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Archaeological Museum of Naples showcases new brightly lit setup for its Egyptian collection

by Cinzia Dal Maso

Light is the leitmotiv to the new setup in the section of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples devoted to Egyptian antiquities, which reopened to the public after a long hiatus (from 2010 [to October 2016]).

Exhibited in the building’s basement, the collection is nonetheless brightly lit, airy and sunny thanks to showcases where white and metal hues prevail. The message is clear: the section illustrates the daily life and customs of ancient Egyptians; its appeal is in the beauty and importance of exhibits, not in the trite stereotype of dark, gloomy and mysterious Egypt.

The first hall significantly reproduces a painting by Paolo Vetri of 1875, which shows Giuseppe Fiorelli’s historic setup, all the darker and gloomier for the presence of two austere-looking ladies dressed in black. The contrast could not be more evident. The sole dark item now is the beautiful Farnese Naophoros in black basalt that welcomes visitors: the deity proffered by this particular statue is Osiris, true enough, god of the afterlife; today, though, the Naophoros is the most sumptuous and elegant of invitations to the collection.

The setup is thematically organized: approximately 1,500 artifacts (out of the collection’s total 2,500 items) illustrate every aspect of ancient Egypt, from the relationship between sovereigns and ordinary people to writing, arts and crafts, religion, magic, death and mummification.

The masterpieces stand center stage in each hall: statues include the so-called Lady of Naples, which actually portrays an official of the Third Dynasty (third millennium BCE), and the curious monument to Imen-em-inet, which celebrates his entire family; not forgetting a very interesting portrait of Alexander the Great. Funerary artifacts comprise a small bowl engraved with a medical prescription for treating cough that was published only recently; as well as a great number of ushabtis, figurines that accompanied the deceased into the afterlife to perform manual labor in their stead; and mummies, including the human remains – a head and four feet – that were placed in the all-Neapolitan bells meant for Nativity scenes in the nineteenth century; even fake mummies that were put together in the museum’s restoration workshop (also in the nineteenth century) to fill a gap in the collection.

The fact is, the Neapolitan museum’s is truly a great collection, and one of the first – possibly the very first – to be opened to the public in Europe. The most substantial group of exhibits came from the purchase, in 1814, of many significant Egyptian objects that had belonged to cardinal Stefano Borgia (1731-1804). Appointed as Secretary to the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith, the cardinal took advantage of his post to get hold of artifacts from all over the world. His Egyptian collection was particularly famous, and it has recently been discovered that Borgia further enriched his possessions by snapping up every Egyptian object that came to light during archaeological excavations in the peninsula.

In fact, a manuscript has recently been discovered at the Royal Library of Copenhagen, reporting a catalog of the cardinal’s collection drawn up by Danish archaeologist Georg Zöega in 1784, complete with the surprising provenance of each item listed.

The Bourbon collection was later further enriched thanks to purchases from antiquarians and merchants, notably from Giuseppe Picchianti of Florence, who lived in Egypt for several years and was then hired as “assistant caretaker” and restorer for the Museum of Naples. His legendary, amazing adventures are currently being reconstructed thanks to the recent recovery of his original documents.