Magazine article The Spectator

Tomb Raider

Magazine article The Spectator

Tomb Raider

Article excerpt

ANile cruise is not for wimps -- not if you do it seriously: up before dawn, a quick breakfast, then off on the boat to the first tomb of the day. Deep underground, painted walls glowed with Pharaonic profiles, sinister bird-headed priests, rituals from the Book of the Dead. We shivered in our anoraks till the sun god showed his face as we headed for the temples. Some people cheated, retreating to deck recliners, basking in winter sun. But I was following in the footsteps of a hyper-energetic Frenchman.

If you fed the name Vivant Denon to a University Challenge team, most bright young things probably wouldn't have a clue, despite the fact that this 18th-century courtier, artist, traveller, collector and libertine virtually created the Louvre as we know it today, filling the museum with treasures, mostly looted from the enemies of France.

His name is carved on its façade.

Denon -- short, curly-haired and snubnosed -- was a charmer adored by women, who found his wit and dimpled grin captivating. When I began to research his life I too fell under his spell; I wanted to go where he went, see what he had seen. I tracked him from Paris to Venice (the scene of his greatest love affair), to Naples and Sicily, and back to Paris, where a chilling midnight encounter with Robespierre saved him from the guillotine. But it was Egypt that changed his life and brought him fame. (In the British Museum there's a delightful Denon drawing that shows him sketching in the desert, camels nearby. ) He was one of 200 savants -- geologists, archaeologists, mathematicians, artists and writers -- the 28-year-old General Bonaparte took with him to Egypt, 'embedded' with the army, to study, measure, analyse and record everything they saw -- animal, vegetable, mineral -- on a military campaign which some historians have rated as worse than the retreat from Moscow. Without water, the men marched through hostile desert. Close to starvation, they lived off what they could scavenge, and fought valiantly. But their real enemy was Egypt itself -- its heat, sandstorms and plagues of locusts.

The scholars suffered alongside the troops: Denon describes sleeping without cover in the sand, sword in hand, eaten alive by mosquitoes. Just over 200 years later, I gave thanks for my air-conditioned cabin, en-suite loo and shower, tempting menus and splash pool for cooling off. …

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