Impressions of the Floating World

This journey through the world of Japanese floating world prints unfolds in seven sections to consider the many aspects and details of Japanese life that can be observed in ukiyo-e. The genre of ‘floating world’ prints was first created during the Edo period (1603-1868), documenting a response to the changes brought about by the change in rule, which not only transformed Japan’s political and economic world, but also caused major social changes to occur in its population. These changes brought wealth and prosperity to the newly emerging urban elite. Now in Rome, a collection of 150 prints are on show, dating from the 17th to 19th centuries, which highlight these new artistic trends and innovations in print-making. Ukiyo-e also offer a visual overview of how these changes were expressed, through changing society codes and mores, the centralisation of the Tokugawa shogunate in Edo, and the eventual forced opening of Japan to the world that culminated in the Meiji Restoration in 1868.

Japanese Prints in the Edo Period

As Rossella Menegazzo writes in her curatorial essay, ‘The term ukiyo-e first took hold in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868), at first in literature, establishing a trend from the 1670s in books of the floating world, ukiyo zoshi, which were written in kana – the native Japanese language – and not in Chinese, the language used in public and for official administration. These books told stories of fantasy linked to the experience of the common people, the new citizen classes and burgeoning city life, incorporating aspects relating to the world of pleasure and the fleeting enjoyment of earthly things, episodes of libertinism and love theories, which had until then been seen as misleading for the spiritual growth of the individual by Buddhist scholars, and therefore rejected’.

The first full-length novel, ukiyo monogatari (Tales of the Floating World), was by Asai Ryoi (1612-1691). Other variations soon followed in a similar style, eagerly narrated and read, as the lively texts reflected and described the changing attitudes to life. These books were often published in volumes with combined stories by novelists such as Ihara Saikaku (1642-1693), and included illustrations created by the same artists who were previously known for their polychrome woodcuts (nishiki-e), first invented in the 1760s, and perfected and popularised by the printmaker Suzuki Harunobu. Menegazzo continues in her essay, ‘Ukiyo-e, therefore, was born as an early composite of Chinese characterers to define the pictorial trend of “images of the floating world” (literally: uki, floating; yo, earthly world; and, representation, image, painting), which developed starting from the second half of the 17th century and continued without interruption until the end of the 19th century, gradually adopting the most fashionable and popular themes of the day as subject matter’.

Collectors of Japanese Prints in Italy

The strong influence of Japanese art and ukiyo-e, in particular, on Western culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is also reflected in the exhibition through the experiences of two Italian artists, the sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa (1841-1927) and the engraver Edoardo Chiossone (1833-1898), who were invited by the Meiji Japanese government in the late 19th century as teachers and specialists in the first graphics and art institutes in the country. They were key figures in the development of these first Western-style artistic professions, along with the painter Antonio Fontanesi’s (1818-1882) and the architect Giovanni Vincenzo Cappelletti (1843-1887). Their profound knowledge of Japan, gained over the long duration of their stay, also gave them the opportunity to become collectors themselves, eventually forming two of the most important collections of oriental art in Italy that is today preserved as the Edoardo Chiossone Museum of Oriental Art in Genoa and in the Museum of Civilizations in Rome.

Over 30 master artists are represented, from the first 17th-century schools, such as the Torii that included some of the most famous names in Japanese prints Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849), Toshusai Sharaku (active 1795-94), Keisai Eisen (1790-1848), and artists from the great Utagawa school such as Toyokuni I (1769-1825), Toyoharu (1735-1814), Hiroshige (1797-1858), Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865), all of whom represented the pinnacle in the late 18th century, and perhaps the decline of the genre in the late 19th century.

The exhibition’s journey begins by showing how the representation of female beauty (bijin), a central subject of ukiyo-e, became a vehicle for the diffusion not only of new fashions and values, but also of educational and moral concepts. The women portrayed by Utagawa Toyoharu and Kitagawa Utamaro are often depicted engaging in artistic pursuits such as painting, calligraphy, strategy board games, poetry, and music, all considered key and desirable skills for the educated elite. This section also looks at the theme of music through a display of a musical instruments of the time that are found in the prints on display from the collections of the sculptor Vincenzo Ragusa and Cristoforo Robecchi, who was the first Italian consul to Meiji Japan.

Subject Matter – Edo Tastes and Fashions

The great novelty of ukiyo-e is their subjects, who are completely different from the aristocratic and court paintings from Kyoto, commissioned by the aristocracy from the schools of Kyoto. In total contrast, in Edo, tastes and fashions were dictated by the emerging urban class, composed mainly of wealthy merchants who, despite having no political power, began to allow themselves to enjoy luxury and entertainment of all kinds. Ukiyo-e, which until then had been understood in the sense of attachment to the illusory earthly world from which to escape, according to Buddhist teaching, now took on an opposite sense of enjoyment of the fleeting moment and of everything that was considered fashionable

The musical instruments also form a link to the performing arts and the prints relating to theatre, especially the world of kabuki. These include the dances performed in kabuki (buyo) as well as street performances for holidays and festivals (matsuri). Kabuki rose as a new form of entertainment in comparison to the aristocratic noh theatre of Kyoto. First seen in the 17th century, the early kabuki posters contributed to the development and growth and popularity of ukiyo-e by appealing to the public. In time, actor-portrait prints became one of the most popular subjects, along with the constantly changing kabuki fashions. Artists such as the mysterious late 18th-century artist Toshusai Sharaku became masters in this field. This artist produced about 150 designs in an extraordinary display of innovation and imagination in just a 10-month period between the summer of 1794 and the early spring of 1795. Before and after this period, an artist by this name is unknown, therefore Sharaku’s true identity has been a matter of much debate for centuries.

