Japan in Genoa: the Chiossone Museum


Read the original article in Italian  – Il Museo d’Arte Orientale Chiossone: il Giappone a Genova – on hanabitemple.it


The Chiossone Museum of Oriental Art: Japan in Genoa
By Valentina Bianchi | June 13, 2024 |

For a lover of Japan, the Chiossone Museum of Oriental Art in Genoa is an essential destination. During my studies, I often heard about the museum and researched its unique collection, its futuristic architecture for its time, and its varied program. What I hadn’t considered, however, is the environment surrounding this corner of Japan, its unique location, and its relationship with the city.

Upon arriving in the center of Genoa, I walked up the path that winds through the garden of Villetta di Negro, surrounded by diverse greenery climbing the park. After a few steps, I could glimpse the scenic waterfall, whose sound intrigued me throughout the climb. The rest of Genoa, suspended like in a postcard, surprised me as it emerged from the terrace at the museum’s base. Embraced by the slow-paced serenity of this little paradise, I reached the top in a state of calm and contemplation—the ideal condition to immerse myself in the Chiossone collection.

A few weeks after my visit, the kind museum director, Aurora Canepari, granted us an interview, giving us a behind-the-scenes look at the Chiossone to rediscover its collection and its place in the Genoese and national cultural landscape. This is where we begin.

The origins

Hanabi Temple: How did the Chiossone Museum originate, and how long has it been operating? What does this museum mean for Genoa? How does it fit into the city’s cultural context?

Aurora Canepari: The Chiossone Museum traces its origins to its collector and founder, Edoardo Chiossone. Our collection was exclusively formed in Japan. Chiossone wasn’t a collector before moving there, nor did he go to acquire pieces; he was invited by the Japanese government as one of the Western experts, or oyatoi gaikokujin お雇い外国人, whose skills were needed in various fields during the Meiji period. Japan had recently established a state printing office but lacked qualified personnel. Chiossone was called to start the production of Japanese banknotes and securities, and due to his extraordinary skills, he moved to Tokyo in 1875, initially hired for a limited period.

He was involved in designing banknotes and transferring technology to the employees of that finance ministry section. It soon became clear that continuity in the graphic identity of the banknotes was needed, recognizing the essential role of an Italian artist in translating Japanese iconographic elements into a language presentable on Western routes. Japan wanted to be recognized as a Western nation-state in Asia. The collection began as a reference collection because a good knowledge of Japanese art was essential for his work. Employed for life with a high salary and the prospect of spending the rest of his days in Japan, Chiossone then made his collection a farsighted project. Educated at the Ligustica Academy of Genoa, he was also a drawing professor and engraver, a true expert in the field. His activity as a collector was immediately well received and recognized by Japanese colleagues and friends as an honorable endeavor. He collected as if he were Japanese. From the breadth and completeness of his sections, we understand that Chiossone soon conceived it as a museum collection. A fellow citizen visiting him in Japan said that Chiossone arranged his objects as in a museum, complete with displayed information. It’s clear that he was building his legacy for the future museum during his Japanese life. In his will, he expressed the desire for the collection to be transported to Genoa and displayed to the public at the Ligustica Academy in a museum named after him, showing a modern vision for a man of the late 19th century. His is the first public collection in Italy and one of the first in Europe. Shipped immediately after his death and inaugurated in 1905 in the presence of the king and queen, it was the only place to study Japanese art in Italy at least until 1941, when it was secured due to bombing threats. One might expect it to inspire local artists. However, this doesn’t seem to have happened, perhaps because there was no real study and teaching activity supporting the collection. It doesn’t appear to have been integrated into Genoese artistic life.

After the war, the collection began its second life: the academy was damaged during the war and could no longer host it. It was then transferred to the municipality of Genoa, which commissioned the construction of a specific building and established the museum with the same name it bears today. The collection has always been open to the public and used to promote Japanese culture and art, thanks to former directors Giuliano Fabretti and Donatella Favilla, who cultivated relations with Japan and in Italy, never abandoning a high scientific level. The museum is part of the network of Genoese civic museums, with its pros and cons: for instance, it can be challenging to share visitors’ attention in a city with such a rich cultural offering. On the other hand, we can propose a joint visit to the museums, so diverse from each other. In the past, the museum suffered from isolation for many years, especially due to its particular content and geographical location. However, in the last ten years, synchronization with other museums has improved.

The Architecture of Mario Labò

HT: The museum’s location is special, designed to host the collection. What’s it like to work in Mario Labò’s architecture? What issues and advantages does it present?

AC: As I mentioned, the structure is quite isolated from the city context. When the collection was kept at the Academy, it was in a much more central location. In the 1950s, it was moved to the Villetta of Marquis Di Negro, which already served as a museum of civic collections but was destroyed by bombings. Geographically, it’s outside the city route, on a hill overlooking the city center. At the time of its construction, there was no awareness of the importance of tourist routes: the typical tourist rarely approaches the hill. However, the park and museum remain fascinating places capable of attracting visitors seeking unique sites.

