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21 works ranging from the Asuka period to the Kamakura period on view in Rome
A person takes a picture of a sculture during the press visit of the exhibition "Masterpieces of Japanese Buddhist sculpture" at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome on July 28, 2016. TIZIANA FABI / AFP.

ROME.- Twenty-one absolute masterpieces (totalling thirty-five items), stretching from the Asuka (7th – 8th centuries AD) to the Kamakura periods (1185 – 1333), are on public display in Italy for the very first time. Traditionally considered to be cult objects, many of these items are difficult to move and are not easy to access even in Japan, either because they are displayed in the semi-darkness of temples and shrines or because they are heavily protected in the collections of the country's leading national museums.

Wooden sculpture, an art form which also flourished in the West, is the supreme technique in the Buddhist tradition, allowing sculptors a matchless expressiveness unparalleled in any other season of art in the world. These are works that speak to us of a culture that was both extremely solid in its beliefs and astonishingly powerful in its creativity. For the Italian visitor they take on the significance of an encounter and of a close dialogue: each item appeals to different levels of consciousness and feeling, such as meditation and anger, tranquillity and wrath, or understanding and fear.

Buddhist sculpture, together with Buddhist writings and teachings, was introducted into Japan by China via the Korean peninsula between the 6th and 7th centuries AD, going on to experience a flowering from the 10th century on that was increasingly original compared to developments on the mainland in terms of both form and content, and coming to a peak in the art of the late Heian period (794 – 1185), the age of the imperial court in Kyoto, which revered gracefulness as the supreme expressive value and wood as its raw material. Later, with the victory of military might over the court in the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), a more realistic and vigorous kind of sculpture, starker in its forms, began to gain a foothold, growing in popularity and perfectly reflecting the Samurai ideals and the philosophy associated with Zen Buddhism that was then spreading. The richness of the style ensured that the sculpture of this era was to become emblematic of Japanese sculpture in its entirety.

Spiritual research is one of the basic features of the Japanese aesthetic and, in the case of sculpture, the result is especially visible. The works of sculpture displayed in the exhibition reflect different schools of Buddhism and different teachings. They are linked to the ritual function and style of the temple hosting them, revealing different characteristics and emotions according to the figure portrayed: extreme calm and simplicity, with a smile playing on the lips of the enigmatic Buddha seated in meditation; or the rich clothing, headgear, jewels and elegance – still linked to the fashions of Indian princes – of the bodhisattava assisting him; or the realism and the lively expressions of the figures depicting masters and patriarchs.

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July 29, 2016

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