EMINENT FIGURES | Edda Bresciani, the “Lady of the Fayyum”

Edda Bresciani was an archaeologist and Egyptologist, Professor of the University of Pisa and a true “myth” of Italian Egyptology.

Born in Lucca on September 23, 1930, after classical studies she enrolled in the Faculty of Humanities in Pisa. The Faculty, as Bresciani recalls, was at the time the only one considered really suitable for a woman, because it was considered not intellectually demanding. However, the very young Edda immediately managed to subvert the established order, preparing her thesis on a subject that was almost unknown in Italy in the ’50s: Egyptology, of which at the time there were only two professorships in Italy, one in Milan, the other in Pisa, both entrusted to Sergio Donadoni.

The first Egyptologist

Edda Bresciani, in fact, was in 1955 the first Italian graduate in Egyptology. This event was followed by three years spent abroad, during which the young Egyptologist moved between Copenhagen, Paris and Cairo, to deepen her knowledge in language (demotic and hieratic), epigraphy, philology and archaeology. In fact, the Professor used to say, since graduation her approach to the subject was always been interdisciplinary. The aim was to find a synthesis between archaeology, history and philology, including, however, also civilizations geographically close to Egypt.

In 1968, with the establishment of a teaching post in Pisa, Edda Bresciani became the first female professor of Egyptology in Italy (only Sergio Donadoni in Milan and Giuseppe Botti in Rome were already tenured since 1958).

Edda Bresciani's portrait
Edda Bresciani in a portrait of the ‘60s
Medinet Madi and the Fayyum

The life of Edda Bresciani was not only linked to the Pisan chair of Egyptology, but also, and perhaps above all, to the Fayyum region, where she worked until 2011.

Here, from the mid-60s, excavation activities were resumed, first with the University of Milan, until 1969, then with the University of Pisa. Already in 1966 Bresciani was Director in charge of the mission in Medinet Madi, the large site of the Fayyum region, already investigated by Achille Vogliano in the ’30s.

Medinet Madi has also been protagonist of a series of international cooperation projects with Egypt for restoration and musealization. In the 2000’s, in addition to field research, two projects were launched: the creation of a large Visitors’ Centre and a restoration project aimed at the creation of the Archaeological Park (ISSEMM project, in collaboration with the Egyptian Supreme Council of Antiquities and the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs). Since 2011 Medinet Madi is an Archaeological Park administered by the Egyptian government.

Edda Bresciani in Medinet Madi
Edda Bresciani in Medinet Madi
Looking for another Egypt

In 1974 Edda obtained for the University of Pisa the concession to excavate in the area of the necropolis of Saqqara, excavating the tomb of Bakenrenef, vizier of Psamtik I – founder of the XXVI Saitic dynasty (664-624 B.C.) – which, although already plundered in 1800, returned splendid finds and wall paintings. Remarkable is the discovery of a large canvas painted in tempera, dating back to Roman times, currently on display at the Cairo Museum.

Since 1978 she also directed the excavations in Gurna, near Thebes, where the workers gave her a statuette, which depicts her as a Pharaoh, with her name written in hieroglyphs. In the same year she founded the journal Egitto e Vicino Oriente, of which she is still the director.

Her personality and the spontaneity with which she relates to colleagues and workers earned her, in the Fayyum, the nickname of Mudira (from the Arabic mudir, “boss”), a word that, in the feminine sense, did not exist until then.

Archaeology and the Arab springs

Although Edda Bresciani has never officially taken a position on the various political upheavals that followed the so-called “Arab Spring Season” from 2011 onwards, the archaeologist from Tuscany  continued to manage bilateral relations in the cultural sphere by working for the conservation and protection of the archaeological heritage that she had helped to rediscover for almost half a century.

The Egyptologist has been awarded numerous honors: from the Medal given by the President of the Italian Republic to the distinguished individuals for Science and Culture in 1996, to the “Campano d’Oro” prize of the University of Pisa in 2012.

