Dr Angela Morecroft: Vitaliano Donati and his Egyptian Adventures

by Dr Angela Morecroft on 28 February 2017


Dr Angela Morecroft
1997-2000 (BA in Oriental Studies); 2004-2005(MPhil in Egyptology);  2006-2009 (PhD in Egyptology).

For many years I have been engrossed in researching Vitaliano Donati, an Italian naturalist and polymath who led a scientific-commercial expedition to Egypt and the East Indies under the patronage of Carlo Emanuele III, King of Sardinia and Duke of Aosta.  The research, entitled The Enlightenment Rediscovery of Egyptology: Vitaliano Donati’s Egyptian expedition 1759-62 is scheduled to be published during this year, the culmination of my MPhil and PhD at Cambridge University and in Turin at the Egyptian Museum, Libraries and Archives.

Donati’s expedition was organised during the Enlightenment era, a time of renewal and innovation. It was part of a vast project of cultural and social initiatives the King introduced to promote trade outside his territory. At the time of the expedition, 1759, Donati was at the apex of his career, his achievements, as an 18th century scientist and traveller were significant. His important discovery, that coral belongs to the animal kingdom, changed the established belief that it was a plant or mineral. This confirmed Donati as a leader in the fields of Botany and Natural Science, acknowledged by the scientific community and accredited with nominations to Science Academies across Europe.

Donati’s knowledge and experience as a traveller across the independent regions of Italy and Northern Europe gained him invaluable experience; his acute observations and analysis of the places he visited and his interest in antiquities and inscriptions confirmed that he was the best candidate to lead the extraordinary journey of discovery to Egypt and the East Indies.

The details of the expedition were defined in the Memoria Istruttiva (Note of Instructions), a formal contract between the King and Donati, in which the aims and objectives revealed the impressive scale of the project, which included the circumnavigation of Africa. One of the aims was the collection of Egyptian antiquities for the Museum in Turin.

Donati departed from Venice on the 20th June 1759 and arrived in Alexandria on the 18th July of the same year. From the beginning the expedition was plagued with intrigues and misfortunes that would not be out of place in a fiction adventure by Stephen Spielberg. Treachery, motivated by conspiracy to steal the expedition money, betrayal, imprisonment and poisoning delayed the start of the expedition in Egypt and caused the loss of most of Donati’s assistants and the loss of the expedition money.

Donati continued his journey alone, with determination to succeed and self-reliance, practising medicine to pay for the journey and the antiquities he collected. However, his heroic effort and determination to succeed ultimately came to an end when he died on 26th February 1762, after falling ill with fever whilst travelling on a boat on the coast of Southern India. His tragic death struck the final blow to the fate of the expedition and resulted in his collection being abandoned and forgotten.

However, on 20th February 1761, a year before his death, Donati managed to send his collection to Turin, overcoming all the difficulties with courage and determination and relying solely on his own resources. An inventory of all the objects Donati sent to Turin accompanied the collection but it was lost over time; without it scholars formed a consensus that Donati’s collection consisted of approximately 300 objects. Donati’s inventory was discovered by the author in 2004 revealing that Donati’s collection consisted of 1689 items in total, 659 of which were Egyptian objects of material culture. It was the first large group of Egyptian antiquities to be sourced directly from Egypt specifically for display in a Museum. Only 3 statues have been attributed to Donati in the past and the majority of his collection still remains unknown and unattributed.

Left: A statue of the Egyptian goddess Sekhmet, which has been attributed to Donati

My research and investigation brought together information in documents scattered across many Institutions revealing the links between them. The comparison with my discovery of Donati’s inventory (Donati’s List) made it possible to identify 28 objects belonging to Donati’s collection, previously unattributed, amongst which are a number of oil lamps.

Right: one of Donati’s oil lamps which I identified in my research and was previously unattributed.

One could only speculate on how different the situation would have been had Donati survived the journey and returned to Turin. There is no doubt that he would have organised his collection and published his writings and discoveries. Most importantly, he would have been recognised for his valuable contribution to science and Egyptology with his Egyptian collection, the first to have been sourced directly from Egypt for a museum.

Despite the historical delay, the achievements of Vitaliano Donati, an exceptional 18th century scientist and explorer should be recognised as part of the beginning of the history of Egyptology.