The Yashiro-Berenson Correspondence

Michiaki Koshikawa


The young Yukio Yashiro (1890-1975) studied Renaissance art in Florence under Bernard Berenson’s guidance from 1921 to 1924 and published his monograph on Sandro Botticelli in London in 1925. That same year Yashiro returned to Japan and soon became a central figure in the field of East Asian art studies, all while adapting the methodology he learned from Berenson as he changed his focus from European to Asian art.1The Berenson-Yashiro teacher-pupil relationship was a truly important episode in the development of the discipline of art history in Japan: Yashiro was the first to introduce into Japan the practice of stylistic criticism, as based on a systematic collection of photographs. Most appropriately, his goals for this type of research were then embodied in the foundation of the Institute of Art Research in Tokyo in 1930.2

Even after his return to Japan, Yashiro kept in contact with Berenson, until the latter’s death in 1959. Inventories of the Berenson papers at I Tatti have informed scholars for many years about the 66 letters written by Yashiro to Berenson and his wife Mary.3 Only in the 1990s, however, did we learn that 44 of Berenson’s letters to Yashiro remained in the Yashiro family; today most are on deposit at the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Hayama. Until now, nearly all of this material has remained unpublished. It constitutes a fascinating chronicle of the long-standing friendship between these two art scholars, working in Italy and Japan. The extant correspondence covers the period from 1923 to 1959--with inevitable interruptions caused by World War II--and records an intimate exchange of ideas, requests, advice, affectionate greetings, and encouragements. Thanks to this online exhibition, all of these letters have finally been transcribed and published for the first time.

The present publication includes the following letters:

  • From Yashiro to Mary Berenson: 7 letters (1923-24)

  • From Yashiro to Bernard and Mary Berenson: 6 letters (1924-27)

  • From Yashiro to Bernard Berenson: 53 letters (1924-59)

  • From Bernard Berenson to Yashiro: 45 letters (1933-57)

  • From Nicky Mariano to Yashiro: 3 letters (1956-59)

  • From Elizabeth Berenson to Yashiro: 1 letter (1959, after Berenson’s death)

All of the original letters from Yashiro are preserved at I Tatti, while the Yashiro family has placed nearly all the letters sent to Yashiro on deposit at the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Hayama. The one exception, dated December 28, 1957, remains in the family’s hands because Yashiro especially cherished this letter: the aged Berenson encouraged Yashiro in his fight against a dangerous disease. In his own letter of January 20, 1958, Yashiro wrote “I am always carrying that letter in my inside pocket.”4

One major problem in the study of these letters is the fact that Yashiro rarely specified the year of his letters, though he regularly noted the month and day. As a result, we have often had to infer the year of each letter from internal evidence. This problem has been largely resolved thanks to the discovery of the Berenson letters with their exact dating, and now nearly all of the letters can be arranged in precise chronological sequence.


The principal topics of the correspondence can be summarized as follows:

i) 1923-25 (nos. 1-13)

No letter from Bernard Berenson to Yashiro survives from this period, while Yashiro wrote mainly to Mary Berenson. Yashiro lost his father in the Great Kanto Earthquake on September 1, 1923. Though upset and depressed by the news, he wrote to Mary from London about his determination to postpone his return to Japan until he could publish something on Botticelli in London (no. 1). In the early summer of 1924, Yashiro wrote to the Berensons from Hotel Berchielli, his favorite hotel on the Arno river in Florence, that he was going to stay in Abetone in the Apennines to concentrate on his writing about Botticelli (no. 5). Then, from his letter of August 22 from London (no. 8), we learn that at that time Yashiro had the idea to publish books on Oriental art. After a journey to the U.S., he returned to Japan in the spring of 1925.

 ii) 1927-28 (nos. 14-17)

There are 4 letters by Yashiro from this period. He wrote the first three letters during his travel in Europe (nos. 14-16) and the last one just after his return to Japan (no. 17). The letter of October 4, 1927 (no. 14) from London is noteworthy, as it is his first mention about his ‘Institute of Art Research’ to the Berensons:

After studying under your guidance & imbibing your accurate way of research-works in art, so far as I could, I found the present state of art study in the Far East very unsatisfactory & could so far succeed as to persuade the interested people in Japan to establish an institute where practically your method of study is to be pursued in the field of Oriental art. You may have heard of this “Institute of Art Research” from Sir Robert Witt. It is to be opened from next year & I am going to be its director.

