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Volume 29, Number 1January/February 1978

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A Trove in Turin

"A mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other..."

Written by Nancy Jenkins
Photographed by Gian Luigi Scarfiotti

One of the greatest collections of Egyptian antiquities in the world, outside of Cairo, is housed in an obscure if rather imposing old gray stone palazzo in the northern Italian city of Turin.

Turin itself is hardly obscure. As the home of the vast Fiat auto works, it is probably the most important industrial center in Italy. Still, this picturesque Savoyard town, tucked in beneath the snow-capped peaks of the Piedmont Alps, is an unlikely spot for a collection as important - and as interesting - as that of the Museo Egizio di Torino. The ground floor sculpture halls alone would do any "name" museum proud, and there are, as well, room after room of artifacts on the floors above: paleolithic stone axes and neolithic flints, wall paintings, mummies and mummy cases, pottery fabrics, stone and wood reliefs, papyrus documents, jewelry masks, altars, scarabs and amulets, weapons and household equipment - the whole glittering gamut of ancient Egyptian culture and religion, from the earliest Predynastic period to Baleo-Christian times, and from the life of ordinary workingmen to that of the pharaohs themselves.

Almost unknown - except to the most devoted Egyptologists and a few public-spirited citizens of Turin -the Museo Egizio's collection is a breathtaking example of what happened when 19th-century Europeans discovered the ancient civilization of the Nile Valley and took it upon themselves to, as some say, preserve the precious remnants of an ancient culture or, as others say plunder a helpless colony.

Like many great museums, the Turin collection began as a royal collection - that of the House of Savoy the Piedmont dukes who were later to become kings of a united Italy. In that collection were a few genuine Egyptian pieces, but none, actually was of any importance. Egypt, ancient or modern, was, after all, not something that Europeans knew very much about at that time. Egyptians for millennia had lived among the crumbling remnants of past glory pyramids, sphinxes, musty tombs, ruined temples to strange, forgotten gods and goddesses, half-animal, half-human, and wholly irrelevant to the Muslims and Copts who populated the valley and delta of the Nile. Some Europeans had heard of these things, of course; both Old and New Testaments provided tantalizing glimpses of the might of ancient Egypt and occasional reports from travelers and adventurers had provided more up to date impressions. But it was not until Napoleon Bonaparte's brief occupation of the Nile Valley that Egypt broke on the consciousness of Europe like an explosion. Suddenly Egypt was all the rage, a trip up the Nile became obligatory for wealthy travelers, and a piece of sculpture, or a mummy or a sphinx was the fashionable thing to display in one's salon upon return. "A mummy in one hand and a crocodile in the other," was the way one French monk described returning travelers from Egypt. What individuals did on a small scale, moreover, museums did on a much greater. As Karl Meyer wrote, "A hall of Egyptian statuary, a trove of mummies, and an obelisk - these became a badge of sovereignty much as a national airline is today."

It was at the beginning of this extraordinary period, in the year 1803 to be exact, that Bernardino Drovetti arrived in Alexandria as a French consul general. A 25-year old Piedmontese lawyer from a hill town near Turin, who had served with great distinction in Napoleon's Italian campaigns, Bernardino Drovetti seems to have stepped right out of a Stendhal novel, so much was he a product of the Napoleonic era. Robust and impassioned, he believed fervently in Italian unity and the ideals of the French revolution, and saw Napoleon as a symbol of change - one reason perhaps for his decision to accept the post of consul in Alexandria.

It wasn't, certainly, a promising post. He represented, after all, a country that only a few years earlier had crushed Egypt's famous Mamluks and, later, had put down opposition with force. Drovetti, however, mastered such difficulties - and others - to such an extent that he later became a trusted advisor to Muhammad 'Ali - Egypt's first modern ruler - and to Ibrahim Pasha, the son of Muhammad 'Ali. Altogether, he remained in Egypt for 26 years and, during that time, became an explorer and surveyor of such remote regions as Nubia and the Siwa Oasis in Libya.

During all these years Drovetti was also busy collecting Egyptian antiquities. Only a few years after his arrival in Egypt, the first volume of the monumental Description de l’Egypte (See Aramco World, March-April, 1976) was published in Paris. It burst upon astonished European imaginations, already captivated by Napoleon's invasion, as a confirmation of the wonders that had previously been only sensational rumors. Here, for the first time, in page after page of beautiful drawings, most of them by Dumont, exquisitely and faithfully detailed, was the whole panoply of Nile civilization, both ancient and modern. But it was, of course, the ancient beauty of the cultures which stunned Europe.

