As Siamrat has written previously, much of Bangkok’s finest architecture is the result of a group of Italians who were invited to work in Siam by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. But Thailand also owes many of its most famous monuments to an Italian who first came to Siam in 1923. This man’s name was Corrado Feroci and he would dedicate the rest of his life to the arts in Thailand, even adopting a Thai name Silpa Bhirasri.
Today we will take a tour around Bangkok to learn about Corrado Feroci and his most famous works, a tour which will also take us through some of Thailand’s most momentous history.
School of Arts
We begin our tour at Silphakorn University, Thailand’s first university of the arts located just north of the Grand Palace in the former palace of Prince Narisara Nuvattivongse, who was an important artist himself and was to become a good friend of Feroci. Feroci was employed by the Siamese government in the Department of Fine Arts but started teaching sculpture three years after arriving in Siam. This led to the School of Arts being established in 1932 with Feroci as director. In 1943 the school was upgraded to become Silpakorn University with Feroci as dean overseeing two faculties teaching painting and sculpture.
Today within the university grounds Feroci’s original studio has been converted into a small museum dedicated to his life and works. One room in the museum displays a collection of bronzes and art work by both Feroci and some of his students. The other room preserves Feroci’s studio office with the desk, typewriter and chair that he used. Also on display are his sculpting tools, paint brushes and even some letters that he wrote.
Feroci had been a student of the Florence Academy of Fine Arts and had attained a professorship there. He first came to Siam in February 1923 with his second wife Fanni Viviani and their daughter Isabella. Feroci had met Fanni, a relative of the wealthy Niccolini family, shortly after his first marriage in 1918 to Paolina Angelini and he subsequently left Paolina for Fanni. In 1922 Feroci had won a competition organised by the Italian and Siamese governments and was then selected to join Siam’s Fine Arts Department. This opportunity to move to the exotic land of Siam was not just a chance to boost his career but was perhaps also a way to distance himself from the problematic relationship with his first wife.
Adjacent to the museum in a large warehouse the university preserves the original models used for casting Feroci’s statues. Here one can walk amongst a dizzying array of larger-than-life likenesses of some of Thailand’s most famous leaders.
The Road to Democracy
From Silpakorn University we shall walk around Sanam Luang and up Ratchadamnoen Klang, the boulevard built by King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) in 1903 to connect the old Grand Palace with his new modern palace compound in Dusit. In the middle of Ratchadamnoen stands Bangkok’s most famous icon, Democracy Monument.
On 24th June 1932, nine years after Feroci had arrived in Siam, the absolute monarchy was overthrown by a group of civilians and military men known as The People’s Party. In December that same year the new regime had King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) promulgate Siam’s first constitution.
Meanwhile the Department of Fine Arts where Feroci was employed came under the directorship of Luang Wichit Wathakan who was a key figure in developing and promoting a new nationalist vision for Siam, or Thailand as the country was soon to be called. In 1939 the government decided that a new “Constitution Monument” would be erected to be the focus of annual National Day celebrations on the 24th June. The location chosen for this monument was highly symbolic being in the middle of and interrupting the royal avenue.
Democracy Monument was designed by the Thai architect Maeo Aphaiwong and construction was contracted to Christiani and Nielsen (Siam) Ltd costing 250,000 Baht. Around the base of the monument are four scenes sculpted by Feroci that promote The People’s Party in romantic realist style. In the scene “Soldiers Fighting for Democracy” soldiers armed with a tank and a machine gun charge forward on foot and on horseback against an unseen enemy of democracy. In “Personification of the People” a soldier is seen protecting civilians as they go about their daily work. In The People Party’s Thailand the military was the central institution of the state, protecting the people and bestowing democracy upon them.
Democracy Monument was inaugurated on National Day 1940 by Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram who had risen from the military faction within the People’s Party to become Prime Minister and who was soon to lead the nation to war.
Celebrating the Royal Dynasty
Next we take a taxi south down Maha Chai Road to Phra Phuttayotfa Bridge to see Feroci’s first major work in Siam.
Phra Phuttayotfa or Memorial Bridge was partially financed by King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) to provide Bangkok’s first road link across the Chao Phraya river. Construction started in 1929 and the opening of the bridge was planned to coincide with the 150th anniversary of both the founding of Bangkok and the Chakri Dynasty. Here at Phra Phuttayotfa Bridge we are back in the era of absolute monarchy. King Prajadhipok planned to make this bridge a grand symbolic gesture of how the monarchy provides for the people as well as being a memorial to the Chakri dynasty.
