Dorje Jigje, 15th century, Narthang, Tsang (South-Central Tibet), tradition: Sakya, pigments on cloth. All images courtesy of the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale - Giuseppe Tucci, Rome, unless otherwise indicated

This is a truly unique exhibition in that it revolves around the most remarkable 20th-century personality in the field of Tibetan scholarship, Giuseppe Tucci (1894-1984), considered the father of modern Tibetan studies. He had been deeply troubled by the overwhelming violence of World War I and felt that a solution must exist to alleviate human suffering and to bring some sort of spiritual balance to mankind. He found that he began to explore the possibilities of spiritual liberation in Eastern religions.

From this point forward, he did more in his lifetime to study, reveal and teach Tibetan studies than any other Westerner before or since. In the early 20th century, he led eight expeditions to Tibet, the results of which have formed this exhibition. This remarkable man not only had a number of languages at his disposal, which included  Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Persian and Chinese, he was a prolific writer of important scholarly books, including The Religions of Tibet, Minor Buddhist Texts, To Lhasa and Beyond, Tibetan Folk Songs from Gyantse and Western Tibet, Tibetan Painted Scrolls, The Theory and Practice of the Mandala, Pre-Dinnaga Buddhist Texts on Logic from Chinese Sources, and Some Aspects of the Doctrines of Maitreya and the Asanga. Then, after World War II, in 1952 and 1954, he added expeditions to Nepal, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran.

The Tucci Expedition to Tibet and the Little-Known Field of Tibetan Studies

His knowledge and personal involvement with this then little-known field of Tibetan studies co-existed easily in his mind with his firm adherence to the beliefs of Italian Fascism and support of ‘Il Duce’, Benito Mussolini. This co-existence was because he, deeply knowledgeable in Tantric Tibetan Buddhism, believed that those goals and those of Italian Fascism were the same – inner discipline and spiritual liberation. It seems odd today, but perhaps not so much in Italy of the 1930s.

The paintings and photographs in this exhibition that explores the Tucci expedition to Tibet are all from the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale in Rome. The beginnings of the Museo are unusual. The vast majority of works of art in its collection were originally confiscated by Italian authorities when they were discovered being exported from Italy at the time in violation of its laws of national patrimony.

The Collections in the Museo Nazionale d’Arte Orientale

As a result, this museum has a trove of major works of art from the ancient Near and Middle East, the Islamic world, ancient Gandhara, Tibet, Nepal and Korea. In addition to this, Giuseppe Tucci can be thanked for the vast additions to the museum’s collection of Tibetan and Nepalese works of art. Alas, this museum is sometimes overlooked by tourists intent on gawking at the Coliseum, the Forum and the Vatican – rather like the Museo Stibbert in Florence.

The paintings, both thangka and mandala, were collected by Tucci during eight major expeditions to Tibet he led between 1926 and 1948, a time in which Tibet was not really open to foreigners. The paintings have recently been restored to much of their original splendour after centuries of exposure to candle and incense soot and this venue, at New York’s Asia Society, is the first time they have ever been exhibited outside of Italy.

Photographs of the Tucci Expedition to Tibet

Fortunately for all of us, Tucci frequently had a photographer with his expeditions to record historic sites, important landscapes and telling images of Tibetan daily life. On his 1939 expedition, he had the company of the famed Italian ethnologist and photographer, Fosco Maraini, whose images comprise the majority of those on view here at the Asia Society. The photographs and drawings here were selected from the museum’s  collection of over 500,000 photographs and drawings from Tucci’s expeditions – certainly the largest collection of early Tibetan images in existence.

Tantric Form of Buddhism

Whether it is called Northern Buddhism, Vajrayana Buddhism, Esoteric Buddhism, or Tibetan Lamaism, it is the tantric form of the faith as practised mainly in Tibet and in Japan with the Shingon sect. Tantrism is Vedic in origin and  has elements of religious magic that were adopted by Tibetan Buddhists during the 8th century. The original form of Buddhism employed the veneration of Shakyamuni Buddha, depicted at the moment of his Enlightenment and his original sermons – this separate line of Buddhism, Theravada, is still practised today, mainly in Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma).

