices.

A debate ensued in Rome, with the Jesuits being accused of condoning “pagan” practices and supposedly obfuscating the Confucian views regarding God. (see Matteo Ricci, the Grand Design, and the Disaster of the `Rites Controversy’)

Over the next fifty years this faction, knowing little or nothing about China or the Confucian ideas, argued that a Chinese subject must renounce Confucianism before becoming a Christian. They succeeded in convincing several Popes to issue Papal Bulls against Christian adherence to Confucian beliefs and rites. Since adherence to Confucian moral and social teachings were the basis of government service, these dictates from Rome were essentially demanding a revolt against the government and the peace of the state by Christian recruits. Kang Xi had no choice but to expel the Christian missionaries in 1720, although he allowed several of the leading scientific advisors to retain positions in the Astronomy and Engineering bureaus – and he allowed Giuseppe Castiglione to remain in the Court to continue his painting and teaching.

More than a century of collaboration between Renaissance science and culture in the West and that of Confucian China in the East was drastically and tragically curtailed. (The scholar Nathan Sivin has argued forcefully that this era of cooperation had witnessed a true scientific revolution in China.)  The pace of the dramatic scientific and economic progress within China slowly contracted over time, while in the West, the imperial forces centered in Venice and later in the Anglo-Dutch Empire asserted their power over the humanist forces which had supported cooperation between East and West. By the 19th Century, British gunboats, loaded not only with weapons, but also with opium from British India, invaded and conquered the weakened forces in China, unleashing the “Century of Humiliation” of imperial occupation and forced legalization of opium in China.     

Qianlong Emperor: Castiglione’s Protector and Patron

The progress made during the Kang Xi reign, due in no small part to the collaboration with the Jesuit Fathers, was in part sustained under the following reigns of Yongzheng and Qianlong (reigned 1735-1796), both of whom continued to cooperate with the few Jesuits who had been allowed to remain in China – including Giuseppe Castiglione. Qianlong, the Qing dynasty’s 4th and longest reigning Emperor, saw himself walking in his grandfather`s footsteps as an ecumenical unifier of the diverse multi-ethnicities, religions and language groups in China.

Qianlong also had to resist efforts by his more radical advisors who demanded that all Jesuits be expelled from the Imperial Board of Astronomy which they had led since the early days of the Qing Dynasty.  He also promoted Castiglione to 3rd civil official rank and Vice President of the Six Boards[4]. The Emperor also sponsored the fusion of western-eastern mixing of the visual arts and architecture in ways never before seen. The National Palace Museum of Taipei features the following description of Qianlong’s outlook on the arts:

“Qianlong, who perceived detailed, naturalistic painting as a means of propagating the magnificence of the Qing empire was a particularly strong proponent of this mixing of eastern and western artistic styles”

One of Castiglione’s close allies in Beijing was Ferdinand Augustin Hallerstein (1703-1774), who served as a leading diplomat between the east and west as well as the head of the Imperial Board of Astronomy from 1746-1774. Hallerstein’s letters provide insight into the tense atmosphere of the court and the Emperor’s resistance to the anti-Christian pressures being applied by his advisors. Early in the Emperor’s reign all efforts made by the missionaries to speak with the Emperor and plead for leniency had been blocked by the court eunuchs and mandarins. Hallerstein documented how a memorial letter of leniency had been presented by Castiglione to the Emperor in 1736 with the following account:

“The Emperor came as usual to sit by him and watch him paint. The Brother laid down his brush and, suddenly assuming a sad expression, fell to his knees and after uttering a few words Sacred Law drew from his breast our Memorial wrapped in yellow silk. The eunuchs of the presence trembled at this Brother’s audacity, for he had concealed his purpose from them. However, the Emperor listened to him calmly and said to him in a kindly way: “I have not condemned your religion; I have simply forbidden the people of the Banners [referring to officials and military forces—ed] to embrace it”. At the same time he signed to the eunuchs to receive the Memorial and turning to Castiglione he added: “I shall read it, do not worry, and go on painting”[5]

It was in this same year that China’s first painting Academy was established which heavily promoted the Xianfa style and Castiglione was made “official court painter”.

Governance and Art

Since Castiglione’s art is very much connected to the governance of China, it is important to briefly look at the political environment shaping his art from several angles.

After putting down Mongol uprisings in 1755-59 [see appendix], and extending the empire’s territories to include Tibet and some areas now in Central Asia, the Qianlong Emperor did not enslave the Mongol Buddhist or Zunghar (central Asian) peoples, but rather worked to build, beautify and protect their temples, mosques and other cultural treasures. In mastering their languages, and even adopting many of their customs as his own, the Emperor, who was fluent in 5 languages, described his approach to cultural diplomacy in the following terms:

“When the rota of Mongols, Muslims and Tibetans come every year to the capital for an audience I use their own languages and do not rely on an interpreter… to express the idea of conquering by kindness.”