On his first arrival in Bangkok Feroci had been unhappy with the poorly lit room that was provided as a studio. His complaints were ignored by his department superiors but after sculpting a bust of Prince Narisara Nuvattivongse he came to the attention of the prince who appreciated Feroci’s artistic talents. Bhrisasri was soon moved to a better studio with the natural light he required and the two artists became good friends.
Thus in 1929 when Prince Narisara Nuvattivongse began designing the monument to stand before the Memorial Bridge, he turned to Feroci to sculpt the twice-life size image of the King seated upon his throne. The casting of the statue was carried out in Milan under Feroci’s supervision, enabling him to travel back to his home country during 1930.
Phra Phuttayotfa Bridge was opened by King Prajadhipok on Chakri Day, 6th April 1932, amid great fanfare to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the royal dynasty. Few realised that just two months later the People’s Party would stage a coup that nearly bought that dynasty to an end.
Next we jump back in the taxi and cross Phra Phuttayotfa Bridge, admiring the views of the busy river as we go, and head up Prajadhipok Road to Wong Wian Yai in Thonburi. This large avenue and the large roundabout Wong Wian Yai were built at the same time as the bridge. A memorial to King Taksin had first been proposed for Wong Wian Yai in 1934 and a competition had been organised to select from seven different designs, the public being asked to drop coins in the base of the model which they preferred. But war intervened so it was only in 1954 that the winning statue of King Taksin on horseback with sword raised was erected at this famous roundabout.
Phibun Songkhram was once again Prime Minister having made a remarkable political comeback despite leading Thailand to war against the Allies in 1942 and later narrowly avoiding trial as a war criminal. As a founding member of the People’s Party that overthrew the monarchy in 1932 Phibun was still an ardent anti-monarchist in this post-war period with the young King Bhumipol (Rama IX) on the throne. Feroci was again commissioned for this work that would appear to be symbolically directed against the Chakri dynasty that was itself founded by a coup against King Taksin. The statue is perhaps a counterpoint to the more sedate equestrian statue of King Chulalongkorn across the river in front of Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall.
Feroci himself had proved to be a skilled survivor through the tumultuous war period. As the pre-war government of Phibun Songkhram looked towards the fascist regimes of Italy, Germany and Japan for nationalist inspiration the Department of Fine Arts under Wichit Wathakan increasingly became an outlet for government propaganda. Feroci had switched effortlessly from sculpting grand monuments of the monarchy to carving socialist-realist bas-reliefs for the Thai fascist state. In December 1941 Japan invaded Thailand which made life increasingly difficult for the citizens of Bangkok. But in October 1943 Italy switched sides in the war and joined the Allies. Suddenly Feroci found himself an enemy alien and was interned. But, no doubt with support from some of his influential friends, Feroci took on Thai citizenship and with it a new name, Silpa Bhirasri, regaining his freedom after several months of detention.
Bangkok’s First Public Park
For our next stop we jump on the BTS skytrain and head east back across the river to Sala Daeng station and then take a short walk up Silom Road to Rama IV road. Across the large and very busy junction is Lumphini Park which was once royally owned land donated in 1919 by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) as Bangkok’s first public park. Originally the king had grand plans for the park to be used for a national exhibition in January 1926 to celebrate his 15th year on the throne. Despite severe misgivings within the government about the expense, work proceeded landscaping the park and digging the large lake with island still to be seen there. Expenses for preparing the park and exhibition were finally triple the original 500,000 Baht estimate. But then in November 1925 just two weeks after the 15th anniversary of his coronation the King died. One of the first acts of his successor was to cancel the exhibition.
Lumphini Park was subsequently neglected for a decade until Phibun Songkhram’s government revived the project. Despite his anti-monarchist sentiments Phibun admired the nationalist values that King Vajiravudh had promoted. King Vajiravudh wrote articles and plays about the Thai people and their history, he wrote polemics against the Chinese foreshadowing Phibun’s own legal curbs on Chinese, he developed new iconography such as the modern flag of Thailand and he created the Wild Tiger corp and the Tiger Cub scout movement promoting militaristic values. The nationalist vision of King Vajiravudh paved the way for Phibun Songkhram’s more intense fascist ideology.
And so it was in 1941 Feroci found himself once again sculpting a larger than life image of a Chakri monarch, funded by public donations. Erected in 1942 this statue of King Vajiravudh stands in front of the park he established but never lived to see.
From Lumphini Park we get back on the BTS skytrain and head north to one of Bangkok’s busiest and most famous road junctions, Victory Monument.
