Giappone - Storie d’amore e guerra Geisha and samurai, beautiful women and legendary heroes
The greatest Japanese artists of the 19th century will be on show including Hiroshige, Utamaro, Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi, with a complete panorama of Japanese life in this period through the display of samurai clothes, kimonos, fans and photographs.
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Geisha and samurai, beautiful women and legendary heroes, kabuki actors, fantastical animals, visionary worlds and strange landscapes are the protagonists of the exhibition Japan. Tales of Love and War.
A selection of more than 200 works of art describing the Floating World of ukiyo-e has been brought for the first time to Bologna, where the elegant and sophisticated atmosphere of the Edo period, present day Tokyo (1603-1868) has descended on Palazzo Albergati.
The greatest Japanese artists of the 19th century will be on show including Hiroshige, Utamaro, Hokusai, and Kuniyoshi, but the exhibition also gives a complete panorama of Japanese life in this period through the display of samurai clothes, kimonos, fans and photographs.

The exhibition describes the alluring feminine world of the geisha, the ōiran (high ranking courtesans) and the fascinating world of the legendary samurai warriors. It traces the origins of ukiyo-e and the famous erotic shunga prints; there are depictions of Nō and Kabuki theatre actors; as well as the natural world in all its manifestations – flowers, birds and landscapes.

A rich programme of educational and informative activities will run parallel to the main exhibition including the tea ceremony, the creation of origami and more. In short, it will be a wonderful journey through the history, art and beauty of Japan.

Under the auspices of the Comune di Bologna, the Consulate General of Japan in Milan and the Fondazione Italia Giappone, the exhibition has been organized by the Gruppo Arthemisia and curated by Pietro Gobbi, a leading scholar of Japanese art.
The technical sponsor is Trenitalia.

The event is recommended by Sky Arte HD.
The catalogue is published by Arthemisia Books.



SECTION 1- Ukiyo-e Places and themes

The establishment of the military rule of the Tokugawa (early 17th century) was followed by a long period of peace that allowed for the emergence of a new prosperous middle class: merchants, craftspeople and artists developed a hedonistic culture of the floating world, ukiyo.

Ukiyo-e became the artistic language and means of communication because of its accessibility in terms of cost, which over time became cheaper, and the speed with which they spread by virtue of the printing method.

Technique, editions, print runs and antique reproductions Ukiyo-e engravings are technically woodblock prints, a method of printing in relief, originally Chinese, which developed naturally from the use of seals dating from the Han period (206 BCE – 220 CE) and probably introduced to Japan in the 7th century.

As opposed to Western engravings, produced solely by the artist who directly carried out the carving of the master blocks, several people were involved in the creation of Japanese woodblocks coordinated by the publisher.

When the design was ready, the artist passed it to the carver who glued it face up to a block of wood and followed the outline to create a key block.

The printer then carried out a small print run and the artist added instructions for the colours.

Some prints proved very popular and led to more editions with several print runs.

At the end of the 19th century, there was a revival of interest in ukiyo-e. Some publishers had copies of the finest work by the old masters, now rare and expensive, made by new artists who retained the original energy and atmosphere.

With the opening up of foreign markets and the resulting increase in demand, the copies started to be made by craftsmen.


SECTION 2 – Feminine beauty

The subjects of exhibits portraying feminine beauty are bijin, geisha and ōiran. Commercial and publicity aspects played a not inconsiderable part in their production; many of those who commissioned these splendid works, exquisitely executed in their detail and colouring, were the major fashion houses and dressmakers.


The ukiyo woman – noblewoman or heroine, courtesan or geisha – reflected the new culture and the lively city life it brought with it. They are highly sensual figures, their poses seductive: grace, fragility, luxury and majesty are the salient features of how these women presented themselves for the artists’



The geisha, literally meaning “artist”, was originally a dancer and player of musical instruments, later becoming a refined companion expert in the art of conversation, dance and music. In the Western collective imagination the term quite soon took on a misleading meaning that identified geisha as courtesans.


A high-ranking courtesan, the key figure in the life of the pleasure quarters, was equally expert in entertainment and also had to excel in painting and in the tea ceremony.

