Skip to content


Your cart is empty

Article: Giovanni Battista Belzoni

Giovanni Battista Belzoni -

Giovanni Battista Belzoni

Giovanni Balzoni November 1778 – 3 December 1823), sometimes known as The Great Belzoni, was a prolific Italian explorer and pioneer archaeologist of Egyptian antiquities. Belzoni was born in Padua. His father was a barber who sired fourteen children. His family was from Rome and when Belzoni was 16 he went to work there, claiming that he "studied hydraulics." He intended taking monastic vows, but in 1798 the occupation of the city by French troops drove him from Rome and changed his proposed career. In 1800 he moved to the Netherlands where he earned a living as a barber. In 1803 he fled to England to avoid being sent to jail. There he married an Englishwoman, Sarah Bane (1783–1860). Belzoni was a tall man at 6 feet 7 inches (2.01 m) tall (one source says that his wife was of equally generous build, but all other accounts of her describe her as being of normal build) and they both joined a travelling circus.They were for some time compelled to find subsistence by performing exhibitions of feats of strength and agility as a strongman at fairs and on the streets of London. One trick he was famous for, was to lift a platform holding twelve people and carry it across the stage. In 1804 he appears engaged at the circus at Astley's amphitheatre at a variety of performances. Belzoni also had an interest in phantasmagoria and experimented with the use of magic lanterns in his shows. In 1812 he left England and after a tour of performances in Spain, Portugal and Sicily, he went to Malta in 1815 where he met Ismael Gibraltar, an emissary of Muhammad Ali, who at the time was undertaking a programme of agrarian land reclamation and important irrigation works. Belzoni wanted to show Muhammad Ali a hydraulic machine of his own invention for raising the waters of the Nile. Though the experiment with this engine was successful, the project was not approved by the pasha. Belzoni, now without a job, was resolved to continue his travels. On the recommendation of the orientalist, J. L. Burckhardt, he was sent by Henry Salt, the British consul to Egypt, to the Ramesseum at Thebes, from where he removed with great skill the colossal bust of Ramesses II, commonly called "the Young Memnon". Younger Memnon, a colossal figure on display at the British Museum.  

Napoleon's men had tried and failed to dig up and remove this statue to France during his 1798 expedition there, during which he did acquire but then lost the Rosetta Stone. It was during this attempt that the hole on the right of the torso (just above Ramesses's right nipple) is said to have been made.

The Younger Memnon being hauled from Thebes.

Usinng his hydraulics and engineering skills, Balzoni had the head pulled on wooden rollers by ropes to the bank of the Nile opposite Luxor by hundreds of workmen. As no boat was yet available to take it up to Alexandria and so Belzoni carried out an expedition to Nubia, returning by October. With French collectors also in the area possibly looking to acquire the statue, he sent workmen to Esna to gain a suitable boat and in the meantime carried out further excavations in Thebes. He finally loaded the products of these digs, plus the Memnon, onto this boat and got it to Cairo by 15 December 1816. There he received and obeyed orders from Salt to unload all but the Memnon, which was then sent on to Alexandria and London without him.