Victory Monument was erected at the peak of Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram’s power in the 1940’s and celebrates a military victory which almost nobody now remembers. Under Phibun’s government the idea of a Greater Thailand was promoted in which Thailand would reclaim territories “lost” to the European powers at the end of the nineteenth and start of the twentieth centuries. After Germany’s occupation of France in June 1940 the Indochinese colonies were cut-off from support and in September of that year Japan occupied Indochina. Whilst Thailand was still neutral in the war at this time, Phibun saw an opportunity and launched attacks on French colonial territories in October 1940. Whilst the Thais were successful in some land and air attacks on Lao and Cambodian territory the navy suffered a major loss of ships and men at the Battle of Koh Chang on 17 January 1941. At that point Japan stepped in and mediated a truce between the two nations. In the subsequent terms of peace Thailand was granted territory across northern Cambodia and the old kingdom of Champasak.
Phibun Songkhram was elated at this outcome and commissioned Victory Monument to be built on what was then the northern outskirts of Bangkok. Designed by M.L. Pum Malakul the central obelisk shaped like bayonets is surrounded at its base by plaques inscribed with the names of the war dead, these lists sadly being expanded upon after World War II and the Korean War. Inside the base of the monument there is a small hall where the ashes of the war dead are interred.
Once again Feroci was commissioned to sculpt military figures which stand around the base of the monument depicting the army, navy, air-force and police. The monument was officially opened on National Day, 24th June 1942.
It would seem that Feroci was not too happy with the final overtly military design of the monument and he is quoted as calling it “the victory of embarrassment”. It certainly was an embarrassment for Thailand’s leaders at the end of World War II when the victorious Allies returned to Bangkok. The territories that Thailand had gained from the Franco-Siam conflict were soon returned to the French and today are integral parts Cambodia and Laos.
For the final leg of our tour we catch a tuk-tuk up Ratchawithi Road to the Army Internal Audit Office just before Krung Thon Bridge. This army office occupies the beautiful neo-renaissance house that was once the residence of Phraya Burutratana Ratchaphanlop, a royal page in the court of King Chulalingkorn (Rama V). But our reason for being here is that on entering the compound the first house on the right is the very house that Feroci lived in with his family for the first eight years in Siam.
In recent years the army audit office and Silpakorn University collaborated to fund the renovation of the building and it is now open to the public as a delightful café and museum. So at the end of our day of sight-seeing we can relax with a coffee in what was once Feroci’s own living room. On the walls hang photos of Feroci and his family relaxing at this house nearly one hundred years earlier. Upstairs was most likely where Feroci’s son Romano was born in1927, a boy who would grow up to become a noted architect in Italy. Today the upstairs rooms hold a small exhibition of Feroci’s works.
Father of Modern Art
The works of Feroci that we have seen on this short tour around Bangkok are of course just a small part of his entire output. For those interested to see more, Putthamonthon Park west of Bangkok is the site of Feroci’s largest statue although it was erected two decades after his death. Another of his most famous works is the revered statue of Thao Suranari in Nakhon Ratchasima, his first commission from the People’s Party government in 1934, whilst in Lamphun one can see his statue of Queen Chamathewi.
After the end of World War II Feroci and his family returned to Italy. In 1949 he negotiated a new contract with the Thai government and returned to work in Bangkok, but this time without his wife from whom he separated. Ten years later he married Malini who had been a student of his. At the age of 69 Feroci died from heart failure at Siriraj Hospital on14th May 1962.
Corrado Feroci, or Silpa Bhirasri, is still widely remembered in Thailand as the founder of Silpakorn University and the creator of many of the nations most famous public monuments. He is often referred to in Thailand as “The Father of Modern Art” although to many eyes his public monuments are very conservative and could not be categorised as “modern art”. What Feroci bought to Thailand was a western concept of art, establishing Silpakorn University as the first school teaching art outside of its traditional Thai context of Buddhist iconography. He devoted his life to teaching students western style art but also had a deep interest and love of traditional Thai art resulting in a generation of Thai artists such as Khien Yimsiri, Sanan Silakorn or Fua Haripitak who would go on to blend the eastern and the western with great success.
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Where to Go
- “Chaiyo! King Vajiravudh and the development of Thai nationalism”. Walter F. Vella. University Press of Hawaii. 1978.
- “Reading Bangkok”. Ross King. NUS Press. 2011
- “Luang Wichit Wathakan and the Creation of Thai Identity”. Scot Barmé. Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. 1993.
- “Thailand The Worldly Kingdom”. Maurizio Peleggi. Reaktion Books. 2007.
Note : This article was updated on 17 June 2021 to correct the date of the Japanese invasion of Thailand and also the time period of “lost territories”.