Azuchi Screens Research Network

Ōte path, Azuchi Castle Ruins, Omi-Hachiman city, Shiga prefecture
Ōte path, Azuchi Castle Ruins, Omi-Hachiman city, Shiga prefecture

Summary

The Azuchi Screens Research Network is a project focused on uncovering information regarding and related to the character, quality, meanings, and fate of a remarkable set of Japanese painted folding screens gifted to Pope Gregory XIII in 1585. These paintings were commissioned around 1579 by Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), the first of the so-called “three-unifiers of Japan,” and 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. The paintings were gifted by Nobunaga to the Jesuit Visitor of the East Indies, Alessandro Valignano (1539-1606) in whose hands they were employed in a historic endeavour: the Tenshō Embassy, four Japanese teenagers who were sent to Europe to promote the Japanese mission and bear witness for their countrymen of the glories of Christian Europe. In their subsequent presentation to Gregory, the screens became the single most important diplomatic and cultural object exchanged between Europe and Japan in the early modern period. By 1592, however, the screens disappear from the historical record.

Owing to their international story and the broad scope of research interests that they link, the Azuchi screens represent a rare nexus on topics related to the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century. The product of Japanese warring-states propaganda, a critical prop in Jesuit designs, and after their disappearance the focus of networks of scholarly inquiry by the European Republic of Letters, the screens touch on multiple issues related to pre-modern political legimisation, Japanese Confucianism, diplomatic currencies, colonisation, Jesuits and Portuguese trade networks, as well as European perceptions of the Far East. On top of this, the screens represent and reflect an unparalleled moment in early modern history of vibrant exchange between two distant, but confident cultures navigating the implications of a first encounter with a military and cultural peer.

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 acclaimed artist Hiroshi Sugimoto. The network is currently sponsoring and overseeing two part-time researchers based in Rome.

Core members

  • Aihara Gen – Sugimoto Studios
  • Paola Caveliere – Associate Professor of Japanese Studies and Associate Director of the Human Sciences Undergraduate Degree Program at Osaka University, School of Human Sciences
  • Dr Mark K Erdmann – Lecturer in Art History at the University of Melbourne
  • Shinbo Kiyono – Lecturer and Research Fellow at the Graduate School, Chiba University
  • Anton Schweizer – Kyushu University

Events

  • Beyond the Southern Barbarians: Repositioning Japan in the First Global Age Online Symposium, Panel “From Azuchi to Rome: The Tenshō Embassy and the Azuchi Screens” 16/2/2021
  • “New Research on the Azuchi Screens,” Azuchi Community Center 29/6/2019
  • Quattro Ragazzi: Hopes and Illusions of the Momoyama Renaissance | Europe through the eyes of Hiroshi Sugimoto and the Tenshō Embassy, MOA, Atami 10/6/2018, Nagasaki Prefectural Art Museum 27/1/2019

Press

Website

Azuchi Screens Research Network

Contact

Dr Mark Erdmann (University of Melbourne)

Image credit: Ōte path, Azuchi Castle Ruins, Omi-Hachiman city, Shiga prefecture. Photo by Mark Erdmann, 2017.

Themes related to this project

Other research projects