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The Italian jobs

A sold-out tour takes in some of the grand Bangkok edifices that Italians built and decorated - and includes a surprise

The Italian jobs

On the ceiling of the outer hall, Rigoli painted scenes from Thai mythology. Mekhala and Ramasoon are beautifully rendered, the former a nymph who can fly and has a crystal ball for protection.

Several dozen people had to be turned away from Professor Paolo Piazzardi's guided tour last week of Italy's artistic gifts to Bangkok. There would have been just too much of a crowd.

"They are very disappointed to miss out," said the director of the Dante Alighieri Association, "but they'll just have to wait another three months for the next tour."

The visits to four buildings designed and decorated by Italians took only a few hours, but months could be spent truly appreciating the legacy.

Fortunately the professor had plenty of information to share in the short time allowed, being the author of the 1996 book "Italians at the Court of Siam".

Piazzardi is able to picture Bangkok in the grip of its construction frenzy as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, when European skill and talent were tapped to help Siam sit more comfortably on the global stage.

In 1897, Piazzardi noted, King Rama V commissioned a squad of Italian engineers, architects and artists to give Bangkok some of the grandiose flair of the cities in their homeland.

They answered by bestowing on the capital a trove of beautiful buildings, among them Government House, the Ananta Samakhom Throne Hall and Hua Lamphong railway station.

But there was a surprise on the professor's tour: a gorgeous mansion tucked away on Rama I Road by the Phadung Krungkasem Canal. Currently the headquarters of the Department of Alternative Energy Development and Efficiency, it can be spotted at the foot of the Kasat Seuk Bridge. The big surprise, though, is inside.

Allowed in for this special occasion, the tour group found itself gaping at lovely woodcarvings, gorgeous paintings and startling ceiling frescoes.

Once known as Baan Nonthee and later Baan Pipultham, the house and property were a gift from Rama V to Phraya Anurakrajmontthien, who became Chaophraya Thammathikoranathibbodi. When he was promoted again, to become the Minister of the Chamberlain, King Rama VI gave him the money to renovate the structure and erect an adjoining building.

The new, three-storey building is connected by a corridor bridge from the second floor.

Professor Eman Fredie was the architect, and other Italians handled the engineering work and additional construction. The woodcarving was done by Dong Chong from Shanghai with the assistance of Thai artisans. The wall and ceiling paintings are by an Italian named Carlo Rigoli.

In a large front hall are several antique paintings remarkable for their fine condition and the way they add to the place's hushed atmosphere of dignity.

On the ceiling of the outer hall, Rigoli painted scenes from Thai mythology. Mekhala and Ramasoon are beautifully rendered, the former a nymph who can fly and has a crystal ball for protection.

Ramasoon is a male demon whose request for the crystal is refused, so he chases Mekhala and throws his diamond axe at her, causing a cracking sound and a shower of sparks from the gem - the origin of thunder and lightning.

Piazzardi compared the tale to the Western fable of beauty and the beast.

"You can see the Italian influence in the figures' muscle definition," he said. "Look at the faces - unmistakably Eurasian - and also the background is Italian, showing the pictorial blend of the two cultures."

Rigoli also honoured the King's appeal for an illustration from the great epic Ramayana. Rama and the golden deer appear floor to ceiling on the wall of a ground-floor office.

Across several ceilings are depictions of the mythical bird Hasdayu saving Sita from Ravana.

All of these characters from Siamese fable are joined in yet another hall by a pair of fluttering cupids.

"Everything seems to blend in like magic," Piazzardi commented. "The background colours reflect something very Italian, especially all the blue. It's very much an Italian design."

King Rama VI came to visit and marvel at the decorations, staying not just for dinner but lingering over live performances until six in the morning.

During World War II the compound was struck by several bombs intended for Hua Lamphong station. The damage was beyond repair, so the owner offered the property to the government. Restoration was indeed an enormous undertaking, but the original beauty was recovered.

Prof Piazzardi's tour also took in Government House, Wat Rajathiwat and Siam Commercial Bank's Talad Noi branch. There are more to come.

Vipasai Niyamabha

The Nation

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