No, Speedy and I didn’t hop on an airplane and go to Egypt. Instead we hopped on a train, got off in Torino, and went with friends to the Museo Egizio. Even under restoration, as it has been for a couple of years and will be for another half year or so, it is a sensational institution.
In terms of collection size it is second only to the museum in Cairo . These two are the only museums in the world that are dedicated solely to Egyptian art and culture. It is the oldest museum of Egyptian art in the world.
The first ‘Egyptian’ artifact, an altar called Mensa Isiaca, arrived in Italy way back in 1630.
This elaborate bronze tablet turns out actually to have been of Roman origin, simply mimicking the Egyptian style (Egypt had become a province of the Roman Empire in 30 BCE). Funnily, a man named Athanasius Kircher used the tablet as his primary source for translating hieroglyphics in the 17th century. Turns out Kircher was a fraud and the hieroglyphics on the tablet are meaningless. No matter, King Charles Emmanual II was quite taken with the tablet, and wanted more treasures from Egypt. To that end he commissioned Vitaliano Donati, a botany professor at the University in Torino, to travel to Egypt and bring some back. Donati went in 1753, and brought back 300 items from Karnak and Coptos. These formed the foundation of the Museum’s collection.
Fast forward about 50 years to meet the sly gentleman above, Bernardino Drovetti. Napoleon sent Drovetti to Egypt in 1803 as a diplomat. But in his spare time he collected and sold antiquities, removing thousands of treasures from newly opened tombs and excavations. Although he collected in the name of France, he dealt privately on the side, famously breaking some treasures to increase the value of those remaining, and cheerfully breaking other artifacts into pieces to make them easier to ship. He kind of looks like he might do that sort of thing, doesn’t he? In 1824 King Charles Philip of Sardinia acquired Drovetti’s private collection, some 5,268 pieces; these also went to the Museum, which was formally established in that same year.
The collection continued to grow under the stewardship of Ernest Schiaparelli, who was the director in the early 20th century. He led a dozen excavations between 1900 and 1920, and was responsible for many important discoveries, including the tomb of Nefertiti (unfortunately later pillaged by tomb raiders) as well as the tomb of Kha and Merit which he transported in its entirely to Torino. Other collections have been added over the years, including the Temple of Ellesiya, which was a gift of the Egyptian government to the Museum in the 1960’s. The Museum has always been in Torino, housed in a palace built especially for it. It became a private entity in 2004.
Here are a few of the photos I took during our visit. There are some more over here (the set includes a few shots of Torino as well). The light and reflections in the museum make it hard to take a good photo without a tripod; but the museum very generously allows us to take pictures as long as we don’t use flash. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Torino, I encourage you to set aside a day for the Museo Egizio; you won’t regret it.