In Buddhist tantrism, the highest goal is to achieve Enlightenment in which all obstacles in the mind are removed to allow the highest of human qualities to thrive – compassion and wisdom. This is achieved by a series of ‘secret’ or discreet rituals, meditations and other practices with the assistance of historical religious figures, cosmic diagrammes and deities of both human and non-human forms

A Journey Towards Enlightenment

In this exhibition examine the Tucci expedition to Tibet, the three-part structure engages the visitor to follow the spiritual learning process and to begin to understand the journey towards Enlightenment. The first stage is the Path of the Sutra encompassing the Buddha himself and the sangha, or community of Buddhist monastics, using paintings and manuscripts on exhibit here that relate to the Buddha himself.

Secondly is the Path of the Buddhist Tantras, or ‘hidden’ knowledge, which involves the teachings of certain lineage lamas with their yidam (deity) and ferocious protectors, as well as  the use of mystical texts and rituals, mantra, meditation and yoga. Thirdly, the Tibetan Cosmos entails all the above as the underpinnings of personal practice as the means of Enlightenment.

The Vajra

The most important object of all in Tantric ritual is the vajra, which appears frequently in the exhibition because of its theological necessity. It is a hand-held instrument with double-ended ‘claws’ and is referred to as a celestial ‘diamond’, or a cosmic lightning bolt, because of its powers of Enlightenment. It is used to teach esoteric theological knowledge known as Vajrayana and in this exhibition it identifies a vajracarya, or Vajra Master. Most fortunately, there is an exhibition now on view in New York that is devoted to the Vajra Masters, their crowns and implements, and the Vajrayana teachings themselves.

The crowns are glorious gilded copper confections of design and workmanship and it takes little imagination to see them glowing in lamplight in the smoky darkness of a Tantric temple. The exhibition is Crowns of the Vajra Masters: Ritual Art of Nepal, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, until 16 December. It is only 14 blocks away from the Asia Society, and  was reviewed in Asian Art Newspaper, March edition.

The Paintings Take Central Stage in the Exhibition

Obviously, the centre stage of this exhibition, featuring works related to the Tucci expedition to Tibet, is the paintings, comprising over 50 works of great rarity, both thangka and mandala, dating from the 14th to 19th century, and with the vast majority dating from the 15th through the 17th century.

The Path of the Sutra is represented in this exhibition exploring the Tucci exhibition to Tibet with paintings of Shakyamuni and Mahasiddhas, who are considered to be the authors of tantric texts. The Path of Tantras are represented by paintings of Amitayus, as well as several yidam, who are considered to be the a manifestation of Enlightenment and serve as personal guides to the lamas.

The Sangha

The Sangha comprises the monastic community and its important teachers, including the Fifth Dalai Lama, Songtsen Gampo, and the Dromton Gelug lineage. This community, is best represented by a brilliant partial set of thangka of the arhats, painted in the 17th century, in Eastern Tibet/Kham Province which borders with China’s Sichuan Province. This proximity to China explains the strong Chinese influence seen in the remarkably individual portraiture with glorious background landscapes with birds, animals, small celestial figures and sometimes, mythical beasts, all executed in strong primary colours and bright pastels. The Personal Protectors include a thangka of Syamatara (Green Tara), Sitatara (White Tara), Sadaksari (an emanation of avalokitesvara), Heruka and Chakrasamvara.

The depth and breadth of knowledge in this visually stunning exhibition are so challenging and so emotionally and mentally captivating that it may require two visits to avoid being overwhelmed. It has been so well organised that it creates an all-encompassing draw and not just to scholars and followers of Vajrayana Buddhism, but also for many who have some knowledge of the field and who now have a unique opportunity to explore it.


Unknown Tibet, until 20 May, at Asia Society, New York,

The symposium Moving Borders: Tibet in Interaction with its Neighbours is on 4 May and includes the keynote speech by Andrew Quintman from Yale University. On 5 May, as part of Free Admission Fridays, the museum is open from 6-9pm