ASIAN ART IN ITALY. A Forgotten Heritage

asia.italyFocusing on Asian art in Italy is still a rarity.

The beautiful country is famous worldwide for its artistic heritage (just think of the ancient Roman history, the Renaissance, the Baroque), which boasts the largest concentration of Unesco heritage within its boundaries. A State heavily influenced by the Christian-Catholic patrons, who often let their treasures bequeathed to the Church (now papal) even before Italian State. In a context in which every small village or town boasts architectural assets tied to these traditions (although the presents of Byzantine legacy and of Islamic art in some regions) should not surprise the absence of large museums devoted to non-Western art. This implies the lack of mass exploitation of the important Asian collections  hosted today in Italy (Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan). Not only the ancient heritage  but also the contemporary art sector still suffers, despite the presence of internationally known artists.


The Asian art which has enjoyed greater success in Italy  has always been the Japanese art.


The reasons for this success are sought in neighbouring countries, such as France or the United Kingdom, where already since the late 1800 ‘s began to circulate the works of important Japanese Masters and their students, stimulating the interest of famous artistic and cultural circles. Antique dealers, collectors and art historians thought  this art outside Europe to be closer to the development of modern European artistic movements (Impressionists are a great excellence).


The Japanese heritage in Italy is due to travel of intrepid collectors (royals, diplomats or antiquarians), who left important collections in Genoa, Venice and Turin, where are located the main museums dedicated to this arts. The value of these assets is viewed in broadening cultural horizons and in seeking dialogue with distant civilization, profoundly different from the European one.


Small dispersive manufacts of Japanese art are found in other Italian regions, but this article will focus mainly on the cultural centres that host permanent Asian collections. Here take place e usually the most important exhibitions devoted to the East, although recently several public administrations (especially Milan, Florence and Rome) have undertaken to realize exhibitions of great impact though not always have permanent collections.


The Edoardo Chiossone Museum in Genoa represents the most important Japanese museum in Italy, currently hosted at Villa Nigretto. The museum houses Japanese works from various epochs: paintings (11th to 19th cent.), weapons and armours, polychrome pottery, prints, musical instruments, theatre masques, costumes and textiles, bronze items, and a rich collection of important sculptures from Japan, collected in the Meiji era. Edoardo Chiossone (1833-1898 Tokyo Arenzano), Professor of drawing and engraving graduated from the Fine Arts Academy of Genoa, moved to Japan at the invitation of the Imperial Government, which offered him a contract as a special instructor and head of Division in the new engraving Workshop cards at Insatsu Kyoku Ōkurashō. Never dismembered or divided, this important heritage includes paintings, prints and illustrated books, Buddhist sculptures and liturgical ornaments, bronze objects, archaeological objects, coins, lacquerware, porcelains, enamel cloisonné, theatrical masks, armor and weapons, musical instruments, costumes and textiles, complements of male and female clothing. The collections came to Genoa in 1899, contained in 96 large crates. The Chiossone Museum, owned by the municipality of Genoa, is housed today in an elegant Japanese-style building. The permanent exhibition,  completely renovated, offers a sampling of collections submitted for thematic and technical classes-art: great Buddhist sculpture, armor and weapons, paintings of centuries XII-XIX, applied arts (metallotecnica, enamel, lacquerware, pottery and porcelain, clothing accessories), theatrical masks, small wood and bronze sculpture, costumes and textiles). Despite the exceptional nature of this collection, the Museum is sparsely visited by the locals, who often don’t even know its location. It is not surprising, therefore, that the lack of adequate promotion policy favouring cultural enhancement of the Museum, despite discounts and artistic events are hosted.


The MAO-Museum of Oriental art in Turin, represents an exception to the Museum of Asian Arts in Italy. It is here that scholars, enthusiasts and professionals meet to review the important collections contained within,  important for each Asian civilization. The success of this establishment is due to the interest of local institutions and nationalities, who have devoted a whole Museum of Asian art collections of the city of Turin. The first and second floors of this building of 18th century origin hoststhe Japanese collection, which includes a rich artistic production until the Edo period. In the halls devoted to Japan  wooden statues of Buddhist inspiration are displayed, as well as screens of the early 17th century, polychrome paintings and woodcuts, and a rich collection of lacquers. Large paravents are definitely the excellence of these collections, on  rotation due to their fragility. Currently is beng exhibited to the public for the first time a big six doors paravent of Kanō Yasunobu (1613-1685), younger brother of the famous Tan ‘ yū (1602-1674).


Ca ‘ Pesaro-Museum of Oriental art in Venice , is based in the old baroque palace of Pesaro, along the Grand Canal. It houses one of the greatest European collections of Japanese art of the Edo period (1615-1868), collected at the end of the 19th century by Henry of Bourbon during his trips to Asia. About 36,000 items of Oriental art are present today in the Museum. Although Venice is the Italian city that historically  had multiple contacts with the far East, even this collection struggles to be properly valued. It doesn’t receive many visits while housed in a complex that also includes an important collection of modern art.


What written so far shows that the prestige of the Asian collections in Italy does not seem to be sufficient to increase the cultural offer for these assets, on a national and international level. Writing about it  remains one of the few ways to spread the importance of these magnificent collections all over the World. You are all invited to Italy to visit them.



About Odile Milton

I travel through words whenever possible. Odile Milton is my signature on the web as I wanted an alter ego to indicate only my writings and works, not my personal life. Odile like the dancer in black swan, and Milton from the novel An old-fashioned girl. View all posts by Odile Milton

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