Giovanni Battista Belzoni was one of the most colourful figures of the early nineteenth century. Born at Padua in 1778, in his youth he considered a monastic career, but with Napoleon's conquering army entering Rome in 1798 and forcing Pope Pius VI into exile, this was not an opportune period to join the church. Belzoni turned his attention instead to the study of hydraulics. Struck by wanderlust and keen to avoid military conscription, he moved first to the Netherlands and then to England, Spain, Portugal and Malta, hoping to find employment as an engineer. When offers were not forthcoming, he turned to other means of earning a livelihood. A huge, muscular man, standing six foot seven inches (two metres) tall, he dazzled audiences with remarkable feats of strength at fairs and in theatres. Ambitious to be known as more than just a fairground attraction, however, in 1815 he volunteered his services as a professor of hydraulics to Muhammad Ali Pasha, viceroy of Egypt, and was accepted.
While in Egypt he became captivated by antiquities. He used his engineering skill to remove a massive bust of Ramesses II from the pharaoh's mortuary temple and ship it to London, where it is still displayed today in the British Museum. Subsequent expeditions took him to the temples of Edfu and Abu Simbel, the sepulchre of Seti I, the pyramids of Giza and the ruins of the ancient port of Berenice on the Red Sea.
When he returned to England in 1819, Belzoni offered an account of his adventures to one of the leading publishers of the age, John Murray. Although his English was sometimes eccentric, Belzoni insisted on writing the text himself. Murray published the 'narrative' as an ordinary-sized quarto, but a large folio format was required for the accompanying volume of hand-coloured lithographs based on Belzoni's drawings.
Encouraged by his successes in Egypt, Belzoni planned a further voyage of discovery through West Africa to Timbuktu, but it was not to be. He died of dysentery at the inland port of Gwato in Benin in December 1823.
Donated by Sir George Grey, the Library's copy was a gift from Belzoni himself to an English friend, Jeremiah Ives.