By SUSAN ASCHOFF, staff writer
©St. Petersburg Times, published November 5, 1995
Editor's note: Not only was Dr. Bianchi curator for the original "Splendors" exhibition, but he maintains that position for the new exhibition that runs Feb. 6 through July 7, 1996.
ST. PETERSBURG -- The pedestrian, olive-colored satchel goes everywhere with Robert Steven Bianchi, as inseparable from his shoulder as the silk handkerchief is from the breast pocket of his suit.
The bag contains slides of Egypt's vistas and ancient artifacts, shown by the Egyptologist during lectures on his life's work. The handkerchief, it turns out, is one of his "signatures," and a reminder of a past love.
Bianchi keeps his mementos portable. He must.
He lights for a few days at his Manhattan apartment, then flies off on yet another trip overseas. He will be in St. Petersburg for two weeks, the days jammed with training classes for docents and speakers and with the details of the upcoming "Splendors of Ancient Egypt" exhibition. Then he flies back to New York for a brief touchdown -- "to pick up my dry cleaning" -- before winging to Cairo.
As curator of the Florida International Museum show, which will bring more than 70 treasures of the Pharaohs to downtown St. Petersburg beginning Jan. 10, the tireless Bianchi has raged in the face of Egyptian bureaucrats, meticulously examined and selected most of the 4,000-year-old exhibit pieces, traipsed through suffocating desert tombs, and even chased after children blocking a catalog photographer's shot of Nile River Valley pyramids.
He is the professor in the tweed blazer and pastel tie charming volunteers with his stories; the archaeologist in the backward baseball cap and blue zinc-oxide nose under a merciless Middle East sun.
Over a quick sausage-and-ziti lunch at Anna's Pasta in St. Petersburg, the satchel of slides on the booth bench beside him, he is the loudest person in the restaurant. He animatedly talks about his interest in ancient cultures and his modern-day battles with scholarly peers. His voice ricochets off nearby tables and daunts a waiter, who waits for a pause so he can offer more iced tea.
His work, Bianchi says, is his passion.
"Seeing a great monument in Egypt is an emotional high: The mass of it, and that it's still standing. It is incredible."
He has inhaled the sights and secrets of Egypt almost 100 times in 28 years, and is still peeling away its infinite layers, he says.
"One of the things the (St. Petersburg) show will do is knock people's socks off. 'It's so big, the paint is so bright after 5,000 years,' they will say," Bianchi predicts. "Many people will stop at this point."
But he will lure them on.
"I want to get them to the next step: What does this mean?"
A window on their lives
With a master's degree in Greek and Roman archaeology and art, and a doctorate in Egyptian art and aesthetics from New York University, Bianchi scrutinizes the artistic works of ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians to piece together their lives and beliefs.
"Some of my colleagues study artifacts. I use art to get a window on Egyptology," he says. Much of his work is done inside museums, examining individual finds for clues to the whole, interpreting inscriptions, comparing documents.
"I've excavated. I hate it. A grown man shouldn't be digging around in a sandbox," Bianchi sputters, his flying hands dismissing the thought and his early years in the field.
"In Egyptology, everyone has a specialization. I like to approach it from a holistic view. I hope we can do something like that in this exhibit -- seeing the trees and the forest.
"Since art is visual, the points we can make can be made more graphically by how we place the artifacts, how we juxtapose them."
Bianchi says his interest in the past began in the womb. His father, Robert, is Italian and his mother, Bessie, is Greek. (They have lived in Holiday for more than 15 years.) Bianchi's maternal grandparents lived in Egypt. His family, a melting pot of cultures, shaped his future, he says.
"I can remember being told Greek and Roman myths, and about Egypt, when other people were listening to Grimm's fairy tales," he says.
He married young, and taught high school Greek in an attempt to be "a responsible human being, or so I thought." But when he went on to earn his advanced degrees, he specialized in Egypt and the Ptolemaic period from 305 to 30 B.C., which ended with the suicide of Cleopatra VII and the Roman conquest of Egypt.
"I am a rebel -- I never believe the party line. I found a topic that had not been explored before."
A curator in the department of Egyptian, classical and ancient Middle Eastern art at the Brooklyn Museum for 15 years, beginning in 1976, Bianchi is unapologetic about his strong opinions and the ire they often arouse in his colleagues. A particularly painful falling out occurred between him and the late Bernard V. Bothmer, Bianchi's mentor.
"He was the man who gave me my Ph.D., who was responsible for my scholarships, and he was criticized in my book," Bianchi says. In Cleopatra's Egypt: Age of the Ptolemies (Brooklyn Museum, 1988), Bianchi challenged Bothmer's stance and the generally held view that later Egyptian art was indebted to Grecian influences.
