Monday, December 5, 2011

Young Belzoni

One would not expect from his humble origins that Giovanni Battista Belzoni would attain lasting renown-as the Great Belzoni-for his accomplishments as an archaeologist and explorer.  At the time of his birth in 1778 he was just one more offspring of an Italian barber.  But he soon began to surprise everyone.  Starting one imagines with his parents, as he grew to be broad shouldered and 6 foot 6 inches tall in an era when the average soldier stood about 5 foot 6.

He also had a roving, inquisitive mind, largely unhindered by any formal education.  His home town of Padua had little to interest him, so at age 16 he left for Rome.  In his biography he claims to have "studied hydrology" but it may in fact have been little more than a job working on the city's many fountains.

Four years later he left town abruptly, expected that had he stayed it was likely he would have been drafted by the Napoleonic Army that was approaching the city.  After a brief sojourn in Holland he turns up in London in 1803.  Here he found employment as, more or less, a circus performer.

He performed at theaters and Fairs up and down the British isles.  At times he seems to have created the equivalent of early light shows using his purported engineering skills.  On other occasions he would act in pantomimes or even play "musical glasses".  But his signature performance was in his role as "The Patagonian Sampson" in which he would don a special lifting framework, then have up to 12 members of the acting company climb on while he walked about the stage.

As to serious acting his English was not up to much.  It is recorded that he sometimes played the role of "Orson", a man raised by a she-bear.  The "female lead" was usually played by an actor in a bear suit, but up in Edinburgh they used a live bear.  And one not in good humor, making Belzoni reluctant to embrace it.  The Scottish audience roundly teased him shouting 'Gid yo' puir auld mither a wee kiss, mon'.

Belzoni made a decent living treading the boards, but the reluctance he later showed in speaking of these years makes one think his heart was not in it.  He had by then married a rather remarkable Englishwoman named Sarah. 

With the defeat of Napoleon Belzoni's horizons broadened, and he undertook tours of Spain and Portugal.  Eventually he set out for Constantinople, but had his life and career radically changed by a chance meeting on Malta.

There he encountered an official of the Egyptian Pasha, who mentioned that his master was interested in improved irrigation equipment.  Straightaway Belzoni changed his plans, and after a journey that involved quarantine from the plague in Alexandria, street riots in Cairo, and the intrigues of Ottoman politics, Belzoni built a machine to show the Pasha.

Basically it was something like a large "hamster wheel" in which a single water buffalo would slowly tread, driving a water pump.  As advertised it was a considerable improvement in efficiency over existing ancient technology.  Unfortunately there was a mishap.  A gang of Arabs all hopped into the device running as fast as they could, to see how much water it would pump.  Caught up in the enthusiasm, James, Belzoni's 16 year old servant, hopped in too.  Suddenly all the Arabs hopped off leaving James to be buffeted about inside the wheel.  He sustained a broken leg, and the Pasha sadly concluded that the invention was too dangerous.

Disappointed, on thin ice financially, and a very long way from home, Belzoni was quite receptive when the newly arrived British counsel general, Henry Salt, suggested he undertake a journey to collect some Egyptian antiquities....

Tomorrow: The Great Belzoni

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