The Azuchi screens (Azuchi-zu byōbu), the painted folding-screens were commissioned around 1579 by Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), the first of the so-called “three-unifiers of Japan.” They were executed by Kanō Eitoku(1543-1590), the most renowned painter of his day, and depicted Nobunaga’s newly completed Azuchi Castle and its surrounding town on the eastern shores of Lake Biwa.
Initially shown only to intimates of Nobunaga, the screens were eventually displayed for Emperor Ōgimachi (1517-1593). Ōgimachi was purportedly so enthralled with Eitoku’s work that he asked to keep the paintings. Nobunaga refused. A year later Nobunaga offered the screens as a farewell gift to the Jesuit Visitor of Missions in the Indies Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606). Valignano accepted them and, in turn, employed them as a critical prop in an ambitious project: sending four Japanese Christian youths to and across Southern Europe to promote the Jesuit Mission in Japan.
This endeavor, known as the Tenshō Boys Embassy ultimately presented the screens to Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) in Rome on March 24, 1585. Gregory promised the youths that he would leave the screens on display in the Gallery. The screens disappeared from recorded history only a few years later, but faint hope for their discovery somewhere in the Vatican or elsewhere in Europe remains.
The screens’ potential importance to several fields cannot be understated. They remain the only known depiction of Azuchi Castle, a palatial estate and military stronghold razed in the wake of Nobunaga’s assassination in 1582. The screens are one of only a handful of works that can be accredited to Eitoku. The screens presentation to Gregory XIII and their entry into the collections of the Vatican makes them, arguably, the single most important diplomatic and cultural artifact exchanged between Europe and Japan in the early modern period.
[Mark Erdmann: The Azuchi Screens & Their European Vestiges, 2018 introduction][Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
References in historical texts:
Attributed to Emperor Ōgimachi, Oyudono no ue no nikki entries for the thirteenth and fourteenth day of the eighth month, Tenshō 8 (1580). (the only known record of the Azuchi screens in Japanese source.)
Thirteenth day…Having had Kanō Genshichirō [Eitoku] paint screens of Azuchi Palace, Nobunaga came to show them and had Shunchōken [Murai Sadakatsu] bring them [here]. This evening they will be placed here.
Fourteenth day. An official rescript from the Emperor was written to go with yesterday’s screens, and although it was stained by poor calligraphy, Middle Counsellors Kajūji [Harutoyo] and Hino [Karasumaru Mitsunobu] and the new Middle Counsellor Hino [Terusuke] took the letter to Nobunaga.
[Mark Erdmann:The Azuchi Screens & Their European Vestiges, 2018, Appendix][Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
Annual letter from father Gaspar Coelho, vice provincial, to the general of the company of gesuit Claudio Acquaviva, February 13, 1582
Among them, Nobunaga ordered some paintings to decorate the room that is used by the Japanese lords, it is of great value among them and is called a Beobi. [Nobunaga[ send the Beobi to father Valignano to present. He[Valignano] accepted the gift not to upset the king who shows kind love to him. The Beobi was painted by the most famous painter in Japan and it has become a such great reputation in Emperor's palace. It is well known that the king has given the Beobi to the father, and they all remained so much favor and kindness of Nobunaga, so not only in Azuchi, but also in Kyoto, Sakai, Bungo, or in any other places people competed to see the Beobi. Thus, we had to set the Beobi at seminarios so that all people could see the Beobi and satisfied.
[Midori Wakakuwa: Quattro Ragazzi, 2003] [Midori Wakakuwa, Kiyono Shimbo, Paola Cavaliere: Azuchi city screens research project report, February 15, 2007], [Elaine Roux/Tomoko Ota: ASRN report, April 8, 2018]
Luis Fróis, “Of How the Visiting Father Went To The Capital to Visit Nobunaga, And From There Went To See Azuchiyama Again” in Historia de Japam, Volume 3, Chapter 31 (written between 1583-1597).
[Valignano] returning from that visit to Azuchiyama (modern-day Azuchi), to express his final farewell to Nobunaga and then make his way back to the parts of Shimo (Western Japan), other great favors were done to him [by Nobunaga]; one of which being that Nobunaga had ordered a year before the making of some folding screens, in the fashion that the Japanese lords normally have, which they call beobus (J: byōbu), which are gilded and painted upon and taken in high esteem; he had them made by the most distinguished official living in Japan at that time, and in them he ordered to have this city with its fortress painted, in such a natural way, that he wished it must not deviate from the truth in any detail whatsoever, containing the place and its lagoon, the houses, the fortress, the streets, the bridges, and everything else, all of which took a great deal of time to make. And the thing that made them [the screens] most famous, was the high esteem in which Nobunaga held them. The Emperor [Ōgimachi] had requested to see them, and because they pleased him, had shown that he wanted them, but [Nobunaga] dissimulated in fulfilling his request. And knowing that the Visiting Father would be making his departure, Nobunaga quickly sent him a message by one of his servants, saying that the Father had come such a long way to see him, and stayed a great deal of time in that city, and that therefore if he was making his return, [Nobunaga] desired to give him something to take for remembrance; and there being no other thing that pleased him more, he would like to offer his beobus; should the Father see them, and like them, to withhold them; and if not satisfied, to return them, showing in this gesture the love and familiarity that he held for the priests.
