Tommaso Obicini da Novara

Vocations “come and follow me”

Tommaso Obicini da Novara, specialist of Palestine and Arabic

Tommaso Obicini da Novara

Tommaso Obicini was born in Nonio (Novara, Italy) in 1585; he became a Franciscan and in 1608 was ordained a priest. In 1612 he was appointed Vicar of the Custody of the Holy Land, but in April 1613 he left the post to devote himself to studying Arabic and was appointed Guardian of the convent of Aleppo in Syria. In the years he lived in Aleppo (1613-1620), he played a leading role in the attempt to unite the Chaldeans with the Roman Church.

On 14th March 1620, he was appointed Custos of the Holy Land. On his way from Aleppo to Jerusalem, he passed through Nazareth where he saw the abandoned sanctuary of the Annunciation and decided to return it to Christian worship.

In Jerusalem he was confronted by the difficult situation of the Custody; he reorganized some aspects of the friars’ lives and actively promoted building the sanctuaries and convents. 

In mid-November 1620, he travelled to Beirut, to meet the Emir Fakhr ad-Din and obtained the return of the sanctuary of Nazareth, of which he took possession on 29th November. The recovery of the sanctuary of St. John the Baptist in Ain Karem, of which he took possession on 29th April 1621, was also thanks to him.

On 29th May 1621, he was confirmed as Custos of the Holy Land and on 6th June he set off for Rome to discuss the problems of the Custody.

In April 1622, he renounced the office of Custos and proposed opening a College for the study of Arabic at the Convent of St. Peter in Montorio in Rome. His proposal was accepted and the Congregation of Propaganda Fide appointed him to teach Arabic. In Rome he taught at the College, was advisor to the Congregation and collaborated in the revision of Arabic translations of the Bible.

He also expressed his love for the Holy Land through his writings. In 1623, he published five works containing rituals and the texts of pious exercises practised by the Franciscans and the accounts of the recovery of Ain Karem and Nazareth. In the same year he wrote a work in which he disclosed the deplorable situation of the sanctuaries of the Holy Land, and a letter in which he sought the patronage of the Medici family of Florence for the sanctuary of St. John in Ain Karem.

In 1626, having to return to Italy, he asked for permission to stop in Venice to learn Persian and be of use in preparing an answer to the anti-Christian Persian book entitled Purifier of the Mirror. In November 1629, he returned to Rome and resumed his teaching activities, where he died on 7th November 1632.

Less well known than his activity in favour of the Holy Land is Obicini’s expertise in Arabic and pioneering work in Oriental studies. His writings on linguistics that are known to us are:

  1. (in Arabic) Isagoge Idest, breve Introductorium Arabicum, in Scientiam Logices cum versione Latina ac Theses sanctae Fidei, Romae 1621. The book aims to introduce missionaries to the philosophical and theological concepts of the Orientals so that they can debate with Muslims.
  2. Arabic grammar (in Arabic), Agrumia appellata. Cum versione Latina, ac dilucida expositione, Romae 1631. This is the translation, accompanied by a commentary of the Arabic grammar by Muhammad ibn Daʼud as- Singaji.
  3. Thesaurus Arabico-Syro-Latinus, Romae 1636. This is a revised translation of some nomenclatures of Elias bar Shinaya, called Elias of Nisibi (died after 1049).
  4. Scala (= Coptic manuscripts that contain grammar and vocabulary). Grammatica egiziana e dizionario egiziano-arabo-latino. This is a manuscript containing : the complete translation of the grammar by Giovanni as-Samannudi, the incomplete grammar by al-Asʻad abu-l Faraj ibn al-ʻAssal, the incomplete grammar by John al-Wajih al-Qalyubi and the incomplete dictionary by Abu-l-Barakat. The translation is in Latin and Italian. There is also the transcription in Latin characters of the pronunciation of Coptic in use in 17th century Egypt.

It is also thanks to Obicini that the West came to learn of the Sinai inscriptions. A collection of these inscriptions and an account remain in which he says that when he went to Mount Sinai, the monks showed him an inscription which they attributed to the Prophet Jeremiah.

There are also 56 letters of considerable interest by Obicini. In one of these, dated 10th January 1618, to Pietro Della Valle, the famous Italian traveller, he reveals his erudition and knowledge of Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic. On 4th December 1623, he wrote a letter to Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631) which accompanied a dispatch of a Samaritan Pentateuch, an important manuscript from before the 10th century and which is still in the Ambrosiana Library, Milan.

By Michele Piccirillo and G.Claudio Bottini

From the photographic exhibition: The Franciscans and the Christian Orient – Milestones of a long presence
50th anniversary of the foundation of the Franciscan Centre for Christian Oriental Studies (MUSKI)

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