John Bray and Amy Heller
Erberto Lo Bue, who passed away in November 2022, was a distinguished scholar of Tibetan and Himalayan art history. His wide range of interests included contemporary sculptors from Nepal and Ladakh, the art of the Great Stupa in Gyantse and the love songs of the Sixth Dalai Lama. In the course of his career, he prepared some 200 longer and shorter academic publications, including research papers, monographs, exhibition catalogues and edited volumes. His final post was as Associate Professor at the University of Bologna, and he remained active in research and writing long after his retirement in 2012.
Erberto was born in Torre Pellice in the alpine foothills of northern Italy on 30 July 1946. His father, Francesco Lo Bue, was a teacher of Latin and Greek who also served as a minister of the Waldensian Church. The Waldensians are a small denomination that dates back to the 12th century and later became aligned with the Reformed tradition of Protestant Christianity. Erberto was the eldest son, followed by two younger sisters.
According to Erberto himself, he had two distinguishing features as a child: the first was an insatiable sense of curiosity, and the second was a desire to impose order and tidiness, first on the things in his own room and then on the rest of the house. In these two qualities we can perhaps discern his future vocation for scholarly enquiry combined with a parallel vocation as an exhibition curator, selecting, documenting and explaining the best work of his chosen artists.
Francesco Lo Bue, who passed away when Erberto was only nine, always insisted that his son should make up his own mind on religious matters. Ultimately, Erberto never sought baptism but he took pride in his father’s legacy, especially including his role in Italy’s anti-fascist resistance between 1943 and 1945. He also remarked that his own links with the Waldensians had increased his sympathy for other minority groups in both Europe and Asia, including Tibet.
Growing up in Torre Pellice, Erberto developed a love of nature and of hiking. He retained these loves throughout his life, while extending his horizons through increasingly adventurous travel. Shortly before his final year at high school, he travelled by train and hitchhiking to England and Scotland before embarking on a fishing vessel bound for Norway, and then travelling through Scandinavia to Germany.
After his high school education, Erberto studied for a Laurea (honours degree) in Foreign Languages and Literatures at the University of Venice. His choice of subject was motivated by the desire to be able to communicate as effectively as possible wherever he travelled. He graduated with a thesis related to Anglo-American literature and his degree course also included the study of French and German.
Alongside his Italian mother tongue, Erberto felt a particularly close relationship with the English language, perhaps partly because his paternal grandmother had been from England. In his editing work he was always punctilious on the finer points of English grammar and style, sometimes to the point of appearing old-fashioned. He must have been one of the few people still living in the early 21st century who habitually used expressions such as “on the third inst.”, meaning “on the third day of the current month”.
In 1968 Erberto moved from Venice to Switzerland where he initially worked for Vittorio Chiaudano, whom he later described as “an Italian eccentric then interested in parapsychology” (Lo Bue 2014). Later in the same year, he was employed as a secretary and advisor to the widow of the Italo-Swiss painter Charles Rollier (1912-1968), who drew much of his inspiration from Hinduism and Buddhism. Rollier’s library served as Erberto’s first introduction to Indian and Tibetan art. Subsequently, his taste for travel took him further and further east. In the summer of 1969, he travelled overland to Turkey and the following year to Iran and Afghanistan.
An exhibition on Tantra at the Hayward Gallery in London in 1971 provided a further stimulus for Erberto’s growing Asian interests. In 1972, he submitted to Chiaudano a project aimed at putting together a collection of Tibetan and Himalayan traditional objects to be purchased in Britain as well as Nepal and India, and to “organize sale-exhibitions in Switzerland with the aim of reinvesting the earnings in the purchase of representative items of finer and finer quality” (Lo Bue 2014). This is what led to Erberto’s first visit to Nepal in 1972, and to his lifelong interest in the work of Newar sculptors in the Kathmandu valley. He made further visits to Nepal in 1973, 1974, 1975 and 1977. In 1977 he embarked on a research degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.
At SOAS, Erberto’s senior supervisor was the eminent Tibetologist David Snellgrove (1920-2016). At one of their first meetings, Snellgrove made clear that there was little point in studying Tibetan art unless one had the linguistic competence to study the associated Tibetan-language religious texts. Erberto took this observation as a guiding insight that determined the course of his research as well as his relationship with his own students. Alongside Snellgrove, Philip Denwood served as Erberto’s main Tibetan teacher, and he later worked with Erberto on the translation of key Tibetan texts.
