Gerolamo Emilio Gerini: An Italian in the Court of Siam
H.E. Leopoldo Ferri de Lazara and Paolo Piazzardi
"To strengthen the links so formed between Siam and Italy, the Duke of Genoa arrived at Siam's anchorage on 29 March 1881 on board the corvette Vettor Pisani and then proceeded to Bangkok on the royal yacht Vesatri as the guest of the sovereign..."
Colonel Gerolamo Emilio Gerini thus evoked an important page in the history of diplomatic relations between the kingdoms of Italy and Siam, one rich in significance for this writer, Leopoldo Ferri de Lazara, co author of this book.
Vettor Pisani was in fact the most illustrious member of the Venetian branch of my family, while the Dukes of Genoa were the proprietors of the Palazzetto Pisani on the Grand Canal which was purchased a half - century ago by an uncle of mine. It is there that I wish to pass the years of my retirement.
That a ship named after my admiral ancestor who in 1380 defended Venice from the Genoans should transport to this country where I am now ambassador the prince of the archrival maritime republic is one of those bizarre occurrences which history seems to delight in throwing up.
Perhaps a coincidence of this ilk prompted Colonel Gerini's mission to Siam, though it seems less probable. It was in fact in the tradition of the Modena Military Academy from where Gerini, born at the dawn of Italian unification, graduated as a lieutenant at just 21 years of age- to supply instructors who spoke foreign languages to countries who requested it.
History also doesn't tell us whether the Duke of Genoa's visit helped the young Gerini in his multifarious activities in Bangkok as military instructor, historian, archeologist and ethnologist, but on the value that the Siamese sovereign placed on the Italian officer there rests no doubt, once the king decided to entrust the instruction of the Royal Guard to him and then to charge him with the creation of a proper military academy on Modena lines.
No easy task for Gerini could have been the transfer of the rigid discipline which forged Modena's officers to an ambience so different in climate and culture. While the application of mens sena in corpore sano wouldn't have presented any problem for the supple physique of Siamese cadets, assault training with drawn sabre and lance, traditional arms of the blazoned Italian Cavalry, could well have.
What then to say of the theoretical components like military ethics and code of honour or the rules of social etiquette? Gerini must there have had recourse to some compromise: if Modena's cadets enjoyed receptions for meeting marriageable young ladies of good society, what advice did he impart to his Siamese pupils in this regards? There's a question it would be nice to have answered.
Whatever those choices might have been, it is most interesting for us that the kingdom's first and most prestigious military academy was created on the model of a country, Italy, which had achieved independence only a few years earlier. The entire military tradition was reflected in Gerini's Thai language works: from the "Manual of Tactics" to "Military Topography" from :"The Art of War" to "Manual of Military Cycling," the strategies of the Italian army were transferred to the Siamese one for the defense of Siam's territory and sovereignty.
But Gerini was a prolific writer in many other fields. Amongst the large Italian artistic colony, nobody other that sculptor Corrado Feroci left such a large bibliography. He wrote on everything which his inexhaustible curiosity took fancy to. History, geography, linguistics, archaeology and anthropology are the fields on which he focused his erudition, which was the fruit of the Italian Geographic School and of the positivism prevalent in late 19 th century.
From this cultural matrix he inherited the ability to weave his way around natural sciences and ethnographic observation, through the literature and ancestral rites of Eastern peoples.
The philologist in him read with abandon ancient Buddhist texts and Siamese resgestae, Burmese chronicles and Tamil stone inscriptions, able to classify an island's flora or the Hindu cosmogony with the same ease.
"This super - productive scholar", writes Professor Renato Novelli of Ancona University, who has retraced Gerini's study journeys in Malaysia and Thailand, "appears like a 'heroic' cycling champion of the dawn of the century, racing and winning alone without team support."
It's a definition which fascinates and intrigues at the same time, because being the author of works thousands of pages long has not carried his name outside academic circles, nor thrown a scintilla of light on his complex character. Gerolamo Emilio Gerini remains in many respects a figure of mystery.
In his press articles he liked to joke with the reader. In the Bangkok Times he signed himself Ausonius, after the Latin poet of the 4 th century who, like him, was a composer of epigrams, and he called himself Hesper in the Siam Free Press. He also wrote copiously under his Siamese name of Phra Sarasasana Balakhandh, producing thousands of pages of literary, military and historical discourse.
"It is to many-sided scholars like Gerini, not conventional historians, that we owe our knowledge of trade in the Malayan Archipelago or between the great civilisations of India and China", continues Novelli, who supports this thesis by citing few scholars like the anthropologist Firth and the archaeologist Coedes who threw light on this side of Asian history.
