Italian archaeologist Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778–1823) made a remarkable series of discoveries in Egypt's Valley of the Kings in the early nineteenth century. In addition to locating a pyramid tomb that had been sealed for centuries, he also devised a way to move a seven-ton granite monument safely onto a barge on the Nile River. That colossus of the pharaoh Ramses II, as well as other objects taken by Belzoni from the Valley of the Kings, became popular attractions at London's British Museum beginning in the early 1820s.
Giovanni Battista Belzoni was a native of the northern Italian city of Padua, which at the time of his birth on November 5, 1778, was part of the Republic of Venice. The family name was originally Bolzon, and Belzoni's father Giacomo was a barber by profession. The family included at least two other sons and probably one or two daughters, although multiple sources of dubious repute repeat the claim that Giacomo had a dozen or more children.
Little is known of Belzoni's early life or the extent of his formal education, but one biographer recounts a secondhand tale about a picnic excursion the family once made to the countryside when Belzoni was 12 or 13 years old. He was so enchanted by the scenic landscape, as he told a friend years later, that the jaunt instilled in him a wanderlust and yearning to see the rest of the Italian peninsula. Shortly afterward, he convinced his younger brother Antonio to run away from grimy Padua and the long workdays they were obliged to serve at their father's barbershop. They managed to hitch rides with passing travelers for roughly 50 miles before hunger and the nine-year-old Tonio's homesickness forced Belzoni to return to Padua.
Belzoni cut a memorable figure as a young man because of his height, which contemporaries claimed was nearly seven feet; he was likely a more commonplace six feet plus six or seven inches. During his visit to London, he was drawn to the performing arts scene, where he advanced from street entertainer to circus-troupe member to top-billed performer in the pantomime stage shows then in vogue. He was a regular at the Sadler's Well's Theatre and other venues that offered relatively unsophisticated fare. Touted as the Italian Hercules and the Patagonian Sampson—references to heroic strongmen of Greek mythology and biblical lore—Belzoni gained a measure of fame in London for his stage reenactment of the “Jack the Giant-Killer” fable, which featured actor Joseph Grimaldi in the role of Jack. Grimaldi was also moderately famous for his harlequin-type roles, and his iconic face paint became the template for stage and circus clowns for the generations of performers that followed him into the profession.
During his years in London theater, Belzoni devised water-based displays for pantomime shows and designed an apparatus for his strongman act that allowed him to support the weight of up to 11 other performers. He also married Sarah Bane, who may have been an Irish immigrant or native of the city of Bristol. As Madame Belzoni, Sarah would frequently be referenced as an archaeologist and self-proclaimed expert in Egyptian antiquities. Although there are large gaps in her biography and a scarcity of reliable sources, she reportedly disguised herself as an Arab male teenager so that she could roam safely around Egypt.
Belzoni lived during a period of political turmoil and warfare across Europe. This included French aggression into Italy and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars of 1803–15, which involved Great Britain and France as well as a shifting array of allies on both sides. The battles were fought on land and at sea, and later biographers of Belzoni assert that he traveled to the Iberian peninsula and its port of Gibraltar, thence to Sicily and Malta, to entertain troops posted at British garrisons. Delayed on Malta in 1814 due to security issues in the Mediterranean, he was fortuitously introduced to an envoy of Muhammad Ali Pasha, an influential man in the Ottoman Empire politics of the day. Muhammad Ali was of Albanian birth and had risen to become governor of the combined province of Egypt and Sudan.
Muhammad Ali was desperate to modernize Egypt, a civilization that had peaked an astonishing 3,000 years earlier under the pharaohs Seti I and his son Ramses (Ramesses) II. Claiming he came from a long line of hydraulics experts in Italy, Belzoni offered to travel to Cairo and show the pasha and his court an irrigation device that would facilitate agriculture in more arid parts of Egypt. His 1815 demonstration of a water wheel was a failure, but on this visit Belzoni met several men whose interest in ancient monuments spurred his expedition to Thebes (present-day Luxor) and farther south to Abu Simbel. They included Swiss scholar Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, who located the massive rock temple of Abu Simbel near Sudan, and Henry Salt, then British consul in Egypt. Salt was eager to make his name as a collector of antiquities and was determined to amass a trove of objects from chamber tombs inside pyramids and at a forlorn expanse of sand and toppled ruins known as the Ramesseum.