The Visiting Father answered him by expressing his gratitude for the kindness which he had given, and that he esteemed it even more, by being a thing that pleased him more than any other; especially since he could show with this painting in China, India and Europe, the things that by words could not be made understood about Azuchiyama.
And since the Japanese are naturally very curious to see new things, there was such a rally of people in Azuchiyama, in Miyako (modern-day Kyoto), Sakai, and Bungo (modern-day Ōita prefecture) to see the beobus, that to satisfy everyone it would be necessary to place them in the church, so that they could be freely seen by men and women; and the pagans called us the fortuned ones, since we had found such favors with Nobunaga, a thing that he did not do in any case with his naturals.
[Mark Erdmann: Azuchi Castle 2016, The Azuchi Screens & Their European Vestiges, 2018][Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
Alessandro Valignano “Rules and instructions of what the priest Nuno Roiz is to do, who is now going to Rome as a procurator,” dated December 12, 1583.
…the folding screens if possible are to be carried placed inside the large casket, which for that [purpose] I left purchased in Cochin, for it seems that either underneath the deck, or at the part of the welded structure that we purchased there would be enough accommodations for it, and putting them in [a] place where it cannot rain, nor [can it] be wet with water, and the large casket of the boys’ dresses, thou will carry it in a way that they can open it when they wish…at the very least, the beobu that Nobunaga sent along with the bamboo desk and other things that can be made up into a single cargo, I think that in any case they should go with the boys, because without a doubt they are truly [things] to be taken advantage of for the dispatch, adverting that everything is to go arranged in such a way that neither by rain or anything else it might become damaged, obtaining from the Cardinal and His Holiness a passport so that neither the boys nor the possessions should bear any trouble during the passage..
[Mark Erdmann: Azuchi Castle 2016, The Azuchi Screens & Their European Vestiges, 2018][Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
Urbino Ambassador to Rome, (likely Danielle Annibale), “Report of the Urbino Ambassador to Rome” (likely to the Cardinal d’Esta), dated March 25, 1585.
…It is so that, during their visits to the Cardinals or when others visit them, they leave everyone enthusiastic, and they apologize, saying that if they had imagined they would have received such honors and favors from His Holiness, they would have come with a following, and with precious gifts, but that when they left, their King’s thought was that they should visit privately, as an act of humbleness and obedience. They presented the Pope with a painting on a very wide and thin piece of tree-trunk, depicting their capital city, with many magnificent buildings, and with writing desks in rattan, and small tables decorated with fine works…
[Mark Erdmann:Azuchi Castle 2016, The Azuchi Screens & Their European Vestiges, 2018][Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
Roman annual report dated March 30, 1585.
They [Tensho embassy] gifted the Pope a landscape painting of their capital adorned with many magnificent buildings on a very large thin tree bark.
[Midori Wakakuwa, Kiyono Shimbo, Paola Cavaliere: Azuchi city screens research project report, February 15, 2007], [Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
Teodosio Panizza, “Letter to the Cardinal of Este,” dated April 5, 1585
I hear that yesterday these Japanese presented the Pope with gifts (and if I was told the truth by the Girini secretary Grand Duke of Tuscany) they only gave a desk and a table on which a town erected by that king of Bongo23 is engraved along with the representation of the animals of that the country, men riding on cows instead of horses (so they say it is the habit in that country), all the women and other cloth they use, and other similar peculiarities; besides they gave him a cup made from a bone of rhinoceros; to conclude all things of low value, they can be esteemed only because they come from those lands...to Rome, April 5, 1585.
[Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
Alessandro Benacci, Relatione del viaggio et arrivo in Europa, Roma et Bologna, dei Serenissimi principi Giapponesi, published 1585.
