A Letter from Wakaba Yashiro

I was extremely pleased to learn about the present online publication of the letters exchanged between Bernard Berenson and my father-in-law, Yukio Yashiro. This year marks the 40th anniversary of the death of Yukio Yashiro, and I know that he would have been surprised and delighted by this wonderful initiative.

About 20 years after Yukio Yashiro died at age 84 on May 25, 1975, we found 47 letters from Berenson-sensei (as my father-in-law always referred to him) addressed to Yashiro among the more than 6,000 correspondences discovered in the cleanout of his old house in Oiso. This led us to believe that Yashiro had in turn written a large number of letters to Berenson. We then learned that 65 letters from Yashiro to Berenson were preserved at Villa I Tatti, and judging from their dates and content, while some are missing, these two sets of letters were the matching halves of their correspondence.

Yashiro first visited Berenson at Villa I Tatti in the autumn of 1921 while he was studying in London. With Berenson’s permission, he received training until 1924, and was actively included in Berenson’s research cohort. These experiences led to his determination to focus his research on Italian Renaissance art. Yashiro then compiled the results of his studies in his three-volume magnum opus, Sandro Botticelli, published in 1925, and returned to his hometown ravished by the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923. With the exception of the interruptions in communication caused by World War II, the two men exchanged letters and Yashiro occasionally visited his mentor at Villa I Tatti until Berenson passed away in 1959.

Encountering a benevolent mentor can be called one of the treasures of human life, and indeed, Berenson remained Yashiro’s most revered teacher throughout his life. The massive amount of work produced by Yashiro on Japanese and East Asian art after his return to Japan employed the Berenson methods that he had learned directly from Berenson in his youth and was groundbreaking in its creation of a new history of East Asian art. Yashiro’s belief that this work was his life mission is expressed fervently and repeatedly in his letters to Berenson.

Among the remaining Berenson-Yashiro correspondence is a letter dated December 28, 1957, written in a faltering hand by Berenson, at the time when Yashiro was threatened by death due to a serious illness that obliged him to extended hospitalization.

I implore you not to give up hope. The will to live and get well can still perform miracles. . . . Live and come here to do the new edition of your true and beautiful book on Botticelli. (emphasis by Berenson)

Yashiro responded immediately from the hospital in his own faltering hand:

Your words, […] went deep into my soul & I will insist on living, as you have done. That letter of yours has become a really guiding spirit for me, & I am always carrying that letter in my inside pocket! (January 20, 1958)

In the spring of 2013, my daughter and I first visited the Villa I Tatti thanks to plans made by Prof. Masanori Aoyagi, then Director of the National Museum of Western Art and now Commissioner of the Agency for Cultural Affairs of the Japanese Government. Prof. Lino Pertile, his wife Anna Bensted, and Dr. Jonathan Nelson escorted us on our visit to the grave site of Berenson and his wife Mary in the chapel, tucked away in a corner of the villa’s expansive and lovely Renaissance-style gardens. We were greatly moved to have the chance to offer prayers of gratitude to Berenson, and visit the villa’s archive where we viewed Yashiro’s letters to Berenson and the photographs of his post-war visits to the Villa I Tatti with his family. Indeed, the villa seems to be an aesthetic utopia created by Berenson, as evident from his many beloved artworks, including the Madonna and Child by Domenico Veneziano that adorns the wall of the reception room to his massive library of books of which he was justly proud. Just as he wrote in one of his books, “If survival after death were conceivable, I should wish to be the indwelling soul of my house and library.” (Bernard Berenson, Sketch for a Self-Portrait, New York 1949, 175) The villa is truly a splendid space filled with Berenson’s gracious spirit.

Then about two months after our visit to I Tatti, Prof. Pertile, Dr. Nelson and their wives visited Japan. Amidst glorious May sunshine, we toured Kamakura with our visitors and Prof. and Mrs. Koichi Toyama of Keio University. After enjoying a Japanese meal at the Great Buddha of Kamakura temple, we visited Kanagawa Prefectural Museum of Modern Art, Hayama. With the generous cooperation of Mr. Tsutomu Mizusawa, Director of the Museum, and Mr. Hidebumi Hashi, Chief Curator, a display in the museum’s conference room presented items from the Yukio Yashiro archives, including materials related to Berenson, the 47 letters from Berenson to Yashiro, and books related to Berenson from Yashiro’s very large library donated to the museum. Our visitors from Italy thoroughly enjoyed examining the displayed materials.

The present publication of the Berenson-Yashiro correspondence stands as proof of their tight teacher-student bond that surpassed chronological and geographic boundaries. I know that Yashiro would have been delighted that these materials will be useful for young researchers and contribute to the cultural exchange between Italy and Japan. And, I wish for the ongoing success and development of Villa I Tatti, which has so carefully preserved the legacy of Berenson.

Finally I would like to express my heartfelt gratitude to Professor Lino Pertile, Director of Villa I Tatti, and the curators of the present online exhibition: Dr. Jonathan K. Nelson, Assistant Director for Academic Programs at Villa I Tatti, Professor Michiaki Koshikawa, Tokyo University of the Arts, and Dr. Emiko Yamanashi, Director of the Department of Art Research, Archives and Information Systems at the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo. My deep appreciation also goes to all the many others who have lent their support and cooperation to make this wonderful project a reality.

Wakaba Yashiro
March 2015