Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: The Call of Egypt: A Moving Panorama

Further Insights

The Call of Egypt: A Moving Panorama

The great lion—great in every sense—was the gigantic Belzoni, the handsomest man (for a giant) I ever saw or could suppose to myself. He is said completely to have overawed the Arabs.

– Sir Walter Scott39

In those early London years, Belzoni may have also caught sight of yet another kind of show that was to have a profound impact on his life’s work. Mark Lonsdale’s Aegyptiana was an exhibit at the Lyceum meant to familiarize Londoners with Egypt, which had recently become the theater of epic battles in the aftermath of Napoleon’s 1798–1801 expedition. A description in Lady’s Monthly Museum suggests that Lonsdale’s exhibit included a mechanism similar to a scrolling “moving panorama” (the focus of the next chapter) that sought to “transport” the visitors to Egypt.40 Virtual travel was an important part of the nascent Egyptomania, and this exhibit might have provided an inspiration for Belzoni’s later travels to the Land of Pharaohs.41 In the meantime, in the Spring of 1807, in Hull and other venues, Belzoni presented a “Nelsonian Exhibition…consisting of an exact Representation, by Moving Figures, of the Funeral Honours, Ceremonies, and Magnificent Processions, both by Land and Water, observed to commemorate our late gallant Hero, —Lord Viscount NELSON.”42 This exhibition was most likely a reenactment of the procession and consecration of the national hero, Napoleon’s foe, the winner of Trafalgar, in St. Paul's Cathedral two years earlier (figs. 10–11).43

From its description, it seems that Belzoni’s Nelsonian production was another kind of mixed media tableau vivant, a “pictorial drama” with “moving figures” perhaps also enhanced by a shadow play. In Leeds, Belzoni also presented another “entirely new experiment in Optics called Scopia, or L‘Ombra di Allabastro.”44 Yet, all these variations on the Phantasmagoria are examples of Belzoni’s extraordinary inventiveness and ability to mix the real and the imaginary in a compelling and instructive show: in the case of the Nelsonian exhibit, one nonetheless devoted to the legendary admiral—“Baron Nelson of the Nile” as he was nicknamed—another omen of things to come.

An important dimension of virtual travel is the actual travel that made it possible (fig. 12). This was the case of the Savoiardi’s journey across the Alps with the mondo nuovo on their shoulders and was also the case of Belzoni’s wandering across the Mediterranean. After leaving London, in 1813, he and his wife Sarah were sighted in Lisbon, Madrid, Cadiz, and Messina, among other places. From Messina, in 1814, the wandering “Gio. Batta,” as he signs his name, writes a short letter to his family back in Padua, in semiliterate, telegraphic Italian, expressing his nostalgia for his youngest sibling, “that Don Cicote [sic, Quixote] of my brother Francesco, that wandering knight,” who had migrated to England as well.45 To complete the epic flavor of Belzoni’s travels, it is on the island of Malta in 1814 that Belzoni encounters a captain by the name of Ishmael Gibraltar, a special agent of Egypt’s new Mamluk ruler Mohammad Ali I, in charge of looking for skilled labor to staff the sultan’s “public works” agenda. Belzoni’s expertise in hydraulics, acquired in his youth working on the Roman fountains, eventually bought him a passport to the land of the pyramids.46 When the Belzonis landed there in 1815, Nelson had been dead for almost ten years, and his great foe, Napoleon, was temporarily in exile at Elba. Soon enough, Belzoni became involved in a different kind of colonial warfare: the race to pillage Egyptian antiquities that laid the foundations of the great exhibits at the newly established metropolitan museums such as the British Museum in London and the Louvre in Paris. Belzoni sided with the British consul in Cairo, Henri Salt, against his main rival, the French consul of Savoyard origins, Bernardino Drovetti. In an interesting twist, while Belzoni’s effort on behalf of Salt led to the display of the latter’s collection in the British Museum, some items collected by Drovetti were displayed in the most important Egyptian museum in Italy, officially inaugurated in 1824: the Museo Egizio of Turin, at the time the capital of the Kingdom of Savoy.47