…[The delegates] presented to His Holiness the Pope and those others various goods of their country which they were able to bring with them. An extremely beautiful wrapping cloth, a small box made of wisteria wood greater in value than had it been made of silver, and an inkstone. In addition to these [items], His Holiness The Pope was presented a painting which was 2 braccio in height and 4 to 5 braccio in length and on which was depicted the principal city of Japan called Nabunanga [sic]…
[Mark Erdmann: Azuchi Castle 2016, The Azuchi Screens & Their European Vestiges, 2018], [Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
Alessandro Valignano & Duarte de Sande, “Colloquium XXIV.” In De Missione Legatorum Iaponen sium and Romanam curiam, rebusq; in Europa, ac toto itinere animaduersis dialogus ex ephemeride ipsorvm legatorvm collegtvs, & in sermonem latinvm versus ab Eduardo de Sande sacerdote Societatis Iesv, written c. 1587-1589, published 1590
...That day we presented to His Holiness some gifts that we had brought from our country as a sign of respect. Amongst these gifts was a painting that Nobunaga had given to the Visiting Father Valignano; in this painting was depicted the enormous fortress of Azuchiyama constructed by Nobunaga. Upon presenting this gift, although it was very far from adequate for His Holiness’ grand majesty, His Holiness clearly showed an air of great satisfaction; thereafter we were graciously shown the deepest chamber in the palace and His personal study, a place where could commit himself to the study of various literature. This chamber was truly a place to behold; all over there were varied, numerous, and splendidly executed paintings which invariably caught one’s eyes, and it was decorated with many volumes of books finished with the highest of quality. From there, we were brought to a type of hallway named the Gallery [of Maps]. There was a pathway for the personal use of His Holiness which passed through into a truly elegant garden called the Belvederium. As the view from here was beautiful and incomparable, this name, the meaning of which is “a stage with a commanding view,” was given to it. The Gallery was truly magnificent; as well as various relief sculptures hanging from the walls, the walls themselves had gold and in other various parts a plethora of colors applied to them; is there one who could properly explain in words the entirety of this spectacular site? Without relying on my words, I would like you, yourself, in your own mind to imagine how this could be and infer the enormous authority of His Holiness the Pope. His Holiness the Pope ordered that the several paintings on which Azuchiyama was depicted were to be displayed in this magnificent hall. This was to show that our gifts were to be counted as great objects...
[Mark Erdmann:Azuchi Castle 2016, The Azuchi Screens & Their European Vestiges, 2018], [Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
Daniello Bartoli, Dell’Historia della Compangne di Geisu, Seconda Parte dell’Asia, 1660
And then they offered gifts of some of their possessions, gathered in Japan, more by virtue of the works’ novelty than for the worth of the materials. The finest of these objects were two decorative screens known as Beobi (J: byōbu), one of which was adorned with a painted portrait of the new City and the other the unbreachable Fortress of Azuchiyama: it was these, as has been said elsewhere, that Nobunaga gave to P. Valignano, as the finest possible pledge of his love; and also because Europa, upon seeing them, had written a tale of the painting and the Japanese craftsman, both of which seemed to them to be the most divine things in the world. And truly, as is customary in such countries when crafting such exquisite objects, the most gifted master was chosen to work with his paintbrush and he then made and remade a thousand versions until Nobunaga was satisfied: and he held them in such esteem that he would only deign to show them–with great pomp–to a select few. One such person was the Dairi or Emperor of Japan, who was so enamoured with them that he asked if he might take them: but Nobunaga replied that he had no need of money, nor gold, nor silver, nor even mountains. A work of such beauty is a priceless treasure: it is a privilege to live in a time in which one might see such an object. These items from Japan were nothing short of miraculous: and though it was a great honor for Valignano that Nobunaga should deign to offer him such a gift, it afforded him great boredom to have to display them wherever he travelled, to Miyako (modern-day Kyoto), Sakai, Bungo (modern-day Ōita), in front of esteemed lords, who asked them of him. To escape this unending predicament, he resolved to show them in public, so that they could be viewed by anyone who wished to see them. The Pontiff was pleased by every item, though their provenance was sufficient to do so. In tribute, he immediately had the screens hung in his beautiful gallery: in its innermost rooms, he showed the relics and books which were his finest treasures, then he led them to see one of many geographical maps created by Ignazio Danti, an excellent mathematician, carved with precision into the wall.
[Midori Wakakuwa, Kiyono Shimbo, Paola Cavaliere: Azuchi city screens research project report, February 15, 2007], [Mark Erdmann: The Azuchi Screens & Their European Vestiges, 2018, Appendix], [Eliane Roux-Tomoko Ota: ASRN report 4.8.2018]
Maffei, Giovanni Pietro, S.j., Degli Annual report of Gregorio XIII written by his father Giovanni Pietro Maffei and brought to light by Carlo Cocquelines, Rome, Girolamo Mainaldi 1742 2 vols.
*Only description of Public audience and ceremony.