Saturday, 18 May 2013

Giovanni Belzoni and the tomb of Seti I

While in Bristol last weekend I was lucky enough to catch an exhibition of watercolours by the early 19th century proto-archaeologist, explorer and strongman Giovanni Belzoni. A colourful character if ever there was one, 'The Great Belzoni' was one of the first Westerners of the Enlightenment to document with a degree of seriousness the ancient monuments of Egypt. The science of Archaeology had not yet been formulated at the time, and although the Occident had been fascinated by Classical and associated culture for a while, the physical exploration of sites was more akin to what we might call 'looting' today (I am looking at you, here, Lord Elgin).

In 1817 Belzoni discovered the tomb of Seti I and produced a series of watercolours documenting the murals within it. These wall paintings depicted the passage of the pharaoh through the afterlife and so give us a valuable insight into the death-cult of Ancient Egypt. Belzoni's delicate brushwork reproduces the hieroglyphs and frescoes with great clarity.

My favourite is the drawing below. I love the architectural/infographic nature of the piece and the way it represents the convoluted interior of the tomb. Indeed, the image below is a print. The original in the Bristol City Museum has more annotations, with certain reference numbers crossed out. It seems there was some confusion as to which of the rooms in the plan are those in the elevation. One can only imagine the excitement and fear of those early explorers as they clambered through the winding insides of these tombs, sealed and undisturbed for millennia.

The sarcophagus was removed in 1824 and is now in one of my favourite museums - the Soane Museum in Lincoln's Inn, London.

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