top of page


Small Heading
Hasekura Tsunegaga by Claude Deruet.jpg

Hasekura Tsunenaga

by Claude Duruet (1615)


oil on canvas

12 x 12 cm

An illustrious visitor to Rome's VILLA Borghese
Hasekura Tsunenaga and the Japanese Martyrs described by LOPE DE VEGA in 1615


Hasekura Tsunenaga came to Villa Borghese as an envoy -- today we might say, an ambassador -- in 1615 to visit then-Pope Paul V Borghese and his nephew, “Mecenas” Cardinal Scipion Borghese, shortly after these two high-ranking officials of Catholic Rome inaugurated this grand diplomatic salon that same year.

Although I have led countless tours to individuals and small groups interested in seeing firsthand the works of CARAVAGGIO, Gianlorenzo BERNINI, and TITIAN usually on display in this elegant setting, I had not until recently been able to say much more about the Japanese visitor, other than "this shows that the gallery was once a diplomatic meeting place for high-level dignitaries, similar to Camp David in the United States, or Versailles Palace in France."



Then I had the lucky urge one day, early this Roman summer, on the feast of SS. Peter and Paul, to take a breather from my tour work, and go to my small apartment in Trastevere to lie down with a book and perhaps enjoy a siesta. Since for some time now I had been treading the thick tomes of Felix LOPE DE VEGA, the Spanish Golden Century author of more than a thousand plays, as well as poems short and long, and several pastoral novels, that hot afternoon I pulled from my shelf one of the volumes os his collected works and somehow opened up the pages to the playwright's fascinating transcription of several letters he had received from a Jesuit colleague in Asia, disclosing the account of the martyrdom of some 30 Christian converts recently tortured and in some cases crucified or cut in pieces by the Shogun government in Japan -- in dates that coincided with the visit I would mention without any details whatsoever, during my tours of the Galleria Borghese.


I was amazed not only by the step by step descriptions of the tortures and persecutions but also by LOPE's frequent use of phrases from antique authors such as CICERO, Seneca, Aristotle, and a host of others, to explain and annotate the historical events.

Both the Pontiff and his nephew were wise, and sometimes ruthless, art collectors, and in times when Europe experienced the rise of powerful new states, such as England, France, and Saxon Germany, they hosted many of their meetings with dignitaries from other countries in the villa grounds they had acquired and streamlined for this purpose, just outside the Aurelian walls in the Pincio outskirts of Rome. And although at the time of the present essay I lack any account in hand of the conversations that transpired in the Pincian villa designed by architects Flaminio Ponzio and Vansanzio -- but these must have been quite hair-raising and alarming.


Japanese ambassador Tsunenaga was a convert to Catholicism, though he was a Samurai, and he visited the Borgheses in representation of the Shogun government of his island country.  Shortly after Tsunenaga’s two-year sea journey, Japan reinitiated persecution of Christian preachers and converts and essentially closed the country to the West until the 19th century.


In 1597 some 26 Christians had been crucified en masse in Nagasaki, and as chronicled in an illuminating prose text by Spanish playwright Felix LOPE DE VEGA,  the Ambassador came to ask Borghese to send more missionaries to his country, which in the years 1614 and 1615 had again suffered executions of Christians. In the Vatican library there are letters to and fro the Pope and the Japanese diplomat, where the latter requests the Pope’s help in establishing trade links between the Spanish viceroyalty of Mexico and Japan.



A statue of Ambassador Hasekura Tsunenaga stands in Civitavecchia Port in Rome, as well as in HAVANA (Cuba) Harbour— this port of call evidencing the place that our beloved island had already acquired then... in the times of Caravaggio and Cervantes! In his 2-year diplomatic journey, Tsunenaga spent time also in Manila and Acapulco.


Aside from the religious fervor this Samurai felt as a new convert, the arrival of people like the Jesuits to Japan he would have seen for its secular significance too. The Order of the Society of Jesus taught that sin was really ignorance and that a good education in the liberal arts and empirical thinking was a security against obscurantism and social abuses . (And I am oversimplifying here). So from the ambassador’s perspective the contact with the West , as embodied by these teachers, would mean growth for Japan just as his other project would: to establish trade routes with Spanish Mexico and even Havana!

When in my native Camagüey, Cuba, Fidel Castro proclaimed the closing of my school and all other private educational institutions, especially those run by the Catholic Church, this move essentially did the same thing that was done in Japan in the 17th century: block the teaching of students to think freely and to see religious practices as part and parcel of a preparation for life.

Two important forces of progress and social betterment.

Triunfo de la Fe en los Reinos del Japon lope de Vega.jpeg
Martyrdom of Japanese by Luca Hasegawa 1957.jpeg

Martyrdom of Japanese Christians in Nagasaki

Luca Hasegawa


Civitta Vecchia, ROME


bottom of page