Friday, 2 December 2011

A pre-digital tomb raider

Though Giovanni Battista Belzoni is not generally recalled today, he is still infamous among archaeologists. Born in 1778 in Padua, Italy, Giovanni worked in his father's barbershop until age 16, then left to study in Rome. After Napoleon Bonaparte captured the Eternal City in 1797, Belzoni wandered Europe for a time, ending up in London, where he hoped to secure work as a hydraulic engineer. But the only job the 6-foot-6 Italian could find was as a circus performer, billed as "the Patagonian Sampson" and toting a dozen lesser men about the stage.

Biographer Ivor Noël Hume hopes to rehabilitate Belzoni's reputation. The "Great Explorer," he argues, was no worse than his contemporaries or his predecessors. The looting of Egyptian tombs and temples was already rife in ancient Greek times, and the Egyptians themselves were eager accomplices (for a price) in the sacking of their cultural heritage. Into the 20th century, tourists could still buy antiquities directly from Cairo's Egyptian Museum.

Belzoni by Ivor Noël Hume (University of Virginia Press, 301 pages, $34.95).

See The Wall Street Journal 

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