The Azuchi Screens
The Azuchi screens are the most important Japanese paintings that no one alive has ever seen. This pair of six-paneled folding screens was commissioned around 1579 by the military hegemon Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), the first of the so-called “three-unifiers of Japan.” They were executed by Kanō Eitoku (1543-1590), the most famed artist of his day, and contained a meticulously detailed, birds-eye view of Nobunaga’s fortress-home Azuchi Castle and its environs. Coveted by Emperor Ōgimachi (1517-1593), the screens were gifted by Nobunaga to the Jesuit Visitor to the East Indies, Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606). The Jesuits, in turn, employed them in a historic endeavor: the Tenshō Embassy, a group of four teenage Japanese boys sent to Europe to promote the Japanese mission and bear witness to the glories of Europe. The embassy’s tour would be climaxed with the audience Pope Gregory XIII (1502-1585) in 1585. In their presentation to Gregory, the screens became the single most important diplomatic and cultural object exchanged between Europe and Japan in the early modern period. For a brief moment, they served as evidence of the promise that the archipelago held for the church and, for the earliest participants in the Republic of Letters, as a reference on Japanese society. By 1592, however, the screens disappear from the historical record.
The Research Network
The Azuchi Screens Research Network is a group dedicated to finding these priceless artworks, or in lieu of the real thing, discovering vestiges, descriptions, or other mentions of the screens that might offer new insights into the screens’ composition, character, quality, meanings, or fate. The network was born of a 2006-2007 effort that united an international and multi-disciplinary group of scholars and government officials from Azuchi Castle’s home in Ōmi-Hachiman city, Shiga Prefecture to find the screens. The group was revived and expanded in 2016 with the support of the internationally acclaimed artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. The network is currently sponsoring and overseeing two part-time researchers based in Rome and is looking to expand its efforts.
The town of Azuchi conducts the first coordinated research effort into the screens at the Vatican, but no new information is found.
Paola Cavaliere is assigned as the Coordinator for International Relations to Azuchi. She launches an inter-cultural program based on the history of the local community that centers on researching the Azuchi Screens.
Cavaliere sends letters to each city where the Tenshō Embassy (Quattro Ragazzi) visited asking for information on the Azuchi Screens, however, no information is forthcoming provided. Cities include: Macao, Goa, Coimbra, Evola, Villa-Vicosa, Guadalupe. Toledo, Escorial, Madrid, Belmonte, Mursia, Alicante, Alcudia (Majorca Island, Livorno, Pisa, Firenze, Siena, Assisi, Loreto, Imora, Bologna, Ferrara, Chioggia, Venezia, Vicenza, Mantova, Milano, Genova.
Cavaliere further contacts the institutions in Italy and in the Vatican asking for cooperation with this project. The connection is established with the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV), Archivio Segreto Vaticano, Floreria Vaticana, Vatican Museum, Ethnographic Museum, Castel Sant'Angelo, ARSI, Plazzo del Quirinale, among others others
2007 Jan 11 – Feb 10
Midori Wakakuwa conducts a research trip to Italy/Vatican commissioned by the town of Azuchi. Cavaliere and Shinbo Kiyono join her.
2008 Feb 4 - 21
Paola Cavaliere holds a research session in Florence and Rome. During these two research sessions, the following facts are confirmed.
The Azuchi Screens were placed in a gallery of Vatican before March 30 1585
On July 13, 1592, Philipps van Winghe made few drawings copying the Azuchi Screen, which means the screens existed in the gallery until that date.
The screens were moved somewhere else between 1592 and 1750.
There is no record of the Azuchi screens at Floreria Vaticana.
There were major renovations of the gallery between 1592 and 1596, 1630 and 1637.
At the property of the Boncompagni-Ludovici, descendant of Gregorius XIII, portraits of Mancio Ito and Mecheto were found.
Sugimoto Hiroshi encounters the painting of the four Japanese youths who presented the screens at the Teatro Olimpico in Venice, then begins a series of artwork, Quatro Ragazzi, inspired by the Tenshō Embassy.
Sugimoto revives the research effort to rediscover the Azuchi Screens and the Azuchi Screens Research Network is born.
2017 May 17
Alessandro Valignano's book on the Tenshō Embassy, Dialogue on the mission of the Japanese ambassadors to Rome, and the things observed in Europe throughout the journey is published in Italian. Tomoko Ota and Gen Aihara attend the reception to celebrate the publication in Chieti where Alessandro Valignano was born.
2017 Jun 26 - 30
Tomoko Ota conducts a research session at the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (BAV) checking the inventory of Barberini's assets and finds a description of "screens consist of four panels depicting cityscape on one side, and a map on the other", which roughly matches the profile of the Azuchi screens.
2018 Feb 20 – Mar 15
Éliane Roux and Tomoko Ota hold a research session. This session focused on reviewing all aspects of previous research and determining paths for future research. In re-visiting previous materials, the strong possibility is discovered that the Azuchi screens were first placed in the Gallery of Cosmography (Galeria de Cosmographia). Past research had focused exclusively on the Gallery of Maps, (Galleria delle Carte Geografiche).
Éliane Roux visits multiple cities to investigate Philips Van Winghe’s sketches of the Azuchi screens, known as the only illustrative trace of both the screens and Azuchi Castle. Roux’s report traces the pedigree of these images in depth.
2019 May 20 – 31
Tomoko Ota holds a research session in Rome focusing on the decoration of the Gallery of Cosmography, tracing the moving of Azuchi screens, as well as records relating to gifts from the Vatican to the Borghese family, specifically the property record of Francesco Barberini.
Éliane Roux visits Milan and Rome to research the intellectual community in Padua, Rome, Tourna, and Aix-Provance. This research offers further insights into the web of the communications between intellectuals in 16th-17th-century Europe and points to several new research areas as well as uncovered new information on the character and reception of the Azuchi screens.