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Face of early European missionary in Japan brought to life through reconstruction

Experts at the National Museum of Nature and Science reconstructed the face of a European missionary who died in Tokyo in 1714 while imprisoned for his beliefs.

Face of early European missionary in Japan brought to life through reconstruction
The profile and front of the reassembled fragments of the skull of Giovanni Battista Sidotti. 
Most of left half of the skull had disintergrated [Credit: Yuka Nishimoto]
Skeletal remains of three individuals were excavated in 2014 in Tokyo’s Bunkyo Ward, where a detention house for Christians, called “Christian Mansion,” stood in the Edo Period (1603-1867). DNA and anthropological analysis revealed one of the sets of remains was from a tall male of Italian descent who was middle-aged.

According to records from that time, only two Italians stayed there. One is Giuseppe Chiara (1602-1685), a missionary who died at the age of 84, and is the model of Shusaku Endo’s novel "Silence." The other is Giovanni Battista Sidotti, who was 47 when he died in 1714.

In April 2016, Bunkyo Ward authorities identified one set of remains as Sidotti’s, and asked the national museum to work on the skull fragments to reconstruct his face.

The ward government allocated around 2 million yen ($19,000) for the project.

Sidotti is widely believed to have been the last missionary to smuggle himself into Japan while a ban against Christianity was in effect.

Dressed in Japanese clothes, he landed on a southern island Yakushima in 1708. He was soon captured and sent to the Christian detention house in the capital of Edo, present-day Tokyo. There, he was questioned by Arai Hakuseki (1657-1725), a government officer and celebrated scholar who picked Sidotti's brain about Christianity and life in Europe.

Sidotti quickly earned Hakuseki's respect with his extensive knowledge and personality.

Face of early European missionary in Japan brought to life through reconstruction
Reconstructed face of Italian missionary Giovanni Battista Sidotti 
[Credit: Yuka Nishimoto]
Hakuseki later wrote a book about the time he spent with Sidotti and European culture in general. The work remained an important reference in Japan until the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate's isolation policy.

Sidotti was later incarcerated in a dungeon for the conversion to Christianity of a Japanese couple, who looked after him at the house. Hakuseki filed an appeal for mercy, to no avail, and the missionary died after about a year.

One of the two other remains was also identified by DNA analysis as a Japanese male. The other set proved elusive, but judging from the bone features is a Japanese female. It seems likely they are the remains of the couple that Sidotti baptized.

Only the right side of Sidotti's skull was recovered. It was in more than a thousand fragments.

The facial reconstruction experts flipped the digital model of the right half of the skull to compensate for the missing left side on a computer to produce a 3D-printed model from which to work.

Facial muscles were deduced from the traces of muscle attachment on the bone. The thickness of the skin was based on the average for Europeans.

As no portrait exists of Sidotti, the facial reconstruction experts relied on a description of him in Hakuseki’s book. This helped with the color of the hair, the shape of Sidotti's hollow eyes and high-bridged nose.

“He looks intelligent and mild. His personality comes across. It's easy to see why Hakuseki went the extra mile to beg for his life,” said Kenichi Shinoda, the head of the Department of Anthropology at the National Museum of Nature and Science.

Had Sidotti’s remains been found even 10 years earlier, the chances of making a positive identification would have been extremely slim as analytic technology had not progressed to the level it is today, according to Shinoda. On the other hand, if the remains had remained hidden for 10 years from now, the DNA may well have been destroyed.

“The facial reconstruction was made possible by a number of miraculously lucky coincidences,” said Shinoda. “I want visitors to the museum to peer at the face that speaks so much, and feel the tangible presence of a historical figure.”

The sculpture is on display in a special exhibition on the reconstruction project at the museum in Tokyo’s Ueno district until Dec. 4. Admission is 650 yen for adults and university students, and free for others.

Author: Yuka Nishimoto | Source: The Asahi Shimbun [November 25, 2016]

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