Following the trail of “The Korean Man”On October 7, 1979, Kim Seong-woo, an Italian correspondent for a Korean daily, wrote a story that shocked Koreans back home. The Rome-based reporter said he may have found the living descendants of Antonio Corea, who was believed to be the first Korean man in Europe.
The man had been only previously mentioned as a Korean war prisoner in a 16th century travelogue by an Italian merchant, who brought Corea and two other Koreans home with him as servants.
The newspaper article piqued the interest of Koreans and inspired writers of novels and musicals, as well as scholars. But it wasn’t until 1992, when the 400th anniversary of the Korea-Japan war rekindled interest in the mystery of the Korean war prisoner in the Italian travelogue, that Gwak Cha-seop, a professor of Italian history at Pusan National University, decided he would try to track the man down.
The travails of his research was recently published in a book titled “Korean Man: Antonio Corea meets Rubens.”
In it, Mr. Gwak addresses the possibility that Antonio Corea was the subject of Flemish artist Peter Paul Ruben’s drawing “The Korean Man,” believed to be the first Western work of art that depicts an image of Korea. To this day, it is uncertain who modeled for the artist and whether he was actually Korean.
Already the book has triggered some interest in the art world. Lee Hendrix, curator of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, which bought the Rubens drawing for $564,000 in 1983, has expressed interest in reading the book in English.
When he started his search, Mr. Gwak didn’t have a lot to go on. An Italian merchant Francesco Careletti (1573-1636), who documented his trips to the Pacific and India, first mentions a servant named Antonio Corea in “The Florentine Traveler and Merchant of the 16th Century.”
The merchant wrote about how he bought three Korean war prisoners at a Japanese slave market in Nagasaki and took them to Florence. He said these men had been sent to Japan after Korea was defeated in a seven-year war between the two countries.
In 1932, a Japanese historian by the name of Yamaguchi, who was studying Korean war prisoners, first mentioned the travelogue in his research. Mr. Yamaguchi said that the descendants of Antonio Corea had settled in southern Italy near Catanzaro as early as 1620 and a small Italian village called Albi had more than 500 people with the family name of Corea.
Mr. Kim’s article in 1979 confirmed much of the historian’s research and set off Koreans’ imaginations.
In his book, Mr. Gwak traces in great detail the process of his research, which involved examining the fragments of historical facts he found in related documents, papers written about Ruben’s drawings, references from experts of the Joseon Dynasty and excerpts from various museum archives.
In examining the clothes worn in “The Korean Man,” Mr. Gwak jumps from art to fashion history, moving between the studies of cloth, art and human faces, from Italian to Japanese to Korean. He determines that the subject’s clothes were of the style that aristocrats in the Joseon Dynasty wore.
So was Antonio Corea the model for “The Korean Man”? Those who seek definitive answers should look elsewhere. Mr. Gwak arrives at an open-ended conclusion that “there isn’t a definite reason as to why the man in Ruben’s drawing should not have been a Korean man.”
He places limits on finding a direct historical connection between Corea and Rubens, yet leaves the possibility open.
“It would be a mistake to believe that all historical writings need to illustrate confidence,” Mr. Gwak says.
“Research should reveal the process the author has wrestled with. The feeling of uncertainty should come through when the author reaches a point where he can only draw on presumptions. It’s so that readers can actively participate in the process of investigation.”
One of Mr. Gwak’s notable achievements is how he bridges the gap between studies done in the West and the East by scholars who didn’t have access to original documents in the native language.
He reconciles studies on Ruben’s drawings by Western art historians with Asian scholars’ research on Antonio Corea that was virtually unknown in the West. He tries to come up with a complete history about the man in Ruben’s drawing, who he really was and whether he was a fictional character.
If Mr. Gwak’s theory about Antonio Corea’s connection with Rubens earns credibility in the West, it would call into question when Rubens completed his drawing, which is believed to have been 1617. If Antonio Corea indeed sat for the painting, Mr. Gwak argues that Rubens must have met him around 1606-1608 through Careletti and created his portrait shortly afterward.
Inspiration for writers
Since the newspaper article about Antonio Corea in 1979, public reaction to the “discovery” of the possible Korean descendants in Europe has been mixed with doubt and fascination, tinged with the feeling of “nationalist pride,” as Mr. Gwak describes it in the book.
For a country once marked as the hermit kingdom, which deliberately opposed Western demands for diplomatic and trade relations for years mainly because of the fear of foreign influence, the news brought in a fresh outlook on the Korean diaspora as well.
Some scholars aside from Mr. Gwak argued that Antonio Corea might have been the first Korean Catholic priest to be ordained in a Roman seminary school.
Others, such as the reporter Mr. Kim, denied that Corea had religious connections ― a theory that was mostly favored among Christian theologians ― and argued instead that Corea most likely arrived at the village of Albi, eventually marrying an Italian lady named Anunchi Ita.
Other speculations on his identity inspired a popular musical and books of historical fiction, the most notable one being “The Korean Merchant in Venice,” which describes the fictional male character who enjoyed success as a Venetian merchant in 16th century Europe.
In his book, Mr. Gwak reviews almost every accessible work available on the subject, whether it’s academic papers, plays, artwork or fiction, calling some of them “groundless presumption” or sometimes praising them as brilliant “historical imagination.”
But Mr. Gwak admits to the limits of historical research as well. “Historical records could never be complete,” he says.
Moreover, Mr. Gwak says discoveries through art history research are often perceived as only “potential evidence.”
“Art history relies on the aesthetic perspective of the viewer,” Mr. Gwak says. “Their contexts vary; facts that can be extracted from a work of art are just too limited.”
With the case of Rubens’ drawing, finding the truth must have been even harder, because part of the fascination with the work lay directly in the myths surrounding the mysterious character.
In the realm of art, where the actual truth behind a work of art is of a lesser concern than its artistic possibilities, Mr. Gwak faced the problem of delicately balancing his practical studies on a subject while preserving the work’s mystery.
But he’s confident that his work speaks for itself. “At the very least,” he says, “my analysis is the one of the best possibilities so far.”
by Park Soo-mee