Giovanni Baptista Belzoni

Birth: 1778


Giovanni Baptista Belzoni (1778-1823) was an Italian actor, engineer, and traveller. He was born at Padua in 1778. His father was a Roman barber, and it was at Rome that Giovanni was educated, as he tells us himself, for monastic orders. The French invasion, however, in 1798, seems to have unsettled the young man's mind, and at the beginning of the present century he started upon a career of enterprise and adventure which has few parallels even in the annals of discovery. Belzoni came to England in 1803 to seek his fortune.

He was then a remarkable figure, six feet seven inches high and broad in proportion, with winning manners and a decidedly handsome countenance (as may be seen in the portrait prefixed to the quarto edition of his 'Narrative'). His personal charms soon brought him an English consort of Amazonian proportions, and the gigantic pair set about earning their living. Belzoni had evidently made away with any funds he may have brought with him to England, for he wax reduced to exhibiting feats of strength in company with his wife in the streets and at the fairs of London, until he obtained an engagement at Astley's Royal Amphitheatre, where he acted the roles of Apollo and Hercules with success.

There is a sketch in the British Museum (Saddlers Wells, vol. xiv.) of the booth in which Belzoni performed at Camberwell and Bartholomew fairs in 1803, which indicates that he took to the boards immediately on his arrival in England. Presently he turned to a more scientific pursuit, which afterwards served him in good stead Egypt. He had studied hydraulics at Rome, and had invented some improvements in water-engines. These he now exhibited in various parts of England, but still found it necessary on occasion to fall back on those feats of strength of which he was postmaster. Hercules laden with ponderous leaden burdeus, however, proved an exhausting role, and the actor-engineer tried a change of scene in a tour in Spain and Portugal, where he personated Samson.

At last, in 1815, he found himself in Egypt, where he was to immortalize his name by some of the earliest and most important discoveries of the present century. Whether he ingratiated himself by tumbling or merely by his insinuating manner is not clear, but Belzoni obtained an order from the pasha, Mohammed Ali, to erect one of his improved hydraulic machines in the viceregal garden at Shubra near Cairo. Then as now, however, improvements in irrigation met with but scanty recognition in Egypt, and the fellaheen were universally opposed to an innovation of which they could only understand the drawbacks. But the introduction to the Egyptian authorities proved of more lasting service to Belzoni than his pump did to the pasha. At the recommendation of Burckhardt, and with funds supplied by Mr. Henry Salt, the British consul-general, he was shortly afterwards (1816) employed on the difficult task of removing the colossal granite bust of Rameses II, commonly known as the 'Young Memnon,' from Thebes to shipboard for transport to the British Museum, It is now the most prominent object in the central saloon of the museum, which is indeed full of objects purchased from Mr. Salt and to a large extent discovered by Belzoni.

The next four years were full of valuable work. Belzoni had acquired a remarkable influence over the peasants by reason of his great strength and portentous height, and, aided by Mr. Salt's liberality, he now began a series of journeys which no one who did not know the people well could have successfully accomplished. He penetrated as far south as the Second Cataract, and excavated for the first time (1817) the great temple of Rameses II at Abu-Simbel (Ipsamboul); he continued his explorations at Karnak (Thebes) ; he crossed over to the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings in the Libyan mountains, and opened (1817) the famous grotto-sepulcher of Seti I, which is still known to every tourist as 'Belzoni's Tomb,' and found the Beautiful alabaster sarcophagus which was purchased by Sir John Soane for 2,000/., and is to this day exhibited in the museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields.

With the same happy instinct for discovery which always led him to find the way into unexplored monuments, Belzoni next lighted upon the entrance to the second pyramid of Gizeh, which ever since the time of Herodotus had been supposed to contain no interior chambers, but wherein the discoverer found the room now known by his name, and in it the sarcophagus of the builder, King Khafra (Chephren), containing bones which Belzoni believed to be those of the founder, but which proved to be those of an ox. Among other feats of discovery Belzoni crossed the eastern desert from near Esne to the shore of the Red Sea, and identified the ruins of Berenice, and, on the west, visited Lake Moeris and reached the Lesser Oasis, which he erroneously took to be that of Ammon.

On his return to Europe in 1819 he revisited his native city, and the Paduans struck a gold medal in commemoration of his discoveries. The medal is to be seen at the British Museum, and has for the device two statues of Sekhet, with the inscriptions: 'Ob donum patria grata mdcccxix.' (in reference to a gift of statues which Belzoni had made to his native city), and 'IO BAPT BELZONI Patavino qui Cephrenis pyramidem Apidisq. Theb. sepulcrum primus aperuit et urbem Berenicis, Nubiæ et Libyæ mon. impavide detexit.' Upon his arrival in England he constructed a facsimile model of two chambers of the tomb of Seti from drawings and wax impressions which he had taken on the spot and exhibited it with success at the Egyptian Hall. The shilling guide books of 1820 and 1821, sold to visitors to this show, are preserved in the British Museum. In 1820 Mr. Murray published the 'Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia,' with an atlas of 44 plates. The narrative is written in a simple and broken but very effective stvle, and, as the first contribution to English research in Egypt, was received with wide interest. Three editions were published before 1822, and the work was reprinted in Brussels in 1835.

Belzoni also prepared a set of colored drawings of the paintings on the wall of Seti's tomb which he presented to the Duke of Sussex, and this curious work is preserved in the British Museum. In 1822 the model of Seti's tomb was exhibited at Paris, where, however, it attracted little attention; and the discoverer, thirsting for fresh fields, set out in the autumn of 1823 on a voyage of exploration to Timbuktu, in the hope of tracing the source of the Niger, which he suspected would be found united with that of the Nile.

The patriarchal firm of Briggs of Alexandria assisted him with funds for this purpose, and, after a vain attempt to obtain permission from the Emperor of Morocco to pass through his dominions, Belzoni determined to begin his journey from Cape Coast, and at once entered into negotiations with the King of Benin to gain leave to traverse his kingdom as far as Hausa on the road to Timbuktu. Everything was satisfactorily arranged, and Belzoni, in native dress, attended by a guide armed with the king's cane and authority, was on his way, when he was attacked by dysentery, and died on 3 Dec. 1823, at Gato in Benin, where a simple inscription marks his grave beneath a spreading tree.

Belzoni was no scholar, but as a discoverer he stands in the first rank. His important excavations in Egypt paved the way for the later explorations of Bonomi, Wilkinson, Lepsius, and Mariette. Personally he was brave, ardent in the cause of discovery, ingenious and full of resource, and very persevering in working out any scheme he had entered upon. His character was gentle, as a giant's usually is; he was trustworthy and honorable, but unduly suspicious of others. The jealousy ho displayed towards his benefactor, Mr. Salt, was not creditable to the man; but it is allowed that Belzoni was eccentric. and his apparent ingratitude was not typical of his character in general. When his origin and first steps in life are considered, it must be allowed that he is one of the most striking and interesting figures in the history of eastern travel.

[Belzoni's Preface to the Narrative of Operations; Hall's Life of Heury Salt, i. 490, ii. 1-64, 295 ff.; Annual Register, lxvi. 202-3; Penny Cyclopaedia; Nouvelle Biographie Generale.]


Stanley Lane-Poole, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 04. pgs. 205-206.

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