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Central Asian Survey

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The legend of Boetti Sheikh

Franco Venturi
Published online: 13 Sep 2007.

To cite this article: Franco Venturi (1991) The legend of Boetti Sheikh Mansur,
Central Asian Survey, 10:1-2, 93-101, DOI: 10.1080/02634939108400737

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The Legend of Boetti Sheikh Mansur

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The impact on Italy of the revolt of Sheikh Mansur was unexpected

but extremely far-reaching. It was not only the newspapers that
talked about him, giving details of his victories and defeats but
pamphlets and articles also proliferated. A veritable myth grew up
around the figure of Sheikh Mansur. The reality of that popular
movement, illustrated by Alexandre Bennigsen in Cahiers du Monde
Russe et Sovietique (1964), receded further and further into the
distance, and historical events tended more and more to become a
revealing symbol of the worries and hopes that were emerging in
Italy itself during the final crisis of the ancien regime. The Italians
were, in the 1780s, intensely curious about everything concerning
the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea and the Caspian. Well-
known scientists, such as Ruggero Boscovich and Lazzaro
Spallanzani, travelled in the East and published their impressions
and studies. Spallanzani, the father of modern biology, lived in
Constantinople during 1785-86, observing both the natural
phenomena and the social and political situation. Toderini took his
Letteratura turchesca, the first attempt at a history of Turkish culture,
back to Venice. The crisis of the Ottoman Empire and the attempts
at reform were followed attentively by the Florentine newspapers.
In Venice, the bookseller and writer Vincenzo Antonio Formaleoni
was at the centre of an increasingly lively curiosity about events,
both ancient and recent, in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, the
emigrations of the various peoples, and the most diverse aspects of
the relationship between barbarian and civilised nations. A
particularly controversial work was Formaleoni's Storiafilosofica e
politico della navigazione, del commercio e delle colonie degli antichi
sul Mar Nero, published in Venice in 1788. The writings of the
French philosopher Volnay were extremely influential in all the chief
centres of Italy. I have tried to give an account of this ferment of
activity in Volume IV of Settecento riformatore (pp. 870ff.). The
research, especially as far as Venice is concerned, will have to
94 Franco Venturi

It is not surprising, therefore, to find that the readers of the
Florentine Gazzetta universale, for example, avidly followed the
fortune, in late 1785, of the "new prophet" who appeared in the
East. "At the head of a large body of savages, living in the vicinity
of Mount Taurus", he had defeated "an army of regular Russian
troops combined with Georgian forces and led by good officers".
His victory had "aroused an enthusiasm so great that it was infecting
all the Mohammedans in the nearby provinces, as far as the Caspian
Sea" {Gazzetta universale, 17 December 1785). Sheikh Mansur, a
bold and fortunate warrior, was also a prophet and reformer. The
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number of his "proselytes, who come from the humblest origins",

rapidly grew. "He preaches to the ignorant masses with such
success that they take him for the reformer of the Muslim sect whose
coming has been foretold." Mansur's movement represented a
potentially grave threat to Turkey, on the eve of the war with
Russia, and the Habsburg Empire; that is, that the "reform of the
Quran", and, in general, the attempts at internal change, might
develop into a "religious revolution". This was exactly what was
happening in Europe during these years, with the revolts that
accompanied the reforms of Joseph II, the Dutch Revolution and,
shortly afterwards, the French Revolution itself.
In the issue of the Gazzetta universale for 26 March 1786,
Mansur's doctrine was explained in detail. It was his "religious
counsel", and not actually a "command", that prayers should be said
not five but three times a day. On Fridays, however, everyone has
to "be seen to pray for a reasonable length of time in the mosques".
Wine was permitted, but drunkenness was to be punished,
especially if it was caused by strong liquor. "In addition to
receiving one hundred strokes of the birch", anyone who did not
obey this rule would have to pay "one hundred piastres to the mental
hospital, or stay in the hospital serving the unfortunate inmates until
the amount of the fine had been worked off. Mansur "abolishes all
exclusive rights and privileges that Mohammedans believed they had
over the Christians, with respect to the colour of their clothes and
turbans, allowing each person to follow his own taste". Prayers
"will be addressed to God, without mentioning his prophet
Mohammed", and "in prayers mention will be made of Sheikh
Mansur - that is, prayers will be said for him, too. Mohammed will,
however, continue to be respected as a law giver and as the compiler
of the Quran, and every year a holiday will be observed in his
honour, and a magnificent fair will be held". The pilgrimage to
Mecca was declared pointless and a matter of pure superstition;
"people will be allowed to travel there with the usual caravans when
The Legend of Boetti Sheikh Mansur 95

