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Thinking of Italian explorers means thinking chiefly of three names: Cristoforo Colombo, Marco Polo and Amerigo Vespucci. Of course, there are many other famous men of adventures hailing from the Bel Paese, like Antonio Pigafetta, who travelled with Magellan to the Indies, or Umberto Nobile, famous especially for its polar expeditions and for having created and flown the first aircraft across the polar ice cap from Europe to America.
As many incredible Italian adventurers and men of science have been, though, forgotten, if not by history, at least by the wider public. It may be time to take a look at some of their achievements and stories.
Giovanni Battista Belzoni: from the theaters of London to the majesty of Abu Simbel
Belzoni’s life was brief, yet extremely eventful. Born at the very end of the 18th century in Padua, he conducted a precarious life until he decided to move to London, where his height (he was almost 2 meters tall) and large built made him a perfect freak show attraction. For years, he performed in the British capital and around Europe as the “Patagonian Sanson” or “the Great Belzoni.” And great, indeed, he truly became, not for his stage performances, but rather for the immense discoveries he made in the beautiful and history-rich lands of Egypt.
He sailed to Cairo with his wife in 1815, hoping to find an agreement with the pasha for the creation of a vast system of irrigation for the driest areas of the country, yet fate had something else waiting for him. When his engineering project failed to be accepted, he had to make do with the offer of British consul Henry Salt, who wanted to retrieve and bring back to his home country as many ancient Egypt artifacts as he could. You must know that, at that time, archaeological findings did not belong to their country of origin, but rather to that who financed the expedition that dig them out, hence the interest of Britain (and many other countries) in ancient Egypt and its history.
Truth is that what began for Belzoni as a tedious job turned into a fully fledged love for ancient Egypt: among his discoveries, the enormous granite head of pharaoh Amenhotep III and the entry to the Pyramid of Chefren, as well as the full excavation of the temple of Abu Simbel, discovered only a handful of years before.
He died of dysentery in 1823, during a trip to Timbuktu, at the age of 45.
The tormented soul of Giacomo Bove
Giacomo Bove is little known, even though his figure could be the inspiration of a Hollywood movie.
Born in Piedmont, his life – and death – are the stuff of literature. Broody and dark, Bove came from a winemaking family of the Asti province. He graduated from the Naval Academy in Genoa and in 1878, aged 26, he sailed the North-East passage with the Swedish Vega Expedition, the first ever to circumnavigate Eurasia along its northern coasts.
While on the Vega, he often fantasized about creating a similar expedition, only fully Italian; the delusion coming from seeing his idea refused by the Italian government was a hard hit to Bove’s sensitive nature. For years, he kept navigating around the globe, chiefly to South America and Africa, and most often on behalf of his own country, Italy, yet, something had broken in his mind after that faithful “No.”
His last expedition dates back to 1885-1886, when he sailed the Congo river up to the Stanley Falls. Back in Italy, in 1887, Bove committed suicide in Verona, some say because of a disease he caught while in Congo, which may have condemned him to death, others because of the hits taken by his too sensitive soul during the years. Interestingly, the reporter sent to document his tragic demise was a young Emilio Salgari, who was to become known for his incredible novels centered of voyages and exotic lands.
The King’s grandchild:
And of what king: Vittorio Emanuele II, first king of Italy. Luigi Amedeo’s first explorations were among his beloved mountains, the Alps, but he soon took up to the seas as a member of the Royal Italian Navy. He was involved in the first ascension to the Saint Elijah mountain in Alaska, and in more than one polar expedition.
He organized and carried out several ascensions to the main peaks of the Ruwenzori mountain chain and, in 1909, he tied his name to a famous expedition to the Hymalaya and the K2 in particular. However, Luigi Amedeo had no luck and could not reach its summit, even though the itinerary he created was followed in 1954, when Compagnoni and Lacedelli conquered K2. His last mission brought him to his beloved Africa, to an agricultural colony he had created in Somalia which, at the time, was Italian.
Luigi Amedeo had a strong bond with his first cousin and King of Italy (albeit only for a month) Umberto II and, in particular, with his wife Maria José, who loved him as a brother. The two were so close she even followed him briefly as a Red Cross nurse to Somalia.
He died in 1933.