Phra Sarasasana Balakhandh (Colonel Gerolamo Emilio Gerini): Life and Works

Dott. Luciano Gerolamo Gerini  

His Life

He was born in Cisano sul Neva, on March the 1st 1860, from Carlo, Agriculture Professor at the University of Turin and Veronica Rosso, both of old Cisano's families. After primary and middle school at Albenga he studied at Sondrio and in Turin, where he study mathematics, geography, civil engineering and English Language. On August 12th 1876 he got a Civil Engineer diploma. In the same year he entrered the Royal Military Academy of Modena, coming out of it with a Sub Lieutenant "A" degree in 1879. He served in the 130 Regiment "Pinerolo" but soon, the spirit of adventure and the desire to run the world drew him to leave the Regiment and Italy. In 1881 he settled in Bangkok and he has in Siam's Royal Army, in which, under the enlightened and progressive H.M. King Culalongkorn, Rama V, European Officers were highly appreciated.

In 1884 he left the Army and became the Personal Secretary of Maho Mala uncle of H.M. the King, Minister of The North, a deeply learned man, particularly appreciated at Court and in the government of Siam. In this job he traveled the Country far and wide. He yet mastered the Thai language, and soon he learned a dozen local dialects; he also knew Sanskrit and Pali and had a good knowledge of Chinese. Among the European languages, obviously, besides Italian, Latin and Old Greek, he knew perfectly English, French and German, and in a more superficial way Spanish and Portuguese.

In 1886 The Minister of The North died, and we find Gerini engaged in ore prospecting and, for a few months, he even technical designer for the Grassi Firm, at that time the most important private and public contractor firm of Siam.

Starting from January the 1st 1887, he is back in the Army as lieuenant and was in the sevice untill 1906 when he left Siam, after having ascended the Military Hierarchy up to Colonel and being known, first with the Luang, and than with the Phra title, with the Siamese name of Sarasasana Balakhandh.

His first task was to train The Royal Guard, then he became Director of the Royal Cadet's School, of the royal Military Academy [today Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy], and Genrral Director of Military Education.

In 1893, during the frantic weeks subsequent to the French-Thai Gunboat Incident at Paknam, he was in charge of a Regiment in defense of Bangkok.

In 1889, still holding his job in The Army, he was charged, by The Court, to collaborate with Ing. Luzzatti and has appointed Technical Manager of the Gold Mine of Bang-ta-pan, that he had detected in his first years in Siam and reported to Luzzatti, who, after a lot of vicissitudes, founded, with Anglo-Thai subscribers, "the Gold Field of Siam Ltd",for the exploitation of the layer.

He came back in Italy for the first time in1890, on the occasion of his father's death, and he was back again in 1987, with H.M. Rama V's encourage and informal visit to Europe and Italy. In 1904, under the high Patronage of H.R.H. Prince Vajiravudh [later H.M. Rama VI], with other eminent scholars: Dr. Em. Frankfurter, Mr. A and Cecil Carter M.A. he founded in Bangkok The Siam Society, a Public Instutition for the study and the preservation of Thai culture.

In 1906, with The White Elephant Order and a generous pension, he came back for the last time to Europe, in order to look after his health injured by the after-effects of Malaria and Yellow -Fever contracted during the long years of his stay in the Orient.

Almost as soon as he was back he took part in the Orientalists' Congress in Rome. In 1908, after a long trip through Australia, Germany and Denmark; he represented Siam at the Internatinal Orientalists'Congress in Oslo, and coming back, he was at Krupp's Steel Plants on a Royal War Ministry's mission, to buy new weapons for Siam's Army.

In1910, after more than three years of work spent for its building, he inaugurated Villa Gerini, in Casino sul Neva; a curious detail of the villa is the gate, which was made by the same Milan Firm that made the sumptuous railings and gates of the Throne Hall [Phra Tinang Ananda Samakom]

In 1911, as General Commissary, and with the collaboration of Arch. Tamagno and Arch. Rigotti [two other renowned Italians who for a long time worked in Siam during those years] he prepared the Siam's Pavillion at the Turin International Exhibition [see photos on13th panel], editing also the catalogue, that is even today, an essential item acknowledging the habits, life and resources of those days' in Siam. On such occasion he was awarded the Grand'Ufficiale del Regno [Kingdom's Great Officer a very high Italian award] by H.M. Vittorio Emanuele III, King of Italy.

In 1913, on October 11 th, he died in Turin, struck down by a heart attack and the after-effects of Malaria and Yellow-Fever, that neither his coming back to Europe, nor the stay on his beloved Riviera were able to heal.