The Torii School, founded in Edo, dominated the 18th-century production of prints and books, especially as primary producers of kabuki theatre signboards and promotional materials. They created the large playbills (banzuke) that hung outside the theatres, which also became sources of inspiration for the prints that were also used to attract the attention of the public. Torii Kiyonobu I (1664-1729), son of Kiyomoeo, started a new way of representing actors from 1687 onwards when he moved from Osaka to Edo. He specialised in the painting of posters and signboards for kabuki theatre. As required by the poster format, the bold, fluid lines, full, rounded forms, and flattened patterning were to be read at a distance. Kiyonobu’s early experimentation with hand-colouring was undertaken to enliven the former stark black-and-white designs and to further the print’s decorative appeal for the audience. Considered as the founder of the school, he established ‘actor prints’, yakusha-e, as a genre of ukiyo-e.

As kabuki theatre and individual actors became increasingly popular, partly due to the circulation of ukiyo-e, which could act as a sounding board, ukiyo-e images were increasingly in demand, as they constantly represented the faces of the most famous actors and the fashions launched by them, such as clothes style, colours, and their manners on stage and off stage and in the dressing rooms. For atmosphere, there is also an abundance of prints showing views of the theatre districts, the interiors of the theatres with the actors on stage, and the packed audience halls.

Famous Views

Other important aspects of these floating-world prints are the depiction of famous views and the places within Edo and its surroundings. No show of ukiyo-e could be complete without prints of the daily pleasures on offer in Yoshiwara, the pleasure district that had developed just outside the city boundaries, where once you entered the door, the shogunal rules no longer applied. Here fashion, novelty, and seduction reigned, fuelled by the elegance and rivalry of courtesans, who were supported by their wealthy patrons. Here, the floating world is brought to life in colourful depictions, a frozen moment of a pleasurable life. These moments include the interiors of the tea houses, the stroll along the central street of the pleasure district, women engaged in beauty and bathing rituals, people parading in fashionable and luxurious clothes, the pursuit of hobbies, and celebrations of festivals – all are brought before our eyes by the great masters of the genre such as Utagawa Toyokuni, Kitagawa Utamaro, Katsushika Hokusai, Chobunsai Eishi, and Keisai Eisen. The imagery of this life is enhanced in the exhibition by objects linked to the prints, including a luxurious overkimono (uchikake) embroidered in gold and coloured threads from the collection of the Count of Bardi, fans, inro, and dressing mirrors – all on loan from the Museum of Civilisations of Rome.

Entertainment, Games, and Pastimes

Linked to these daily pleasures, the next section explores entertainment, games, and pastimes in floating world prints. These prints are also mark seasonal outdoor activities, such as walks among the cherry blossoms, under the autumn maples, collecting persimmons or shells. Evening entertainments and festivals show snapshots of popular Edo-period pastimes, competitions, even depictions of novelty toys and beloved pets. Series of prints by Utagawa Toyohiro and Kuniyoshi of the Utagawa School dedicated entire series of prints to fun (giga), such as portraits in the form of graffiti, caricatures, and Arcimboldesque compositions, as well as scenes of juggling and acrobatics that uniquely explore the pleasure of enjoying free time.

Two masters of landscape prints are Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, who promoted the idea of travelling outside Edo. Earlier, the Tokugawa, established tight restrictions on movement within the country. The Tokugawa put in place a system of travel permits and checkpoints, and illegal travel could be very costly – even deadly, if one was suspected of disrupting peace. Travel was permitted by the government only for specific reasons linked to one’s rank or for pilgrimage.

As restrictions on movement eased, the same routes also became popular among recreational travellers. A system of five major highways (gokaido) connected Edo with the northeastern, central, and southwestern areas of Honshu island. Tokugawa was apparent through an array of road infrastructure. Ichirizuka (distance markers) in the form of stones were positioned every ri (a distance of roughly 4 km). Bridges and other rivercrossings were built wherever governmental security policies, weather, and topographical conditions allowed it. 248 shukuba (post stations) were positioned at regular intervals along the highways. Functioning as rest stops, transport centres, information and communications centres, and recreation areas, they offered eating and drinking establishments and shops selling speciality products.

A highlight of the exhibition is the display of ukiyo-e, floating world prints, depicting these famous places (meisho) within the city and natural and architectural views of all the provinces of Japan. These last two sections of the exhibition represent a journey though Japan that starts with Edo and its views and the crossing the Nihonbashi Bridge, the original terminus of the Nakasendo and Tokaido Roads, to the views encountered along the Tokaido Road to the imperial capital of Kyoto. Here, road travel comes to life with impressions of the streets, rows of shops selling goods and services to travellers, and the interiors of restaurants. These themes are found in the works of Eisen and Hiroshige and allow the visitor to imagine the journey through the mountains, along other routes such as the Kisokaido (Nakasendo) Road, as celebrated in the series the Sixty-nine Stations of the Kisokaido. The majority of this series was created by Hiroshige with the rest contributed by Eisen. It was first published by Takenouchi-Hoeido and later by the publisher Kinjudo. The show would also not be complete without the Great Wave off Kanagawa (1831), part of the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji by Katsushika Hokusai.

Through these floating-world prints, the visitor can experience the changing times seen in Japan over a century, a period marked by shifts of power, radical change in society, and the blossoming of the arts.

Until 23 June, 2024, floating world prints at the Museum of Rome in Palazzo Braschi,