the object of their journey is simply to carry on trade". Sheikh

Mansur ordered that the Christian religion should be respected,
"because he hopes that it will provide him with men of learning to
perfect the arts and sciences". "The Jews, too, will be respected,
for he plans to introduce regular trade into his countries through
them." "He urges his peoples to dedicate themselves
wholeheartedly to farming, which he hopes will strengthen both his
men and his power." "He wishes tolerance to be unbounded,
forbids all disputes on religion between people of different faiths,
and orders that every man should be respected as a brother." The
"reform of the Quran" ended with a series of rules and requirements
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of a legislative and political nature. "He commands that a code of

laws be drawn up for his government, and with this purpose in
mind, having heard of the Code of Justinian, he is currently having
it translated into Turkish, so that he can take from it anything that
can be adapted to his own aims."
The Gazzetta universale of 13 May 1786 published an
important dispatch, which seems to contain the seeds of the later
developments in the myth on Mansur in Italy. "Recently he
arranged for a winged person to appear in public, and gave his
credulous people to understand that this was the genius of the
universe, the watchful spirit, who had chosen Mansur as the
reformer of the Quran. On Mansur's instructions, the winged spirit
addressed his entire, numerous army with these words:"... Muslims
have committed an intolerable abuse of the laws, so wisely laid
down for them; the wretches have degenerated from the principles of
their ancestors, who so passionately defended my honour and my
name. They are no longer my chosen people; division reigns
amongst them, and I no longer care to be worshipped by them ...
Mohammed ignored the fate of the Tauric Chersonese, who had
fallen under an infidel yoke. In order to calm the minds of true
Muslims he allowed publication, in the city of the Great Lord, of a
vast, ill-omened work called the Encyclopaedia, suited only for
making men proud and overweening ... Wretched Muslims! You,
who are illuminated by a higher light, had no need to encumber your
minds with the confused ravings of human spirits. You received the
impulses of the divine mind in all their purity, and you had in front
of you the object of their workings, our dear mother nature.
Mohammed also allowed Muslims to listen to the plans of seductive
conquerors, belonging to other sects. Let new people arise, let the
earth bring forth new generations which, faithful and obedient like
shy little children, will not depart from the straight path of the light.
After so many centuries, so many circlings of the heavenly
messenger, let heedless Mohammed at last be rejected, and may you
96 Franco Venturi

rise in his stead, O enlightened Mansur, like a new fruit in the

springtime that gladdens the heart of the impatient worker of the
A month later the following notice appeared at the end of the
issue of 29 June of the Gazzetta universale: "The celebrated Sheikh
Mansur's code for the reform of the Quran has been brought all the
way from the Caucasus to Italy, and promptly translated from
Arabic into our language. The pamphlet is unique of its kind, and,
in addition to the reform, contains some terrible prophecies by this
new sectarian, who predicts the fulfilment of some of them in the
not very distant future. The title is as follows: The Reform of the
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Quran and the Prophecies of the Modernising, Enlightened and

