The Italian-Tibetan Treasure Facing Extinction

Protecting Culture – The IsMEO and the Iia, with its precious African texts, were united within the IsIAO

Books, maps, manuscripts, photos: the patrimony accumulated by a great scholar risks being dispersed with the liquidation of the Institute for Africa and the East. But it may have a future in the Apuan Alps

By Ruggiero Corcella

IMG_0223.400A brass plaque attacked by rust next to the main entrance in 16 Via Aldrovandi, in the Pinciano district in Rome. Beyond the entrance human figures carved on stone blocks stand as mute sentinels of the past and a chain closes what was once the gateway for the public. Occasionally, the hoarse yawn of a lion from the nearby zoo of Villa Borghese evokes an exotic atmosphere and breaks the silence of the empty rooms, the sadness of the peeling walls, the decay of the plaster: here “lies” the glorious Italian Institute for Africa and the East (IsIAO), heir to a dual tradition of study and research on Asia and Africa. The Italian Institute for Africa and the East was born in 1995 from the union of IsMEO (Italian Institute for Middle and the Far East), founded in 1933 by Giovanni Gentile and the great Orientalist Giuseppe Tucci, with the Istituto Italo-African (IIa). Twenty years later, the Institute is playing perhaps its last and most important game: save from oblivion the immense patrimony of history and culture that after being subject to compulsory liquidation in 2012 – the equivalent of bankruptcy for public institutions – is likely to remain buried forever in the darkness of a ministerial

The library of the Italian Institute for Africa and the East (IsIAO)

The library of the Italian Institute for Africa and the East (IsIAO)

storehouse. We speak of a treasure of more than 200,000 volumes, 2,500 periodicals of which five hundred current, rare and valuable collections with manuscripts, xylographical material, antique editions, maps, photographic collections of inestimable value, such as the half a million photos on “Italian” Africa. Under the visionary eye of Giuseppe Tucci, the ascetic expression of Mahatma Gandhi and the poet Tagore (Tucci met both when, from 1925 to 1930, he taught Italian language art and literature in India), immortalized in gigantic photos on the walls of the library, the thousands of texts of the IsIAO are neatly lined up. The most valuable part is kept in the “holy of holies”, a room filled with armored cabinets. On the right, the Eastern collection. On the left, the African.

Refined knowledge. Scrolling along the spines of the volumes brings a shiver: reports of archaeological and geographic expeditions, military maps and, at the bottom, the red boxes containing ancient pages in Sanskrit. It is important to talk about the situation of the IsIAO, as further proof of a country that has once again forgotten its past and is self-defeating in its almost scientific inability to retain and promote art and culture.

A historic image of Lhasa, Tibet

A historic image of Lhasa, Tibet

In the background, the destiny of the controversial figure of Giuseppe Tucci, much discussed for his adherence to fascism but recognized by the international scientific community as the greatest Tibetologist in the world, is intertwined with that of the master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, founder of Merigar, the first lay Dzogchen Buddhist community in Italy and in the world, located in a valley in the municipality of Arcidosso, in the province of Grosseto, known as “little Tibet”. Norbu, now 77 years old, taught Tibetan and Mongolian Language and Literature for thirty years at the Università degli Studi di Napoli L’Orientale in Naples, on the invitation of Giuseppe Tucci. The two had met in Sikkim, where Namkhai found himself in 1960 without the possibility to return home because of the Chinese revolution. The Buddhist master followed Tucci first to Rome and then to Naples, becoming a close associate, and also taking Italian citizenship. At Merigar, Norbu also founded the Shang Shung Foundation of Tibetan Studies, with its 4000 manuscripts on rice paper, and treasure chest of Dzogchen wisdom, which today have been digitized to preserve them for the future. This old friendship and also a feeling of gratitude led him to make a proposal, shared by Jacopo Marini, mayor of Arcidosso, and the mayors of the other seven municipalities of Amiata, that would make facilities and funds available.