In the same letter Yashiro reports that he got married to Fumi Kimura whose sketch drawn by Yashiro some months after the marriage still remains with the Yashiro family. Then, from the letter of April 1928 (no. 16), we learn that Yashiro visited Berenson at Villa I Tatti in February and received some unspecified advice.

 iii) 1933-42 (nos. 18-35)

After a five-year interval, Yashiro wrote to Bernard Berenson on July 14, 1933 (no. 18); this was soon after Yashiro’s return from Cambridge (Mass), where he had delivered lectures on East Asian art at Harvard. Berenson’s response, dated August 4, is his first extant letter to Yashiro. One topic of their letters at that time was a Chinese scroll, one fragment of which Yashiro saw in the Philadelphia University Museum. Another fragment of the same scroll was in Berenson’s own collection (see Gallery).5 Yashiro, believing them to be fine examples of Sung period painting after a Tang period prototype, requested a photograph of the work in the Berenson collection, in order to publish both fragments in the Institute’s periodical Bijutsu Kenkyu [Journal of Art Studies].6 This episode is particularly interesting because in studying these scroll fragments, Yashiro used many of the same reconstruction methods he had become familiar with in Berenson’s circle, where scholars worked at reassembling dispersed Italian altarpieces.

From that point on the correspondence between Berenson and Yashiro continued more or less regularly until 1940. Berenson was finishing the revised edition of his Drawings of the Florentine Painters, and Yashiro received a copy of the new publication in January 1940 (no. 30). During this period Yashiro was eagerly engaged in his studies on Chinese art, applying Berenson’s methods. After reading Yashiro’s lecture on Chinese painting delivered at the Royal Society in London, Berenson wrote in the letter dated March 4 (no. 31):

One of my comforts is that I always hoped you would return to your own world and apply our method to its study. So I am truly glad to read that you are “building up the history of Eastern Art slowly but steadily”. Thus far it has been the pray of dealers, dandies, philologers and iconographers. I confess these have almost disgusted me with the subject and I can’t tell you how refreshing I found your protest against these approaches in the lectures you delivered at the Royal Society. I look forward to what you will publish and I want to live long enough to read you.

Naturally, the outbreak of World War II had an impact on the Yashiro-Berenson correspondance. A postcard sent by Berenson to Yashiro, dated September 13, 1942 (no. 35), was returned to the sender due to the ‘suspension of postal service.’ Their correspondence resumed only six years later.

iv) 1948-51 (nos. 36-49)

The first letter of Yashiro to Bernard Berenson after the war is dated May 9, 1948 (no. 36). It was delivered to Florence with the aid of one of his friends in the U.S. military. In this letter, Yashiro speaks of his bitter experiences during the war and mentions his hope to get a job abroad. Berenson, who had believed that Yashiro was dead, responded on August 15 (no. 38), and promised his support for Yashiro to find a post in the U.S. In the same letter, Berenson reported Mary’s death in 1945.

On December 2 of the same year, Yashiro wrote a long letter to Berenson (no. 39), expressing his desire to get a scholarly post in an American university. It contains interesting passages which show how Yashiro assessed the state of Asian art research outside of Japan:

Really Western interests in Eastern arts have increased so much during the war, but what are being written on the subject by Western scholars are still very very inadequate and childish -- very much sophisticated but still entirely childish -- that I feel that I have a human duty to write on the problems of Eastern arts. Don’t laugh at my conceit! Altho’ good eyes and right understanding of the stylistic development and perhaps of its psychology would enable a scholar to grasp the essentials of Eastern art as well as Western, yet in Eastern art literature and art are so closely related with each other, that without a good command of language and literature it is practically impossible to get to the true meanings of Eastern art. [. . .]  In the case Chinese and Japanese Arts, just such ignorant scholars write heaps of books and articles, and they are considered authorities! Of course language and literature are not everything, even for the study of Far Eastern arts, and in this respect Eastern scholars, who are apt to consider language and literature everything, should be corrected, but all the same, without language and literature, scholars’ approach to Eastern art really becomes narrow and superficial. Without modesty I feel that as an Oriental scholar, who however was fortunately brought up in BB’s way, with eyes made open, I have many works to accomplish in the cause of Far Eastern arts before I die.

Berenson had a good part of this hand-written letter neatly typed, presumably to send it as a recommendation for Yashiro to his friends working in American universities. We learn from Yashiro’s letter of December 1949 (no. 41) that one such recipient was John Coolidge, Director of the Fogg Art Museum.

In April 1951 (no. 44), Yashiro wrote to Berenson about possibly visiting Europe in the near future. He arrived in London on November 12, delivered some lectures in December at the Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente in Rome, and stayed at Villa I Tatti from late December to early January of the following year.

v) 1952-53 (nos. 50-66)

During his stay at Villa I Tatti, Yashiro promised to assume responsibility for the restoration of the Chinese scroll in the Berenson collection (no. 50). After travelling to various cities in the U.S. for the preparation of an important exhibition of Japanese art in America,7 Yashiro returned to Japan in April 1952. The scroll, carefully restored in Japan under Yashiro’s supervision, was returned to Berenson in April 1953 (no. 62).

