Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

A Real Phantasmagoria: The Great Belzoni’s Show: The Tomb

The Tomb

Alas! Unheedful of their doom / With Hurrying steps they seek the Tomb!
– Lady Blessington53

Belzoni’s adventures in Egypt are told by the adventurer himself in his best-selling book, the Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs, and Excavations, published upon his return to London in 1820 (fig. 19). Among his most celebrated “operations” and “excavations”: the removal and transportation of the colossal bust of “Ozymandias” (Memnon, later identified as Ramesses II), the excavation of the Temple at Abu Simbel, and the discovery of the entrance to the pyramid of Chefren (Kafre) (fig. 20).54 Yet, the Narrative was to be crowned—and perhaps even topped—by an exhibition meant to display the most spectacular of his discoveries: the tomb of Psammes (later identified as Seti I).

The Tomb, as the Great Belzoni Show was actually called, opened on May 1, 1821, at Egyptian Hall, the extravagant Orientalist building “covered in pseudo-hieroglyphic script, recall[ing] the recently excavated temple at Dendera in Egypt,” as Gillen D‘Arcy Wood has written (fig. 21).55 The exhibit opened two years before another major exhibit amassed with the help of Belzoni, the private collection of British consul Henry Salt, was displayed at the British Museum (the Memnon was part of it).56 These two exhibits, the one at the British Museum and the one at Egyptian Hall, mark two, from many points of view diametrically opposite ways of recomposing the fragments of those “wondrous curiosities” and “monumental monstrosities” that shaped Western ideas of the Pharaonic splendor, particularly its funerary customs.57

With its fake “Sphynxes presid[ing] over the entrance above giant, lurid statues of Isis and Osiris,” the façade of Egyptian Hall was reminiscent of the entrance to Etienne Caspar Robertson’s Salle de Fantasmagorie in the crypt of the Capuchin in Paris, “barred by an antique door covered with hieroglyphs, looking like the threshold to the mysteries of Isis” (fig. 22).58 The similarity goes beyond the settings: both Robertson and Belzoni’s shows took audiences on an imaginary journey, back in time and into a suggestive elsewhere, a spatial and emotional displacement. However, their intentions were opposed. “[Robertson] was really trying to frighten people more than he was to disperse the obscurantism that caused the fear.”59 Introducing the second act of his show with a “somber, incoherent speech on death [and] immortality... he asked the audience to imagine the feelings of an ancient Egyptian maiden attempting to raise, through necromancy, the ghost of her dead lover in a ghastly catacomb...when the mood of terror and apprehension had been raised to a pitch, the spectre-show itself began.”60 By contrast, Belzoni affably welcomed visitors to The Tomb dressed in his exotic attire.61 In Robertson’s Salle, the frightened audience was taken on a trip into the subconscious. In Belzoni’s Tomb, as we shall see, visitors could wander at their leisure, freely meditating on what they saw. However, there was also a phantasmagoric dimension present.

As D‘Arcy Wood has written, Egyptian Hall was the architectural equivalent of a Wunderkammern, a cabinet of wonders, on the inside (fig. 23).62 Within its extraordinary setting, The Tomb’s appeal, unlike that of the Parthenon Marbles exhibited at the British Museum, was not purely aesthetic:

The British Museum offered highbrow antiquity. The Elgin gallery space—with its bare walls, open floors, and decorous silence—invited a disinterested, intellectual contemplation of the Parthenon sculptures ex-situ, divorced from their historical context. At the down-market Egyptian Hall, by contrast, Belzoni “gratified the eye” with an extravagant and thrilling simulacrum: a presentation of the artifacts on display not as art but as real.63

Similarly, while Salt’s collection “encouraged an aesthetic appreciation of the Egyptian antiquities,” and the “superficial emotional reaction” that they engendered, visitors entering Belzoni’s virtual Tomb, lured by curiosity, felt as though they were crossing into a real ancient space, an immersive experience that engendered deeper emotions.64 As the New Monthly Magazine reported, not only the remains of ancient Egypt were

presented to the eye in models which contain, to a fraction, the forms and hue of the originals, but two of the imitated chambers of the tomb are of their exact size; so that to the eye, and, in no partial degree, to fancy’s eye, you sit in them as in the realities themselves, and are in the presence of objects that fill the mind with pleasing wonder, conscious as it is, at the time, of its own transient existence in its rapidly wasting tenement, the body.65