A 5 million deficit. “It would be a disaster if the patrimony of texts and artifacts acquired by IsMEO since 1933 were dispersed,” explains the master Namkhai Norbu. “I offer to promote the establishment of a new non-profit organization in which we can bring together my library, archive and collection of artifacts and those of the former IsMEO-IsIAO. That body could reasonably be called the Giuseppe Tucci-Namkhai Norbu Foundation and the whole collection could be made freely available to researchers and scholars around the world for consultation.”

Ambassador Antonio Armellini

Ambassador Antonio Armellini

Lost treasures, rediscovered treasures, treasures in danger and treasures to save. The mission of Ambassador Antonio Armellini, the liquidator appointed by the Foreign Ministry to oversee the Institute, is one that leaves a bitter taste in the mouth: delete the name IsIAO to preserve its soul. Presiding over the Institute there is only the ambassador and two secretaries, the only “historical memories” still in service. The ambassador receives us in a bare room, once used by Professor Gherardo Gnoli, a pupil of Giuseppe Tucci and heir to his activities, president of IsIAO since its constitution, he passed away in March of 2012. Financially unviable public body, the Institute had ended up on the list of so-called unnecessary organizations to close down since 2008. The decision, in fact, had only been postponed. When in November 2011 foreign ministers Franco Frattini and Giulio Tremonti signed the decree of compulsory administrative liquidation there were screams of a plot and “death by strangulation” because public funding had increasingly diminished (in 2010 contributions were decreased by 44%, from 2.5 million to 1.4). Immediately there was an international mobilization and a petition with 7000 signatures, collected in a week from every corner of the globe, was presented to President Giorgio Napolitano. IsIAO was occupied by the 18 remaining employees, with billboards and messages of protest. “There was a deficit of over 5 million,” says Ambassador Armellini, recently retired, “and the Foreign and Economy Ministries had no other way but to decree the compulsory administrative liquidation, also because the main creditor, the Unicredit bank, had recalled an overdraft of 2 million euro.” The Commissioner claims to have found the institution “in disarray from all points of view.”

A vintage photo of one of Giuseppe Tucci's expeditions to Tibet

A vintage photo of one of Giuseppe Tucci’s expeditions to Tibet

Reliance on private funding. The current situation finds the IsIAO in debt to nearly 400 creditors, including banks, staff, the municipality of Rome and a host of suppliers. The branch offices in Milan, Ravenna and Fano have been closed, debts have been collected and whatever possible has been liquidated. “The assets of the Institute are basically three,” lists Armellini. “The collection of the Oriental Museum, that is the Tucci Trust, which is ours, is entrusted on deposit to the National Museum of Oriental Art; we have reorganized the Archives and joined them to the library which was not even subject to restrictions. Then there is the African Museum, the various pieces of which we have at last traced: a good half are located at the “Luigi Pigorini” National Museum of Prehistoric Ethnography; a part is here at IsIAO; another part at the Zoological Museum, a part in the Gallery of Modern Art and another at the Historical Museum of the Infantry.

The great Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci (Macerata 1894-1984) in 1937 at sea in the Philippines

The great Tibetologist Giuseppe Tucci (Macerata 1894-1984) in 1937 on the Conte Rosso in the Manila Sea in the Philippines

What will happen now? “They are still creating confusion,” reiterates the liquidator: “One thing is the liquidation of IsIAO as a body, imposed by law because the institution has failed and does not exist anymore. Its scientific patrimony is a different story, which by the way is inalienable and still subject to safeguards that make it impossible to be dispersed. It’s about finding a way to make sure that this patrimony is revived and an important scientific asset recovered.” The idea is to give the property of IsIAO in concession under payment through public tender, so as to permit the payment of debts and the preservation and revitalization of this heritage. If the proposal is approved, we will go ahead firstly with a request to see if there is interest for the concession, to avoid setting up an unnecessarily complicated and expensive tender. “The timing should be fast,” adds Ambassador Armellini. “If this does not work, it only remains to close the liquidation with what we have and transfer ownership, rights and obligations of the property to the Foreign Ministry. I think that they would make good use of it, even though I have some doubts on the performance of a purely bureaucratic management.” The approach of the Commissioner is a bit too focused on the economic aspect, according to Lia Quartapelle Procopio, African scholar and MP of the Democratic Party, who presented a parliamentary question on the situation. Considering the solution suggested by master Norbu, one would like to invoke the law of Karma: a cycle that began in Sikkim may now – who knows – close on the slopes of Amiata, the little Tibet.