Watchful Prophet Sheikh Mansur. Translation From Arabic. Some
copies are available in Florence from Anton Giuseppe Pagani for the
price of one paolo."
The pamphlet foretold a "great revolution" which was to be
universal and egalitarian. It was to take place in the year 1812, and
in order to prepare the way for it, a "reform of the Quran" was
necessary. The reform would involve numerous changes. No taxes
would be levied on land. "Generously the earth gives you its fruits;
would you presume to diminish its intrinsic value with taxes? Taxes
will only apply to useless objects." A "general assembly" would set
up a rapid and efficient legal system. Slavery would be abolished.
"Man is subject only to the Supreme Being." "Your pleasure will be
just when you free a human being from servitude to restore him to
his only rightful master." The punishment of exile would also be
abolished, for it was an "imaginary punishment" which would make
sense only if the convict was sent where "he found no earth to
support him, no victuals to live on, no men to communicate with, no
tasks, no jobs to pass the time ... Instead of exile you will condemn
the guilty to live in the trees, where you will keep them confined,
preventing them from touching the earth with their feet which they
have contaminated by their misdeeds". "You will also abolish
tolls." It was a "shameful inconvenience" for a person "to have to
give an account of what he wishes to carry with him". "Lastly, you
will destroy the big cities, which, like so many whirlpools, swallow
up the provincial towns." Big cities were "the very portrait of
contradiction", "a receptacle for extreme opulence and excessive
misery". There was an "eternal struggle" between them. "The
peoples of many nations are sacrificed for the benefit of
Constantinople, Paris, London, Rome, Smyrna and other large and
populous cities which, like a diamond truly surrounded by dung, are
a compound of spirit and stupidity, beauty and extravagance,
greatness and depravity." "What a glaring contradiction! Where
The Legend of Boetti Sheikh Mansur 97

there is abundance, even excess of everything, there you will see

numerous wretches dying of hunger; where the wisest laws are in
force, all is disorder, and obstacles everywhere, impediments and
difficulties lie in the way of true public good; and while on the one
hand nothing is encouraged but ostentation, lust, pride, and the
satisfaction of the most unbridled passions, on the other hand we
see nothing but nakedness, humiliation, despair, oppression and
slavery. It seems that the more men have striven to make laws to
help them live happily together in great numbers, the more they have
been corrupted and have increased the sum of their troubles.
Mortals, are you not children of the same earth? How is it that you
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tolerate such inequality in the very places which you continually

proclaim to be the kingdom of cleanliness, discretion and humanity?
Therefore dismantle these whitened sepulchres without delay and
divide yourselves into well-ordered families across the pleasant
countries that the earth offers you, on the sunny hills, the merry
river-banks, the gentle plains and the delightful beaches of the calm
seas, and you will live happily without disturbing one another, and
there will be no need to burden yourselves with taxes raised for the
destruction of the human race, to increase the comforts, pomp and
pride of the one who rules over you."
"These, then," concluded Mansur, "are the aims of the present
reform." But the road that would lead to the great transformation,
due to take place in the "august and venerable year", was long and
rough. The prophecy uttered "on the sixth day of the sixth moon of
the era of the Hegira 1163", that is in 1785, predicted a whole series
of great events over the next twenty-five years, culminating in the
promised conclusion of 1812. The "last and most important" event,
which was to precede this egalitarian conclusion, was the subject of
the last prophecy in the series. "Two years beforehand, great
earthquakes will destroy many cities; there will be horrible,
universal tempests, followed be fatal diseases and bloody wars,
which will so terrify the peoples of the earth that they will flee; but
their flight will be in vain, for wherever they go they will be the
playthings of the public calamities ... Then finally, when men at last
realise the unspeakable madness of making war on one another, war
will be abolished and its very name banned; accordingly, in every
city the instruments of the destruction of the human race will be
publicly destroyed and burned - the cannons, the carbines, the
sabres, the lances, the arrows, etc. - and all that remains will be one
weapon of every kind hung in a public place to serve as a monument
to the human folly that capriciously chose to become its own
exterminator." After the resolution abolishing war, a second
resolution decreed the abolition of every solid difference. "The
98 Franco Venturi

