Western tourists flock to Bangkok every year drawn by the spectacle of glittering exotic temples. But some might notice that many of the other grand old buildings appear to be of European style, betraying the influence once held by Italians in early Bangkok. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) who reigned from 1868 until 1910, diverted considerable resources into turning Bangkok into a modern city and he had a great love of neo-classical and Renaissance art and architecture. During his reign a Ministry of Public Works was established and staffed with a large number of Europeans, predominantly from Italy. The enormous influence they had on the rapidly growing city can still be seen today.
The Ministry of Public Works charged with managing the program of modernisation was established in 1889. Within the Ministry the Public Works Department was responsible for construction of major buildings. In 1890 Carlo Allegri, a civil engineer from Milan, joined the department and one year later became the department head. Allegri soon recruited a few more of his countrymen to the department and after 1902 the numbers rapidly increased to over twenty Italians whose skills in engineering, architecture, marble cutting, sculpture and art oversaw a boom in grand neo-classical and renaissance style architecture in Bangkok.
Mario Tamagno from Turin was hired in 1901 as the head of the Architectural Division, a post he went on to hold for 24 years. In 1907 Annibale Rigotti, also from Turin, joined the department as Chief Architect for one of the King’s major projects. Allegri, Rigotti and Tamagno went on to work together on some of Bangkok’s most notable landmarks. One of the most well known is Hua Lamphong Railway station built between 1910 and 1916. Tamagno modelled it upon La Gare de l’Est in Paris, giving it the well known sweeping steel arched roof, neo-classical entrance and stained-glass windows.
Perhaps the most famous building from this period is Wat Benchamabophit, most often remembered by visitors to Bangkok as “The Marble Temple”.
Construction of Wat Benchamabophit commenced in 1890 as a new royal temple associated with the newly constructed palace of nearby Dusit Park. Chulalongkorn’s half brother Prince Naris was in charge of the design but it was Carlo Allegri who proposed the use of white Carrara marble to clad the building and who also arranged for King Chulalongkorn himself to select the stained glass for the windows whilst he was visiting Milan in 1907.
Without doubt the grandest of all the Italian buildings in Bangkok is the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall. Commissioned by King Chulalongkorn after his Grand Tour of Europe in 1897, this was the project for which Annibale Rigotti was bought to Bangkok together with a host of other Italian experts. Starting work in 1907 Tamagno and Rigotti decided upon the Renaissance-Baroque design. Again they chose to clad the building in Carrara marble which compounded the engineering problem of how to build such an enormously heavy building on soft marshy ground – the main central dome alone weighs about 1500 tons. It took over two years and finally some French “Compressol” technology to solve that particular problem. Meanwhile the King spared no expense on this project, importing marble from Genoa, Turin, Milan and Carrara; copper and bronze casts from Stuttgart; ceramics from Vienna; and draperies plus carpets from England. The interior was decorated with monumental paintings by Galileo Chini portraying significant events of the Chakri dynasty.
Construction of this masterpiece was only completed in 1915 nearly five years after King Chulalongkorn had passed away. His successor never used the building as the throne hall it was intended for. Between 1932 and 1974 it was used as the National Assembly but today it is rarely used and unfortunately rarely open to the public.
One of the later buildings of this turn-of-the-century Italian period was the rather incongruous looking neo-Venetian Gothic palace Villa Norasingh. Built in 1923 by the order of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) for General Chao Phraya Ram Rakhop it was designed by Annibale Rigotti and Ercole Manfredi.
Manfredi had joined the Public Works Department in 1909 and went on to live the rest of his life until 1973 in Thailand as a naturalised citizen. In later years however Manfredi regretted his architectural choice for Villa Norasingh saying in 1967 “I built it in the Venetian style because I thought that Bangkok was the Venice of the East. Now I am so ashamed of it.”
Today this building serves as Government House, office of the Prime Minister. Unfortunately tight security makes it difficult to visit most days. (I have to thank the Thai Government’s website for the above photo).
One of the most surprising finds I have experienced in Bangkok is the interior of the ordination hall or Ubosot at Wat Rajathiwas Wiharn. This is the temple where King Mongkut (Rama IV) resided as abbot prior to his accession to the throne in 1851. In 1923 his grandson King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) sponsored renovation work at this temple. The ordination hall was retained with its classic Khmer styling, however the interior was renovated with murals by Carlo Rigoli (Who had previously worked with Galileo Chini at the Ananta Samakhom throne hall) working in collaboration with Prince Naris. Traditional Buddhist scenes are presented in magnificent Italian style frescoes. The result is a breathtaking combination of Italian monumental art with traditional Thai religious iconography.
For a couple of decades at the turn of the twentieth century Italian artists had an enormous influence upon the architecture of the rapidly developing nation of Siam. Other Italian influenced buildings from this time include Bang Khun Prom Palace (Now owned by the Bank of Thailand), the reconstructed Santa Cruz church, Siam Commercial Bank’s first office in Talad Noi, Suan Kularb Residential Hall, the Abhisek Dusit Throne Hall within Dusit Palace, Neilson-Hays Library off Surawong Road, Saranrom Park, the Phan Fa Lilat and Makkhawan Rangsan bridges on Ratchadamneon Avenue as well as major teak wooden bridges constructed in Lampang and Chiang Mai.
In fact the influence of Italians did not cease after this period. A new generation of artists came to Siam and made their mark but with a new modernist style. The most famous of this generation was Corrado Feroci (aka Silpha Bhirasri) who we shall write about in a future article.
Where to Go
- Lords of Things. Maurizio Pelggi, University of Hawaii Press, 2002.
- The Aesthetics of Power: Architecture, Modernity, and Identity from Siam to Thailand. Koompong Noobanjong, White Lotus Press, 2013.
- Reading Bangkok. Ross King. NUS Press, 2011
- The Penetration of Italian Professionals in the Context of the Siamese Modernization. Vilma Fasoli and Francesca B. Filippi. ABE Journal 28/10/18.
- Ten Remarkable Italians in Bangkok’s History 1890’s to 1970’s. John Barnes. The Assumption Journal, Vol 9, No 2, 2016