In Egypt, Belzoni, the Grand Sultan of all the Conjurors refashioned himself a new persona, in a new attire, perhaps under the influence of the Swiss explorer and archaeologist John Lewis Burckhardt, as shown in his portraits (figs. 13–16). Yet, Belzoni’s sartorial self-fashioning in Oriental clothes, as Barbara Spackman describes it, is more than just a show; rather, it is a disguise meant to facilitate what was all along this “accidental Orientalist’s” true and only goal. As Belzoni writes: “I was very differently circumstanced from a common traveler, who goes merely to make his remarks on the country and its antiquities, instead of having to persuade these ignorant and superstitious people to undertake a hard task, in labours, with which they were previously totally unacquainted.”48 In his transformation from an object of Orientalism—in his Orientalized attire as the Patagonian Samson and the Grand Sultan of all Conjurors—to an agent of that variety of Orientalism known as Egyptomania, intentionally donning an Oriental costume in order to “overawe” (and exploit) the Arabs, as Sir Walter Scott put it in the epigraph quoted above, Belzoni is also a witness to the ambivalent position that Italy and Italians occupy in the making of the nineteenth-century colonialist—and imperialist—imagination. In the evolution of their southern Mediterranean country from a colony of northern powers, until 1861, to a colonial power in its own merit, in the 1890s, Italians are both the objects of an Orientalist imagination—in the eyes of Northern Europeans—and the subjects of an Orientalist representation of their own south (including the south of Italy).49 As a self-fashioning Orientalist, Belzoni perfectly illustrates this dynamic: indeed, in his persona, the “Orient” encompasses the Global South, from Patagonia to Italy and Egypt. His travels and career, first as an emigrant showman, then as a pioneer archaeologist, “discoverer,” and “collector” of antiquities in the service of his British patrons, provide the backstage and backstory to what is perhaps the least appreciated but certainly not the least spectacular, among his Herculean fatigues: the Orientalist extravaganza that became known as “The Tomb,” presented at Egyptian Hall, in 1821.

In 1819, Belzoni and his wife traveled back from Egypt to England with a large collection of Egyptian artifacts. On their way, they stopped in Venice and Padua, where the son of the barber—now rebaptized “Great Son of the Euganean Mother,” from the name of the ancient hills in the Paduan countryside—was welcomed in the best houses and salons of his native city. A gold medal was coined for the occasion with two male lion-headed figures engraved on one side, and a Latin inscription celebrating his achievements on the other (fig. 17.)50 (This medal might have in turn inspired Sir Walter Scott’s description, quoted above as the epigraph). In a sneak preview of the Belzoni’s future Egyptian Hall display, the statues and objects collected by Belzoni were exhibited in Padua at the Palazzo della Ragione.51 They also inspired a Paduan architect to design an Egyptian Room in the most fashionable coffeehouse of the city, the Empire-style Caffè Pedrocchi (fig. 18). Among Belzoni’s relics were three mummies in an excellent state of preservation. Belzoni tried to sell them to a professor of natural history at the University of Padua for the respectable sum of 1,900 lire. However, the university refused to reimburse the professor, arguing that “Egyptian mummies are not necessarily required articles for natural history cabinets, meant in particular for medical students, but they are preserved in some of them as a kind of ornament.”52 Clearly, not everybody was swept away by Egyptomania, at least in Italy. The episode of the failed mummy sale, however, is also a sign of the uncertain status of the mummy as an archaeological object: both scientific specimen and embodiment of an uncanny aesthetic.

Soon after the fanfare in Padua, Belzoni and his wife left for London, taking the mummies with them. As we shall see, it is in the show at Egyptian Hall that the Great Belzoni also used mummies to complete the spectacular narrative of his travels and discoveries.

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