18 November 2022

Stefano Cardu - builder and architect

Sardinian who made fortune in Siam

Stefano Cardu made his fortune as a builder and architect in Siam
Stefano Cardu made his fortune
as a builder and architect in Siam 
The builder and architect Stefano Cardu, who enjoyed a lucrative relationship with the government of Siam in the late 19th century, was born on this day in 1849 in Cagliari, Sardinia.

Cardu built many important buildings in Siam - now Thailand - including a royal palace, the national military college and a luxury hotel to house foreign diplomats, as well as contributing to the country’s expanding infrastructure with roads and bridges.

The company he built up provided him with considerable wealth and when he returned to Cagliari he donated his collection of Siamese art, antiquities and other items to the city. They have been preserved in a museum that can be visited today.

It is not known with certainty how Cardu came to be in Siam. After he died in 1933, an obituary appeared in a newspaper in Sardinia that claimed he was shipwrecked off the coast and swam to the shore pursued by sharks, although the story has not been corroborated.

The account may be true, nonetheless.  Born into a family of carpenters, he acquired some knowledge of design and construction as he was growing up, although his ambition was to sail ships.

He took up nautical studies but was impatient to go to sea and when an opportunity arose at the age of 15 to work as a cabin boy on a merchant ship, he took it. He promised his parents he would continue his studies while at sea and after 10 years he became a Master Mariner, the highest grade of seafarer qualification and one that would allow him to captain a merchant ship of any size, anywhere in the world.

The Hotel Oriental in modern Bangkok was built by Stefano Cardu in 1890
The Hotel Oriental in modern Bangkok
was built by Stefano Cardu in 1890
What is known is that an entry in a Siamese periodical in 1879 listed Cardu as a foreign resident.

Although he may have had little money when he arrived, he found work with a builder originally from England. He saved as much money as he could and eventually set up his own business, opening a sawmill and building houses from wood for private individuals.

Cardu received some commissions from the Court of Siam to construct wooden bridges and impressed them sufficiently with the quality of his work to be given a permanent position by the government as a draftsman and architect. 

He designed a number of palaces, including the Palace of Prince Chaturonratsami, was involved in the construction of a new Court of Justice and built the Praisaniyakan building, the first post and telegraph office in the country. 

In 1885, he created a new construction company, called S Cardu and Co, Building Contractors. Among the projects he took on was the expansion of the country’s Military College, and the construction of the Hotel Oriental, a luxury establishment to provide hospitality for visiting diplomats and royalty. 

While in Siam, Cardu married an Italian girl, Rosa Fusco, who was born in Naples and whose parents were musicians living in Bangkok. They adopted a daughter.

Cardu asked for his collection to be   displayed in the Palazzo Civico
Cardu asked for his collection to be
  displayed in the Palazzo Civico
Cardu’s hard work made him very wealthy but in time he hankered after returning to Europe. He spoke English and French as well as Siamese and his native tongue, and is known to have spent some time in London, where he deposited his large collection of art and antiquities at the British Museum.

In 1900, having visited Paris, he decided to return to Sardinia. The British Museum apparently offered to buy his collection but he decided to take it home with him. In 1917, he donated it to the Municipality of Cagliari, requesting it be kept in his memory in a room at the newly built Palazzo Civico.

However, his own fortunes took a decline. A series of investments in Cagliari, first in a manor house and farm near the village of Capoterra, and later in an automobile business, ate up most of his wealth.

Cardu tried to reclaim his collection from the local authorities in order to raise funds but Italy’s laws on protecting cultural patrimony enabled them to prevent any sale. After a protracted legal dispute, it was reported that the Town Council had bought the collection from him for 135 lire. 

The sum was not nearly enough to solve Cardu’s final problems, however, and he left Cagliari to spend his final days in Rome, being cared for by his niece, Rosaria. He died there in 1933 at the age of 84, and was buried in the Verano Cemetery, where he rests next to his adopted daughter, Luigia.

Cardu's vast collection of art and artefacts is now on display in a modern museum
Cardu's vast collection of art and artefacts is
now on display in a modern museum
Travel tip:

Cardu’s treasures are now housed in the Museo d'Arte Siamese "Stefano Cardu", in an area of Cagliari's historic centre known as the Cittadella dei Musei, which is accessed via the Piazza Arsenale. The collection includes examples of religious art as well as handcrafted objects of domestic use, statuettes and other items fashioned from ivory, porcelain including from the Chinese Ming and early Quing periods, an array of coins and a large number of Siamese weapons. The museum closes on Mondays but is open every other day from 10am until 6pm and entry costs just 3 euro, or 1.50 euro for students or over-65s.

The monumental cemetery of Verano in Rome is the resting place of numerous notable individuals
The monumental cemetery of Verano in Rome is
the resting place of numerous notable individuals
Travel tip:

The Verano Cemetery at Campo Verano in the quartiere Tiburtino area of Rome, near the Basilica of San Lorenzo fuori le mura, is a monumental cemetery which includes a Jewish cemetery, a Catholic cemetery and a monument to the victims of World War I. The area contained ancient Christian catacombs and the modern cemetery was established  during the Napoleonic Kingdom of Italy, between 1807–1812. Many notable figures from Italian society are buried there, including former prime ministers Luigi Lazzatti, Francesco Saverio Nitti and Giulio Andreotti, actors Marcello Mastroianni and Alberto Sordi, the racing driver Elio De Angelis and the novelist Alberto Moravia. 

Also on this day:

1626: The consecration of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome

1630: The birth of Holy Roman Empress Eleonora Gonzaga

1804: The birth of military general Alfonso Ferrero La Marmora

1891: The birth of architect and designer Gio Ponti

1911: The birth of poet Attilio Bertolucci


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