Until 8 March in Rome

An Exhibition of Tucci’s Expeditions

Tibetan culture and its artistic traditions were virtually unknown in the West until the eight major expeditions led by Giuseppe Tucci, founder of modern Tibetology, between 1926 and 1948. His daring expeditions on the “Roof of the World”, thanks to his deep knowledge of the language and local culture, can be considered a scientific legacy that is still the foundation of research on this distant country. The materials that he selected with great scientific perspicacity, and gathered with great care, were brought to Italy, thanks to the goodwill of the local government, and are now accessible to the public and scholars at the “Giuseppe Tucci” National Museum of Oriental Art in Rome. Up to March 8, you will be able to relive the beauty and excitement of those trips visiting the exhibition “The Expeditions of Giuseppe Tucci and Tibetan paintings.” Organized in collaboration with the Cirdis University of Vienna, Center for Research and Documentation of Inner and South Asia, the Austrian Academy of Sciences Institut für Kultur und Geistesgeschichte Asiens, and FWF Der Wissenschaftsfonds, Vienna, the exhibition presents two lines of research: on the one hand the history of the explorations of Giuseppe Tucci, as recounted in his vintage photographs, on the other that which is recounted in the Tibetan painted masterpieces from the XI to the XVIII century, documents of religious life, interpreted in the light of historical perspective.

Hours: Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday 9-14; Thursdays, Saturdays, Sundays and holidays 9-19.30. Closed Mondays. Admission: € 6.00; reduced € 3.00; free for children under 18 years and the first Sunday of the month. Disabled access.


The Merigar Tibetan Centre in Arcidosso (Grosseto)

Studying the Dzogchen view in Tuscany

Chogyal_Namkhai_Norbu_Kunsangar_North_in_the_Moscow_region_2013.07.04_18.49pm.300The Tibetan centre at Merigar (which means the “residence of the fire mountain”) was founded in 1981 by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, in Arcidosso (Grosseto) on Mt. Amiata. Gathered around the Tibetan Master are those interested in the study and practice of Dzogchen, one of the most ancient teachings in the Tibetan spiritual tradition. In 1990, the Gonpa or the Temple of the Great Contemplation was inaugurated in the presence of the Dalai Lama. The library houses more than 4000 Tibetan texts, now also digitized. The Shang Shung Foundation of Tibetan Studies, founded in 1989, is also located there.

Originally published in Italian on February 13, 2015 in ‘Sette’, the weekly magazine of the Italian newspaper ‘Corriere della Sera’. 




An interview with Prof. Namkhai Norbu and Jacopo Marini, Mayor of Arcidosso

By Paolo Roberti di Sarsina

Question: Prof. Namkhai Norbu, up to 1960 you collaborated closely with Prof. Giuseppe Tucci who invited you to work with him at the Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East (IsMEO), and then the Institute for Africa and the East (IsIAO). When did you learn about the closure of the glorious institution which you helped to make a concrete contribution to the spread of Tibetan culture in the West?

Reply: I was abroad for a cycle of Dzogchen teachings when I was informed by one of my students of the news and deeply saddened. Straight away vivid memories came to my mind of the years of prolific work I spent alongside Prof. Giuseppe Tucci, one of the greatest Orientalists of all time, the pride and joy of Italy, of which I am honored to have citizenship.

Seeing it would be a disaster to disperse the patrimony of texts and artifacts acquired since 1933, the year the institute was founded, I offer to promote the establishment of a new non-profit organization in which we can bring together my library, archive and collection of artifacts and those of the former IsMEO-IsIAO. That body could reasonably be called the Giuseppe Tucci-Namkhai Norbu Foundation and the whole collection could be made freely available to researchers and scholars around the world for consultation.