nobility will be abolished, for it is a purely artificial rank and an

inducement to empty pride. All citizens will be equal; the only
person to stand above the others will be the ruler, or the subject
whom he designates to represent him in each of the various
countries." Finally, a third resolution abolished all taxes.
Who was the Florentine who was harbouring such thoughts as
these in 1785, and who conceived of the approaching revolution as a
process that was both gradual and yet totally egalitarian in its final
consummation? Who criticised the scientific, encyclopaedic spirit?
Who seemed to accept a form of deism that no longer had anything
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to do with the Christian tradition and was, moreover, permeated by

a profound sensitivity to the sorrows and misfortunes of his fellow-
men? Who, in short, was able to give an original, indeed a
curiously refined and ornate form to the ideas deriving from
Rousseau, Mably and Mercier? One name naturally springs to mind
- that of Filippo Buonarroti. Many years later, returning in his
Conspiration pour I'egalite to the ideas for which he had fought in
the French Revolution, Buonarroti emphasised some of the
fundamental themes in the criticisms, denunciations and curses that
we have seen emerge in the Reform of the Quran. Still almost
prophetic in tone, he wrote, for example: "As it came nearer to
equality, society would inevitably see the disappearance of those
great conurbations, so detrimental to morals and to the people
themselves; the men whom it is right to put to work would go back
to the land, to help out those who are over-burdened with work; the
industrious citizens would beautify the lives of those who fed them;
the simplicity of the government would remove this multitude of
clerks who have been taken away from farming and the useful arts
... There would no longer be a capital city, or any large towns; the
country would be unobtrusively sprinkled with villages, built in the
most salubrious and comfortable places ... when there are no more
palaces, there will be no more hovels either." Peace would be one
of the happiest consequences of this new society.
The pamphlet of 1786 aroused great curiosity in Italy. We find
an interesting echo of it in the Giornale enciclopedico, a periodical
which was a continuation of the Memorie enciclopediche published
in Bologna by two of the most active and intelligent journalists of
the time, Ristori and Compagnoni. In the very first issue, which
came out in 1786, Compagnoni dedicated an essay to Mansur,
whom he saw as a strange mixture of fraud, fanaticism and, at the
same time, energetic desire for reform. "Sheikh Mansur said to
himself, 'Mohammed was no more than a buffoon, just like me. A
little courage brought him out of obscurity and dependence; a little
more raised him to the position of despot and prophet. Why
The Legend of Boetti Sheikh Mansur 99

can't I, too, become a prophet and a despot? Let's have a go'."

Everything depended on the ability of the "Man of spirit" to act upon
the "imagination of the ignorant". There was no need to perform
miracles. It was enough to "convince people that you had
performed them". Mansur had "seen this truth". His preaching had
"made the Divan laugh" but had made "the shepherds and bandits of
the Caucasus turn pale and tremble". And he had known how to fan
their flame. "Take up arms; you are the executors of the orders of
the Eternal One", he had said. It was not surprising that these
works of his had made a deep impression. "Looting and pillaging
are ideas that are only too congenial to a man who is both poor and
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physically strong and these two ideas call for a third to lend them
nobility. What is the idea that links all these ideas together? Guess
what it is! It is the complete lack of ideas." Religious fraud, in
other words, was necessary in order to spark off the revolt.
Mansur was, in short, a typical example of how men passed
from one form of fanaticism to another. It was not difficult to guess
how he had managed to impose his views on others. "A fanatic is
never alone. His disease is contagious, and the slightest breath of
wind spreads it over a vast multitude. We are of the opinion that at
this very moment Mansur has proselytes of good faith in
Constantinople. On the plains of Asia his work is gaining
credence..." The theologians sent from the Porte to "examine him
formally" would not curb his influence. "Do you not know what the
consequences of the disputes will be?" What good was done by the
controversies with which the Christian Church tried to curb Luther?
In Compagnoni's view, then, Mansur was an important
manifestation of the crisis that was affecting religious and political
institutions everywhere. But how was it possible for this fanatical
Asian impostor to be so influential? What on earth had induced his
followers to give "credence to a buffoon like Mansur"? "Signor
Cagliostro," wrote Compagnoni at the conclusion of his essay, "said
in Paris, 'I will arrange for you to dine with Newton and Henry IV,
and one of the most respected personages in France believed him."
In short, the crisis was general, and the fanaticism of Mansur simply
revealed those aspects of fraud and fervour that were present
A few months later, in Florence, Compagnoni read the pamphlet
on Mansur which had just been published there and was thus able to
find confirmation for his views. This prophet had "drawn upon
himself the attention of the universe". There was no longer any
question of merely comparing his deception with that of Mohammed
and the many other deceptions that were flourishing in Asia and
Europe. At the heart of his message lay a profound revolt,
100 Franco Venturi

