Meet the Great Belzoni, the Italian Indiana Jones, and other Egyptology pioneers

If you think about archaeology, one of the first countries that might come to mind is Egypt. Italian archaeology pioneers and travellers helped rediscover Egypt and its ancient history in the 19th Century, making way for the thriving study of Italian Egyptology in the centuries to follow. Among these Italian Egyptology pioneers were Ippolito Rosellini, Giuseppe Angelelli, and the impressively named Giovanni Battista Belzoni.

Palmeti attorno ad una Tomba di Sheikh a Gurna, riva occidentale del Nilo. Giuseppe Angelelli, Biblioteca di Archeologia e Storia dell’arte di Roma, CC BY-NC-SA

The history of Ancient Egypt had been written and discussed in the Ancient Historical time period by Egyptians themselves, like the Egyptian priest Manetho. Ancient Greeks and Romans referenced the Egyptian civilisations as well: Herodotus, Strabo and Pliny the Elder all described Egyptian culture at length. Egypt kept on being of interest to travellers and historians in the Middle Ages and Early Modern time periods, but Modern Egyptology as it is currently known originated in the 18th and 19th centuries. A rising interest in Ancient Egypt around the end of the eighteenth century pushed scientists, explorers, artists, adventurers to colonise and collect the treasures found in the Fertile Crescent, while establishing the basics of Egyptology. 

Veduta del tempio di Karnak dall’alto, Giuseppe Angelelli,
Biblioteca di Archeologia e Storia dell’arte di Roma, CC BY-NC-SA

In the nineteenth century several Italians became pioneers of colonisation and discovery that would shape the field of Egyptology for the coming centuries. The Italian Ippolito Rosellini is seen as the father of Italian Egyptology after publishing I Monumenti dell’Egitto e della Nubia. The book comprised 3300 pages of text and almost 400 illustrated plates.

I monumenti dell’Egitto e della Nubia page 361. Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, Germany, CC BY-SA

A lot of the drawings and sketches in Rosellini’s book were of the hand of Giuseppe Angelelli, another Italian whose paintings and drawings became important parts of the study of Egyptology. Angelelli’s reproductions of Ancient Egypt were also, arguably, beautiful works of art.

EXPLORE MORE: Work by Giuseppe Angelelli

Ramesse II uccide un libico, Giuseppe Angelelli. Biblioteca Universitaria di Pisa, Italy,
Sethnekhet, Giuseppe Angelelli. Biblioteca Universitaria di Pisa, Italy, CC BY-NC-SA

Giovanni Battista Belzoni

Belzoni was a pioneer of Egyptology, sometimes referred to as “the Great Belzoni”. He studied as a hydraulic engineer but first earned his living in theatrical performances as a strongman. After that, he travelled through France, the Netherlands, England and finally to Egypt where he was immediately fascinated by the Pharaonic ruins.

He accomplished three archaeological trips to Egypt in 1816, 1817, and 1819. He was met with differing degrees of hospitality on these trips, sometimes easily establishing friendships and sometimes clashing brutally with diplomats, explorers and other archaeologists.

Portret van Giovanni Battista Belzoni, De Marchi, Rijksmuseum, Public Domain

Belzoni’s engineering knowledge came in handy when he came upon the task of removing and transporting a colossal stone bust weighing more than 7 tons from the Ramesseum in the plain of Deir el-Bahari near ancient Thebes. The bust had to be moved all the way to the Nile, about 1200 meters away, where it could be loaded onto a boat and shipped to England. It took Belzoni 17 days, 130 men, and several smart engineering tricks to drag the bust of ‘The Young Memnon’ to the river. The bust is still on display in the British Museum today. 

Ramesse II, Giuseppe Angelelli. Biblioteca Universitaria di Pisa, Italy, CC BY-NC-SA

Belzoni was the first to open up the tomb of Sethi I, father of Ramses II, in the Kings’ Valley, decorated with magnificent bas-reliefs and polychrome frescoes of which he made splendid graphic moulds. He was also the first to penetrate into the second pyramid of Giza, cleared the temple at Abu Simbel of sand, and discovered the ruins of the mythical city of Berenice on the Red Sea. 

Abu Simbel: two temples seen from across the Nile river. Coloured etching by A. Aglio, 1820, after G. Belzoni, Giovanni Battista Belzoni, Welcome Collection, CC BY

His journeys to Egypt were narrated in the book Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids […], beautifully illustrated by the physician and artist Alessandro Ricci. Did you know that director George Lucas probably drew inspiration from the many-sided personality of Belzoni to give birth to the Indiana Jones figure? We don’t know Belzoni’s stance on snakes, and neither did he find the Ark of the Covenant on his travels, but Belzoni’s last voyage could have been the subject of a Hollywood movie: he set out to find the legendary city of Timbuktu in Mali. This quest would be Belzoni’s last, though: Belzoni died of dysentery in 1823, having gotten no further than the port of Gwato in the Gulf of Benin.

By Maria Teresa Natale – The Central Institute for the Union Catalogue of Italian Libraries and Bibliographic Information 

Feature image: Tempio funerario di Medinet Habu al calar del sole 10 giugno 1829, Giuseppe Angelelli, Biblioteca di Archeologia e Storia dell’arte di Roma, CC BY-NC-SA

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