Italians in Siam

At Baan Phitsanulok, the mansion and Yao Jai house are connected by a walkway. Photo courtesy of the Chulalongkorn University Alumni Association

When Mariannina Zuccaro arrived in Bangkok for her marriage with Mario Tamagno, an Italian architect who worked in Siam from 1900-1925, she encountered a stark contrast between her fiance’s self-effacing character and monumental creations. According to Italians At The Court Of Siam, she referred to a photograph of the inauguration of a railway, on the back of which Tamagno listed everybody around King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), except himself.

“Rather than appear amongst such august company, the undersigned, who had no hat to shade himself from the sun, ‘bravely’ remained under the marquee, behind the others,” he explained.

After their grand wedding ceremony, Tamagno returned to work in his frugal studio. Zuccaro said it contained only a few pieces of furniture, including a lamp on a pulley and a table fan. Exotic touches were their daughter’s pet monkey and a rickshaw in the garden. Nevertheless, this passage can highlight what Italian professionals contributed to Siam during its modernisation.

“From that austere studio came grandiose designs for the Royal Farmhouse, Tamnak Phya Thai, the Phra Thinang Ananta Samakhom conceived with his friend Rigotti, also from Turin, the restructuring of the Railway Station with Rigazzi and the Neilson Hays Library with Ferrero, both places are still the same today… The end of the Great War saw two major works, the Villa Norasingh and Baan Phitsanulok, in delicate Venetian style. Between the two, he also managed the football stadium and the racecourse grandstand, and with Forno, Moreschi and Tavella, wooden seaside bungalows for king and court,” she said.

At the entrance of Baan Phitsanulok are parking spaces and a dome. The mansion is designed in the Venetian Gothic style, characterised by vertical lines. Photos: Thana Boonlert

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the arrival of Italians in Siam brought about new architectural styles. After King Chulalongkorn ascended the throne in 1868, his 42-year reign saw a transition from the old political order to the modern nation-state. He called on the Italians directly to execute his designs and, despite his passing, their presence continued through his successors. Tamagno and many others left a legacy of collective works that stood the test of time.

“There were many waves of Italian architects in Siam. Pioneers included Joachim Grassi who worked in the early reign of King Rama V. After his first visit to Europe, the Department of Public Works recruited a large number of them, including Tamagno. Also, there were engineers, sculptors and painters. They had been in the civil service until the reign of King Prajadhipok [Rama VII],” said Asst Prof Pirasri Povatong, lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Architecture, in a film premiere ahead of a trip to their creations.

Located in Bangkok’s Dusit district, Baan Phitsanulok marks a century this year. The yellow mansion is surrounded by a ring road and carefully tended lawn. Made of metal or white marble, equine and deity sculptures convey aristocratic grandeur. In front of the three-storey house is a stone slab that carries Vishnu lying on the serpent. At the entrance are a roofed parking space (a sign of modernity in those days) and a dome. On the other side of the estate, there is a football field and a pavilion hall. It is encircled by many satellite houses.

“King Vajiravudh [Rama VI] came up with the design and entrusted Tamagno with execution. He bestowed Baan Phitsanulok and Baan Norasing, which is now Government House, to close aides Phraya Anirutthewa and Chao Phraya Ram Rakop, respectively. King Rama V chose their mother to be a wet nurse for his son. When the crown prince returned from England, the two brothers offered their service and became his courtiers. King Rama VI treated Phraya Anirutthewa like his own son,” said Pirasri.

Baan Phitsanulok originally covered an area of 50 rai, but half of it was sold to the government of Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram and the other to Mission Hospital. Then, the family of Phraya Anirutthewa moved to Deves Palace. Its name underwent several changes from Baan Bantomsin to Baan Thai Phanthamit, Baan Santiphap and then Baan Phitsanulok in 1953. Staff said the mansion is nowadays intended as the prime minister’s official residence, but so far only the late Gen Prem Tinsulanonda and former prime minister Chuan Leekpai have ever stayed, fuelling speculation that it is a haunted house.

Inside the mansion, a living room leads to dining and smoking space. Here, an arch features a portrait of Phraya Anirutthewa. Photo by Thana Boonlert

“It is designed in the Venetian-Gothic style, characterised by ornate decorations. It is mainly composed of small columns and high, narrow windows with pointed arches like petals. Although they are built in the same style, Baan Phitsanulok is more compact and exquisite than Baan Norasing,” Pirasri said.

The 1st floor of the mansion is divided into many rooms. An elegant staircase on a semi-circular platform is the centre that leads to the upper floors and a drawing room. Here, a balcony-like structure overlooks a small fountain.

