Giovanni da Pian del Carpini

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Giovanni da Pian del Carpini


Italian Explorer

Long before Marco Polo (1254-1324), there was Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, an Italian priest sent by Pope Innocent IV on the first European mission to the court of the Mongol's Great Khan. Two years before Polo was born, Carpini returned from a journey that had taken him to many of the same far eastern territories later visited by the Venetian adventurer.

Born in the village of Pian del Carpini near Perugia in Tuscany, Carpini was the same age as St. Francis of Assisi, and when the latter formed the Franciscan order of monks in 1209, Carpini became one of its first members. He later served on Franciscan missions that took him all over Europe: to Germany, Spain, Bohemia (now the Czech Republic), Hungary, Poland, and Scandinavia. By the age of 63, he had become exceedingly obese, which made traveling difficult for him; yet it was then, in 1245, that the pope commissioned him to the task for which he became famous.

In 1241, Mongol invaders had very nearly taken Vienna, and though they had relented—their Great Khan, or leader, had died, and the choosing of a successor took the Mongols' attention from the attack on Europe—the pope understandably feared that the invaders would return. Therefore he decided to send a mission eastward, protesting the invasion of Europe and offering to send Christian missionaries to the Mongols. Though Carpini was on in years, his wisdom and experience made him an ideal candidate to lead the expedition.

Despite his infirmities, there is no record that Carpini complained about the hardships of the journey, which began in Lyons, France, on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1245. The immediate destination was Russia, controlled by a Mongol force led by Batu Khan and known as the Golden Horde, and to get there the delegation passed through Bohemia, Poland, and Ukraine. Finally on April 6, 1246, the group reached Batu's camp on the banks of the Volga.

Carpini was surprised to find Batu little-impressed by the fact he had come on a mission from the pope, and the Mongols' treatment of the delegation was far from gracious. This was unusual, given the Mongols' habit of respecting the religions and religious leaders of other cultures. In any case, Batu did provide the mission with an introduction to the court of the Great Khan, and they set out again later in April.

The travelers' route took them through inhospitable lands: the plains of southern Russia, the deserts north of the Caspian Sea, harsh central Asian regions controlled by Muslims who submitted to Mongol rule, and finally across the Altai Mountains. After passing the latter, located on what is now the border between Russia and Kazakhstan, the expedition entered territories directly controlled by the Great Khan, whose court they reached on July 22, 1246.

Not long afterward, the Mongols elected a new Great Khan, Kuyuk, and Carpini reported on the lavish celebration held in his honor, attended by some 4,000 representatives of nations from throughout the known world. After a few months' stay, on November 13, 1246, the mission set out on its return journey with a message from Kuyuk to the pope. The response was not the one Innocent had hoped for: in his letter, Kuyuk demanded that the pope submit to him as the representative of God on earth.

Though they endured considerable hardships in their wintertime mountain crossing, the delegation found themselves received much more warmly than before when they reached Batu's camp on May 9, 1247. A month later, they also found a joyous reception among the Russian Christians in Kiev. Carpini reported to the pope in Lyons on November 18.

In later years, Carpini went on an unsuccessful papal mission intended to persuade France's Louis IX (later St. Louis) to postpone a Middle Eastern crusade. He was also appointed bishop of Antivari on the Adriatic coast, but, after his appointment was disputed by the local archbishop, he returned to Italy and died there on August 1, 1252. As for the feared Mongol invasion of Europe, it never came: when the Mongols under Kuyuk resumed their attacks, their target was the Muslim world, where in Nazareth in 1260 they suffered their first serious defeat at the hands of the Mamluks.


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Giovanni da Pian del Carpini

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