The scrolls depicting the “Novel of the Shining Prince” (Genji monogatari) are most likely the most beloved work of art by the Japanese people.
The reasons for this ancient predilection are many. In the first place, they constitute the first, and most successful, illustrated version of the most acclaimed masterpiece of Japanese literature of all time. The Genji monogatari, written in the first years of the eleventh century by Murasaki Shikibu, has immediately thrilled those who have read it, and still continues to excite with the same intensity, for the refinement of the setting – the imperial court of Kyoto – and the depth of the feelings of the characters described, the Prince, his family and his many lovers. In addition, it is a work of art of unparalleled quality, exceptional in many respects. Technically it is a perfect combination of line purity and chromatic richness. Stylistically refined mixture of softness of stroke, delicate veiling, superb geometric intersections. As in the novel, even in these paintings there is a calm elegance, of moderation in the gestures and of profound reflection, an aristocratic suggestion, so indifferent to the ugliness but instead immersed in the most gentle beauty.

The bamboo river, from the Genji monogatari emaki. Nagoya, Tokugawa Art Museum.

The time and the events of history have not been lenient with this masterpiece. Originally, in fact, it had to consist of about twenty long rolls, probably containing at least a hundred illustrations, which alternated with sections of calligraphy that reproduced the original text of Murasaki Shikibu. In an unspecified moment between the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the scrolls were however dismembered into single sheets, many of which were lost forever. Currently only twenty figurative tables and twenty-eight calligraphy sections have survived: fifteen illustrations are found in the Tokugawa Museum in Nagoya, four in the Gotō Museum in Tokyo and one, unfortunately very ruined and therefore almost illegible, in the Tokyo National Museum. Precious and delicate relics of a fabulous age, the sheets are exposed to the public very rarely, every ten years or so, and for very short periods, usually a week in November.

Calligraphy, from the Genji monogatari emaki.

Not much is known about the author of the Genji monogatari emaki, and very little is known about the date of their realization. It seems, however, that the monumental work was carried out towards the beginning of the XIIth century, about a century after the compilation of the novel; therefore in the final phase of the long Heian period (794-1185), shortly before the whole country was involved by a disastrous series of bloody conflicts of bloody relevance. At the time, the painting on a long roll of Japanese style (Yamato-e), so-called in opposition to that of Chinese style (Kara-e) until then dominant, moved its first steps and, right away, right with the “Rolls of the Genji monogatari “, reached the absolute formal and conceptual perfection. Furthermore, there is no reason to doubt that the scrolls were made not by a single artist but by a group of exceptionally skilled painters and calligraphers, led by a master who coordinated the work.
Compared to other more or less coeval painted scrolls, in those of the Genji monogatari emaki we note an accentuated ‘feminine’ taste, both in the illustrations and in the calligraphy sections. Undoubtedly, this can be explained by reference to the entirely feminine origin of the “Novel of the Shining Prince”, the sum of a period in which much of the literature was the work of women endowed with superfine sensitivity. Not knowing yet the truth about the authors of the “Rolls of the Genji monogatari”, couldn’t it be that they were actually painted by women, artists of genius and insuperable knowers of the literary masterpiece of Murasaki Shikibu?