Story of a Friulian missionary, philosopher and theologian

[1648 – 1704]

Mattia Andrea Brollo was born in Gemona del Friuli on 25 March 1648 in a little medieval hamlet known as Borgo Portuzza, between the crag on which the castle stands and the fourteenth-century cathedral, into a family which joined the minor local nobility in 1658. He died in China on 16 July 1704, in Sanyuan, Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi.

He began his studies under the guidance of his uncle, Don Andrea, the town teacher, before going on to the Jesuit school in Gorizia. He returned to Gemona around the year 1665, and in 1666 he began his novitiate in Bassano, joining the Franciscan order under the new name of Basilio da Gemona.

photo: Idealised portrait of Basilio Brollo, oil on canvas by Vigilio Pitscheider (Monselice, Museum of Franciscan Missions).


In the early 1690s  Brollo and Della Chiesa, with their confrere Nicolai, moved to  Nanking, where Brollo represented Della Chiesa in a bitter conflict over jurisdiction with Jesuit bishop Alessandro Ciceri, who did not recognise the authority of the apostolic vicars. The conflict continued for many years, ceasing only upon the arrival in China, in 1699, of the papal bull and brief of 1696, in which Della Chiesa was appointed Bishop of Peking and Brollo apostolic vicar of Shaanxi.

Busy assisting Della Chiesa as he settled in the capital city of the Empire, Brollo delayed his departure for Shaanxi until April of 1701, when he finally set off for this remote but illustrious province of inland China, which had been repeatedly contacted by Jesuit missionaries in the first half of the seventeenth century, but then left to itself for decades. In the province he worked hard at his favourite occupation, as “pastor to the poor”, travelling great distances over tall, impervious mountains and overcoming the resistance his wavering health opposed to his apostolic mission.

It took Napoleon to stop him: after raiding the Apostolic Library of the Vatican in 1797, stealing one of the best copies of the 1699 dictionary, included among the 500 manuscripts to be given to the French following the Treaty of Tolentino, in 1808 he ordered that the code be used as a model for printing the  first Chinese-French-Latin dictionary in Europe. The great enterprise was completed in 1813 by the Frenchman de Guignes, appointed to the task by his sovereign.

The result was a violent dispute that arose immediately in France, in the course of which the best European sinologists accused the French of plagiarism, promising to return to  Brollo the dignity of his rights as the dictionary’s author in a subsequent edition, which was however never printed. Subsequent nineteenth-century editions continued, in fact, to cite Guignes as the author of the dictionary, while Brollo continued to be known and appreciated in Friuli and in Italy simply as a missionary.  Not until the 1850s, and the 1904 celebrations of Brolli’s work, was Brollo’s role finally recognised, thanks above all to greater knowledge of the French affaire.


Chinese-Latin dictionary

Gemona Library contains one of the rare copies of the Chinese-Latin dictionary printed in Hong Kong in 1853 to survive the fire that destroyed most of the copies and the shipwreck of the ship carrying the surviving ones to Europe. It was brought to Gemona by Father Cherubino da Sappada, who came directly from China in May 1902.

A few years earlier he had completed a work he considered essential for more effective propagation of the faith, in an Empire that counted 150 million “infidels” and no more than 200,000 Christian converts at the time: compilation of a Chinese-Latin dictionary to replace the previous ones, which he considered unsuitable for an apostolic mission that now included missionaries of various different nationalities and languages, who required a dictionary translating Chinese into Latin, which all the clergy had studied, rather than Spanish or Portuguese.

And so it was that two different Chinese-Latin dictionaries were produced between 1694 and 1699. The first of these ordered the Chinese characters, and their translations, on the basis of their keys or radicals, making them particularly useful for interpreting and translating texts written in the Chinese language. The second dictionary, completed in 1699, was ordered in phonetic or alphabetic order, listing the characters according to their pronunciation, to make it easier to teach the spoken language.

Brollo’s two dictionaries were a great success right from the start: hundreds of copies were made by missionaries, who unanimously recognised them as the best Chinese dictionaries in existence, and in fact between 1731 and 1735 the Holy See attempted unsuccessfully to have Brollo’s 1699 dictionary printed in Rome.

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