5 interesting facts about Venetian traveler Nicolò Manucci

26 May 2023

Who was Nicolò Manucci?

I desired greatly to see the world

Born in 1638, Nicolò Manucci was a a young boy from San Stin in Venice who set off to discover the world when he was only 14 years old, leaving Venice hidden in the hold of a tartana never to return to his homeland. To this day, the account of his incredible journey is one of the most important testimonies to 17th century Mughal India.

Here are 5 interesting facts about the one of a kind life of Nicolò Manucci

1. Caught on board

Nicolò embarks and hides in the hold of a large ship, unaware of his destination and the length of his journey. The ship's officers became aware of Nicolò's presence in the hold of the tartan a few days into the voyage. They thought he was the son of some passenger and did not investigate further.

Within 2 days of being on the ship, Nicolò was forced out by hunger and was almost shipped off at the next port. Thankfully for him, Henry Bard, English Viscount of Bellomont (1615-1656) took him under his wing while he was on a secret mission for the English crown, King Charles II.

Nicholas is discovered in the tartan,1653 © Guido Fuga

2. A writer who cannot read nor write

Thanks to his travels and connections, Manucci was fluent in many languages: He could speak Persian, Italian, Portuguese, French but never learned how to read nor write. This did not stop him from writing his memoirs and sending them back to Europe to become an important testimony of 17th century Moghol India.

Nicolò Manucci © Guido Fuga

3. A work longer than the Divine Comedy

He comissioned the Storia del Mogol, a 600,000 words series to tell his extraordinary journey to 17th century Mughal India. For comparison, the Divine Comedy has about 101,000. This impressive work, which consists of five books, was written by no less than 10 different scribes in Italian, Portuguese and French using the scribe available at the time. Nicolò Manucci intends to play the role of a historian: the autobiographical experience alternates with the narration of Mughal life, myths and legends and fascinating folk beliefs.

Unfortunately for him, after various plot twists the various manuscripts did not get published in Europe as he wished. The intricate events surrounding Storia del Mogol and its failure to be published, and which involved writers and officials from the East India Company, Jesuit and Capuchin missionaries, Venetian diplomats and statesmen, Portuguese translators and numerous other personalities of various nationalities, still constitute a unicum in the history of European literature.

Manucci dictates the 'Storia del Mogol' to scribes, 1699-1701 © Guido Fuga

4. An unlicensed doctor

Prior to arriving in India Nicolò had absolutely no medical background. One day he was summoned by Afghanistan’s ambassador in Delhi. The ambassador was convinced that every European was a connoisseur of modern medicine so he asked Nicolò to heal an indisposed family member. He succeeded in curing the poorly relative who was probably just eating too many spices.

Following this unexpected success, he later on learned the basics of medical art after attending the hospital in Goa run by the Carmelite Friars for two years and subsequently the hospital in Delhi, run by the Jesuit Fathers.

Manucci physician in Lahore prepares an improvised enema, 1669 © Guido Fuga

5. An escape disguised as a monk

Nicolò desperately strived to live among Europeans again, however he was stuck working at Mughal court to the service of Shah Alam. He made a last commission to artists from the Mughal court of Aurangabad to produce miniatures for his Libro Rosso and then secretly escaped the territories of the Mughal Empire disguised as a sick Augustinian monk. In 1686, he reached the city of Madras, then under British jurisdiction, where he would be free of Shah Alam’s claims.

Nevertheless, he was persuaded by his friend François Martin, Governor of Pondicherry, to abandon the idea of returning to Europe and to marry in India, since he was now an elderly man and accustomed to Indian food and weather. In October 1686, he married a young English widow, Elizabeth Hartley, in Madras.

In 1720 Nicolò Manucci died at the age of 82 years old without having ever made it back to the shores of the Serenissima.

Manucci escapes from Golconda with a stratagem and takes refuge in Madras, 1686 © Guido Fuga

Curious to know more? Come visit exhibition Nicolò Manucci, the Marco Polo of India at Palazzo Vendramin Grimani.