A native of Pavia, Italy, Mezzabarba obtained a doctorate in canon and civil law. He worked in the papal secretariat in Rome and became governor of Todi and later of Sabina. He was ordained a priest in 1718 and was consecrated a bishop the following year. In 1719 Clement Xl appointed him legate to Peking, where he was to settle the Chinese Rites Controversy, which had arisen as a result of the discussions of the emperor with the first papal legate, Charles Thomas Maillard de Tournon in 1705 and 1706. Mezzabarba went to Lisbon for an audience with the Portuguese king and reached Macao in 1720. From late December of that year until early February 1721, he was cordially received by the emperor in Peking. However, Mezzabarba’s defense of the 1715 papal decree that condemned the rites displeased the emperor, who had hoped that Mezzabarha would personally explain the imperial position to the pope and then return to China.
Mezzabarba left Peking in March and reached Macao in May 1721. His pastoral letter, sent to missionaries with instructions not to translate it into Manchu or Chinese, indicated that he had no intention of suspending the 1715 decree on the rites but explained eight agreements on the rites that he had presented to the emperor. The missionaries could discuss these concessions with the Chinese if the need arose. Contrary to claims that Mezzabarba had acted on his own in issuing the eight agreements, archival research has shown that he had received them just before leaving Lisbon. Taking the remains of Cardinal Tournon for burial in Rome, he left Macao in late 1721 and, traveling eastward through Brazil and Portugal, arrived in Rome in May 1723. Two years later he was given the title of Patriarch of Alexandria and was named bishop of Lodi, Italy. He died in office.
This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.
- Giovanni di Fiore, La legazione Mezzabarba in Cina, 1720-1721 (1989); Ludwig von Pastor, History of the Popes (1941), 33:468-484; R Ritzler and P. Sifrin, Hierarchea catholica medii et recentioris aevi (1952), 5:77, 238; Antonio Sisto Rosso, Apostolic Legations to China of the Eighteenth Century (1948); Sostegno Maria Viani, Istoria delle cose operate nella China da Monsignor Gio. Ambrogio Mezzabarba (1739).