Anticipated by Shelley's poem Ozymandias, the head arrived in 1818 on Weymouth in Deptford. In antiquity, Ozymandias was an alternative name for the Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II. Shelley wrote the poem in friendly competition with his friend and fellow poet Horace Smith (1779–1849) who also wrote a sonnet on the topic. Smith's poem would be first published in The Examiner a few weeks after Shelley's sonnet. Both poems explore the fate of history and the ravages of time—that all prominent men and the empires they build are impermanent and their legacies fated to decay and oblivion. The installation of The Younger Memnon in the BM sculpture gallery by the Royal Engineers. The head was finally acquired from Salt in 1821 by the British Museum and was at first displayed in the old Townley Galleries (now demolished) for several years, then installed (using heavy ropes and lifting equipment and with help from the Royal Engineers) in 1834 in the new Egyptian Sculpture Gallery (now Room 4, where it now resides). The soldiers were commanded by a Waterloo veteran, Major Charles Cornwallis Dansey, lame from a wound sustained there, who therefore sat whilst commanding them. S10.08_Abu_Simbel,_image_9492 Once he had delivered his load of artifacts, Balzoni expanded his investigations to the great temple of Edfu, visited Elephantine and Philae, cleared the great temple at Abu Simbel of sand (1817), made excavations at Karnak, and opened up the sepulchre of Seti I, of the Nineteenth Dynasty. A drawing of the tomb's interior, attributed to Balzoni. Tomb KV17, located in Egypt's Valley of the Kings is now also known by the names "Belzoni's tomb", "the Tomb of Apis", and "the Tomb of Psammis, son of Nechois". It is one of the best decorated tombs in the valley, but now is almost always closed to the public due to damage. It was first discovered on 16 October 1817. When Balzoni first entered the tomb he found the wall paintings in excellent condition with the paint on the walls still looking fresh and some of the artists paints and brushes still on the floor. Wall art from Seti I's tomb. The longest tomb in the valley, at 137.19 metres, (nearly the length of St. Paul's cathedral) it contains very well preserved reliefs in all but two of its eleven chambers and side rooms. One of the back chambers is decorated with the Ritual of the Opening of the Mouth, which stated that the mummy's eating and drinking organs were properly functioning. Believing in the need for these functions in the afterlife, this was a very important ritual. A very long tunnel (corridor K) leads away deep into the mountainside from beneath the location where the sarcophagus stood in the burial chamber. Recently, the excavation of this corridor was completed. There was no 'secret burial chamber' or any other kind of chamber at the end. Work on the corridor was abandoned upon the burial of Seti. The sarcophagus removed on behalf of the British consul Henry Salt is since 1824 in the Sir John Soane's Museum in London. The Second Pyramid of Giza. Balzoni was the first to penetrate into the second pyramid of Giza,after discovering it's secret entrance. The forced entrance to Chephren's (Khafra's) Pyramid Engraving after a drawing by Giovanni Belzoni, 1820. The forced entrance to Chephren's (Khafra's) Pyramid
The true entrance to Chephren's Pyramid Engraving after a drawing by Giovanni Belzoni, 1820. The true entrance to Chephren's Pyramid
Khafre’s sarcophagus was carved out of a solid block of granite and sunk partially in the floor, in it, Belzoni found bones of an animal, possibly a bull. Another pit in the floor likely contained the canopic chest, its lid would have been one of the pavement slabs. One thing Balzoni did particularly well was to document his finds with drawings which are invaluable to modern researchers. The original and forced passages in Chephren's Pyramid Engraving by Charles Hullmandel after a drawing by Giovanni Belzoni, 1820. The original and forced passages in Chephren's Pyramid
Engraving by Charles Hullmandel after
  An avid adventurer, always looking for the next "great find", Balzoni became the first European in modern times to visit the oasis of Bahariya. He also identified the ruins of Berenice on the Red Sea. In 1819 he returned to England and published an account of his travels and discoveries entitled Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia, &c the following year.  In August, 1821 The Norfolk Remembrancer reported,
"Mr. Belzoni, the celebrated traveller and discoverer of Egyptian antiquities, visited Norwich; he stayed with Jeremiah Ives, Esquire, of St. Catherine's Hill; previous to his departure he received the high masonic degree of Knight Templar."
During 1820 and 1821 he also exhibited facsimiles of the tomb of Seti I. The exhibition was held at the Egyptian Hall, Piccadilly, London and in 1822 Belzoni showed his model in Paris. In 1823 he set out for West Africa, intending to travel to Timbuktu. Having been refused permission to pass through Morocco, he chose the Guinea Coast route. He reached the Kingdom of Benin, but was seized with dysentery at a village called Gwato, and died there. According to the celebrated traveller Richard Francis Burton he was murdered and robbed. In 1829 his widow published his drawings of the royal tombs at Thebes.
Information and images from

Read more

Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret C. Sullivan, a review -

Jane Austen Cover to Cover by Margaret C. Sullivan, a review

A Review by Sophie Andrews

Read more
Martha Lloyd's Whooping Cough Cure -

Martha Lloyd's Whooping Cough Cure

Martha Lloyd's Whooping Cough Cure With Whooping Cough (Pertussis) reaching epidemic levels in recent years, a push to promote vaccination against it has received renewed publicity. As part of the...

Read more