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Giuseppe Tucci: The Tibetan Scholar-Art Historian You May Have Never Heard Of

Eugenio Ghersi, Giuseppe Tucci, and members of the expedition in an unidentified location, Western Tibet. Anonymous, 1933; Neg. dep. 6089/05. Courtesy of Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (Is.I.A.O.) in l.c.a. and Ministero Degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale.

By Bobbie Leigh

Unknown Tibet, The Tucci Expeditions and Buddhist Painting, a remarkable exhibition at the Asia Society Museum tells a virtually unknown story about the “father of Tibetan studies.” Giuseppe Tucci, brilliant scholar and linguist, is one of the least known and the most learned explorers of Himalayan culture of the last century. This exhibition about Tucci and his expeditions  is sure to delight the armchair traveler who has always yearned to visit the “roof of the world” as well as anyone interested in Buddhism.

If you don’t fit into either category, don’t be misled.  Where else could you see films and photographs of ancient Tibet before the Communist Chinese invasion of 1949.  Since that time, more than a million Tibetans have been killed and thousands of ancient monasteries and sacred sites destroyed. The Chinese takeover of a once independent Tibet has led to unrelenting efforts to eradicate the language, culture, art, and religion of the Tibetan people.

Giuseppe Tucci and Tsarong, Tibetan Minister of Finance for Chushul, August 1948. Tucci was consulting Tsarong’s personal library. Lhasa, U, Tibet. Prodhan, 1948; Neg. dep. 7014/07. Courtesy of Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (Is.I.A.O.) in l.c.a. and Ministero Degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale

Giovanni Tucci (1894-1984) was born in Macerata in central Italy. An autodidact, he taught himself Hebrew, Chinese, and Sanskrit before starting his studies at 17 at the University of Rome where he eventually taught for fifty years.

From 1926 to 1948, he made  eight major  expeditions to unexplored regions of Nepal and Tibet, he gathered historically significant art and materials.  His goal was to do research and write about what was then unknown lands and people. Tucci traveled where few Westerners had ever been.  He interviewed sages, studied, copied, and translated manuscripts  often found in total disrepair  in ancient monastic libraries. Tucci’s   expeditions were documents by talented  photographers whose enlarged  archival photographs are interspersed  throughout the galleries alongside the paintings he collected.

Tucci appears to have been quite handsome as a young man and probably quite persuasive.   His extensive knowledge of Tibetan history, religion, and his mastery of Asian languages must have helped him to negotiate financial backing and the complex travel permits necessary to travel to Tibet even during the war years. The paintings he collected, now beautifully restored, and on view in this country for the first time, are jaw-dropping beautiful.

Vajriputra. Arhat. 17th century. Possibly Kham (East Tibet). Tradition: Gelug Pigments on cloth MU. CIV/MAO “Giuseppe Tucci,”inv. 926/759. Courtesy of the Museum of Civilisation. Museum of Oriental Art “Giuseppe Tucci,” Rome.

The majority of the paintings Tucci  collected are religious, intended to assist Buddhist practitioners on their path to enlightenment.  Among the most arresting are a group of 14 images from a set of 17th-century Arhat paintings.  Arhats are holy men who have attained enlightenment.  They are also protectors and preservers of Buddhist law.  The paintings show a strong Chinese influence with their   striking blue and green landscapes and individualized portraits of “worthy ones” in splendid geometric and floral robes, each in his own sanctuary surrounded by birds, mythical   beasts and rocky formations.

Buddha Shakyamuni.15th century Ngari (West Tibet). Pigments on cloth. MU CIV/MAO “Giuseppe Tucci,” inv. 963/796. Courtesy of the Museum of Civilisation. Museum of Oriental Art “Giuseppe Tucci,” Rome

Think of this exhibition as a love letter to Tibet.  In archival films and a recent documentary  that retraces one of  Tucci’s journeys, you meet  villagers in colorful dress dancing, praying, tending their yaks, drinking what surely must be Tibetan salty butter tea.  Most astounding are scenes of a Kalachakra ceremony, a two-week celebration devoted to Buddhist prayers and rituals that brought together some 30,000 people from all over the world.   In one riveting almost surreal scene, the Dalai Lama arrives by helicopter, greets his followers and leads prayers “for peace in a troubled world.”

Giuseppe Tucci reorganizing the scattered pages of several manuscripts at his camp, Miang, Ngari, Tibet. Eugenio Ghersi,1933; Neg. dep. 6037/28. Courtesy of Istituto Italiano per l’Africa e l’Oriente (Is.I.A.O.) in l.c.a. and Ministero
Degli Affari Esteri e della Cooperazione Internazionale.

Visiting the galleries and watching the documentary is a total immersion experience, an installation with music, meditation, mountains, and mandalas.  As Adriana Poser, senior curator at Asia Society and Museum says: “This is an exhibition about journeys: both geographical and spiritual.”


On view at Asia Society and Museum through May 20, 2018:. Free admission Friday evenings from 6:00-9:00 PM.  Please note that one of the nicest, quietest places for lunch on the Upper East Side is the Asia Society Garden Court Café. Chef Tsering Nyima’s menu is currently inspired by the traditional foods of his birthplace in Eastern Tibet.

Asia Society and Museum, 725 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10021

Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.

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