1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Conti, Nicolo de'

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CONTI, NICOLO DE’ (fl. 1419–1444), Venetian explorer and writer, was a merchant of noble family, who left Venice about 1419, on what proved an absence of 25 years. We next find him in Damascus, whence he made his way over the north Arabian desert, the Euphrates, and southern Mesopotamia, to Bagdad. Here he took ship and sailed down the Tigris to Basra and the head of the Persian Gulf; he next descended the gulf to Ormuz, coasted along the Indian Ocean shore of Persia (at one port of which he remained some time, and entered into a business partnership with some Persian merchants), and so reached the gulf and city of Cambay, where he began his Indian life and observations. He next dropped down the west coast of India to Ely, and struck inland to Vijayanagar, the capital of the principal Hindu state of the Deccan, destroyed in 1555. Of this city Conti gives an elaborate description, one of the most interesting portions of his narrative. From Vijayanagar and the Tungabudhra he travelled to Maliapur near Madras, the traditional resting-place of the body of St Thomas, and the holiest shrine of the native Nestorian Christians, then “scattered over all India,” the Venetian declares, “as the Jews are among us.” The narrative next refers to Ceylon, and gives a very accurate account of the Cingalese cinnamon tree; but, if Conti visited the island at all, it was probably on the return journey. His outward route now took him to Sumatra, where he stayed a year, and of whose cruel, brutal, cannibal natives he gained a pretty full knowledge, as of the camphor, pepper and gold of this “Taprobana.” From Sumatra a stormy voyage of sixteen days brought him to Tenasserim, near the head of the Malay Peninsula. We then find him at the mouth of the Ganges, and trace him ascending and descending that river (a journey of several months), visiting Burdwan and Aracan, penetrating into Burma, and navigating the Irawadi to Ava. He appears to have spent some time in Pegu, from which he again plunged into the Malay Archipelago, and visited Java, his farthest point. Here he remained nine months, and then began his return by way of Ciampa (usually Cochin-China in later medieval European literature, but here perhaps some more westerly portion of Indo-China); a month’s voyage from Ciampa brought him to Coloen, doubtless Kulam or Quilon, in the extreme south-west of India. Thence he continued his homeward route, touching at Cochin, Calicut and Cambay, to Sokotra, which he describes as still mainly inhabited by Nestorian Christians; to the “rich city” of Aden, “remarkable for its buildings”; to Gidda or Jidda, the port of Mecca; over the desert to Carras or Cairo; and so to Venice, where he arrived in 1444.

As a penance for his (compulsory) renunciation of the Christian faith during his wanderings, Eugenius IV. ordered him to relate his history to Poggio Bracciolini, the papal secretary. The narrative closes with Conti’s elaborate replies to Poggio’s question on Indian life, social classes, religion, fashions, manners, customs and peculiarities of various kinds. Following a prevalent fashion, the Venetian divides his Indies into three parts, the first extending from Persia to the Indus; the second from the Indus to the Ganges; the third including all beyond the Ganges; this last he considered to excel the others in wealth, culture and magnificence, and to be abreast of Italy in civilization. We may note, moreover, Conti’s account of the bamboo in the Ganges valley; of the catching, taming and rearing of elephants in Burma and other regions; of Indian tattooing and the use of leaves for writing; of various Indian fruits, especially the jack and mango; of the polyandry of Malabar; of the cockfighting of Java; of what is apparently the bird of Paradise; of Indian funeral ceremonies, and especially suttee; of the self-mutilation and immolation of Indian fanatics; and of Indian magic, navigation (“they are not acquainted with the compass”), justice, &c. Several venerable legends are reproduced; and Conti’s name-forms, partly through Poggio’s vicious classicism, are often absolutely unrecognizable; but on the whole this is the best account of southern Asia by any European of the 15th century; while the traveller’s visit to Sokotra is an almost though not quite unique performance for a Latin Christian of the middle ages.

The original Latin is in Poggio’s De varietate Fortunae, book iv.; see the edition of the Abbé Oliva (Paris, 1723). The Italian version, printed in Ramusio’s Navigationi et viaggi, vol. i., is only from a Portuguese translation made in Lisbon. An English translation with short notes was made by J. Winter Jones for the Hakluyt Society in the vol. entitled India in the Fifteenth Century (London, 1857); an introductory account of the traveller and his work by R. H. Major precedes.  (C. R. B.)