In the various portraits which Castiglione was commissioned to paint of the Qianlong Emperor for display in the various regions of China, the Emperor consciously projected himself differently to each constituency. The National Palace Museum of Taipei described the strategy thus:

”To the Tibetans, Qianlong portrayed himself as a re-incarnation of one of the most important bodhisattvas of Tibetan Buddhism, Manjusri; for the Mongols, he took on the role of a Steppe prince who understood their steppe traditions; and to the Han Chinese he portrayed himself as a scholar and a great patron of Chinese Learning and art”

Three examples of Qianlong Emperor’s portraits as he projected himself to various constituencies in the Chinese kingdom (with Manchu warrior armor (left), formal Han royalty (middle) and Buddhist Manjusri (right).

Most importantly, however, the Emperor saw himself not as an elite dictator, but as a humble servant. In many of his portraits, Qianlong ensured that Castiglioni portrayed him with his family, studying paintings or practicing calligraphy, or hunting deer rather than formal imperial styles [see figure below].

Castiglione Portraits of the Qianlong Emperor in His Study (at left-date unknown) and detail of Qianlong and the Royal Children at right (1736-37)

Emperor Qianlong promoted a Confucian policy of political harmony through the advancement of arts and culture. For this reason, Qianlong loved his friend Castiglione more than all other missionaries and advisors, assigning him as the official court painter during his entire reign, with Castiglione being the only foreigner ever permitted into the personal bedchambers of the Emperor and his wife in order to paint their portraits[6]. He made Castiglione Administrator of Imperial Parks and commissioned him to design the decorations and western-styled pavilions inside the gardens of the Old Summer Palace in the Yuanmingyuan in 1747. The British made sure to destroy these works during the 2nd Opium war of 1860 and only relics remain today, although artistic reconstructions do exist which feature a glorious image of a classical fusion of eastern and western architecture [see figure 11].

Castiglione’s designs of the Old Summer palace now exist only as destroyed relics (on the left). An artist’s reconstruction of the Palace at the height of its grandeur is featured (on the right)

When Castiglione died on the 17th of July 1766 in Beijing, the Emperor personally wrote his obituary, erected a tomb stone and ensured that he was buried alongside the two greatest Jesuit missionaries who paved the way for a new paradigm of universal renaissance thinking, Matteo Ricci and Johann Adam Schall von Bell.

Since the destructive consequences of the Opium Wars and the foreign imperial control over China, the school of Xianfa has fallen idle and largely forgotten. However, with President Xi Jinping  leading a new era of ecumenicism and cultural exchange under the New Silk Road, the spirit of Castiglione and other great renaissance visionaries can finally be revived and taken to a new level.

A Revolution in Copperplate Engraving

The 1754-59 battles to subdue an insurrection and expand China`s territories was immortalized in a series of 17 elaborate copper prints which were designed by a team of missionaries led by Castiglione and produced in the finest engraving center of the world in Paris. King Louis XV directly ensured that his finest engravers led by Charles-Nicolas Cochin produced the works which were then sent back to China. The project took an incredible seven years to complete and the quality of the design and execution was recognized as some of the best in the world.

Two of the 17 copperplate engravings are featured above with “The Lifting of the Siege of the Black River Camp” (left) and “Battle of Qos-Qulaq” (at right)


[1] Matteo Ricci introduced several instruments to the Chinese court during his pioneering work in Beijing, including the clavicord (“gukin”). He also composed eight moral poems titled “Songs for Western Keyboard” (Xi qin Quyi), each being rendered into a musical composition utilizing counterpoint. Today only Matteo’s text survives though not his music. Ricci also introduced many religious paintings which did not resonate with the Chinese at the time.

[2] Marco Musillo, Reconciling Two Careers: The Jesuit Memoir of Guiseppe Castiglione, 2008

[3] G.W. Leibniz, Preface to the Novissima Sinica (News from China), translated by Daniel J. Cook and Henry Rosemont, Jr., in Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’s “Writings on China”, Open Court, 1998, pp. 45–46. For the full story of Leibniz’s extraordinary design and efforts to unite Europe and China, see The Leibnizian Roots of Eurasian Integration by Jason Ross, Executive Intelligence Review, April 29, 2016

[4] This was the highest rank ever achieved by a Jesuit. See Friederike Biebl, The Magnificence of the Qing – European Art.

the Jesuit Mission in China

[5] Natasa Vampelj Suhadolnic, “Ferdinand Augustin Hallerstein on Giuseppe Castiglione’s Art”, 2015

[6] In an anonymous, unpublished biography of Castiglione written soon after his death, the anecdote of the Emperor’s admiration for the painter is described as well as Castiglione’s humility and disdain for honors: “Since he was a child, he was an admirer of Castiglione and developed a great love and filial affection for him. As soon as he became the Emperor, he could not stand the fact that the worthy old man did not have any honors, so he decreed that he would enter the Order of Mandarins. […] A lot of people started to congratulate him openly on what they thought was a settled fact, but the virtuous old man abhorred these kinds of honors, […]. So while asking God for what he had to do to avoid those honors […] he looked unusually sad so that his friends took it as a clear sign of his unwillingness to accept such a favor: a clear sign indeed also for the Emperor, who as he did not want to afflict the very person he wanted to gratify, recalled the decree, something which rarely happens. Castiglione’s humility had prevailed.” (Musillo, 2008, p. 54).


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