Meanwhile, Berenson first mentioned the idea of publishing a Japanese translation of his Italian Painters of the Renaissance in a letter dated December 15, 1952 (no. 58). Yashiro was enthusiastic about this plan (no. 61) and later worked steadily to make the publication a reality. Repeated delays meant that the Japanese edition was not published until 1961, two years after Berenson’s death.8

vi) 1954-55 (nos. 67-86)

Yashiro suffered from high blood pressure and experienced a serious family misfortune – the death of his daughter Yoko on September 8, 1954 (no. 71).  In the same letter of December 1, 1954 (no. 71), Yashiro asked Berenson to write a preface for the Japanese edition of Italian Painters. He responded almost immediately, and together with his letter of January 4, 1955 (no. 72) Berenson sent a moving dedication, published in the volume itself. During this period, the letters by Yashiro and Berenson often refer to this volume, and to Berenson’s monumental project, Italian Pictures: “I am working at a new catalogue of all the Italian paintings, 13- to 1600 known to me. Each volume will have 800 illustrations, and that will be four volumes” (no. 70). 

Yashiro was invited to write a general history of Oriental art, a project which developed thanks to his contact with Bela Horovitz of Phaidon Press. Horovitz’s idea was that the book, entitled Story of Oriental Art, would form a counterpart to E. H. Gombrich’s Story of Art. In the end, partly due to Horovitz’s sudden death, the project was never realised (nos. 73, 74 and 84).

In spite of these setbacks, Berenson advised Yashiro to continue to dedicate his efforts to the study of Oriental art. Berenson wrote in the letter of September 10, 1955 (no. 80):

But you must excuse me for insisting that your major effort must be on Far Eastern art as you know it, and can best communicate to us whose background is Greek, Hebrew and Latin and not Chinese classics, Buddhism, Taoism, etc. Such a book, adequately illustrated from your brain and hand would be invaluable and sure to meet with great success in the West. You would be expected not only to see all the collections at home, in U.S.A. and Europe, but be preparing the book.

In the letter of November 27, 1955 (no. 84), Yashiro announced his plan to travel to Rome by the invitation of Giuseppe Tucci of the Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.

vii) 1956  (nos. 87-96)

Yashiro left Japan on March 3 for Rome and visited Berenson, then aged 91, at Villa I Tatti with his wife Fumi and his son Akio, probably in early April (no. 88; see photographs in Gallery). After his return to Japan, Yashiro wrote to Berenson about Stanford University’s invitation for a one-year stay (no. 92), as well as his publication plan of “Masterpieces of Japanese Art” by Thames and Hudson (no. 94), eventually published as 2000 Years of Japanese Art (New York, 1958).

 viii) 1957-59 (nos. 97-114)

On March 3, 1957 (no. 97) Yashiro reported to Berenson that the discovery of an incipient tumor on his lung prevented him from going to California. That year Yashiro was in very precarious health but continued to work slowly on his Masterpieces of Japanese Art. In December, American dancer Katherine Dunham visited Yashiro in hospital. Yashiro described this most unexpected event in his preface to the Japanese edition of Berenson’s Italian Painters."One day, at the time when I was weakest in the hospital, I received a telegram in Japanese from a lady unknown to me, named Katherine Dunham, saying that by request of Mr. Berenson she had to visit me and take my photo." Yashiro was rather perplexed by this request from a stranger, but consented, as the request was in the name of Berenson."Then a tall, dark-skinned, beautiful lady appeared accompanied by a photographer. I learned that she was a world-famous dancer Katherine Dunham who had come to Japan with a dancing team from Haiti, of which she was the leader."10 After hearing Dunham's report on Yashiro’s dangerous state of illness, and receiving the photo, Berenson immediately sent a letter of encouragement, mentioned above. Soon after Yashiro recovered, whereas Berenson’s health declined seriously during the year 1958. Nicky Mariano, Berenson's secretary and companion, wrote to Yashiro on February 1959 (no. 111) that Berenson was “very frail and helpless” and “silent and withdrawn.” In her following letter (no. 112), Nicky reported the arrival of Yashiro’s book 2000 Years of Japanese Art, telling Yashiro, “B.B. has taken a long time looking it and now I can tell you how delighted he is with it and with the quality of the illustrations and deeply grateful for the dedication.”9

On October 6, 1959, Berenson died, and on October 18, his sister Elizabeth Berenson wrote to Yashiro in California (no. 114).11 In his preface to the Japanese edition of Italian Painters, Yashiro recollects how he came to know Berenson’s death and flew impatiently from California to Florence in late November to mourn his old teacher.

