The son of a barber from Portello, right from a young age Giovanni Battista felt constrained by a society that left little room for his adventure-loving spirit, and so he left his city and family to travel. In Rome he fell in love with archaeology, then in Paris and Holland he took advanced studies in hydraulic engineering. In 1803 he arrived in England and joined the Sadler’s Wells Theatre company, where he earned a living as Patagonian Samson thanks to his incredible physique, with a height of 2.10 metres and Herculean strength. He was renowned for his amazing feat of strength, the “human pyramid” act, which saw him strut around stage supporting the weight of 11 people on his shoulders.
In 1814 during a trip to the Mediterranean, Belzoni heard that the pasha of Egypt, Mehmet Alì, was looking for an inventor who could engineer a solution to the country’s drought problem. Drawing on his studies in hydraulic engineering, Giovanni travelled to Egypt to present his plans for a hydraulic machine to the pasha, but his plans failed to impress and were rejected. Belzoni, however, was not one to be disheartened. Enthralled by Egypt, a country that was still largely shrouded in mystery, in 1816 he decided to undertake his first expedition along the Nile. Two further expeditions followed, in 1817 and 1818, giving rise to the legend of the tireless explorer: Belzoni took on gargantuan physical challenges, he adapted to living in extreme conditions inside tombs, and to suffering heat, thirst and hunger. Among the exploits bordering on the impossible: the transportation of the colossal bust of the “younger Memnon”, weighing around 7 tons, from Thebes to Alexandria and from there to London, a task deemed impossible in the day; the unearthing of the rock temple of Abu Simbel; the transportation of the 7-metre tall Philae obelisk to England; the archaeological digs at the temple of Karnak; the discovery of the tomb of the pharaoh Seti I; the discovery of the entrance to the pyramid of Khafre, until then believed to have no entrance. In addition, it was Belzoni who discovered the city of Berenice, on the Red Sea.
In 1819 Belzoni returned to Padua to a hero’s welcome, but his thirst for discovery was not yet quenched. In 1823 he set off once again for Africa, this time in search of the mysterious source of the river Niger, at that time unknown: no explorer who had ventured upstream in search of the source had ever returned. Alas, it was a trip that was to prove fatal for Belzoni too. He died in mysterious circumstances, due perhaps to poisoning or to a tropical disease, on 3 December in Gatwo (today in Nigeria) at just 45 years of age.