Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Belzoni in Luxor

Italian comics artist Walter Venturi told Reham El-Adawi about coming to Luxor to make a bust of colonial age explorer Giovanni Belzoni 

Belzoni in Luxor

comic art first appeared in ancient Egypt between the 19th and 20th dynasties,  and so it is only too apt that a comic book should be created about the Italian archaeologist, antiquities dealer, traveller, explorer and circus performer Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823). The Great Belzoni was the first man to find a way into the Pyramid of Chephren in Giza and the Abu Simbel Temple in Luxor, where he also located the tomb of Seti I (which has since been destroyed by flash flooding). The sarcophagus, claimed by the British Museum on Belzoni’s return to London, was later sold to Sir John Soane. More recently Belzoni’s fascinating life was the subject of a comic series, Il Grande Belzoni, by Walter Venturi.

Belzoni in Luxor

“I have been to Egypt eight times as a tourist, but this time I come as an artist to introduce my book on Belzoni to the Egyptian reader, have it translated into Arabic if possible and make a bust of Belzoni,” Venturi said during a round table in his honour organised by Al-Ahram’s Hadarat (Civilisations) portal in the build-up to the golden jubilee of the Abu Simbel Temple relocation on 22 September. Venturi marked the occasion in his own way by celebrating 200 years since Belzoni’s discovery of the temple entrance. The proposal, supported by Italian Cultural Institute director Paolo Sabbatini, was to create a bust of Belzoni which, like Venturi’s drawings, is based on 10 years of research into Orientalist, Nubian and Mohamed Ali era paintings.

“Even the famous Hollywood character of Indiana Jones is inspired by the character of the Great Belzoni,” Venturi said. “I dream a lot about the imaginary figures I create, and when I woke up I decided to start the idea of Belzoni’s bust and I was encouraged by many of my friends.” In drawing the sketches of the book, he was inspired by the historical period of Egypt Belzoni witnessed; Belzoni would wear Oriental and sometimes Nubian costumes and spend time with Nubians; he was playing with a Nubian boy when, chasing a frog that had jumped on his shoulder, he found the entrance to the Abu Simbel Temple in the sand.  

Venturi is a well known comics artist. Inventing many characters, he has collaborated with one of the main Italian comics publishers, Sergio Bonelli. Born in Rome on 6 January 1969, Venturi debuted with 12 albums of his character Capitan Italia at the age of 25, self-published. With Eura Editoriale, Venturi created many single stories and mini-series as well as joining the staff of John Doe and Detective Dante, two series by Lorenzo Bartoli and Roberto Recchioni. For Disney, he was the artist for Episode 7 of the Kylion series and — for Edizioni BD — of a Brad Barron short story, featured in the book Anatomia di un eroe. It was an anticipation of Brad Barron No 16, the album that marked the beginning of Venturi’s collaboration with Sergio Bonelli Editore. After working on Demian, he also creates the first album of Colour Zagor in August 2013, and debuted as a writer and artist with Il Grande Belzoni, which Romanzo a Fumetti published in October 2013. 

The great man, for his part, was born in Padua to a barber who sired 14 children. Belzoni fled when Italy was invaded by Napoleon in 1798. For years, he learned hydraulic engineering and worked as a merchant trader. In 1800, he moved to the Netherlands where he earned a living as a barber. In 1802, Belzoni travelled to London and worked in a circus, achieving great success as “the strongest man in the world”; he was tall at 6.7 inches (2.01 metres), and the highlight of his act was to lift a specially constructed iron frame with 12 people sitting on it, and then, still holding it, walk across the stage. Feeling he was little more than a sideshow performer, however, he decided to change his life. 

Venturi showing his sketches

In 1812, he left England with his wife Sara and after a circus tour in Spain, Portugal and Sicily, he went to Malta in 1815 where he met Ismail Gibraltar, a messenger of Mohamed Ali Pasha, who at the time was undertaking a programme of agrarian land reclamation and irrigation works. Belzoni wanted to show him 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 because it would replace man power and deprive too many people of an income. Belzoni, jobless, resolved to resume his travels. On the recommendation of the orientalist J L Burckhardht, he was sent by Henry Salt, the British consul to Egypt, to the Ramesseum at Thebes, where with great skill he managed to remove the colossal bust of Ramses II (aka the Young Memnon), which weighed over seven tonnes, and ship it to England, where it remains on display at the British Museum. As well as entering both the Abu Simbel Temple and the Chephren Pyramid, taking all the artefacts he could carry to exhibit in London — where he recreated the Seti I burial chamber — he was also the first European to visit the Bahareya Oasis. Belzoni eventually died of dysentery in a small village in Benin, near Timbuktu in present-day Mali.

On 19 October, a ceremony is scheduled to take place at the Italian Cultural Institute in Cairo, in the presence of Venturi, to uncover the bronze bust that perpetuates the great man’s memory.  

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