There are many foreigners, especially Italians, who during their time living in Thailand have fathered beautiful mixed-race children. People like me, little known except within the narrow confines of my friends, who live their lives outside their homeland and far from the limelight, and simply enjoy the everyday life and the wonders that this country has to offer. Not everyone knows that here in Thailand has lived an Italian equally unknown to most people, a man who enjoyed a paternity very different, yet not less important or challenging. This gentleman did not fight with diapers and milk powder, did not spend sleepless nights when the silence was broken by needy cries, did not rock, affectionately kiss or receive tender caresses. Nevertheless, he raised his child lovingly, with passion, patience and a pride typical of a father; he nourished him, educated him, helped him grow until, before his death, he realized that this child had become an adult and could safely walk on his own legs.
We are talking about Corrado Feroci, the father of modern Thai art, from Florence: sculptor, designer, teacher, dean, art critic and writer. Thai citizen since 1943, he was considered, quite rightly, the father of modern and contemporary Thai art thanks to his undisputed artistic merit, and for having forged with his teachings a new generation of Thai artists.
It all began during a period of hard time for Thailand, back then known as the Kingdom of Siam; a country pressed between two great European powers, the French in Indochina and the British in Myanmar (then called Burma) and Malaysia, a kingdom that found itself forced to make economic, political and territorial concessions in order to preserve its independence. The monarchs of the time, to further limit potential influences by those two great colonial empires, decided to entrust the artistic growth of the country to Italian artists, both because they were particularly appreciated by the Siamese royal house, and because Italy was totally unrelated to the kingdom’s internal affairs.
The Italian architects, engineers and artists who arrived in the country made important contributions to the country and, above all, to its present capital, Bangkok. These people certainly deserve a fair share of respect, if only for the difficulties and adversities they met during their work in a country that was not so open to external contributions to growth. The consequence is that many of Bangkok’s major buildings, main bridges and main monuments of its historic center were designed, built, painted or decorated by Italians.
Corrado Feroci was one of the many who reached what would later become the Asian tourism paradise, during what can be considered one of the first real brain drain from Italy, where Feroci was not even so much valued; a memorial statue for fallen soldiers in Portoferraio, Elba Island, was his only work of some importance in Italy. Instead, what left an indelible imprint was his artistic path in Thailand: he did not limit himself to merely have his signature on some statue or palace; he was, as we said earlier, the forger of modern Thai artists.
It was Corrado Feroci who, thanks to the unconditional support from the Thai Royal Family who was well prepared to spend significant amounts of money for the artistic growth of the kingdom, influenced generations of young Thais, laying the foundations of a Thai artistic education based on European criteria and models. In his capacity as a teacher, as well as an artist, Feroci taught, directed, wrote manuals and art criticism books, organized important exhibitions and even established the first Academy of Siamese Fine Arts.
Corrado Feroci works are located in different cities of Thailand, mainly in Bangkok; amongst these we find some with meanings that go beyond the purely artistic aspect. First amongst all, the Democracy Monument, located a short distance from the Royal Palace. This monument, erected in 1939, was intended to commemorate the 24 June 1932 coup that effectively prompted the country’s transition to a constitutional monarchy. This monument has witnessed, in recent years, dramatic situations and bloody events during the student demonstrations that marked the political growth of the nation. The emotional aura that surrounds the Democracy Monument as a result of such incidents has meant that this work, placed at the center of a large road artery, has become the logical meeting point for movements and democratic demonstrations that have taken place during the troubled political history of Thailand.
The Victory Monument, created in 1941 in memory of civil and military citizens who lost their lives during a territorial conflict against the French between 1940 and 1941, is perhaps his least suggestive, located in a part of the city with less historical significance. 656 people, including soldiers and civilians whose names are engraved as a permanent reminder at the base of the monument, lost their lives during this almost unknown Franco-Thai war for the disputed provinces of Siem Reap and Battambang, that currently belong to Cambodia. The monument consists of an obelisk surrounded by sculptures representing civilians and soldiers, and is located at the center of a large square where minibuses and other means of transport that provide connections with different parts of Bangkok and to some nearby provinces, use as a bus-stop.
From the Skytrain (the elevated subway line on rails) and by a walkway surrounding the square you can see this monument from various angles. It is a fact that the surrounding outline of big screens and billboards as well as the heavy traffic make the atmosphere very commercial. However, the monument seems estranged from everything that surrounds it, and is a lasting tribute to those who sacrificed themselves for the nation and, why not, to Corrado Feroci.
Before entering the Memorial Bridge and crossing the Chao Phraya River, a large and well-kept space surrounds the monument to King Rama First, the founder of the Chakri Dynasty (the dynasty still reigning), who established, in 1782, the capital of the Kingdom in Bangkok. The monument shows the King seated on a throne placed on a high pedestal, with a sword resting on his knees and his gaze turned towards the city; it was designed by Prince Naris and shaped by Corrado Feroci. The statue has an obvious nationalistic meaning, and it is not a great attraction for tourists; nevertheless, we advise curious visitors who like to get lost between the petals and bouquets of the nearby flower market, to walk a bit further and pay tribute to the founder of Bangkok.
In recognition for his long and valued activity, Corrado Feroci was awarded the Supreme Order of the White Elephant, an award for foreigners who have distinguished themselves in favor of Siam first and Thailand later. He was granted Thai citizenship to save him from Japanese jails when he was arrested by Japanese troops occupying Thailand following the 8 September 1943 armistice and the breach of the alliance with Italy.
After his death in 1962, during the ninety-second anniversary of his birth, the Silpa Bhirasri Memorial National Museum (name he had assumed upon acquisition of Thai citizenship) was inaugurated in the premises of his old office. On September 15, 1992, a commemorative stamp was issued to celebrate his centenary.
For a teacher like Corrado Feroci, the most pleasing recognition has come from his students, who asked and obtained that in the university where Feroce taught, a statue of him created by one of his favorite students would be erected. Even today, students are the ones giving Corrado Feroci immortality by laying flowers and lighting incense at the foot of his statue to propitiate the protection of the master before the exams.