SECTION 3 - Shunga

Shunga literally means “spring pictures”, a euphemism for the sexual act: it is an important genre in ukiyo prints being highly erotic. The depiction of sexual organs, passionate embraces and fantastical scenes are how playfulness is translated graphically in an elegant view of sex.

The disproportionate dimensions, one of the resources of Japanese comic and ironic illustration, give rise to a joyous and playful feeling.


SECTION 4 - Surimono Private presentation print

Surimono literally means “printed thing”, in reference to the application of a pad to a sheet of paper attached to the inked block and hence a printed sheet. The languages of figurative art and poetry are harmoniously combined into an elegant and refined composition full of atmosphere. Surimono were privately commissioned as greetings cards or to mark special occasions and printed on high quality paper using the most sophisticated techniques.

They first appeared in the late 17th century (a surinomo designed by Moronobu dates from circa 1690), and barely a century later, helped by Hokusai’s woodblocks, they were widely used.

SECTION 5 - Nō and Kabuki theatre

The world of Japanese theatre is depicted through actors from Nō and Kabuki theatre, the two oldest and most famous styles. Also on display are the characteristic masks such as those worn by actors playing the parts of young girls and demons.

Nō literally means the “skill and talent of an actor”, and by extension a classic play that is highly stylized: rather than action, there is an atmospheric evocation of emotions taken beyond the limits of reality. It is an interweaving of wordplay, historic and literary allusions narrated in a particular style and supported by stylized gestures, a chorus and music. This type of theatre was restricted to the aristocracy, until the Meiji period when the general public were admitted.


Kabuki literally means “to deviate” or to transgress: today its ideograms mean the art of singing and dancing. A key aspect of kabuki performance is not only the unfolding of a plot, the acting out of a story, but an actor’s individual performance made up of long monologues, poses and gestures, dance steps, voices and music.

Just as Yoshiwara was the centre of male social life, so in a different way, kabuki theatre was the principal entertainment for the female population. This explains the large number of yakusha-e, woodblock prints of actors produced in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Two major cycles of plays: Soga monogatari and Chūshingura

The Soga brothers’ revenge and the epic of the 47 Ronin were two historic episodes much loved by the people of Edo for the pure sentiments expressed. They were the subject of countless literary and artistic works. They appear in various engravings from different periods by a number of artists.

SECTION 6 - Samurai

This is the heroic and mythic image of the Japanese warrior tradition constantly shifting between history and legend: the samurai, he who serves. He was a tribal warrior and archetype of the solitary hero, mercenary on the battlefields and peacetime aesthete, assassin in the night and his lord’s avenger, guardian of the peace and aristocratic administrator.

The samurai formed themselves into an exclusively military class and followed a strict code of honour called bushidō, the way of the warrior, the most important precept of which was to do your duty by your daimyō, the feudal lord. Absolute loyalty, without fear of death, was demanded and for this reason their emblem was the cherry blossom, symbol of the beauty and transient nature of life.

Two centuries after the last great battles for the reunification of Japan – now ruled by the Tokugawa shōgun – the memory of the Samurai’s heroic deeds had not faded and helped to make novels and musha-e (famous warriors of the past) engravings very popular.

A trilogy of warriors

In 1835, Hokusai created a series of illustrated books about the early Chinese and Japanese warriors. These were among the most important works by Hokusai in terms of their quality and the energy he expressed by a line “in constant motion” able to render in a fluid and effective way the complexity of combat.

The decline of imperial power and the emergence of the Samurai

The Genpei War between the Taira and Minamoto clans for supremacy over Japan in the 12th century initially saw the Taira gain the upper hand. They came to power under Taira Kiyomori (1118-1181) who, once installed in Kyoto, married the emperor’s daughter and (in 1180) put his grandson on the throne.

Taking advantage of the latent discontent, the Minamoto, led by Yoritomo (1147-1199) and Yoshitsune (1159 - 1189), re-opened hostilities with the battles of Kurikahara (1183), Iichinotani (1184) and finally the naval battle of Dan-no-ura in the Bay of Nagato (1185) led to the rout of the


On being named shōgun Yorimoto founded the first bakufu, government of the tent (or field headquarters) in Japanese history, with capital in Kamakura. This act marked the ascendency of the warrior class of the samurai and the gradual erosion of the power of the emperor to a purely symbolic role as ceremonial head of state.

