Bits & Pieces... by David Sundman

The Great Belzoni

[photo: The Second Pyramid of Khafre and the Great Sphinx]

The Second Pyramid of Khafre & the Great Sphinx

Occasionally we find unusual medals when we purchase collections, and this one has a real story. It is quite scarce and of British origins. This rare medal honors the feats of Giovanni Battista Belzoni – a Venetian explorer, actor and engineer who lived from 1778-1823. Ironically, the medal's designer T.I. Wells did not select the correct Giza pyramid for the reverse, which bears the inscription opened by g. belzoni. So the incorrect image is of the Third Pyramid of Cheops (Khufu's pyramid) with the distinctive top roof slightly caved in which makes it look "lopped off" – not the Second Pyramid of Khafre that Belzoni actually opened. This medal, commissioned by several of his British friends, was created during his lifetime. There are examples of this rare Belzoni medal in the Petrie Collection at University College London, in the British Museum and in the prominent Ashmolean, Fitzwilliam and Birmingham museums.

Giovanni Battista Belzoni was born in Padua, Italy in 1778. Prior to becoming one of the earliest Egyptologists of the day, he was a circus performer in England. Belzoni was multi-talented, as he was also a hydraulic engineer, an actor and an artist. A giant at 6 feet 7 inches tall, he was extremely strong and was promoted as the 'Patagonian Sampson' at Sadler's Wells Theatre in London. Later he styled himself as 'The Great Belzoni' all over Europe. His interests in Egypt led him to travel there, where he attempted to promote improved hydraulic machines to raise the waters of the Nile. He was eventually drawn to acquiring Egyptian antiquities.

[photo: Second and third Pyramids of Giza]

Second and third Pyramids of Giza

In partnership with the British ambassador to Egypt, Henry Salt (1815-1827), he worked as Salt's agent to remove and ship the massive bust of Ramses II (the 'Younger Memnon') to the British Museum. Belzoni's biggest find was the discovery of an entrance to the Second Pyramid of Giza (known as the Pyramid of Khafre/Chefren), which he was the first to open and explore. He was the first European to visit the Oasis of Siwa, he found six royal tombs in the Valley of the Kings and he discovered the ruined city of Berenice on the Red Sea. Belzoni was a pioneer Egyptologist, with many major achievements, yet few remember him today.

"The Great Belzoni"
The bronze medal was struck during 1821/1822 and honors Giovanni Battista Belzoni (1778-1823) who was a Venetian explorer, actor and engineer. Designed by T. I. Wells, the obverse of the medal features an image of Belzoni based on a sketch by William Brockedon. The reverse depicts the Third Pyramid of Giza [Khufu] and the inscriptions opened by g. belzoni and march 2nd 1818. The image on the reverse is in error, as Belzoni actually discovered and opened the entrance to the Second Pyramid of Giza (Khafre) on that day in 1818.

[photo: Rare Belzoni medal from my collection]

Rare Belzoni medal from my collection

[photo: A few books on the life and achievements of 'The Great Belzoni']

Belzoni died prematurely at the age of 45 while searching for a route to Timbuktu. Considered a rogue, he died unappreciated by most scholars in the new field of archeology, to which he contributed much. He was instrumental in the transport of some of the best Egyptian relics in the British Museum, a difficult task, particularly in the early 1800s. After obtaining the medal, I found there are several good books on his life and achievements, The Great Belzoni by Stanley Mayes (1959 and 2003) and Belzoni: The Giant Archeologists Love to Hate by Ivor Noel Hume (2011).