Vincenzo Ragusa arrived in Tokyo on a wet November day in 1876. Together with a group of other Italian artists, the sculptor from Palermo had been invited to Japan to found the Academy of Fine Arts. The country was in great turmoil.
Eight years earlier, in 1868, the civil war had put an end to the shogunate (feudal domination) and put the emperor back on the throne: After more than two centuries of absolute isolation from the rest of the world, Japan thus opened up to the West, with an extraordinary enthusiasm. In a few years, a tumultuous renewal was initiated that involved every sector, from postal service to railways and literature.
Ragusa, who was 35 at the time, was a handsome young man with a long beard and intense gaze, a former Garibaldian. The previous year he had won a competition, organized by the Japanese government, for consultants to entrust the new art school. The competitions, by the way, had been launched all over Europe and the United States, and they varied from country to the other: the Japanese were looking for industrial consultants in Great Britain, doctors in Germany, agricultural consultants in the United States, and so on. In Italy a specific artistic competence had been identified.
Vincenzo Ragusa was fascinated by Japan. Everything about that country so different and far from his Palermo seemed wonderful to him, from the landscapes to the reliability of the Japanese. When he wasn’t working, he enjoyed spending his free time walking and it was during one of these excursions that he met O Tama.
Pictures of the floating world
In 1876, O Tama Kiyohara was 15 years old. She was a budding painter, gifted with great talent. Ragusa told that he saw her for the first time as he passed a simple wooden house, where she sat silently while painting “strange flowers and strange birds on a long fan”. It was a dreamy painting that grew out of ukiyo-e, the printing style of the Edo period, an instinctual painting that O Tama felt flowing directly from her fingers. We can imagine Vincenzo Ragusa’s thoughts and feelings in front of that vision.
In the months that followed, the Sicilian sculptor devoted himself to building the school and teaching Japanese students sculpture, modeling and casting. But also to court the beautiful Japanese girl, the daughter of the keeper of the temple. He immediately understood that the way to get to her heart was art, and so he devised a stratagem. With the excuse of teaching her the naturalistic style that was popular in Europe, he began to fill her house with gifts: plants of all kinds, with flowers, shoots, fruits and leaves of all sizes and colors; and then geese, swans, ducks to populate the small lake in the garden, even peacocks. To show her the charm and the flickering shapes of the fish, he had a transparent crystal tank built, in which koi in bright colors swam. The young O Tama at first reacted with annoyance to all those unsolicited gifts which, however, gradually had the desired effect: push her to paint from life and into the arms of the Sicilian sculptor. The two, united by a passion for art, began dating. In 1878, O Tama was the first Japanese person to pose for a European artist: Vincenzo created a bronze bust of the girl, the first of a long series of portraits that he made in the following years.
Back to Sicily
In 1882, Vincenzo Ragusa decided to return to Sicily and asked O Tama to follow him. The girl, who had just turned 21, agreed. Two other family members embarked with them: O Chio, her sister, a very good embroiderer, together with her husband Einosuke, an expert lacquer craftsman. Ragusa wanted to create a factory of lacquered furniture, decorated porcelain and other wonderful objects in Palermo, which in those years was experiencing the luxuriant ferment of the Belle Epoque. He also planned to establish a “Scuola Officina” an academy of applied art from which unprecedented but very useful professionals would emerge. The last project was the creation of a museum, linked to the school, where his vast collection of Japanese art would be exhibited, over 4000 objects he had collected over the eight years in Japan. When he landed in Palermo, the porters had a great deal to carry the 110 crates in which he had placed bronze vases and hand-painted fabrics, samurai armors and illustrated books, lacquered wooden furnishings and silver filigree miniatures. The school actually opened its doors but the museum never saw the light. On two occasions, the sculptor was forced by economic difficulties to sell almost all of his collection, which was bought by the Luigi Pigorini Museum in Rome.
Two artists of the Belle Epoque
In Palermo the young O Tama settled down very well. She taught painting and embroidery to the girls of good society in Palermo, attending the most prominent families, from the Florios to the princes of Scalea, from the Whitakers to the Tascas. She dealt with charitable works and supported Vincenzo in his many projects, starting from the Scuola Officina ( today it is an art high school, named after Vincenzo Ragusa and O Tama Kiyohara).In 1888 O Tama was baptized and took the name Eleonora, the same year in which Vincenzo won the competition for the construction of a statue of Garibaldi. In 1892 the equestrian monument was placed in the villa in front of the English Garden during the International Exhibition, a wide-ranging event that for many months placed Palermo at the center of attention. In 1901 the two got married, 25 years after their first meeting. They took up a house in the Perez neighborhood and lived there for all the following years. Vincenzo died in 1927 but O Tama now felt Sicilian and, despite the insistence of the family in Japan, did not want to go back there. Finally, in 1931, the sixteen-year-old Hatsue was sent to Italy, with the task of convincing O Tama who by now, among other things, had almost entirely forgotten Japanese. After two years of persistence, the girl played the extreme card: She told her aunt that if she did not embark with her, as soon as she came within sight of the Japanese coasts she would jump into the sea. Faced with this threat, O Tama capitulated and, having packed the paintings she was most fond of and her husband’s sculptures, she left.
She died in 1939. To obey her will, in 1985 Hatsue returned to Palermo bringing back part of O Tama’s ashes, which were buried in the same grave as her husband, in the cemetery of the Rotoli.