The Azuchi Screens Research Network (ASRN) was born of a 2006-2007 effort that assembled an international group of scholars and government officials from Ōmi-Hachiman city (Shiga prefecture) to find the so-called "Azuchi Screens." This pair of folding-screen paintings by the prominent Japanese painter Kanō Eitoku depicted a panoramic view of Azuchi Castle. Azuchi’s master, Oda Nobunaga gifted the screens to the Jesuit Alessandro Valignano in 1581 and they were subsequently transported to Rome by four Japanese teenage boys, a group known alternatively as the Tenshō Embassy or the Quattro Ragazzi. The screens were presented in 1585 to Pope Gregory XIII whereafter they soon disappeared from record. Revived and expanded in 2017 with the support of the internationally acclaimed artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, ASRN has become an international and interdisciplinary group of academics, artists, and other professionals dedicated to researching early-modern cultural and material exchange between Europe and East Asia, with a particular focus on Italy and Japan.
Since its origins, which were narrowly focused on the Azuchi Screens, ASRN has considerably expanded its mission. ASRN investigates the material culture that developed by way of the Tenshō and later Keichō (1613-1620) Embassies and other interactions with the Far East by retrieving, examining, and documenting the circumstances and pedigree of selected gifts and other imported objects. The gifts that the embassies brought were used as diplomatic tools and symbols of the political, religious, sociological, and intercultural dialogue between Japan and Europe during this first global age. Our methodology is driven by the concept of “object biography”, a theoretical approach that requires the consideration of the agency of objects (their makers, carriers, and receivers) and the conflicting views about the value and circulation of objects as they move through various geographical, social and historical contexts. For this reason, the project involves specialists in the areas of history (events and movement of objects), science (material analysis of artifacts), art history (styles, iconographies, and modes of expression), sociology and social anthropology/performance studies (human-object interaction). The Network also promotes the participation of local communities and citizens’ groups from Azuchi town in the city of Ōmi-Hachiman, Shiga prefecture where these artifacts still exercise their agency as powerful promoters of cultural identity and intercultural dialogue between Japan and Europe. ASRN also considers numerous objects in church treasuries beyond the city of Rome and others that have survived in Japanese collections in Kyoto and Sendai.
Although the Azuchi Screens remain lost, the complex web of interactions that brought them to Rome and gave them new life as research material for European scholarly networks reveal a critical need for rethinking the degree and quality of interactions between continents before the entrenchment of orientalism and rise of Japonisme. ASRN seeks to bring scholars together to explore the material culture around which these interactions revolved and, in doing so, shed light both on the screens and other East Asian-made and cross-cultural objects.
ASRN is affiliated and supported by the Odawara Art Foundation, Kyushu University, and The University of Melbourne Enlightenment Romanticism Contemporary Culture Initiative.
Image credits: Sugimoto Hiroshi, Pantheon, Rome. 2015, gelatin silver print.
©Azuchi Screens Research Network 2023