The Great Belzoni

… is today hung on display in the Fitzwilliam Museum – or, at any rate, a spectacular likeness produced after his death is. I mentioned this fascinating character several times in my previous blogging persona, but his arrival in Cambridge is a good excuse to revisit his extraordinary career in more detail.

The Great Belzoni (1824), by Jan Adam Kruseman (1804–62). (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum)

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born on 5 November 1778 in Padua, where he is now honoured by a street name and by the Istituto Tecnico Tecnologico ‘G.B. Belzoni’. Intriguingly, the 5 November date (though of course insignificant in Italian history: it doesn’t even have any very memorable saints), and the technological institute both hint at aspects of his future career. His father was a barber, and he was apparently destined for a monastery, being sent to Rome (from which he says his family originated) at the age of sixteen to enter the novitiate. He claims to have studied hydraulic engineering during his period, but the arrival of the French in 1798 caused him to leave, and ‘being destined to travel, I have been a wanderer ever since’.

His autobiography-cum-travelogue-cum-archaeological survey-cum-apologia pro sua vita, Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, in Egypt and Nubia: And of a Journey to the Coast of the Red Sea, in Search of the Ancient Berenice, and of Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon, was first published by John Murray in 1820, and went into many further editions.

The title page of Belzoni’s Narrative.

Belzoni died three years later during an expedition to Benin, and was outlived for forty-seven years by his doughty English widow, Sarah (née Bane or Banne), who had accompanied him on many of his travels, who died in Jersey in 1870. (Sarah in fact wrote one of the most interesting chapters of the Narrative, ‘Short account of the women of Egypt, Nubia, and Syria’, giving insights into the secluded lives of Muslim women, and also a description of her own travels, independent of her husband.)

Belzoni, depicted on the frontispiece of the Narrative.

In his book, the period between his leaving Italy and arriving in Britain is passed over, but it appears that in 1800 he was living in the Netherlands and working as a barber; allegedly he had to leave for England in a hurry to avoid arrest. By 1803, he had embarked on an acting career in London, as the ‘Patagonian Sampson’, carrying around the stage an iron frame with eleven people standing on it. He also played the Giant who met a sad end at the hands of the famous clown Grimaldi in Jack the Giant-Killer. (Wordsworth may have seen staging – he mentions Grimaldi as Jack in Book 7 of The Prelude: now that’s a strange conjunction!)

An 1803 watercolour showing Belzoni’s feat of strength.

Belzoni travelled around Britain, Ireland, Spain and Portugal as an actor and strong-man; he also had a conjuring act, and devised spectacular scene-changes and effects using his hydraulic experience. In 1815, he and Sarah (who may also have been a circus performer or dancer, though, sadly, no authentic image of her seems to survive) were in Malta, intending to display their acting talents in Constantinople; but they fell in with the agent of Mehmet Ali, the ruler of Egypt, who was recruiting Europeans to help modernise the economy of his country. Belzoni offered to build a water-wheel which would be four times as effective as the ones then in use in Egypt, and was asked to cross the Mediterranean to demonstrate it.

Belzoni’s account begins with their arrival in Alexandria, and a frustrating period of quarantine, as plague was rife in the city. He records the journey from Alexandria to Cairo, a visit to the pyramids, and a highly significant meeting with J.L. Burckhardt, who first have him the idea of transporting back for the British Museum the huge monolithic sculpture of Rameses II at Thebes known as the ‘Younger Memnon’ (and which later inspired Shelley‘s ‘Ozymandias’).

Belzoni’s scheme for the transport of the ‘Younger Memnon’ from its site to the Nile.

The ‘Younger Memnon’, transported down the Nile from Thebes to the Mediterranean by Belzoni. (Credit: the British Museum)

A great part of the book is taken up with Belzoni’s description of the continual difficulties he encountered – with Ottoman officialdom (the water-wheel plan was turned down), Egyptian laziness, or the random, shocking violence of the pasha’s troops (one of whom casually, in passing, cut out a large piece of his leg and left him an invalid for several weeks). Such reactions to the ‘natives’ are, of course, unsurprising in accounts from the period; what is perhaps more unusual is Belzoni’s insistence on demanding credit for his own achievements.