Hi-no-maru, the circle of the sun

In 1180, Emperor Takakura gave the Temple of Itsukushima a number of fans decorated with the hi- no-maru, the circle of the sun. A priest in the temple gave one to Antoku (the infant emperor, son of Takakura, allied with the Taira) assuring him of the power of the circle of the sun to ward off enemy arrows. The fan was therefore attached to the pennant of a ship. During the naval battle of Yashima (1184) Tamamushi no Mae, a noblewoman of the court, challenged the samurai Minamoto to fire an arrow at it. Although aware of the legend Yoichi Munekata took up the challenge and, with a shot that has gone down in history, shattered it as the Taira watched in stunned silence. The red and white colours of the two competing clans became the national colours and the disc of the sun became the “rising sun” symbol of Japan

In addition to musha-e (genre depicting famous heroes and legendary warriors), weapons, saddles, saddle cloths, shields and armour from the period are also on display.

SECTION 7 – The Shinto Olympus

The primordial divinities of Shintō are Inazagi and Izanami (brother and sister, as well as husband and wife) whose union gave life to the Land of the Rising Sun. Its ethnic character contributed to the formation of a strong national sentiment later transformed into ultranationalism that pervaded Japan in the first half of the 20th century.

Butsu-dō, the way of the Buddha, was introduced in Japan in 552 and the contrast with Shintō initially gave rise to a violent clash between the respective supporters. It was at times a bloody struggle to disseminate a doctrine that preached non-violence. The new religion never managed to undermine the deep roots of Shintoism and had to co-exist and legitimize it.

Prints depicting the divinities of the Kami pantheon are also on show at the exhibition.

SECTION 8 – The natural landscape

Nature in all its manifestations and in any form – flowers and birds (kachō-e), rocks, rivers, landscapes (fukei-e) – is always imbued with its own sacredness, an idea intrinsic to shinto.

Kami is the spirit that artists of all ages have always sought and represented as the authentic expression of a “cosmic idea that embraces everything and brings life to everything”.

Nature, therefore, is the expression of the flow of time through the changing seasons, taking on a symbolic dimension that complements humanity, personifying and reflecting its virtues and sentiments, whether positive or negative (the crane, a symbol of long life, as is the pine tree and the turtle; the carp, emblem of strength,  ourage and perseverance; the cockerel, symbol of high esteem; the camellia, a flower with no scent that has connotations of bad omen as it does not lose its petals but the whole corolla).

SECTION 9 – The human landscape

A characteristic of Japanese culture past and present has been to preserve traditional values, to carry them from the past into the present. Although the themes found in literature and poetry, such as legends and social ties, have been adapted or reinterpreted according to changing social conditions and fashions, they also retain their fundamental essence through parody, mitate, an effective way of commenting indirectly that was not always well received by those in power.

In the final analysis it is the Japanese people, in particular the people of Edo, who are the true protagonists of ukiyo woodblock prints.

SECTION 10 - Shin hanga / Sosaku hanga

Towards the end of the Meiji period (the first decade of the 20th century), the publisher Watanabe Shōsaburō, in admiration of the artistic quality of the ukiyo-e woodblocks and the sophisticated techniques used in their creation, adopted a new approach to this ancient tradition with the encouragement and support of new artists. He started a new movement that took up the old art of woodblock engraving and called it shin hanga, new prints. The new artists focussed on strictly traditional themes, also introducing elements of Western art such as the effects of light and individual expressions. Parallel to this came the development of the sosaku hanga (creative prints) movement, which was more open to the influence of Western art and theories, where the artist maintained total control of the work by also carrying out the carving of the woodblock and the printing.

SECTION11 – From artistic interpretation to reality: photographs of the time

Although they were one of the causes of the final decline of ukiyo-e, the first Japanese photographers were undoubtedly attracted by the subject matter, the composition and the colouring of the finished print. Photographs, in particular those of people or of scenes from daily life, were hand coloured by painters in imitation of the ukiyo prints.

Palazzo Albergati, Bologna

Opening times
Every day from 10.00 to 20.00
(Tickets can be bought up to one hour before closing time.)

Adult €14 (includes audio guide) Concession €12 (includes audio guide)

Information and group reservations
T. +39 051 030141

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