I hope that the authorities of the Town of Arcidosso, where the headquarters of the Merigar Dzogchen Community that I founded in 1981 is situated, can be an active part of this, as well as Ambassador Armellini, who is the liquidator, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which is the ministry in charge, and of course the Tuscany Region, in order to realize this project, providing all the space needed to accommodate this new extraordinary cultural reality that, outside the normal Italian touristic/cultural tours, I believe, would give a major boost to create new jobs, increase tourism on Amiata and offer renewed opportunities to scholars worldwide.

Interview with Jacopo Marini, Mayor of Arcidosso

Question: Mr. Mayor, it is known that until the nineteenth century the Amiata area was called “Little Tibet”. And as fate would have it Prof. Namkhai Norbu chose to found the Merigar Dzogchen Community right at the foot of Mt. Amiata, in an extraordinary setting. Many of his students have come with Prof. Namkhai Norbu to live in Arcidosso and other municipalities of Amiata. Prof. Namkhai Norbu and the Dzogchen Community celebrated the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of Merigar in 2011, in the presence of representatives of local and regional institutions. How do you assess the level of integration and collaboration between the Amiata community in general and in particular of Arcidosso, and the Merigar Dzogchen Community, in light of the fact that over the years, tens of thousands of people have come as guests to your home town and the Amiata area?

Reply: Amiata is a land rich in spirituality. A few steps from the Merigar community, on Mt. Labbro, there was a very special religious experience around the figure of David Lazzaretti, founder of the Giurisdavidic community in the second half of the 1800s. Since its origins, the political-administrative history of Amiata has also been interwoven with events related to the history of the Benedictine monastery of Abbadia San Salvatore built in the second half of the eighth century. Then there are many shrines dedicated to the Virgin Mary, destination of many pilgrimages. This strong mystical propensity, combined with a particular natural landscape, make it possible to compare Mt. Amiata to the mountains of Tibet. In my opinion, it is these specific features that have allowed the spiritual and cultural experience of Merigar to integrate harmoniously with the territory of Amiata.

We can say that the Merigar Dzogchen Community is now an integral part of the Amiata community. And this integration is demonstrated by the increasing number of opportunities for sharing and collaboration between the activities of Merigar and the local communities. Since the early 80’s Arcidosso in particular has hosted major cultural events organized in collaboration with Merigar under the supervision of the Master Prof. Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, among these the inauguration of the Shang Shung Institute by His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Question: Mr. Mayor, after the recent meeting you had with Prof. Namkhai Norbu at Merigar, are you able to commit the administration of Arcidosso to allocate a building to house the hypothetical new entity resulting from the union between the IsIAO and the library-archive of Prof. Namkhai Norbu, if the liquidator and the ministry in charge approve the project?

Reply: I can say with certainty that the Town of Arcidosso is able to provide the appropriate infrastructure to house a library collection of such scientific and cultural significance, pledging also to invest, if necessary, its own additional resources. We have already identified a couple of structures that we believe are suitable for this purpose.

Question: Mr. Mayor, do you think that the regional government would be receptive to this initiative and would join the project by contacting the liquidator?

Reply: I believe that such a cultural and scientific initiative would certainly find support also from the regional administration, which has always been attentive and interested in the activities promoted by Prof. Namkhai Norbu and his Dzogchen Community. We have already been in touch with regional leaders in the field of culture, with whom we will meet shortly to define a way that will promote a specific project to invite contributions at the European level. This will allow us to go to the liquidator with an even stronger proposal, both in terms of science and culture, and from the point of view of the economic sustainability of the entire project, as envisioned by Prof. Namkhai Norbu.

Question: Mr. Mayor, are you of the opinion that Prof. Norbu’s project to save the former IsIAO would bring jobs and increase the flow of tourists, especially in such a critical phase in the country?

Reply: I am sure that such a project would make Amiata and Arcidosso one of the most important centers of international studies as regards the history, culture and traditions of the Middle and Far East. This would undoubtedly have repercussions in the field of tourism and the economy, most important in a time when, even an area as marginal as that of Amiata, are burdened by the weight of the economic crisis. I also believe it is important that a cultural center of this type can be housed in a territory like Amiata which offers tranquility, gentle rhythms, and spiritual dimensions essential to any form of fruitful research, more so if – as in this case – it is a center for the study of Eastern cultures.