Henry Salt (1780–1827), His Britannic Majesty’s Consul-General in Egypt.

He continually drops hints, and sometimes is quite overt in declaring, that the British Establishment, particularly as personified by the British Consul-General in Egypt, Henry Salt, is out to belittle him, on the ground that he is not an ‘English gentleman’ – a sensitivity that his British readers would doubtless have regarded as stereotypically Italian. (And it could have been worse: he claims that a rival French antiquity-hunter, M. Drouetti, had planned to have him assassinated.)

Yet Belzoni’s achievements were considerable. His reputation suffered at the hands of the more systematic archaeologists and excavators who came to Egypt later in the nineteenth century – the uneducated circus strongman battering his way into tombs was a nice contrast to the more scientific approach pioneered by Flinders Petrie.

The sarcophagus of Seti I was brought back from Egypt by Belzoni and displayed in the Egyptian Hall. After his death, the British Museum declined to pay £2,000 for it, and Sir John Soane purchased it for his house/museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.

Belzoni’s illustration of the temple at Abu Simbel, which he cleared of sand and surveyed, from the book of plates which accompanied the Narrative. (Credit: Victoria and Albert Museum)

But his exploration of many previously unknown or unexplored ancient Egyptian sites (Abu Simbel, Philae, Berenice on the Red Sea coast), his many discoveries (including the tomb of Seti I and the entrance to the pyramid of Khufu), the detailed and perceptive accounts he gives, his genuine talent as an engineer, his ability as a draughtsman, and his eye for publicity – he rented the famous Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly to create a reconstruction of the tomb of Seti – all served to bring the antiquities of Egypt before the public eye at precisely the same time as the credit for the decipherment of hieroglyphics was being disputed between Thomas Young and Jean-François Champollion.

The reconstructed tomb of Seti I at the Egyptian Hall.

Belzoni himself became famous – to the extent that Dickens could name-check him in chapter 5 of Sketches by Boz, ‘Seven Dials’ (1836): ‘The stranger who finds himself in “The Dials” for the first time, and stands Belzoni-like, at the entrance of seven obscure passages, uncertain which to take, will see enough around him to keep his curiosity and attention awake for no inconsiderable time.’

It was presumably in an effort to keep himself in the public eye as a respected explorer and archaeologist, rather than as a mountebank, that in 1823 Belzoni undertook to find the source of the Niger, and, like Mungo Park before him, died of disease in the attempt, leaving Sarah destitute in Morocco. (In 1862, Richard Burton, visiting the town of Gwato in Benin where he was buried, found old men who remembered the European giant, but no trace of his grave. Burton also repeated a story that he had been robbed and murdered … ).

The posthumous portrait by Jan Adam Kruseman (1804–62) was presumably drawn from the various engravings of Belzoni in Oriental costume which were reproduced for publicity purposes. It currently sits in the Octagon in the Fitzwilliam Museum, flanked by a pair of French neo-classical ceramic statues of Osiris–Antinous, presented to the Museum by none other than Dr J.W.L. Glaisher in 1928, and surrounded by artefacts, including the medal struck to commemorate his opening of the pyramid, a copy of the book of coloured plates published by Murray in 1820 to accompany the Narrative, and many paintings and prints of the Egyptian world created by British artists who were inspired by Belzoni’s writings and achievements to explore for themselves this most astounding of ancient civilisations.


The coffin lid of Rameses III, once believed to have been presented to the Fitzwilliam Museum by Belzoni himself in 1823, is now thought to have been given to his friend and fellow Freemason, Revd George Adam Browne, the Bursar of Trinity College, who later passed it to the Museum. It has not been moved upstairs for the exhibition – go and find it in its usual place among the mummies! (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum)

This entry was posted in Archaeology, Art, Biography, Cambridge, Exploration, History, Italy, London, Museums and Galleries, Printing and Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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