With that, the demand for Egyptian antiquities began to increase. European museums, and governments and rich aristocrats, suddenly wanted souvenirs of Egypt and began to commission agents to collect artifacts and other objects for them - agents such as Drovetti who saw at once that there was a tidy fortune to be made in Egyptian antiquities and set out to earn a share of it.

Drovetti was motivated by more than greed. From his letters, it is quite clear that he had become an impassioned lover of Egypt and Egyptians. But that did not stop him from participating in what can only be called wholesale looting. Along with the English consul Henry Salt and Salt's agent, the ex-circus strongman Giovanni Belzoni, Drovetti divided the Nile Valley into spheres of influence and, for a time, effectively barred anyone else from excavating without their permission. "Excavating" is an improbably dignified word for the kind of looting and destruction that went on; the technique was simply to hack off what they wanted, haul it away and sell it to the highest bidder. As a result priceless treasures were destroyed - along with vital information about them. Other than the Description de l’Egypte and the journals of a few concerned travelers, there were few records kept and no one will ever know how much irretrievable information was lost thereby. On the other hand, the Egyptians themselves had done almost nothing to preserve their past, and in fact contributed to its destruction. Muhammad 'Ali, for example, in his drive to modernize Egypt, was one of the most zealous destroyers of antiquity, tearing down whole temples to find building stone for his factories.

The Western looting, consequently, did preserve such irreplaceable treasures as the wonderful polished blackstone statue of Ramses II with its gently inclined head and quizzical, almost saintly smile, so different from the bombastic tyrant depicted elsewhere. A masterpiece of Egyptian art - and indeed of art itself - that statue today is intact in the Turin museum and not pulverized into filler for a concrete factory wall. It is also indisputable that the three collections amassed by Drovetti during his 26 years in Egypt are among the world's finest. One, bought by Charles X of France, formed the basis of the Louvre's Egyptian wing; another, purchased by one of the first great Egyptologists, Richard Lepsius, is in the Berlin Museum; and the third - and most important - eventually went to Turin.

This last collection, sold in 1823 for the not inconsiderable sum of £13,000 to Carlo Felice of Savoy, then King of Sardinia, was of particular interest to the nascent science of Egyptology. What made it interesting - and what characterizes it to this day - is the consistency the breadth and the completeness of the collection. As Professor Silvio Curto, the present director of the Turin Museum, says, the Museo Egizio di Torino is a museum, not of an ancient Egyptian art, but of ancient Egyptian civilization.

It is an important point. There are certainly many fine pieces of esthetic distinction in the museum, but the emphasis of the collection is on Egyptian culture as a whole, in all its varied manifestations. The only lack one feels is in significant representation from the brilliant, fascinating Amarna period when religious reforms under the Pharaoh Akhnaten led to a break with established belief and artistic canons.

The Turin museum, of course, did not stop with the Drovetti collection. Although in the turbulence of 19th-century Italy, little time, money or attention could be spared from the demanding task of establishing a new country the present century has seen constant, careful expansion. This was achieved partly by purchases and exchanges with other museums, and partly by excavations in Egypt sponsored jointly by the museum and theMissione Archeologica Italiana, under the direction of archeologists like Ernesto Schiaparelli, Giulio Farina, Sergio Donadoni and Silvio Curto. In the late 1960's furthermore, the Egyptian government, grateful for Italian financial and archeological help in rescuing monuments threatened by the rising waters of Lake Nasser (See Aramco World, July-August, 1976; May-June, 1969) donated to Italy the Nubian temple of Ellesias, erected in the reign of Thutmosis III, around 1450 B.C., and one of the oldest and most interesting of the riverside temples in Nubia.

Among the most interesting finds from museum excavations in Egypt have been those from burials at Heliopolis, Asyutand Gebelein - not rich pharaonic tombs, but the graves of simple landowners and rather minor government officials. The panoply of grave goods is both touching in its simplicity - the sandals, the light linen shift for summer wear, the wig of Merit, as finely braided as though it had just come from the hairdresser, humble salt and bunches of garlic for meals in the hereafter - and stunning in its richness: the rich gold leaf and lapis and turquoise of coffins, coffin covers and sarcophagi, the unguents from Ethiopia and Lebanon, jewels and alabaster vases and intricately-worked toiletry boxes. One room is covered with wall paintings from the tomb of Iti, a headman and leader of commercial and mining expeditions during the confused years between the Old and Middle Kingdoms, around 2100 B.C. The paintings are crude and provincial, perhaps even old-fashioned, but nonetheless charming in their depiction of Iti's life: Iti with Nubian prisoners, with his hunting dog, with his servants, and marvelous renderings of agricultural scenes: milking the cow; herdsmen separating two fighting bulls; bringing in the harvest to the granary while the scribe notes it all down; slaughtering a bull, perhaps as a sacrifice since one man holds a bowl to collect the bull's blood while another realistically braces himself, one leg against the bull's flank, while he tugs the rope that holds the bull still. Paintings such as these are almost unique in their antiquity and their state of preservation, and they supply us with far more information about how Egyptians actually lived than all the gold and gems of Tutankhamen (See Aramco World, May-June, 1977).

