Sculptor, founder of the Institute of Art of Palermo -now named after him and his wife Kiyohara Otama-, and patriotic member of Garibaldi’s “Expedition of the Thousand”. Between 1876 and 1882, Ragusa introduced in Japan the technique of bronze casting and other European methods of modeling in wood, clay, plaster and wire armatures which exerted a significant role in the development of the modern Japanese sculptural arts.
In 1876, under the supervision of the Ministry of Industry, the Technical Fine Arts School (Kobu Bijutsu Gakko), the first governmental art school of painting and sculpture, was founded in Tokyo. Special emphasis was placed on sculptural art, as the number of applicants was far less than that for painting. With the waning popularity of Buddhism in the early Meiji period, traditional sculptural art had fallen into disfavor, and was surviving only in minor arts such as architectural ornament, noh-masks, dolls, netsuke, and ivory-work.
Upon recommendation of the Italian Minister to Tokyo, Conte Alessandro Fe, the Meiji government contracted three Italian artists as foreign advisors: Vincenzo Ragusa (1841–1927) for sculpture, Antonio Fontanesi (1818–1882) for drawing and Giovanni Cappelletti (died 1885) for the preparatory course. These individuals greatly influenced the development of modern Japanese art and architecture through the next several decades.
Ragusa’s curricula at the Technical Fine Arts School consisted of perspective drawing, copying of paintings and making plaster models, still-life and life. He also received a teaching appointment at the School of Industrial Art in Yokohama and opened his own studio in his residence in Mita, Tokyo, producing many portrait sculptures of notable people, actors and common people during his seven years in Japan. In recognition of his services, Ragusa was received in audience by Emperor Meiji in February 1879.
Ragusa renewed his contract in 1879 for a second six-year term, but the Technical Fine Art School closed in January 1883 due to financial difficulties and a strengthening of public opinion towards preservation of Japanese traditional culture. He left Japan in 1882, taking with him a large collection of Japanese and Chinese art. This collection is now stored in the Pigorini National Museum of Prehistory and Ethnography in Rome. He was honored with the Order of the Rising Sun (Fifth Class) in June 1884.
Ragusa brought a Japanese lacquer artist named Kiyohara Einosuke with him to Italy, along with Einosuke’s wife (who was skilled in embroidery) and their daughter Kiyohara Tama. Upon his return to Italy, Ragusa opened the Scuola Superiore d’Arte Applicata in Palermo, and employed Kiyohara and his wife as instructors attempting to introduce Japanese lacquer techniques to Italian art students. The attempt failed due to difficulties in obtaining the necessary raw materials, and Kiyohara and his wife returned to Japan after six years. However, they left behind their daughter Tamayo, who married Ragusa later in 1889.
At the death of her husband, in 1927, Mrs. Ragusa returned to Japan taking with her sixteen of Ragusa’s works which were given to the Imperial Art School in Tokyo. They are kept in the University Art Museum of the Tokyo National University of Fine Arts and Music. Other works, including a “Statue of Napoleon I” which was made at the order of the Imperial family, remain in the Imperial Household.