Reading in Progress: In Which I Find Yet Another Book I MUST Read...

A Traveller In Italy - H.V. Morton, Barbara Grizzuti Harrison Belzoni: The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate - Ivor Noël Hume The Great Belzoni: The Circus Strongman Who Discovered Egypt's Ancient Treasures - Stanley Mayes

So it turns out A Traveller in Italy (1964) has been great bedtime reading - interesting but not so much that it keeps me awake. Well, not often. Every now and then there's a bit of history in it that makes me stop and grab my cell phone to do a quick wikipedia search. Which is not something that makes me sleepy. Luckily this only happens every 20 pages or so.

 

The last quote that made me want to go book buying was this paragraph on p. 320:

 

"I found the vast hall above the market occupied by...two statues of the Egyptian cat goddess, the gift of Padua's giant son, Giovanni Belzoni. I fell under his spell in early life, and have often wondered why his exciting adventures among the tombs and pyramids of Egypt, at a time long before anyone could read Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, have never been reprinted. He was an attractive, good-natured giant, six feet six inches in height, who delighted audiences at S. Bartholomew's Fair and Astley's Amphitheatre in London during the reign of George III when, dressed as Hercules, in a panther skin, he performed prodigious feats of strength. He attracted an equally large Amazon, who became Mrs. Belzoni, and together the two giants went off to Egypt to sell hydraulic pumps to pashas. It was appropriate that the Paduan Hercules, who had studied engineering in Italy, should have been chosen to lift the colossal granite bust of Ramses II for transport to the British Museum; a feat which led him to explore tombs and temples up and down the Nile. He was the first man to excavate the temple of Abu Simbel, now a victim of 'vandalisme utilitaire,' and he was the first European to penetrate to the mummy chamber of the Great Pyramid. Though Belzoni was no scholar, he was one of the greatest of the Near Eastern travellers, and his Narrative, with the large volume of highly-coloured tomb paintings drawn and tinted by himself, is the most fascinating work of the kind in English. They still recall in Padua that when he returned in middle age, a famous traveller, bearing two cat goddesses as a gift to his native town, a gold medal was struck in his honour. Five years later the charming giant died on his way to Timbuktu."

 

That's the story as this author tells it (and he's unreliable, as I've blogged before) - so here's the wikipedia version, which is a bit more fleshed out (at least with cited sources): Giovanni Battista Belzoni

 

And thanks to the Internet Archive, here's his book:

 

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 (1820)

 

I haven't done more than flip through the pages in that - I found myself more interested in the Further Reading section in wikipedia. Especially after I discovered one of them specifically mentions Belzoni's wife. Because she went along with him on those travels, I'm immediately interested - women managing to travel when they were encouraged not to do so (in particular periods of history) is a theme in books I've been reading lately.

 

First I will link the other book on Belzoni, just in case anyone ends up hunting in their local library (this has more than one edition, so might be there):

 

The Great Belzoni: The Circus Strongman Who Discovered Egypt`s Treasures by Stanley Mayes
There's a 2003 edition, however that's a reprint of the original book which was published in 1959. (This book is only available in paper.)

 

Now the book I'm very interested in - well, I have several blurbs that I think will make it clear why.

 

Belzoni: The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate by Ivor Noël Hume
Published in 2011. (Also only in paper.)

 

Excerpts from the book blurb on Amazon:

 

"...A man of exceptional size with an ego of comparable proportions, he procured for the British Museum some of its largest and still awe-inspiring treasures. Today, however, the typical museum visitor knows nothing of Belzoni, and many modern archaeologists dismiss him as an ignorant vandal.


In this captivating new biography, Ivor Noël Hume re-creates an early nineteenth century in which there was no established archaeological profession, only enormous opportunity. Belzoni landed in Egypt, where he was unsuccessful in selling a hydraulic machine of his own invention, and came under the patronage of diplomat Henry Salt, who convinced him to travel to Thebes in search of artifacts.


...The book includes gripping accounts of Belzoni’s wildly productive, and physically brutal, expeditions, as well as an unforgettable portrait of his wife, Sarah, who suffered the hardships of the Egyptian deserts and later bore the brunt of the disillusionment that came with the declining popular perception of her husband."

From a magazine interview with the author:

 

Ivor Noël Hume: On his book BELZONI: The Giant Archaeologists Love to Hate
ROROTOKO, Cover Interview of December 26, 2011


"...The story of Belzoni’s ten years in Britain was a profitable embarrassment.  Though somewhat embellished by Charles Dickens, it was through the novelist’s eyes that we meet Sarah Barre who had become Belzoni’s wife soon after his arrival in London. She has been said to have been a fairground balancing act, a rope dancer, but later with Belzoni in Egypt she showed herself to be both an artist and a writer. Indeed, the farce and drama of Belzoni’s short life became the tragedy of Sarah’s prolonged widowhood.


In this book, therefore, Sarah’s loyalty to her not always considerate husband, coupled with her prolonged efforts to keep his fading memory alive, becomes an integral part of the story.


...In the course of what proved a long and successful career my archaeologist wife Audrey (not Sarah) and I traveled three times up and down the Nile. Each time we found the name Belzoni carved onto columns and into frescos. Simple curiosity made us want to know and understand a man who would do something so destructive.


It turned out that Belzoni was only adding to generations of scribes who felt impelled to put their stamp on the past. ...

...Belzoni was not only a graffitist but also an artist of considerable talent who in the space of three years assembled a folio of drawings that rivaled those of Napoleon’s military artist Dominique Denon. In 1820 Belzoni published his work to illustrate the book that was to be his enduring cenotaph. I was able to buy both and resolved, one day, to republish examples of his hand-colored lithographs. But as Belzoni himself knew, the illustrations meant little without his narrative—which therefore remains the cornerstone of this book."


From what I've skimmed so far I don't think the Internet Archive book has any of Belzoni's illustrations in it. (Dammit.)


Anyway, after reading those quotes, I want to know more not just about Belzoni, but about Sarah. And I immediately liked that Hume made it clear she's very much a part of the history he's written.

 

Of course I have masses of books on my ereader and stacked on my desk so I don't need one more... We'll see how long it takes me to give in and buy this. (I give myself a week, maybe two. Heh.)

 

One last link to a review of the book by author Gerard Helferich:

 

A Pre-Digital Tomb Raider: Sifting sand, opening crypts, raising fallen statues and scooping up anything marketable—and transportable—to Britain

Wall Street Journal, Dec 2, 2011


[Note: I don't have any desire to excuse Belzoni for carting off various antiquities away from their home countries (still a problem today), or for "doing it wrong'" when it comes to archeology. He did indeed do all that. It doesn't make it any easier on the scientists/historians that "everyone was doing it" - because they see all of this as a huge loss of information, detail, etc. But that lack of method is still something to study in the history of the science - if only to learn why no one does things that way now except looters. There are similar science-horror stories for the early paleontologists - the men who didn't even pretend to care about the science and were in it just to sell bones to museums. Or who did care but used just as destructive methods. For more on that I recommend the book...dammit that I can't find on my shelves. So I'll just link you to PBS's The Dinosaur Wars and the wikipedia page Bone Wars. Now to go figure out why the book I can't remember isn't on my Science shelf....]

 

[Book I was trying to remember: The Bone Wars by Tom Rea. And I think the reason I didn't shelve it was because it was a library book, read before I was keeping track of books online.]