On October 6, when I was staying at Stanford University, my teacher Berenson passed away. The following day, every newspaper reported his death in long articles -- I was tremendously shocked... I received a courteous letter from his sister Ms. Elizabeth, saying ‘He was so frail, looked so ill, so sweet and patient. It was blessing for him to go’. Reading this, both Fumi and I felt so sad and wept... Finally the contracted period of stay at Stanford came to end, so we departed for Italy taking most speedy jet-flights, and arrived at Florence... Fumi and I went to Villa I Tatti, holding a bunch of yellow and white chrysanthemums that were abundant at the Florentine flower market. In the soft sunshine of late autumn, the cypresses along the road on the Settignano hill showed their deepened green color. The memories of my distant youth, when I first visited here in my twenties, flashed back into my mind with such nostalgia. 

According to the same preface, during that Nicky Mariano gave Yashiro a memento, a small bronze lion which Berenson had long used as paper weight. 


Emiko Yamanashi originally planned the transcription of the entire correspondence many years ago, but difficulties in deciphering Berenson’s handwriting proved a major impediment to the project. The transcription and present publication have only become possible thanks to the collaboration between Villa I Tatti -- in the person of Jonathan K. Nelson -- and the Japanese side: Emiko Yamanashi, National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo (founded by Yashiro in 1930 as the Institute of Art Research) and Michiaki Koshikawa, Tokyo University of the Arts (formerly Tokyo Fine Arts School, where Yashiro first taught European art history). Yashiro’s daughter-in-law, Mrs. Wakaba Yashiro has kindly granted us her generous consent for the publication of all of the letters by Yashiro.

The Berenson letters were transcribed by Sanne Wellen, under the supervision of Ilaria Della Monica and Giovanni Pagliarulo. The Yashiro letters were transcribed by Emiko Yamanashi, Akiko Nakamura and Michiaki Koshikawa, and edited by Michiaki Koshikawa. Akiko Kobayashi, Maria Fukada and Maho Tomooka assisted with the proofreading of the Yashiro letters. The Yashiro letters contain occasional incorrect spelling or trivial grammatical mistakes that in no way affect their meaning. In these cases, ‘silent correction’ was applied.

For images of original handwritten letters, see n. 34 (by Yashiro), and n.108 (by Bernard Berenson).

We sincerely hope that the present online publication of the correspondence between Berenson and Yashiro will attract a wide, international public interested in the personal tie between these two men and its historical and cultural importance. Yashiro felt a special affinity for I Tatti, and so the website of the research center there is certainly the ideal place to make their correspondence available to the public.

1. See Takagishi’s essay in the present exhibition here
2. See Yamanashi’s essay in the present exhibition here.
3. Nicky Mariano, The Berenson Archive: An Inventory of Correspondence, Cambridge (MA) 1965, 111.
4. The letter was framed and hung in Yashiro’s house; see Wakaba Yashiro’s ‘Preface’.
5. For The Palace Scene, see Laurence P. Roberts, The Bernard Berenson Collection of oriental Art at Villa I Tatti, New York 1991, 27-31, no. 2.
6. Yashiro published the two fragments in 1934 “A Sung Copy of the Scroll ‘Ladies of the Court’ by Chou Wen-chü,” Bijutsu Kenkyu, 25, 1934, pp. 1-12), and then published two more related articles in 1936 (“A New Fragment of the Sung Copy of the Scroll Painting ‘Ladies of the Court’,” Bijutsu Kenkyu 56, 1936, 313-316) and in 1952 (“Again on the Sung Copy of the Scroll ‘Ladies of the Court’ by Chou Wen-chü,” Bijutsu Kenkyu IV, 1952, 157-162).
7Exhibition of Japanese Painting and Sculpture, Sponsored by the Government of Japan, National Gallery of Art, Washington, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle 1953. Yashiro was a member of the ‘Commission for Protection of Cultural Properties, Tokyo’.
8. Translated by Chisaburo Yamada, Yoshiro Masui, Itsuji Yoshikawa and Kikuo Atarashi, under the supervision of Yashiro, and published by Shincho-sha, Tokyo.
9. The book was eventually published in 1958 as 2000 Years of Japanese Art, with the dedication to Berenson: “This work is respectfully dedicated to Bernard Berenson who in my youth guided me through my Italian studies, opening for me the door to Western art, and whose inspiration has illuminated and enriched my work in Eastern fields.”
10. Yashiro, preface to Bernard Berenson, Italian Painters, Tokyo 1961, 29. Soon after this visit, Dunham reported the seriousness of Yashiro’s illness to Berenson, and Yashiro received Berenson’s letter encouraging him to survive the disease, dated December 28, 1957 (no. 108).
11. Yashiro, preface to Bernard Berenson, Italian Painters, Tokyo 1961, 32-33.