The Journey of Friar Ilarione da Bergamo, 1761-1768

Introduction

Starting from the 16th century, the Capuchin friars undertook missions to Africa, America, and Asia. In 1761 – 1768, Propaganda Fide sent seven Capuchins to New Spain (colonies of Spain) to collect alms for the Tibet mission. Among the friars was Friar Ilarione de Bergamo, who was sent to Mexico. During his trip, he tried to make Mexico intelligible to his readers by describing the Mexican building environment, nature, people, and customs.

 

What Describes Ilarione de Bergamo

First, Ilarione de Bergamo described his native Italian building environment: narrow, winding streets in the old town of Bergamo. Grey, ancient buildings were everywhere. De Bergamo was proud of several monumental buildings: Romanesque Church of Santa Maria with baroque interior and splendid paintings as well as the Renaissance Chapel of Colleni with fascinating facades and tombs made from marble. All the buildings were high. The first place he saw in Mexico was Veracruz, which was the main port of Mexico, and the author was surprised why it is poorly fortified. He described its various small monasteries. The landward section had walls not higher than an ordinary person.

Later he discovered that the foundation was not solid enough. There were no big palaces as in Rome, but the palaces in Veracruz had amazing architecture style: well-ordered balconies, windows, and arches in Chinese style, fascinating gates, and a beautiful courtyard with marble columns. He liked the small castles on the sides facing the sea. Unlike the Italian, Mexican churches were not well maintained. The author mentioned La Antigua, the Indian town there was not much land and a few stone houses. Most of them were made of reeds.

Second, de Bergamo noticed a big difference in nature. The climate there was more hot than temperate. He was fascinated by Mexican flora and fauna since it was the first time he saw insects that penetrated into the skin. There was an abundance of sugar, tobacco, and different kinds of fruit, for example, bananas, pineapples, coconuts. People in that place cooked a special kind of bread – cassava, made from the elongated root. There de Bergamo saw platano (banana). The plant was not woody but soft. It did not contain seeds, but reproduced with roots, and it resembled Italian cane for the author. Platanos were roasted with honey and thus had high taste quality.

In Mexico, there were many of so-called pios, which resembled Italian pineapples; in Mexico, this fruit was called ananas. Coconut trees were everywhere. The coconut resembled raw chestnut. It contained approximately half a glass of fluid. Other popular plants were watermelons, which were called ‘sandias’ by the native people. They provided some refreshments during unbearable heating. The temperature was so high that the sand was flaming hot. Birds in Mexico were far different from Italian birds.

Third, people and their customs impressed de Bergamo. The friar described Mexican women to be very beautiful, with rhetorical talent, and in his opinion, they surpass Italian women. They wore clothes according to customs. If a woman was Indian, she wore an Indian style of clothes. The Indian women in Mexico brought tortillas to the plaza to sell their products. To the author, they resembled women selling eggs. In Mexico, it was customary every day at the same time to drink warm beverages in the morning. Rich people drank hot chocolate. People who were less well-heeled replaced chocolate with atole alone or mixed with a small amount of chocolate. Mexican chocolate had very little in common with Italian chocolate.

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Instead of vine people in Mexico drank pulque, because the production of wine was prohibited according to the laws of Spain. According to de Bergamo, people in Mexico were indecent. The majority of young people who got married were not virgins. For example, many women who were getting married already had children. Thus, the country was full of illegitimate children. It was strange for the Italian friar that the most common occupation throughout the realm was smoking cigarettes. It was common for women, men, and even children to smoke in public places.

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Conclusion

Friar Ilarione came to Mexico to collect money for the mission in Tibet. He saw a completely different world with totally different customs, strange rules, and a new environment. The author was impressed by the new experience. Some features of Mexican society impressed him positively, in particular wonderful nature, hospitable people, and a rich country. He noticed some negative sides of Mexico as well, e.g. debauchery, hot climate, and diseases. Nevertheless, considering both advantages and disadvantages, it was a completely new experience that he brought to Europe.

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