Rediscovered Gagliardi fresco cycle in Villa Aurora prompts blanket press coverage in Japan; Dr Mayu Fujikawa explains why


The Yomiuri Shimbun, the largest-circulation newspaper in the world, covers new discoveries at the Villa Aurora on 13 August 2016

As faithful readers of this blog will most certainly know, this June 2016 there was discovered at the Villa Aurora in Rome along-hidden fresco cycle showing scenes from the life of Pope Gregory XIII Boncompagni, including his reception of the (Jesuit-inspired) first Japanese embassy to the west in 1585. The four ambassadors were later ordained as the first Japanese Jesuit fathers.

The location? Above a false ceiling in the former dining room of the Villa’s piano nobile. The artist? Pietro Gagliardi (1809-1890), who is said to have spent the three years 1855-1858 executing the frescoes for his patron Prince Antonio Boncompagni Ludovisi (Prince of Piombino from 1841-1883). The full scene was known previously only from a pair of photographs taken in 1904. You can read about the multi-year quest by Corey Brennan, Anthony Majanlahti and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi herehere and (most recently) here.

The fresco was photographed in June through two small apertures in the false ceiling and remains covered, though Prince Nicolo’ and Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi are in the process of organizing its exposure and restoration.

Over the weekend of 12-14 August 2016, each of the five national newspapers in Japan (AsahiMainichiYomiuriSankei, and Nikkei Shimbun), and—thanks to distribution by the Kyodo Tsushin news network—most of the regional papers from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south covered this exciting and unexpected story. Here is an English version, from the national paper the Mainichi Shimbun.


Coverage of Gagliardi discovery from the English version of the Mainichi Shimbun (13 August 2016)

To better understand the keen interest that the Japanese press has shown in the Villa Aurora discoveries, we turned to Dr Mayu Fujikawa, a Japanese-born expert on Italian Renaissance art who is a 2015/6 Visiting Fellow at the European University Institute in Fiesole. After receiving her PhD in Art History from Washington University in St. Louis (WUSL), Dr Fujikawa has held positions also at Ithaca College, Bucknell University, Middlebury College, WUSL, and the University of California at Berkeley.

Archivio Digitale Boncompagni Ludovisi (ADBL): Can you tell us a bit about your current work at the European University Institute?

Dr Mayu Fujikawa (MF): “I am writing a book on the images of the Tensho and Keicho embassies, which were the first two Japanese delegations to Europe—1582-1590 and 1613-1620, respectively. I am investigating how and why Europeans depicted these Japanese visitors in the visual arts.”

ADBL: What makes the Gagliardi fresco so interesting? 

MF: “It is special since we hardly know any nineteenth-century European artwork representing the Tensho embassy of such importance—especially from the perspectives of the patron, painter, location, etc. In 1585, the embassy arrived in Rome for an audience with Gregory XIII; the fresco demonstrates how significant his descendant, Antonio Boncompagni Ludovisi, considered the event to be, 270 years on. I am curious to know if the story of the Japanese travelers was orally passed down among generations of the Boncompagni Ludovisi family.”


Private Boncompagni Ludovisi photograph from 1904 showing the full scene of the Japanese embassy of 1585 as painted by Pietro Gagliardi in the piano nobile of the Villa Aurora. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

ADBL: Can you single out for us one or two of the central attributes of this painting?

MF: “The fresco reveals the family’s pride that Gregory XIII had the privilege to receive the first Japanese embassy. Almost half a century following their return home in 1590, Japan enacted a seclusionist policy. Gagliardi painted his image of the papal audience with the Tensho youths right after Japan’s opening to the West in 1854. The fresco would have reflected the family’s claim that Gregory XIII was the one who had initiated the relationship between Japan and Europe.”

“Moreover, the fresco visually emphasizes that Gregory XIII, as the spiritual father of the Church, affectionately welcomed the young converts (they were all Catholics). The portrayal matches the Latin inscription below the fresco, which states how kindly the pope received the legates (GREGORIVS XIII LEGATOS REGVM JAPONENSIVM […] BENIGNE EXCIPIT).”


Detail of Gagliardi depiction of 1585 embassy, from 1904 photograph. Collection of HSH Prince Nicolò and HSH Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi, Rome.

ADBL: Other than the Pope himself, can you detect attempts at actual portraiture of known individuals?

MF: “In the fresco, the Pope’s figure is shown kissing the forehead of a Japanese youth, who is without doubt Mancio Ito, while below him is the kneeling Michael Chijiwo. This was the order that the two ambassadors greeted the Pope. Martin Hara, a third member of the delegation, stands with outstretched arms. These figures are all holding their samurai lords’ letters to the Pope.”

“The fourth youth of the embassy, Julian Nakaura, is omitted from the scene, since he was too ill to be present at the event, which took place at the Sala Regia in the Vatican. Within an assembly of cardinals and prelates, we also see two Jesuits in their black cassock, one of them most likely representing Diego de Mesquita who accompanied the embassy from Japan.”

ADBL: I know this all very preliminary, but can you posit a source for this scene?

MF: “Gagliardi’s portrayal of the pope in the act of kissing the Japanese, as well as their peculiar kimono and hairstyle, reflected what the Jesuit Daniello Bartoli described in his Dell’historia della Compagnia di Giesù, Il Giappone (Rome, 1660). I will discuss this in my book.”

ADBL: One last thing. How about the physical portrayal of the young Japanese envoys?

“The Chinese pigtails that Gagliardi applied to the Tensho youths reflected Europeans’ (mis)understanding of East Asian culture. It is often said that with the French artist Félix Bracquemond’s encounter with ukiyo-e prints in a Parisian shop around 1856, Japanese art and culture became popular in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Yet the Gagliardi fresco shows how Europeans were still unfamiliar with Japanese culture at that time.”

ADBL: Thank you Dr Fujikawa—and we look forward to hearing more of your thoughts on this newly uncovered work!



Above: detail of Gagliardi fresco, showing young Japanese envoy Martin Hara, with photograph taken through small aperture in false ceiling. Below: coverage of discovery in Nikkei Shimbun 14 August 2016.



  1. Linda Smith Masi says:

    Dear Rita,
    Best wishes to you in Boston upon this important moment. The ongoing sharing of the Treasures of Villa Aurora certainly increase the joy of the world.
    LInda Masi


  1. […] cycle in the Casino Aurora, long hidden under a false ceiling. The first glimpses of this ceiling received blanket coverage in the Japanese national and regional press. In July 2017 a second hidden ceiling emerged, in this case dating back to 1570, the earliest […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: