The Museo delle Antichità Egizie is the only museum other than the Cairo Museum that is dedicated solely to Egyptian art and culture. Many international scholars, since the decipherer of Egyptian hieroglyphs Jean-François Champollion, who came to Turin in 1824, spend much time pouring over the collections. It was Champollion who famously wrote, “The road to Memphis and Thebes passes through Turin”.
The collections that make up today’s Museum, were enlarged by the excavations conducted in Egypt by the Museum’s archaeological mission between 1900 and 1935 (a period when finds were divided between the excavators and Egypt).
The first object to come to Turin, purchased by the Savoy King Carlo Emanuele I in 1630, was the Mensa Isiaca, a Roman production of an altar table in the Egyptianising style for an Isis temple cult outside of Egypt. It was probably produced in Rome. In 1724 King Vittorio Amedeo II founded the Museo della Regia Università di Torino in a palace of the University for the small Piedmontese antiquities collection. The altar table was the object that spurred King Carlo Emanuele III to commission the professor of botany, Vitaliano Donati in 1757 to acquire objects from Egypt that might explain the significance of the table. These subsequent additions, along with a small collection donated by Vittorio Amedeo II in 1723, were housed first in the university.
The Regio Museo delle Antichità Egizie was formally founded in 1824 with the acquisition by King Carlo Felice of a large collection. This was assembled by Bernardino Drovetti, of Piedmontese origin, who, following his service with Napoleon Bonaparte went to Egypt to become the French Consul (technically to the Ottoman Sublime Porte). Drovetti’s collection of 5,268 objects (100 statues, 170 papyri, stelae sarcophagi, mummies, bronzes, amulets and objects of daily life) were deposited, along with the other Egyptian antiquities already in the university, in the 17th century palace built as a Jesuit school by the architect Guarino Guarini that later passed in the 18th century to the Academy of Sciences. Drovetti’s friendship with Egypt’s Viceroy, Mohamed Ali, enabled him to remove his collections (he sold three) to Europe.
Champollion arrived in Turin as the Drovetti Collection was being unpacked, and within a few months of excited activity produced a catalogue raisonné of the collections. In 1894 Ernesto Schiaparelli, a former student of the Egyptologist and head of the Egyptian Antiquities Service, Gaston Maspero, became director of the Museo Egizio. Schiaparelli went to Egypt to acquire further antiquities (1898-1901). He then set about excavating in Egypt at several sites including Heliopolis, Giza, the Valley of Queens at Thebes, Qaw el-Kebir, Assiut, Hammamiya, Hermopolis, Deir el-Medina and at Gebelein, where his successor Giulio Farina continued to excavate. Further gifts and modest purchases were added subsequently to the collections.
The last great addition to the Museum was the small Temple of Ellesiya presented by the Arab Republic of Egypt to Italy for its sustained technical and scientific support during the Nubian monument salvage campaign.
Six and a half thousand objects are on display, whereas a further 26,000 objects are in storage. Much of this material is not on view because of the lack of display space, the conservation needs, and some objects are really only of interest to scholars and not to the general public (for example undecorated pottery, fragments of inscribed papyrus etc). However, we should take comfort in the fact much of the material not displayed is being studied by scholars from a number of disciplines and will be published eventually.