A Nostalgic Filter: A University of Pittsburgh Exhibition

Tale of Genji Scroll

Nagoya, Tokugawa Art Museum, National Treasure

Murasaki Shikibu, an 11th-century noblewoman, is said to have written the Tale of Genji on the night of the full moon in the eighth month after praying in a temple for inspiration. Whether or not the legend carries any truth, the book is widely celebrated as the greatest literary achievement of the Heian period and perhaps the first novel ever written. Its 54 chapters follow Genji, a son of the emperor who is rejected from the nobility due to his mother’s low birth, through a series of romantic entanglements. In chapter 36 a princess has an affair with another man after becoming Genji’s lover; the ensuing pregnancy and death of her infant son result in the princess living out her days as a nun. Chapter 50 describes another disowned daughter of royalty who survives in hiding, her story paralleling Genji’s own situation. These vivid portrayals must have been highly entertaining for Murasaki’s audience of aristocratic women; her imperfect characters embodied anxieties shared by women across the medieval world.

While Murasaki’s original folded paper manuscript no longer survives, the twelfth-century Tale of Genji Scroll now divided between the Tokugawa and Gotoh Museums is widely considered the most important manuscript copy of the book, and indeed the earliest and most significant illustrated handscroll to survive from medieval Japan. The complex narrative extends across a 450-foot-long scroll that comprises 54 chapters, 20 rolls, over 100 pages, and over 300 sheets of calligraphy. Such scrolls are to be read from left to right as the reader gently unspools the page from the left and rolls them back on the right. On Pitt’s campus, access to the Tale of Genji Scroll facsimile offers opportunities to hold and read the book in its intended format, one that is far less familiar in our library than turning the pages of a book in codex form, with pages bound to a spine.

Published in 1915 and stored in a specially made bamboo box, Pitt’s Tale of Genji Scroll is among the oldest facsimiles in this exhibition.  The vibrant colors of the original are not visible in this copy, making the narrative more difficult to decipher. Many illustrations are also faded, creased, or simply too subtly painted to be understood through contours alone. Nevertheless, the facsimile still reveals image-text relationships from the original book that are difficult to grasp when the scenes are viewed, as is often the case, as isolated vignettes without their context in the handscroll.
To the best of our knowledge, the manuscript has yet to be fully digitized and made available online; however, some images can be viewed on the website of the Tokugawa Art Museum.


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