Erberto’s Ph.D thesis, which he submitted in 1981, was on “Himalayan Sculpture in the XXth Century. A Study of the Religious Statuary in Metal and Clay of the Nepal Valley and Ladakh.” His overall argument was that the study of 20thcentury Himalayan art was not only a subject worthy of serious historical research in its own right but might also help to shed more light on the history of Tibetan and Himalayan art in general. He often returned to the theme of contemporary Buddhist artists in both Nepal and Ladakh in his later work.
Erberto continued his friendship with Snellgrove after completing his Ph.D: he was responsible for introducing him to Torre Pellice, where he bought a house following his retirement from SOAS. Snellgrove had been a former student of the Italian scholar Giuseppe Tucci (1894-1984) whom Erberto regarded as a foundational figure in modern Tibetan studies. He praised Tucci as “the first scholar who placed the history of Tibetan art within its political and cultural context on the basis of a systematic analysis of original sources, both historical and religious, local as well as encyclopaedic” (Lo Bue 2007). Erberto was proud to place himself in the same academic lineage.
After completing his doctorate, Erberto held a series of temporary research and teaching positions at the Universities of Turin and Milan as well as the Centro Piemontese di Studi sul Medio ed Estremo Oriente (CeSMEO) in Turin. From 1983 Stella Rigo Righi became his life-long companion, often accompanying him in his Asian travels.
Alongside his teaching, Erberto continued to curate exhibitions on Tibetan and Himalayan art, as well as conducting a series of research expeditions, notably to Central Tibet, Kham and Mustang, as well as return visits to Ladakh and the Kathmandu Valley. From 1997 to 1999 he taught in Istanbul on behalf of the Italian Foreign Office. In 1999 he moved to the University of Bologna, where his students remember him as a brilliant and inspiring teacher. Erberto was responsible for the Indology course at the Department of Linguistic and Oriental Studies, and taught Indian and Central Asian art history as well as classical Tibetan. He retired from Bologna as an Associate Professor in 2012.
Erberto always insisted on high standards for himself, his students and the researchers whose work he edited. When confronted with what he considered to be poor or sloppy scholarship, Erberto responded with a sense of pain, indignation and even outrage. In print, his words sometimes seemed severe. However, the Erberto whom one met in person was always more engaging than the author of his emails. Expressions of scholarly dismay would be tempered by a shrug, a laugh and a wry smile.
Erberto will be celebrated because of his major contribution to the study of Tibetan art and civilisation. He will be remembered for his devotion to his chosen field, his insistence on high standards, his compassion, and his joie-de-vivre. Among those who knew him best, he will be missed most of all for his immense personal warmth.
He is survived by his wife Stella Rigo Righi as well as his two younger sisters and his stepson Paolo Buissa (son of Stella Rigo Righi).
ORAL HISTORY OF TIBETAN STUDIES INTERVIEW WITH ERBERTO
SELECT LIST OF PUBLICATIONS
Unpublished Ph.D thesis
1981. Himalayan Sculpture in the XXth century: a Study of the Religious Statuary in Metal and Clay of the Nepal Valley and Ladakh. Ph.D thesis. School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. DOI: https://doi.org/10.25501/SOAS.00028977
Books and exhibition catalogues
1983. sKu-thang. Tibetan Paintings from the Fifteenth to the Twentieth Century. Florence: Mario Luca Giusti.
1990. Gyantse Revisited. With Franco Ricca. Florence: Casa Editrice Le Lettere Turin: CESMEO.
1991. Tibet: dimora degli dei. Arte buddhista tibetana e himalayana dal XII al XX secolo. Milan: La Rinascente.
1993. The Great Stupa of Gyantse. A Complete Tibetan Pantheon of the Fifteenth Century. With F. Ricca. London: Serindia, London.
1994. Le Montagne Sacre. Antica Arte del Tibet. Modena: Museo d’Arte Medievale e Moderna.
1994. Tesori del Tibet: oggetti d’arte dai monasteri di Lhasa. Milan: La Rinascente,
1998. La preziosa ghirlanda degli insegnamenti degli uccelli [Bya chos rin-chen ’phreng-ba]. Milan: Adelphi.
1998. A Tibetan Journey. Dipinti dal Tibet XIII-XIX secolo. Milan: Emil Mirzakhanian.
1998. Tibet. Templi scomparsi fotografati da Fosco Maraini. Turin: Ananke
2001. Art of Tibet. Milan: Renzo Freschi.
2011. Images of Devotion. Religious Sculpture from Nepal, Tibet and India. Como: Capriaquar & Studio Nodo, Pescara.
2012. Gods and Demons of the Himâlayas. London: Rossi & Rossi.
2001-2003. Contributions to the History of Tibetan Art, special double issue of Tibet Journal 26, Nos. 3-4; 27, Nos 1-2; 27, Nos. 3-4; 28, Nos 1-2.
