As a piece of headwear, the suigyu kumageue-nari kawari kabuto is as amazing as its Japanese name is long.

The bowl covering the scalp is made from a type of leather boiled to create a lightweight — but almost impenetrable — surface. The helmet is outfitted with a pair of water buffalo horns, tufts of animal hair and the sculpted head of a demon, with a single large horn rising from its center.

This fanciful creation is a helmet once worn by a samurai, part of Japan’s fearsome warrior caste and private army that protected the island nation from invaders, quashed rebellions, and otherwise kept the peace from the late 8th century through the mid-19th.

It also is one of more than 90 pieces that make up Samurai: The Way of the Warrior, on display through July 23 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Chazen Museum of Art.

The traveling exhibit is part of a collection housed at Museo Stibbert in Florence, Italy, which is home to one of the world’s greatest collections of armor.

The exhibit showcases the craftsmanship and esthetic aspects of samurai armor, helmets, swords, guards and arrows, and also features screens, lacquer boxes and other objects from the period that reflect the same workmanship, says Chazen director Russell Panczenko.

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A katana blade from the late 16th century to early 17th century, made of red oak, boxwood, rosewood, ebony, ivory, horn, tortoise, malachite and mother-of-pearl. On loan from Museo Stibbert in Florence, Italy.

“These arms and armor are not purely functional,” says Panczenko, who will retire from his role June 30 after 33 years of service. “The application of lacquer on steel plates held together with silk threads and ribbons made for beautiful objects in and of themselves.”

He added, “We’re an art museum, after all, and if there wasn’t an artistic aspect, the exhibit would belong in a history museum.”

Evolving samurai, increasing sophistication

The samurai — translated as “those who serve” — emerged toward the end of the 8th century during Japan’s Heian Era. They came from a group of clans skilled at archery and mountain combat hired by the emperor to subdue rebellious populations within the country.

By the late 12th century, the samurai had evolved into military nobility, establishing autonomy over the aristocracy. It was the shogun, or military dictator, and his samurai who wielded Japan’s administrative authority. But that authority began to wane by 1868, when the samurai took on roles that were more symbolic.

Thanks to centuries of influence, the once crude warriors took on increased sophistication, studying art, calligraphy, poetry and music. Their arms and armaments became more symbolic, with designs less functional and more fantastical. Much of what’s on display in the Chazen exhibit stems from that period, Panczenko says.

“By the 18th century, the increasing use of guns and bombs in warfare made the armor obsolete,” the director explains. “Armor became more symbolic and was used for ceremonial events.”

Craft — and art

The quality and design of the armor also was a way for wearers to demonstrate social status and personal wealth, Panczenko explains. Nonetheless, the various designs and materials also had practical implications.

The lacquer used in Japan throughout the centuries to create exquisite art also served as a rust inhibitor on the armor’s iron plates, which generally were sewn together with strong silk thread. Using multiple plates rather single large ones such as those used in European armor also gave the wearers greater versatility and mobility, which increased their fighting prowess.

“The helmet is where some of the artists’ real imagination came into play,” Panczenko explains. “They had to protect the head, but were decorated with dragons and other symbols, including one with rabbit ears on which one of the ears is flopped over.”

Decorative or not, the famous samurai swords were true works of metal craftsmanship. The combination of smelting techniques and alloy combinations helped the swords remain strong and especially sharp while in use. The exhibit boasts a number of sabers, as well as decorative guards and sheaths that artistically offset the blades’ clean and deadly lines.

Panczenko had lived in Florence for eight years but had never visited Museo Stibbert. It was only during the past year that he stopped in while visiting the city and discovered that museum officials had created a traveling show of many of its Japanese artifacts while the floor on which those exhibits were housed was being refurbished.

Since 2014, the exhibit has already visited the Houston Museum of Natural Science, the Georgia Museum of Art on the University of Georgia’s Athens campus, and Florida State University’s John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota.

The exhibition has a lot to see, but there is one immutable lesson that Samurai: The Way of the Warrior offers to visitors to the pleasant T. Rowland Galleries, Panczenko says.

“Whether in the production of swords or ceramics, there is a very strong appreciation among Japanese artisans of crafts and how to use them in making personal artistic statements,” Panczenko explains. “Even if they are only able to do one small thing, they want to do it better than anyone else.”

That’s a lesson items in the new exhibit teach repeatedly, he adds.

On display

Samurai: The Way of the Warrior is on display through July 23 in the Pleasant T. Rowland Galleries of the Chazen Museum of Art, 750 University Ave., on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. The exhibit is free and open to the public. For more, go online to chazen.wisc.edu.

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