Edda Bresciani  passed away on November 29, 2020. She worked to her researches until the end. 

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EMINENT FIGURES | Sarah Belzoni, love and adventure in the shadow of the pyramids

The Belzoni couple portrayed in oriental clothes

Sarah Belzoni was an artist, archaeologist and explorer. Wife of the eclectic Paduan antiquarian and explorer Giovan Battista Belzoni, she continued to conduct research and edit publications even after the premature death of her husband.

Love at first sight with the beautiful Italian guy

Little is known about the youth of Sarah Belzoni, born Sarah Banne in Bristol in 1783. She probably did not attend any classical studies, but she was a woman of discreet culture.

In 1803 she met Giovan Battista, who had recently moved to England. Here the eclectic Italian traveller was performing in a circus, taking advantage of his mighty physical appearance (he was over two metres tall!). It seems that it was love at first sight. Sarah, described by Charles Dickens as a “delicate and good-looking” woman, sometimes performed together with her husband: the couple spent their first years of marriage in England, following travelling shows.

However, Belzoni, who had studied archaeology and engineering in Rome, wanted to be much more than a circus performer and, certainly, Sarah encouraged him to resume his aspirations and become an explorer and an antiquarian.

Egypt, at last!

In 1815 the couple reached Egypt, where Giovan Battista found employment as a hydraulic engineer in the service of Governor Alì Pasha. Soon, however, the Italian was hired by the English consul Henry Salt to recover Egyptian antiquities for the British Museum. At this point, a series of journeys and expeditions began which, however, did not include the presence of Sarah, punctually left in the nearest large city (Cairo, Rosetta, Aswan).

In the absence of her husband, the young Englishwoman devoted herself to deepening her knowledge of the customs and traditions of her host country, especially as far as women were concerned. This is testified by one of the very few writings we have left of Sarah Belzoni, a chapter entitled “Mrs. Belzoni’s trifling account of the women of Egypt, Nubia and Syria”, published in Giovan Battista’s “Narrative of the Operations and Recent Discoveries Within the Pyramids, Temples, Tombs and Excavations in Egypt and Nubia”.

During her stay in Egypt, Sarah showed great sagacity, intelligence and a spirit of adaptation, as well as being an acute observer of the civilization around her. The cultivated relationships with Egyptian, Arab and Nubian women are told to us with perspicacity and wit by Mrs Belzoni herself. Interesting is the story of how Sarah had begun to exchange artefacts and English costume jewellery, especially beads, with ancient necklace beads that the local inhabitants brought her as a gift.

At the front line, alone

Tired of being on the margins of the scene, at the beginning of 1818 she left alone, dressed as a man, for Palestine and visited, as the first European woman to do so, the esplanade of mosques in Jerusalem. Accompanied only by a local guide, always dressed as a young Turkish man, Sarah travelled along the Jordan Valley to Jericho.

Back in Egypt, she helped saving the wall paintings of the tomb of Sethi I, threatened by a flood; in the first months of 1819, she was stuck for a period of time in Rosetta, while her husband was in Libya, due to a plague epidemic. Here she spent the time of quarantine raising chameleons, which she apparently loved very much and even kept them as pets.

Sarah Belzoni at old age
Bitter return

In 1919 the Belzoni family returned to England, where two years later they set up a large exhibition at the Egyptian Hall in London with casts of the tomb of Sethi I, some scale models of the pyramids and Abu Simbel temple and a large collection of mummies and small finds.

In 1823 Giovan Battista Belzoni returned to Africa, where he found death, probably in Benin, while searching for Timbuktu and the springs of Niger. Sarah, who remained in England, continued to take care of her husband’s work, trying to show her discoveries in an exhibition in 1925, which however had very little success.

She spent the last years of her life first in Brussels and then on the Channel Islands, where she died in 1870. From 1851 the English Parliament granted her a modest pension for her husband’s cultural merits.

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