2010. Wonders of Lo. The Artistic Heritage of Mustang. Mumbai: Marg.
2010. Tibetan Art and Architecture in Context. Proceedings of the Eleventh Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Königswinter 2006. With Christian Luczanits. Andiast: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies.
2011. Art in Tibet and the Himalayas. Issues in Traditional Tibetan Art from the Seventh to the Twentieth Century. Proceedings of the Tenth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Oxford, 2003.Vol. 10/13. Leiden: Brill.
2014. Art and Architecture in Ladakh. Cross-Cultural Transmissions in the Himalayas and Karakoram. With John Bray. Leiden: Brill.
2014. Il Tibet fra Mito e Realtà. Tibet Between Myth and Reality. Atti del Convegno per i centenario della nascita di Fosco Maraini. Florence: Leo S. Olschki.
Articles and book chapters
1983. “Traditional Tibetan Painting in Ladakh in the Twentieth Century.” International Folklore Review 3, pp. 52-72. London.
1987. “The Dharmamandala-sutra by Buddhaguhya”. In Orientalia Iosephi Tucci Memoriae Dicata, pp. 787-818. Edited by G. Gnoli and L. Lanciotti Roma, IsMEO.
2000. “On Some Inscriptions in the Temples of the ‘bum-pa’ of the Great Stupa at Gyantse.” East and West 50, No. 1/4, pp. 387-437.
2002. “Newar Sculptors and Tibetan Patrons in the 20th Century”. Tibet Journal 27, No. 3/4, pp. 121-170.
2005. “Lives and Works of Traditional Buddhist Artists in 20th Century Ladakh. A Preliminary Account.” In Ladakhi Histories. Local and Regional Perspectives, pp. 353-378. Edited by John Bray. Leiden: Brill.
2005. “Yama’s Judgement in the Bar do thos grol chen mo: An Indic Mystery Play in Tibet”. Tibet Journal 30, No. 2, pp. 9-24
2007. “A 16th-Century Ladakhi School of Buddhist Painting.” In Buddhist Art: Form & Meaning, pp. 102-116. Edited by Pratapaditya Pal. Mumbai: Marg Publications.
2007. “The Gu ru lha khang at Phyi dbang. A Mid-15th Century Temple in Central Ladakh”. In Discoveries in Western Tibet and the Western Himalayas, pp. 175-196. Edited by Amy Heller & Giacomella Orofino. PIATS 10. Vol. 8. Leiden: Brill.
2007. “Giuseppe Tucci and Historical Studies on Tibetan Art”. Tibet Journal 32, No. 1 pp. 53-64.
2009. “Notes on Sky-burial in Indian, Chinese and Nepalese Tibet.” Mountains, Monasteries and Mosques. Recent Research on Ladakh and the Western Himalaya, pp. 221-237. Edited by John Bray & Elena De Rossi Filibeck. Supplement No. 2 to Rivista degli Studi Orientali 80 (New Series).
2011 “Newar Artistic Influence in Tibet and China between the 7th and the 15th century Rivista degli Studi Orientali 84, Supplement 1:25-62.
2014. “The Painting of Charles Rollier: the Influence of Indian culture on a European Artist”. Marg, a Magazine of the Arts 65, No. 3, pp.
2014. “In Memory of Vittorio Chiaudano (1935-1996): 20th-century Buddhist and Hindu Statues from the Nepal Valley Belonging to the Aniko Collection on Loan to the Victoria and Albert Museum”. Tibet Journal 39, No. 2 pp. 3-35.
2016. “A Tibetan ‘Mahābodhi’. The Main Image in the dPal khor chos sde of “rGyal rtse”. Rivista degli studi orientali. Nuova Serie, 89, pp. 133-146. Studies in Honour of Luciano Petech: a Commemoration Volume.
2017. “Tshe ring dngos grub, a Ladaki Painter and Astrologer”. Tibet Journal 42, No. 1, pp. 3-12