to which one could not shut one's eyes. "In declaring himself a
prophet" Mansur "has taken the first step towards shaking his
fellow-citizens out of their lethargy. Men who lack the education
which creates the habit of thinking will at first accept no proof but
the miraculous. If there is anything that they do not not understand,
then that is what they must believe." Mansur had indicated to his
followers that their "object" was "their liberty". "We are all alike,"
he had told them, declaring his opposition to anyone who might
"raise his head to oppress us". This "proposition" of Mansur's
"actually blunted the Pasha's sword", broke "the closed seal which
constitutes the Vizir's entire authority", and compelled the agents of
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the Sultan of Constantinople to silence. "Equality, therefore, now

avenges the human race which despotism used to insult."
"It is remarkable", Compagnoni concluded, "that while every
day in Europe, plans for new legislation are put forward by the
philosophers, the faces of governments change, and the nations are
promised a happiness that flees further and further from them with
every repetition of the promises, a barbarian should carry out so
well, in the deserts of the Caucasus, a reform which the boldest of
our thinkers could not have imaged. Presumptuous Europeans!
You have set yourselves up as judges of all the empires and ages of
the past. Mansur is your judge."
Thus Mansur became a myth, an example of the incumbent
revolution. Curiosity about him grew and spread even after the
defeats he had suffered. The newspapers began to identify him with
the missionary Gian Battista Boetti. And since then this improbable
confusion between the rebel of the Caucasus and the Italian friar has
often been repeated. Even such a serious scholarly work as the
Dizionario biografico degli italiani recently made the same error. A
critical study of the problem has, however, been made by the
scholar Gianni Marocco in an article published in Studi piemontesi,
November 1981, pp. 312ff. The documentation, which is
preserved in the Archivio di Stato in Turin, would be worth re-
examining. The restless figure of Boetti, doctor and Dominican,
adventurer and missionary, seems to have been one of the numerous
channels through which the deeds and ideas of Sheikh Mansur
became known in Italy. For Boetti too, religious reform lay at the
centre of the events which shook the Ottoman Empire on the eve of
Turkey's war against Russia and Austria. The reform envisaged by
Boetti pales beside that which we have met in the Tuscan
newspapers and pamphlets. But an element of criticism of all
positive religions and a rejection of all traditional morality can also
be detected in the papers of the Piedmontese missionary. Here are
some of his affirmations: "There is only one God, who must be
The Legend of Boetti Sheikh Mansur 101

worshipped in spirit and truth; all external forms of worship offend

him ... Christ was a just and holy man; he was prophet as many
others are ... It is a heinous crime to beg and thank the All-
Powerful. The world had its beginning, but it will never end ...
The sovereigns are the image of God when they are as they should
be ... Adultery is a great crime ... fornication is no sin at all ...
The Pope and the Mufti are impostors".
Here Boetti stops. The egalitarian and revolutionary
development that we have seen in the Tuscan pamphlet on the
reform of the Quran are absent here. However, Boetti's words also
testify to the wide variety of forms assumed by the myth of Mansur
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in Italy. Only Buonarroti and Compagnoni, undoubtedly two of the

most original writers in Italy in the late eighteenth century, set
Mansur up as a universal model. But the spirit of revolt which had
shone in the Caucasus in the name of Mansur also exerted upon the
strange Piedmontese missionary, Boetti, an influence that is of
interest to any observer of the final crisis of the ancien regime.

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