Silpa Bhirasi: The man who sculpted the “Greats”

Silpha Bhirasi - The Italian sculptor who became a Thai citizen

The Thais are not especially well-known for honouring foreigners throughout their history and even today, the humble farang is made to feel like he is no more than a tolerated visitor. Of course, the same could be said of any country. It seems to be normal human behaviour to praise those who we feel most affiliated with; those who seem most like us. But the Thais, despite my opening statement, have shown amazing strength of character in honouring, tolerating and even “adopting” numerous foreigners as one of their own. One such person who the Thais owe a great debt to is Corrado Feroci.

Corrado Feroci - The sculptor who created some of Bangkok's most famous statues

Corrado Feroci was an Italian-born sculptor who studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence from 1908 to 1915. He graduated with a 1st class honours and earned the title of Professor of Fine Arts. He was invited to Thailand in 1923 to teach Western sculpture at the Department of Fine Arts after Rama VI contacted the Italian government asking for a sculptor who could train Thai artists and craftsmen. Rama VI, who was quite a talented and artistic man himself, probably aspired to raise the standard of Thai art to that of international standards.

In 1929, Rama VI’s successor, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) commissioned the construction of a bridge that would span the Chao Phraya River. The Bridge was called Phra Buddha Yodfa Bridge (Memorial Bridge) and was built to mark the 150th anniversary of Bangkok. Rama VII ordered a large statue of Rama I to be built and placed on the pavilion at the foot of Memorial Bridge. The statue was designed by Prince Naris, president of the Royal Institute and director of the Department of Fine Arts, and the work of sculpting the statue was given to Feroci. In 1930, Feroci returned to his native Italy to supervise the moulding of the statue of Rama I. In 1932, Memorial Bridge was officially opened and the statue of Rama I was unveiled to the public. The king conferred the most Exalted Order of the White Elephant, 5th Class, upon Feroci for his work on the statue.

Rama I statue at Memorial Bridge

In the same year as the unveiling of the magnificent Rama I statue, Feroci cooperated with Phra Saroj Ratana Nimman, Head of Architecture Department, and established the School of Arts. In his first class, he had only seven students, many of whom went on to become famous artists. In 1942, the school was renamed the School of Fine Art and in 1943 became Silpakorn University, which is the name it still goes by today. He was a devoted teacher and expended large amounts of energy in transferring his knowledge to his students. He also wrote many books and research articles on both Thai and Western art such as: Theory of Colour (1943), Theory of Composition (1944), Thai Painting (1952) and An Appreciation of Sukhothai Art (1962). He was greatly loved and admired by his students and two years after his death, one of his students sculpted a statue of him, which still stands in the Faculty of Painting.

Silpa Bhirasi statue in Silpakorn University

In 1944, Corrado Feroci changed his name to Silpa Bhirasi and became a Thai citizen to avoid arrest by the occupying Japanese forces. He fell in love with Thailand and he made it his home for thirty-nine years. However, the long years abroad put a strain on his marriage to his Italian wife, Paola Angelini, and they separated amicably in 1949. He later married Malini, one of his students, and they lived happily together until the end of his life in 1962. In a final letter to Malini, his modest personality is revealed:

My dear Malini,

In case of my death, I wish to be cremated, but without any religious ceremony. I thank you with my soul for the many years of your affection which has verified the last part of my life. My best thought is to wish you a serene happiness reminding you always our long discussions about the complex difficulties of our life, particularly with regard [to] women. Please write to Romano and ask him to inform also Isabella & Dino of my passing away without regrets because I feel to have spent my life for something useful as a very modest servant of my art. Send them my love and my wishes for their prosperity and happiness. If the spirits have power to protect and bless the living ones, I will do [that] for you and this is my last hope.[1]

Among Feroci’s other works are some of Bangkok’s finest monuments. He sculpted many of the “Great” kings including: Rama VI, King Taksin and King Naresuan. He also executed the relief sculptures around the base of Democracy Monument. Because of his extraordinary legacy to the Thai people and Thai art scene, Corado Feroci has been dubbed “the father of modern Thai art.” In remembrance of this remarkable artist, September 15 – his birthday – is observed as Silpa Bhirasi Day. The Silpa Bhirasi Memorial Museum commemorates his life and is located in Silpakorn University. The museum includes nostalgic memorabilia such as paintings, sculptures, medals, old uniforms, a diary and an old camera. If you’re looking for somewhere a little different this coming Visaka Bucha Day, the museum is well worth a visit.

Democracy Monument

[1] Special Note : Professor Silpa Bhirasri’s Life and Works – Maneepin Phromsuthirak