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Turin’s Egyptian Museum honors Italy’s own Indiana Jones

by Marco Carminati

The prolific team at Turin’s Egyptian Museum never ceases to research and amaze. Its latest ‘excavation site’ was the huge archive of the museum itself, and what it brought to light was the story of one of the institution’s most illustrious figures: archaeologist Ernesto Schiaparelli, museum director and founder of the Italian Archaeological Mission, whose work on Egyptian soil lasted nearly two decades – from 1903 to 1920 – and enriched the Turinese collection no end.

The story has turned into an exhibition. Frankly speaking, this kind of effort might have had disastrously soporific effects had it been attempted by anyone but the brilliant Turinese gang, who’ve managed to recreate the enthusiastic, adventurous climate that inspired Schiaparelli’s numerous expeditions in Egypt: they have used excavation journals, documents, archaeological finds, field equipment, film footage and splendid photographs, beautifully organized so as to supply information and entertainment to both specialists and the public at large.

The show’s curators – Paolo Del Vesco, Christian Greco and Beppe Moiso – have managed to come up with the perfect mix of philology and fun. In fact, the exhibition does not start off with a mummy but with a car, a Fiat 505 dating back to 1920, in a perfect state of conservation.

What does a Fiat automobile have to do with Ernesto Schiaparelli’s Italian Archaeological Mission? Plenty, and you need to get to the top floor of the museum and view the exhibition to discover why.

In the early 1900s, Turin is a booming market: Fiat makes cars, Martini & Rossi bottles vermouth and La Stampa sells papers; and they all advertise and thrive, using gorgeous Art Nouveau posters. The movie industry is just taking off as well in the Piedmontese capital, with such films as La Santarellina or La Maliarda or even – while we’re on the subject – La Mummia, “The Mummy.”

The story of Ernesto Schiaparelli and the Italian Archaeological Mission is part of this go-getting, optimistic industrial scenario, with a historical background coinciding with the final era of European colonialism which, in Asia Minor and North Africa, is carving up what’s left of the moribund Ottoman Empire.

Schiaparelli is a classically educated archaeologist whose first appointments are as superintendent for Piedmont and Lombardy. The show’s first portion documents this initial activity, with original archive material as well as artifacts and objects that once belonged to the Piedmontese scholar.

Schiaparelli, however, was also a great philanthropist whose activities as scholar and archaeologist were always flanked by the promotion and construction of schools, hospitals and poorhouses in Greece, Egypt and the Holy Land. Generous and determined, Schiaparelli was always able to get the support and the funds he needed for his major charities and scientific endeavors. The Italian Archaeological Mission belonged to the latter, from 1903 onwards.

The Mission is at the very heart of the exhibition. In 1894, Schiaparelli was appointed Director of the Royal Museum of Antiquities of Turin [today’s Egyptian Museum]. In the early years of his tenure, he felt duty bound to enrich the Egyptian collection with a few purchases. Later on, like the German archaeologists in Asia Minor and the English in Crete, he felt it was more appropriate, “for Italy’s good name,” to set up a national archaeological mission: purchasing ancient artifacts on the market was “risky” as these had often been illegally excavated and traded. What’s more, illegal excavations are almost inevitably carried out in the absence of archaeological criteria. It’s best to do the excavating oneself.

The scholar thus put pen to paper and wrote to the Ministries of the Kingdom; then in 1902, he asked to see King Victor Emmanuel III directly and presented his project. The meeting is a success: the king provides for the financing of a new structure – independent of the museum and its budget – called Italian Archaeological Mission, M.A.I. (Missione Archeologica Italiana), in charge of excavating in Egypt for four years (1903-1906). The first mission is so successful the king decides to guarantee funds for further campaigns, the last of which is in 1920.

The Egyptian Museum has preserved every find and every document concerning these campaigns.

(Mission: Egypt. 1903-1920. The untold story of the Italian Archaeological Mission, Turin, Egyptian Museum, until September 10th)