Scholars have suggested that Belzoni’s show, considered by some a founding episode in the commodification of Egyptomania, is at the source of “a tendency to represent Egypt not just as an exhibition but as though it were an exhibition,” as Sophie Thomas writes.66 Belzoni’s virtual tour indeed reflected a fundamental “shift in taste” in “the consumption of Pharaonic Egypt”—from a simple reconstruction to a “recreation” of the past focused in particular “on death presented as mysterious, fascinating and spectacular...its meaning offer[ing] a gothic experience of horror in which individual fragments are dissolved.”67 Our simulation for this chapter is focused on this visitor experience at Egyptian Hall, an experience divided between the feeling of crossing into a real space and the awareness of visiting an exhibit. However, our digital rendition of Belzoni’s show has another source.

In 2007, visitors to the Civic Archaeological Museum in Bologna, Italy, were presented with a mysterious box, shaped as a small building: on its front side was an enlargement of a daguerreotype reproducing the façade of Egyptian Hall, circa 1850. (fig. 24) Peering through several small openings disposed all around the box (like the peepholes of a mondo nuovo), visitors to the exhibit could admire a scaled reconstruction of the sepulchral chamber of Seti I, decorated in all its splendor with photographic facsimiles of the original watercolors by Belzoni and Alessandro Ricci.68 Through view holes, visitors could “enter” the tomb to examine twelve funerary statuettes: the ushabti of Seti I, a small sample of the 700 discovered by Belzoni, and part of the museum’s permanent collection (fig. 25).69

The Bologna exhibit provides a direct inspiration for our 3D model, which also benefits from the invaluable work done over two decades since 2000 by Factum Arte Foundation in collaboration with the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities: high-resolution scanning of the actual tomb “discovered” and reproduced by Belzoni and later excavated by archaeologists over two centuries.70 We have reconceptualized and remodeled the 2007 Bologna exhibit as an interactive simulation, annotating it with the words of actual and imaginary visitors of the 1821 show. The first of those accounts is fictional, the Spanish libertine and protagonist of Alfred Thornton’s 1822 novel Don Juan, published one year after the Egyptian Hall exhibit.71 The second is a real historical person: Marguerite Gardner, Countess of Blessington, was a London socialite and the author of a literary “sketchbook” entitled Magic Lantern: Sketches of Scenes in the Metropolis, published in 1823.72 Notwithstanding their differences in style, both works share the premise that metropolitan life can be best represented by metaphorically appealing to different media: a “moving panorama” in Thornton’s narrative, quick-handed “sketches” and a series of colorful “slides” in Lady Blessington’s “magic lantern.”73 This double point of view also applies to their visit to Belzoni’s Tomb. On the one hand, Thornton’s “explanation” is similar to the “lecture” that, as we shall see in the next chapter, accompanied a moving panorama performance: the tone is earnest and includes citations from Belzoni’s best-selling book that narrate the discovery of Psammes’s (Seti I’s) burial. On the other hand, Lady Blessington’s “trifle,” as she describes her pieces in the advertisement to her book, is reportage amusingly focused on the social scene offered by the exhibit (fig. 26). While Thornton is mostly concerned with the moral lessons of Belzoni’s realistic show, Lady Blessington is more concerned with the “trifling” impressions it made as a show. In our simulation, we have included both points of view and offered readers the opportunity to switch from one to the other. In short, Thornton’s Don Juan will be our guide, our Cicerone, and Lady Blessington the observer who will redirect our gaze (as though through a polemoscope) from the hieroglyphs and figures depicted on the exhibit’s walls to the visitors, the shadows of her contemporary Londoners hovering around the dim-lit apartments of the Tomb.

Simulation: Belzoni’s Real Phantasmagoria


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