The Victorian almanac Chambers Book of Days records the death on this date in 1823 of Giovanni Battista Belzoni, an Italian explorer and pioneering Egyptologist. Born the son of a poor barber in Padua, he had read Robinson Crusoe at an impressionable age and acquired an incurable urge to travel. By the end of his life, he was famous on several continents.
It was a genius for hydrology that first brought him to Egypt, via a plan to raise the waters of the Nile. When that failed, he instead become an archaeologist (and in some cases remover) of Egyptian antiquities.
Only last week, by coincidence, one of his most famous projects provided the backdrop to a speech by a former British chancellor, and also the subject of a joke at the expense of prime minister Boris Johnson. Addressing the British Museum trustees' annual dinner, George Osborne quipped: "Some speak in the shadow of Peppa Pig. I speak in the shadow of Ramesses II."
Sure enough, towering behind Osborne was the enormous stone bust of one of the great pharaohs (c1303-1213 BC), shipped to England by Belzoni in 1816. As with the Elgin Marbles, also in the news of late, we can debate whether the bust should ever have left its place of origin. Either way, its transport was a prodigious feat of engineering. It took 17 days for 130 men using levers, ropes, and rollers just to get the seven-tonne monument on to a boat. But exploration and Egyptology were only Act II in Belzoni's life.
There had also been an earlier act, in every sense, which had seen him perform on stages all over Ireland, among other countries. He even got married while here, to an English woman. And one of his show's handbills, as quoted by Chambers, was for a performance at Patrick Street, Cork, in 1812, which promised that Signor Belzoni would: "CUT A Man's Head off! And put it on again!!!"
Also included in the programme that night was something called “The Grand Cascade”. That too involved hydrological engineering. In the memoirs of Melbourn Ellar, an actor who was sometimes part of the show, it was “a sort of hydraulic temple”.
But like the Nile scheme, it didn’t always work as planned. At a performance in Dublin’s Crow Street theatre, it “nearly inundated the orchestra”. The musicians fled, leaving actors to finish the scene in “a splendid shower of fire and water”.
A less fraught feature of Belzoni’s shows was his own, superhuman strength. At over 2m tall he was a huge man. And by means of a belt to which various platforms were attached, he could carry 11 men while moving “as easy and graceful as if about to [perform] a minuet”.
Alas, the later Belzoni was embarrassed about his earlier fame, which it suited him to forget as being beneath the dignity of a great explorer and scholar. Hence a strange incident 200 years ago this month, also mentioned in Chambers, when Belzoni and other notables were at a party in London given by the publisher John Murray.
As described by one of those present, Cork-born antiquarian and writer Thomas Crofton Croker, Murray served tea and punch while his guests played Pope Joan, a popular card game. This inspired Isaac D'Israeli, father of the future prime minister, to write an impromptu verse in Croker's notebook, viz: "Gigantic Belzoni at Pope Joan and tea,/What a group of mere puppets we seem beside thee;/Which our kind host perceiving, with infinite jest,/Gives us Punch at our supper, to keep up the jest."
It was a lame poem, even then. But politeness demanded that Croker smile and declare it “excellent”. This made Belzoni want to see it too. But as Croker wrote: “Never shall I forget his countenance after he had read the lines [...] His eyes actually flashed fire. He struck his forehead, and muttering: ‘I am betrayed!’ abruptly left the room.”
It later emerged that Belzoni believed the pun on “Punch” to be a satirical reference, via the fairground puppet, to his own burlesque past.
Assured this was unintended, he later revisited Murray in Croker’s company to apologise for his dramatic exit.
Speaking of exits, while the bust of Ramesses remains in London, Belzoni ended up in Africa, which got its own back on him eventually.
On what proved to be his last trip, he sailed to Dahomey, intending to travel inland to Timbuktu. He got as far only as a village in what is now Togo. By some accounts, he died there of dysentery. But according to a fellow explorer, Richard Francis Burton, he was robbed and murdered.