The building was specifically created by architect Mario Labò and has notable advantages and disadvantages. It can be described as “recently old”: too new to be rebuilt, too old to be equipped with essential modern elements, such as elevators. It’s worth noting that the park itself is not easily accessible. Despite this, we strive to meet certain standards: we pay particular attention to people with sensory disabilities and have implemented improvements to make the ground floor and terrace accessible, organizing specific visits in advance.

From a museographic perspective, the display cases date back to the 1960s. Graphic paintings and works containing organic materials have specific lighting and humidity requirements, for which the cases were not designed. We modified the showcases in the two upper galleries in the 2000s, and they are now suitable for displaying sculptures, pottery, and even painted or framed works. This is where we display these types of works on rotation. The museum has a very large storage area, meeting the needs of the collection, which counts 15,000 pieces. A real fortune for a museum of this kind. This is a forward-thinking aspect of the construction: the intention was for the storage itself to be orderly and visitable by individual scholars or small groups, but certainly not by today’s large groups. That said, the idea of having the collection always available and accessible remains. The most notable advantage of such a museum is having a double heritage: the collection and the building itself.

Since I started working on the museum’s collection, I have found great interest in its architecture from architects, students, and historians. I have learned to appreciate how important the building is at a city and national level, along with Labò’s figure as an architectural scholar. His choices in using light, materials, and space layout were inspired by Japanese architecture, especially Western architects who worked in Japan and had direct experience there. This place prepares the visitor for a state of contemplation and calm. The openings and the terrace face the city, bridging the physical and cultural gap with the context. Genoa is always present thanks to the numerous openings to the outside. You never feel estranged from the city, even while ideally traveling to Japan. The path is circular; you never retrace your steps, and the central area is always visible, perceived as a space divided into sections. This results from a study of avant-garde museum architecture at the time.

The collection

HT: The collection was gathered during a historical period when various Western officials and traders had the opportunity to purchase objects, not always well advised by experts. Your collection represents a unique case in this context, thanks to the foresight of its collector. What activities and languages do you adopt to contextualize and enhance it?

AC: The collection serves an educational mission that Chiossone perceived as a gap in the study of art in Italy. Never having studied Eastern art history, he discovered this world upon moving. It’s a didactic collection, designed as a study tool. Even the non-Japanese pieces come from the context of collecting in Japan. It testifies to an openness to a little-studied culture through a purely artistic approach. His collection is not anthropological but is instead dedicated to the greatest artists of Japanese art. It’s divided into sections: porcelain, wooden sculpture, bronze, pictorial and graphic art, especially ukiyo-e, the famous polychrome woodblock prints. Chiossone had an artist’s eye, particularly aware of the validity of this artistic medium given his training. He wasn’t guided by a Eurocentric vision or a sense of superiority but by the desire to equate the best Japanese artists with Western ones. This spirit was maintained at the Academy, except for some curatorial decisions typical of that time.

When the museum was reopened in 1971, it was decided to name it the “Museum of Oriental Art,” changing its nature and making acquisitions to expand its geographical scope. The focus, however, remained on presenting the most expressive aspects of Japanese art in comparison with works from other regions. This aspect was lost in the 2000s in favor of a presence centered on Japanese art, emphasizing quality. Nonetheless, in some sections like enamels, lacquers, and Buddhist sculpture, we continue to find objects of various origins.

The gallery of 12 samurai armors represents a more anthropological aspect, evoking the military aristocracy with high-level artistic craftsmanship, rather than a mere collection of curious and exotic objects. Our collection is different from those of the period. It is not travel-based collecting that relies on the Western gaze, a superior Western view towards the cultures encountered. We do not have particular complexities in narrating our collection, but we are obviously committed to explaining its origins through panels that describe Chiossone’s life and his intentions, as well as through temporary exhibitions.

Last year, we presented an exhibition that discussed the Japanese and artistic contexts in which Chiossone worked and lived, along with his attentive spirit and renowned talent. Thanks to the assistance of his local friends, his collection is akin to Japanese ones, not to contemporary Western ones. Today, museums often question the provenance of their objects. We no longer have the documentary apparatus to know where an object comes from or why it was lost, but we have perceptions and clues. We cannot entirely exclude that there are works of disputed provenance, especially private gifts without provenance documentation.

The museum is involved in all Italian contexts where provenance research is active, knowing that our works were not unjustly expropriated. Chiossone had a very high salary that allowed him to purchase transparently at a time when the Japanese were eager to get rid of certain works. During the historical period in which he operated, there was indeed a move away from traditional values in the rush towards modernity.

HT: What is your favorite object in the museum?
AC:This question is very difficult because the more I study the collection, the more I encounter things that make me say, “This is my favorite object!” From my perspective as a scholar of Oriental art, my specific research path is on ukiyo-e prints. Therefore, I will choose Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s series “One Hundred Aspects of the Moon” because it is an extraordinary work that sits at the end of the artistic evolution of woodblock printing, gathering all the technical excellences, while at the same time representing its end. Yoshitoshi continued to translate the heritage of images and technique of this particular expression into the Meiji period.