It was the sea, therefore, and not the land, that was at the centre of the historical and social dynamic in this part of the world. Behind the enchantment of the village of Patusan in Conrad's Lord Jim or the languorous life of the Marquesas as seen by the young Melville, there in fact lay hidden a world of trade between villages, a continuous exchange of practices and customs, with the Straits of Malacca as its pulse, even mentioned in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice.
We can also look to Conrad for describing our scholar in his approach to local cultures. He couldn't have been that different from the Lord Jim character, Stein, the scientific observer in the Borneo jungle who took the part of the local people against their predators, the merchants and pirates, while occupying himself with the tropical butterflies. Moreover, just as Stein married a Malay woman, Gerini was devoted to a Siamese one.
In 'Chulakantamangala or the Siamese Tonsure Ceremony, a celebrated work written in English in 1895 for Crown Prince Maha Vajiravudh, the future Rama VI, Gerini says in the preface : "In these pages, I strive to fully describe the many and complex rituals of the tonsure, its origin and symbology now lost in time even to those who solemnly practise it. Of all that I have treated in the work, I have reason to believe that nine - tenths is original and never before treated..."
There follows a treatise of rare erudition upon the ceremony and its affinity with corresponding rites of East and West, with those of Ganesha and Shiva and with Greek civilisation. Sprinklings, ornaments and utensils, propitiatory processions, all are analysed with such meticulousness that the reader must smile when Gerini excuses himself for writing in haste!
This book and the others which will follow on Siamese history are now essential documents for anyone wishing to study this world in depth which was Gerini's home for a good twenty - five years. This love made him one of the founding fathers of the Siam Society, that venerable institution which began life in the Lord Jim room of the Oriental Hotel and then in 1904 found a permanent seat for its activities which continue today.
In a text devoted to the goldmines of Bang Saphan, still an active mining site today with Italian connections, we read : "Siam can justly be placed second only to Japan amongst Far Eastern countries for its openness to the gifts of Western civilisation, and for the progressive spirit of following the path which our old world has laid, so as to sit at the congress of civilised nations..."
Much more follows, in which Gerini favours the country's modernisation as indispensable for protecting it from the appetites of the colonial powers active in the region, whilst treasuring its traditional values.
Another thousand-page tome jointly published in London in 1909 by the Royal Asiatic Society and Royal Geographical Society has prompted many readers to consider him an English colonel with an Italian name. It contains the research he did for many years on Ptolemaic geography in relation to Asia. He received equal praise and criticism for his complex system of geographical coordinates which, together with archaeological surveys, supported the ancient Roman geographers' identification of the Golden Chersonese with the Malacca peninsula and Claudius Ptolemaeus's 'emporium' with Takuapa, on the coast north of Phuket Island.
Gerini's enthusiasm for these postulations has always been some what perplexing. But if his critics had looked a little beyond his theorising to examine his invaluable and unique Documentation, they would have discovered a worthy companion of the French encyclopaedists.
The same data lies in an old book which you can still find in Bangkok bookshops, called "Old Times in Phuket" , a brief work but still indicative of the Ligurian scholar's method. Gerini' s Phuket is very different from today's mass tourism destination. It is a magical place where amulets were found in caves which the locals attributed to gods, and where a Buddha's footprint indelibly indented a beach. Everything is faithfully reported, not interpreted, from visitors' writings from the 13th century up till his time It's up to the reader to make what he will out of the jumble of information which Gerini furnishes.
Gerolamo Emilio Gerini went home for good in 1906, having held prestigious posts in the service of the Kingdom of Siam, which he represented at major international scientific conferences. We can judge his esteem from the fact that each foreign trip was front page news in Siam.
He returned physically debilitated by the yellow fever he contracted in the forests of Malaya, Burma, Cambodia and Siam to which his famous curiosity took him. King Chulalongkorn rewarded him with a high decoration and a good pension which allowed him to live in comfort until his death in 1913. That was just two years after acting as Commissioner - General of His Majesty the King of Siam at the Siamese Pavilion of the Turin International Exhibition, for which he edited the catalogue with his proverbial academic rigour.
With Gerini there began the magic moment of the Italian artistic colony at the Court of Siam. Even if he wasn't an artist and his scholarly life must appear less exciting than that of those who came after him, we don't think that this beautiful adventure would have happened without the prestige and authority acquired in this country by the distinguished officer from Modena Academy, with his pince-nez and period moustache.