Beyond his professional career, his official assignments and even his pioneer role in the stream of Italian artists and technicians in Siam, the memory of Gerini recommends itself to us, for his scientific and intellectual works.

He was an extremely inquisitive fellow and "a representative example of the adapture spirit of Italian migration during the last century, a non-colonialist and scientist, able to share his own experiences with different peoples and a flaneur for whom the attention to all the details of observations an enchanted wanderer, is the key for acute and penetrating insight on reality"

He was archaeologist, ethnologist, languages and dialects scholar, geographer, but also a journalist and free-lance reporter. His literary production is quite remarkble and include works of different kinds, ranging from journey reports, as the one issued by the "Siam Free Press" under the pen-name Hesper, titled "Up River Guide", and those on history, linguistic and customs published by the "Bangkok Times" signed Ausonius.

He wrote for the Secolo d'Italia [a then widespread Italian newspaper] and for Italia Illustrata [one of the best magazines of the time]. He was a prominent editor of Yudakosha [ the Siam's army magazine] to which he contributed more than 2000 pages dealing with military, literary and historical subjects.

He wrote a series of handbooks for the Army, amongst which are the Geometrical Drawing, Topography, Strategy and Tactics. He translated an old Indus text on the Art of War and even wrote a bicycling and a photography handbook.

He was a member of many International Societies of Oriental Studies, ranging from the Italian "society degli Orientalisti" to the "Royal Asia Society", and as we yet saw , he was a founding member of the "Siam Society" and an appreciated fellow of the prestigious "Royal Geographical Society" of London.


His Works

To make an exhaustive list of all Gerini's works is a very difficult undertaking, because many were written and issued in Thai and many we have almost lost.


Amongst the minor works, all written in English, we will mention:

-"A retrospective View and Account of the Origin of the The Maha Chat Ceremony" 1892

-"Trial by Ordeal in Siam and the Siamese Laws of Ordeals"1896

-"Shan and Siam" and "Siam's Intercourse with China-Seventh to Nineteenth Centuries" 1899

-"On Siamese Proverbs and Idiomatic Expressions" 1904

-"Archaeology a Sinoptical Sketch" 1904


But Gerini is famous for 4 works in particular and, even today they are read and reissued.


One of them is the "Catalogo Descrittivo della Mostra Mostra Siamese alla Esposizione Internazionale delle Industrie e del Lavoro in Torino, 1991" (Descriptive Catalogue of the Siamese Pavilion at Turin's International Exhibition of Work and Industries 1911 - edited both in Iatlian and in English) (of which is expected a new issue in Bangkok). It's a work written mostly by Col. Gerini, although if it contains a few chapters issued by other "specialized writers" as shown on its title page.


It's a detailed survey of the various aspects of the productive, cultural and social life of Siam in his age, with abundance of synoptic tables and an Exhibitors' index, Illustrated with a many of valuable drawings and a few photographs, it is an essential point of reference for anyone wanting to have a good survey of Thailand at the beginning of the XX th century, and made more precious by a long and interesting chapter on the Thai theatre signed by the H.R.H the Prince Vajiravudh.

Another work, well-known still now, republished on December 1986 by the Siam Society under the title of "Old Phuket" is "Historical Retrospect of Junkceylon Island" first issued in 1905. It is the most exhaustive survey of historical documents concerning the Island of Junckceylon (now better known as Phuket, Asian tourist seaside paradise) when Phuket was only a town, and not the most important one. Abounding in tin mines, this island, for its geographical position, point of contact and obliged crossroads to Indian and Arab traders, Burma and Malay pirates, had a troubled and interesting history that Gerini reconstructs on the basis of documents and travel accounts ranging from 1200 A.D. till a chronicle of the Thai poet Nai Mi written in 1842. It is a work rich in historical, geographical, but mostly philological and linguistic, notes and explanations. The 1986 edition, which was published with two other works (the first of John Carrington and the second of W. Walter Bruke), has a pleasant preface by H.E. Gérard André, then French ambassador in Thailand, who edited and promoted the issue. Older than that, even if issued and re-issued more times (the last one in 1976 by Siam Society Press), is "Chlakantamangala" or "The Tonsure Ceremony as Performed in Siam" first printed in 1893.

The Tonsure Ceremony, the cutting of the only hair tufts that were left on the heads of children of both sexes until the age of 11-14, was a typical example of transition from childhood to elder age ceremony and was a family holiday, almost as amongst us is the Holy Communion or Confirmation (to which indeed Gerini compares it also for its character of rebirth holiday). Many more, however, are the affinities with ceremonies coming from Egyptian tradition (Horus cult) and Greek one (Dyonisus cult) or from Brahammanical legends (the Ganesa tonsure) and the link with the idea of "rebirth to a new life" (Horus, Dyonisus and Shiva are symbols of death and rebirth, naturally connected with the cult of thesun daily falling and rising.