There are many objects particularly sculptures, in the museum that are of undeniable esthetic importance, but the museum's insistent emphasis is on the historical and cultural impact of the collection. This is particularly obvious in the room devoted to writing and the scribe's metier. The masterpieces of the museum, though not immediately obvious, are in this room - in the papyrus rolls and the chips of limestone called "ostraca" that were used much as sketchbooks and notepads are today. The fragmented papyrus called the Royal Canon of Turin, for example, is an extraordinarily precious document, vital to the understanding of Egyptian and indeed all ancient history. Written down in the 13th century B.C., during the reign of Ramses II, the Royal Canon is nothing more nor less than a list of the kings of Egypt and their regnal years, beginning in the remote and mythical past and continuing down to about the 15th century B. C. From it, it is possible to date ancient Egyptian history and, through Egypt, the entire history of the ancient Near East - Mesopotamia, Palestine, Syria, and Anatolia. But there are other unique documents in this room as well. A diagram of an area of the Wadi Hammamat which runs from the Nile Valley to the Red Sea may be the oldest map in existence. Then there are wills and testaments, an account of an attempted coup against royal authority, the record of charges brought against a corrupt priest (theft, rape, perjury, sacrilege, bribery and arson are among his crimes!), stories, poems, architectural drawings and, a remarkable historical document, a record of the strikes that were called by the workmen in the Theban necropolis in the 29th year of the reign of Ramses III. With marches, wildcat walkouts, sit-in demonstrations, it suggests problems acutely familiar to modem workers, management and government.

The overall impression from the museum is a sense of the continuity of Egyptian culture over a period of at least 3,000 years and the persistence of certain beliefs and modes and canons of expression. It is not that Egyptian art and culture were completely static and unchanging: even a total newcomer can feel the difference between, say the classicism of the Middle Kingdom and the "art nouveau" of the Amarna period. But the fundamental rules were laid down in the earliest times and they changed little over the millennia. In this sense, Egyptian art is perhaps most like Chinese art where, despite stylistic changes, the conventions, again, persisted over thousands of years. This is seen most obviously in the tradition of mummies and funerary masks: the masks of the Old Kingdom evoke the primitive, ancient, closed world of tribal society, hauntingly echoing Egypt's antique origins in Africa. More than 3,000 years later the style has changed, has become in fact portraiture, and the world thus evoked is open, Mediterranean, Greek. The style has changed, that is, but the masks themselves remain, their mysterious purpose unchanged through the millennia.

One problem with modern knowledge of ancient civilization - particularly Egypt, where so few cities, palaces or fortresses remain - is that almost all of it comes from burials. In the end there is a kind of lugubrious quality to all those rows and rows of mummies, particularly when it comes to mummies of cats, fish and ibis. For although not all of ancient Egyptian civilization was caught up in this dreadful anxiety about death and the hereafter, there is a distinct sense of agitation in the lines and lines of hieroglyphs, whether carved in stone or painted on wood or papyrus, an agitation that belies the static nature of the art. A distraught and nervous aviary of symbols, the hieroglyphs go on and on, begging, pleading, imploring the unknown gods to look with favor on the deceased. This is particularly true in a museum like Turin, where the sheer weight of accumulation is so great.

This passionate study of ancient times and other cultures, of course, says something about European civilization as well. It is difficult, for example, to imagine a Department of Saxonology at Cairo University devoted to the study of the habits, language, art and history of the ancient Saxon tribes in the way that Egyptology is studied at Oxford, Harvard and the Sorbonne. And although Egyptology today is pursued with the same rigorous discipline at Cairo as it is in western universities, its origins are really a phenomenon of European imperialism. Future generations, therefore, may well conclude that despite its less attractive aspects 19th century colonialism also illuminated ancient civilizations - not just for Europeans, but for the heirs of those civilizations as well.

Nancy Jenkins, now based in Rome, studied archeology in Beirut.

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the January/February 1978 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1978 images.