Salt and Burckhardt invited Belzoni to undertake the perilous expedition to newly discovered sites and make any necessary arrangements with local authorities to ship antiquities to Great Britain. The French had already been plundering around the Ramesseum site and other locations in Egypt, producing impressive displays showcasing the reach of their power. Their efforts were similar to those of Lord Elgin, a British aristocrat who had excavated stunning marble friezes from the Parthenon in Athens a few years earlier. Like his Ottoman counterpart who ruled in Greece, Muhammad Ali Pasha was eager to strike potentially lucrative deals with Europeans that would help Egypt finance its modern infrastructure.
In the first century BCE, Greek historian Diodorus of Sicily wrote of a monumental mortuary temple of Ramses II near Thebes; in the centuries to follow, it was referenced as the Tomb of Ozymandias or Palace of Memnon. At one point, one of the massive statues of the pharaoh broke in two and the enormous head and bust of the great king toppled down into the sand. A few years before Belzoni arrived in Egypt, French engineers attempted to remove this head by blasting a section with dynamite, but they abandoned their project.
Bearing approval documents from the pasha, in mid-1816 Belzoni and his wife hired boatmen, a Nile River barque, and an interpreter and set out for Thebes. In his firsthand account, 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 Ancient Berenice; And of Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon, he detailed the frustrating negotiations with tribal chiefs to acquire the necessary labor force in exchange for bartered items. There were also formidable complications involved to procure basic construction materials like ropes and logs, and Belzoni wrote disparaging of the Egyptians, from the cacheffs (local chiefs) to the common laborers deployed to work the system of levers, pulls, and ropes devised to remove the colossus. It took half a month to transport the stone head to the bank of the Nile, a distance of three-quarters of a mile. That task was completed on August 12, 1816; not surprisingly, another round of negotiations ensued before it traveled to the port at Alexandria.
In art-historical terminology, the bust Belzoni excavated is referred to as “Ramesses II” or “The Young Memnon.” Even before the object arrived in England, stories about this monumental head of a great pharaoh found toppled over in ruins inspired Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley to pen one of his most famous poems, “Ozymandias,” which was published in January of 1818. In its best-loved stanza, Shelley's king laments: “‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings/ Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’ / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay/ Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Other treasures Belzoni secured for Salt, the British consul in Egypt, include an alabaster sarcophagus of Seti I, the father of Ramses, that became part of the permanent collection of Sir John Soane's Museum in London. Salt sold a red granite sarcophagus of Ramses III to the Louvre Museum in Paris.
Belzoni's 1820 book is generally deemed a source of questionable accuracy, because Egyptology as a scholarly pursuit was in its infancy and Belzoni had a tenuous grasp of it at best. Moreover, he was at the mercy of his interpreters and local fixers in gaining factual information. His Narrative has a multitude of geographical place-name errors and other inconsistencies, but its author's recurrent descriptions of the poverty he encountered in remote parts of Egypt are bluntly recorded. Even a straightforward labor contract with a cacheff was a task fraught with difficulty. “They are not easily led by promises, for there is so little faith among them, that what is not obtained is considered as imaginary,” he wrote of one community near what may have been Deir-el-Medina. “To persuade them to undertake work for money was still worse, as their only mode of buying and selling is by bartering dhourra [a millet-like grain] for dates, or dates for salt.”
In 1823 Belzoni embarked upon another grand adventure, intending to explore the geography and potential ruins of a long-ago kingdom in West Africa. He died of dysentery in Gwato, Nigeria, on December 3, 1823. His widow devoted the remainder of her life to burnishing her husband's reputation. Mentions of “Madame Belzoni” and her efforts to promote his contributions to Egyptology and British archaeology appeared with regularity in the Times of London, including an incident in 1825 when the artifacts in one display were seized in relation to an ongoing dispute that had arisen years earlier between her husband and Salt. She died in 1870 in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands.
Belzoni, Giovanni Battista, and Mrs. (Sarah) Belzoni, 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 Ancient Berenice; And of Another to the Oasis of Jupiter Ammon, second edition, John Murray (London, England), 1821.
Mayes, Stanley, The Great Belzoni: The Circus Strongman Who Discovered Egypt's Ancient Treasure, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
British Broadcasting Corporation website, http://www.bbc.co.uk/ (January 1, 2017), A History of the World in 100 Objects (video transcript), “Episode 20: Statue of Ramesses II.”❑