Col. Gerini had a particular chance for this extraordinary research: to be a witness to the ceremony, performed between December 25, 1892 till January 21 st 1893, for the tonsure of Prince Vajiravudh (than to become King Rama VI) to whom the work is dedicated; in the third part of the book, indeed, we'll find the detailed description of such an event.

The value of the work is proved by the fact that, when in 1976 Prince Phya Anumanrajadhon (one of the most renowned authorities in the field) collected, in four weighty volumes, Thai ceremonies and old traditions purposely omitted the Tonsure, writing in a note that he felt himself not able to encompass the work of Gerini, even if it was eighty years older.

But, certainly, the masterpiece of Col. Gerini, the one we may regard as the true work of his entire life, is "Research on Ptolemy's Geography of Eastern Asia [Further India and Indo-Malay Archipelago]", issued in London 1909 as the first monograph of Asiatic Society jointly with The Royal Geogreaphical Society.

The "Research" is a real monument of nearly 1000 pages [xxii945, xi tabled and two original Geographical maps] and his foreward is dated in Ciasano sul Neva, March 1st 1909, forty-ninth birthday of the author, but his composition and studies started at the end of the eighties and a first article produced on the subject in 1887 [Journal of Royal Asia Society, 1897,pt.Iii,pp.551-557].

It was well known that Ptolemy [Alexandria about 100 A.C] in his "Geography" described [after Marino of Tyro] Futher India and perhaps the Indo-Malay Peninsula, naming it Cheronesus Aureus". It was a common belief, in Ptolemy's account, even if not mere fantasy, certainly, at least for that region, highly inaccurate and almost useless and, in any case, it referred only to the western coast of the Peninsula. What is more, the identification of the referred sites with actual resorts was uncertain and limited to very few major towns.

Gerini, basing it on his own calculus, suggested a new Ptolemy's latitudes and longitudes conversion table (it's known that till 17th century whereas latitudes where sufficiently correct, it was not possible to calculate exactly longitudes and therefore all previous geographical references need complicated conversion tables).

He went on verifying from the beginning any possible coincidence between resorts referred to by Ptolemy and extant or existed ones. That search, carried out on an astonishing number of toponyms (243), involves philological research, the knowledge of many languages and dialects that followed one another in centuries; geographic, ethnologic and historic researchs of resorts, marts, harbors, many of which, in the meantime, disappeared. It was necessary to read and study documents, manuscripts, incunabula and books written in many of languages ranging from Pali to Chinese, from Arab to Latin, from Malay to Greek and Burmese and, obviously, to Thai and the contemporary and past centuries European languages.

Fruit of that amazing research [where, by the way, we'll find historical, anthropological,bonatic, zoological, ethnological, linguistic news, not to mention the geographical and paleo-geographical ones] was the identification,very often certain, insome cases only probable of possibly all Ptolemy's toponymes and the affirmation and the demonstration,for the first time in those studies history, of the point that , cited resort, spread also to the eastern coast of Indo-Malay Peninsula and even to southern China, and that Ptolamy's Geography was, when duly interpreted, a good research tool also for Central Asia Countries.

The work was, at the time, received with interest, with great respect and admiration for the detail and care of its tick pages. It was, nevertheless, aso criticitzed, at least in the more conservative scientific circles, which believed it was improbable there could have existed towns, marts and habors visited by western travellers so far eastwards.

To tell the truth it's difficult to blame the critics of the times, indeed is only few years ago Roman coins were discovered in the neighborhood of Hanoi. Such a finding testifies to us, even if solate, the correctness of Gerini’s theory, that is born to new life in the works of contemporary scholars [that, unfortunately, often forget, or hardly cite, the work which they owe a lot more than, evidently, they are willing to admit].

Gerini, who was naturally keen on books, asked, devoted all his efforts and a large share of his earning searching English, Italian ,French, German, booksellers for books, often rare, sometime almost unobtainable adding those treasures to the Pali, Chinese, Thai, Burmese ones which he was able to find on the spot or in Singapore, Calcutta, New Delhi booksellers.

When he returned to Italy, his beloved library, of more than one thousand items, was of course with him and, after his untimely death remained for a long time in Villa Gerini belonging to his heirs. At the end of fiffties, the library was donated to the Istituto Universitario Orientale of Mepals, where it is today, so that the "Gerini Donation" would be a precious and appreciated study and research tool.