The following article was published in Italian in the Italian newspaper ‘Corriere Fiorentino’ on Saturday 14 February 2015

tempio merigar

A Lama wants to bring to Amiata the Library, the photos, and the collections of Mussolini’s explorer. “From Rome to Arcidosso»

ARCIDOSSO (Grosseto) Tibet and Amiata united to save the cultural heritage of the IsIAO (Italian Institute for Africa and the Orient), forced to close in 2011. There was already an oppressive atmosphere at the headquarters of the institution, in via Aldrovandi in Rome, in 2009, after the announcements of cuts to unnecessary entities by the two ‘ministers of simplification’, Brunetta and Calderoli. The increasing economic deficit, partly the result of a gradual removal of public funds in support of cultural bodies, culminating in 2011 with a debt of over 5 million euro, did the rest. Today, the risk that this patrimony will be lost, or worse, divided between various institutions, is becoming even more real.

Photo by P. Fassoli

Photo by P. Fassoli

Once the curtain has fallen on IsIAO, currently entrusted to a liquidator (Ambassador Antonio Armellini), what will become of this immense patrimony of documents that recounts a century of our country’s history? An answer has come from Amiata, where an influential Tibetan lama close to the Dalai Lama, and a young mayor are proposing to host and promote all the material in the possession of the old Institute right here. Where spirituality and mysticism are intimately intertwined and where, in 1981, master Namkhai Norbu chose to preserve the ancient Tibetan culture. At Merigar (Arcidosso), for over thirty years the seat of the first lay Buddhist community of Dzogchen teaching, visited every year by thousands of practitioners. It also hosts the Shang Shung International Institute of Tibetan Studies, active since 1989.

Thus, the proposal to host the copious material of the Institute in liquidation right here on Amiata came about from past experience. Precious legacy of the former IsIAO, created in 1995 from the union of two historic research institutes: the IsMEO (Italian Institute for the Middle and Far East) and IIA (Italo-African Institute). The first founded by Giovanni Gentile in 1933 and made famous by Giuseppe Tucci; the second the result of experiences from the Italian colonial period and active since 1906. A single patrimony, with a library (within the Institute) containing 180,000 volumes, 2,500 periodicals and rare collections of manuscripts, xylographic and photographic material. The second in Europe for African studies, enriched by the collections of Giuseppe Tucci, the ‘Duce’s’ explorer, considered to be one of the ‘founding fathers’ of Italian Oriental studies. It is with Tucci in mind that the Tibetan master Namkhai Norbu, with whom he shared years of studies and research in the middle of the last century right at IsMEO, is launching his proposal to recover all that material and not to scatter his legacy. ” The loss of that patrimony would be a disaster,” says the master – “For this reason I propose to set up a non-profit organization in which to unite the legacy of the IsIAO and my own entire library and private collection of artifacts.”

Jacopo Marini, mayor of Arcidosso

Jacopo Marini, mayor of Arcidosso

He also considered a possible name for the new wished-for institution, which would provide free access to a cultural background of international level to researchers and scholars. The mayor of Arcidosso, Jacopo Marini, is ready to make an infrastructure available that would accommodate a library collection of such scientific and cultural relevance, and has also pledged to invest additional resources from the municipal budget. “Amiata is a land rich in spirituality” – he says – “The religious experiences of the mid-nineteenth century with the Giurisdavidic community of David Lazzaretti (Monte Labbro) and the Tibetan (Dzogchen) of Merigar brought here in 1981 by Namkhai Norbu testify to an abundance of spiritual research, which, for countries such as Asia and Africa becomes even more important.”

Acting as a liaison is a figure close to the Tibetan master, rather shy, who prefers to remain in the shadows. But he explains the advantages of this operation. “It would give scientific continuity to Tucci’s project through Namkhai Norbu, once a close associate. And would succeed in promoting culture in suburban areas, such as Amiata.”

Supporters of the proposal are thinking about an institution that would be able to manage the patrimony of the IsIAO. They would like it to return to being a landmark in cultural relations between Italy, Africa and Asia, also through the digitisation of texts.

Cristiano Bernacchi

English translations by Liz Granger


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