“I think it is the most stylish in Bangkok,” Pirasri said. An arch features a fresco of flowers and birds. Nearby, a dining and smoking room offers a view of the field for sports competitions and performances. It came as no surprise because Phraya Anirutthewa rode horses and appeared on stage with King Rama VI.

The upper storeys are residential spaces. The 2nd floor includes bedrooms, washrooms and a back staircase for servants, while the 3rd floor is off-limits. The mansion adjoins a two-storey building through its passageway. The Yao Jai house is decorated in a simpler manner. For example, a partitioned room features a stencil floral pattern design, which was inexpensive at the time.

“It is possible that King Rama VI stayed at the mansion on retreat, while the family of Phraya Anirutthewa lived here,” he said.

The estate is dotted with satellite buildings for subordinates. In the corner of the tree-shaded backyard, visitors can find a cluster of them. Walking by, a garden is home to a replica mountain and a shrine. In the middle of a pond, an islet is a cemetery for pet dogs. Also, there was a bunker built during World War II. On the other side, a pavilion was used for watching football and performances. Its mural is painted in the Moorish style. Floral shapes blend with Thai patterns. In fact, it was the first creation of the property.

“It is in near pristine condition, especially the landscape,” he said.

In contrast, Phya Thai Palace has undergone a massive change. Nestled in Bangkok’s Ratchathewi district, it is now part of Phramongkutklao Hospital. With its pointed dome, Phiman Chakri Throne Hall is the mainstay of numerous buildings. In those days, the area was a royal paddy field.

King Chulalongkorn redeveloped it into an agricultural plot and a retreat where he resided only for two years before he passed away in 1910. Her Majesty Queen Sri Bajarindra continued her residency for a decade. Following her departure, King Rama VI stayed and gave it a makeover.

Asst Prof Pirasri Povatong, lecturer at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Architecture. Photo courtesy of the Chulalongkorn University Alumni Association

“Tamagno assigned the job to his assistant Emilio Forno when he returned to Italy. After the passing of King Rama VI [in 1925], Prince Kamphaeng Phet [commander of the Royal State Railways of Siam] redeveloped it into the most expensive hotel in Bangkok. After 1932, it turned into a military hospital, which laid the foundation for what it is now,” he said.

Inside Phiman Chakri Hall, visitors can explore the king’s bed chamber where paintings of Buddhist sutra and other images reflect his passion for arts. Opposite, a study room boasts his royal initials and a majestic wood sculpture of a garuda. At Waikun Thepayasathan Hall, the king added his new bed chamber. Inside, there is a fresco of four angels playing musical instruments. When radio was popular, it became a radio station for two years, but after the Siamese Revolution, it was relocated.

Still, these halls were a novelty. The two oldest remaining creations date back to the residency of Her Majesty Queen Sri Bajarindra. At the end of the corridor is her dark, anti-fire storage, which was later converted for residential purposes. Outside, Thewarat Saparom Throne Hall was used for guest reception. It is graced by a dome and a large vault. A balcony finds an echo in Mrigadayavan Palace in Cha-am, but the narrow platform does not support walking. It also uses the modular system that provided a model for the summer retreat.

“It is the masterpiece of Tamagno and Forno. It is designed in the Byzantine style, but adorned with Moorish patterns,” he said. “At the vault, small columns transfer weight to beams, corbels and main columns respectively. Its complicated structure bears similarity to that of Wang Suan Kulab Throne Hall and Maliwan Palace.”

Phya Thai Palace is one of Tamagno’s last works. In the same way, Forno is one of the last batches of Italian architects in Siam. He returned to Italy in 1936, three years before the country changed its name to Thailand. Due to the high cost of hiring foreigners, the government sent locals to study abroad to replace them. Nevertheless, their legacy stands the test of time. With a long tradition of art and engineering, they modified their unique architectural styles to suit a new environment. Many of them have had a profound influence on Thai society. For example, Corrado Feroci, or Prof Silpa Bhirasri, went on to become the father of Thai modern art.

“They came at a transitional period from traditional to modern architecture,” Pirasri said.

The king’s bedroom at Waikun Thepayasathan Hall shows a fresco of four angels playing musical instruments. Photo by Thana Boonlert

At Phya Thai Palace, a small two-storey house was used for bathing after the king had a haircut. Photo courtesy of the Chulalongkorn University Alumni Association

From a pavilion hall, viewers can watch performances and sports. Photo by Thana Boonlert

Roman gardens at Phya Thai Palace. Photo courtesy of the Chulalongkorn University Alumni Association

At Phya Thai Palace, Phiman Chakri Throne Hall is the centre of numerous buildings. It stands out due to its pointed dome. Photo by Thana Boonlert