The series is interesting from a technical and historical point of view: it is an expression of the contemporaneity in which the collection was formed. Chiossone could have purchased it directly from the artist. In each sheet, an aspect of the moon is seen, which serves as an occasion to represent various elements of Japanese folklore and history. Communicatively, we often use it in creating our Facebook posts because it is rich in elements identifiable with Japanese culture. Certainly, it stems from a political vision of the past, typical of the Meiji period, but it represents deities and poetic figures, including Chinese ones, confirming this cultural debt without shame. All the figures are very harmonious, privileging the immediacy of communication. Not surprisingly, many of the prints are used in posters and book covers. A series of icons of what Japan is for us, also rendered with the intent of opening up to the West.

Beyond Chiossone

HT: You also curate temporary exhibitions like the recent “The Shape of the Wind.” What types of exhibitions are these? How do you decide on the theme and objects?
AC: We carry out two types of temporary exhibitions. The first type involves the rotation of the collection, where the objects are normally housed in the upper galleries. These serve to present to the public works in storage and those that cannot always be on display for conservation reasons. They are therefore made up of pictorial and graphic works. This type often has a thematic focus, highlighting the presence of the theme in heterogeneous works, as in the case of “The Great Wave. The Importance of Water in Japanese Culture,” which took place in 2023. Recently, “Poets and Heroes” was opened, whose theme is the male figure in Japan, encompassing not only the samurai icon but various male characters represented in our works.

The second type includes the exhibitions we host, which can be integrated with works from the collection and often curated collaboratively. “The Shape of the Wind,” conceived by the CELSO Institute, was hosted in two venues, our museum and the Museum of World Cultures at the D’Albertis Castle. In that case, our museum featured not only works chosen by the exhibition’s curators but also some from our collection placed in dialogue. Another example is the exhibition currently hosted by us and the Contemporary Art Museum of Villa Croce of the artist Richard Gorman, curated by Valeria Ceregini.

In our museum, you can see the works on Japanese washi paper created by the artist, who also trained in Japan and can create washi. We host works by Japanese, Italian, or European artists who have a particular connection with Japan. These exhibitions are made possible by our presence in a network of city museums that allows us to expand and share our audiences.

HT: What other types of initiatives find space at the museum, such as Yomimono: reading at the Chiossone Museum? What kind of activities do you host and how do you choose the partners you collaborate with?
AC: We make our spaces available to artistic and cultural associations for performances and other activities, such as music festivals that have been active for many years. In our main space, we have a piano on loan from the Friends of the Carlo Felice Theatre and the Niccolò Paganini Conservatory, with whom we also organize concerts at the museum. This invitation has been extended to other associations dedicated to music and the city’s music festivals or theatrical events. Yomimono, on the other hand, is a book presentation series designed to fit into a specific city activity, namely Genoa as the Book Capital. It was called “reading at the Chiossone museum and beyond” because it also involved several libraries in the city. Various initiatives arise from the spontaneous meeting of authors and publishers who love the museum, accompanied by a process of selection and research of editorial news. The intent is to bring the museum out of the museum.

The museum outside the museum

HT: What projects await the museum in the future?
AC: We will continue with a proposal in line with the past, which includes conferences and meetings with scholars, but also thematic guided tours that follow our temporary exhibitions and others designed for families. The museum celebrates the gosekku, Japanese seasonal festivals, such as Hinamatsuri, Kodomo no Hi, Tsukimi, and Tanabata. We host events and illustrate them through our works, creating a link with the collection. We will continue to organize temporary exhibitions also with other institutions. We will see the museum outside the museum more often.

At the Museum of Rome at Palazzo Braschi, there is an exhibition of which we are the main lenders: “UKIYOE. The Floating World. Visions from Japan.” There, some of the works from the Museum of Civilizations enter into dialogue with ours: thus, a very effective theme develops, as our collection is mostly from the Edo period. The intent of these collaborations is to bring the visibility of our museum to a higher and not only national level. You can expect to see our collection in other important exhibitions, always in contexts of high scientific curation and appropriate fruition, as in the case of the cited exhibition, curated by Professor Rossella Menegazzo at the request of the municipality of Rome.

We also want to open up and promote the visibility of other cultures: this year we celebrated the Chinese New Year in collaboration with the University of Genoa and managed to involve the Chinese community, knowing what the reticence of approaching Japanese and Chinese culture can be, moving cautiously and with appropriate cultural mediation. Our activities are part of municipal projects, so thematic choices are often part of broader projects. “Poets and Heroes,” for example, is part of the “Genoa in the Middle Ages” initiative and presents the Japanese Middle Ages with the necessary historical shifts and clarifications. For the “Genoa Capital of Sport” project, we will contribute by hosting martial arts demonstrations. Thanks to these commitments, the Chiossone Museum is increasingly integrated into the daily life of the people of Genoa.