Bianchi's book was panned, though it later gained recognition. More troubling at the time was Bothmer's reaction, Bianchi says. His friend ordered his fellows to "not ever mention that man's (Bianchi's) name again." The two later reconciled, with Bianchi publicly recognizing Bothmer as his valued teacher and an integral part of his success.
Irrepressible, Bianchi tangled with others, too.
"I did not endear myself when I opposed an admission fee to come in the door of the Brooklyn Museum," Bianchi says. "I argued vociferously" that art had to be accessible. In the museum's neighborhood, residents could not afford an entrance fee.
An attempt to contact the curators at the Brooklyn Museum for comment on Bianchi brought an apology from a staffer, who did not identify herself but advised not to expect a call back. "One of them told me he will never speak of Bianchi again," she said.
Bianchi's ego is undeniable. So are his credentials.
He is the author of 11 books and contributor to 20 more, in addition to writing 300 journal articles. He serves as one of two American-elected representatives of the International Association of Egyptologists and is a contributing editor of Archaeology Magazine. He was curator for the international exhibit, "Cleopatra's Egypt -- Age of the Ptolemies," in 1988.
For the Egyptian exhibition at the Florida International Museum, Bianchi is more than the expert who shops the treasures of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo. He writes the catalog and maps out the galleries with the architect, carefully crafting the show to not only dazzle, but educate, says James E. Broughton, exhibition director.
"He has the final say-so on everything" to maintain the exhibition's integrity, says Broughton, who met Bianchi in 1987 in Memphis, Tenn., when Broughton directed the "Ramses the Great" show and Bianchi was a visiting Egyptologist.
Broughton and others often describe Bianchi as "a character." Perhaps it's the old gray T-shirt and rumpled khakis he wore under his suit to catch a plane. Or how he relishes telling a novice a racy tale of Egyptian gods. Or the way he navigates through the uniformed minions who blanket Egypt's historical sites, each requiring a different permit in order to photograph or enter a monument. Fluent in Arabic, Bianchi is well known to many Egyptians, who call him "Dr. Bope" -- their pronunciation of "Bob."
An attempt to capture the Great Pyramids at sunset for a photo for the St. Petersburg exhibition catalog went awry when an argument flared between Egyptian officials and a Florida Public Television crew traveling with the museum group, recalls project architect Jonathan Toppe. The TV crew was barred, and, being American journalists, they demanded to be let in.
"We're probably all going to be arrested," Bianchi told the group.
"We were all ready to cry because we were missing the sunset," Toppe says.
Bianchi argued, talked, cajoled and boomed at the officials, drawing an ever-expanding group of oglers. They were not arrested. They did not catch the sunset. But Bianchi smoothed the ruffled egos and wisely advised the group of exhausted, hungry Americans that, yes, they needed to accept the invitation extended by the now-gracious officials to attend the upcoming light show at the monument.
"One of the neatest things about him (Bianchi)," says Toppe, "is his knowledge of the way modern Egypt works."
"He's wonderful. I think he's an excellent teacher," says Liz Hall, a publicist on behalf of the Learning Channel who worked with Bianchi on a Cleopatra episode for the 13-part Archaeology series in 1992. Bianchi returns briefly in Pharaohs and Kings: A Biblical Quest, a three-hour program on Jan. 14 at 8 p.m. Narrated by scholar David Rohl, the show challenges the chronology of biblical events as they relate to Egyptian history.
Always, there is Bianchi's enthusiasm for his subject.
"I have three vocabulary words," says Bianchi. "Faaaabulous . . . and, very, very great.
"If I ever get jaded, it's time to hang up the spurs and go on to other things."
Egyptology is his life
Bob Bianchi will return to St. Petersburg in early December, this time accompanying the specially packed and crated Egyptian treasures on their flight from Cairo across the Atlantic.
His work now is as an independent contractor -- lecturing, consulting, appearing on television, leading tours to museums and sites in Europe and the Mideast, curating the "monumental" exhibition in St. Petersburg.
There is scarcely room for anything else, he says.
"There's never a balance" between personal life and work, says the twice-divorced Bianchi. "There's always another site, always another artifact." If you stay home to be with family, then soon there's two places you need to go, want to go.
He will not give his age -- "I don't celebrate birthdays," he says. "My being born is insignificant. I generally try to be out of the country on my birthday. I plan to be again this year."
In his youth, he and his fellow archaeologists worked for virtually nothing, he says, and ate what was cheapest. He launches into a Forrest Gumpian listing of the ways one can prepare squash: "Stuffed, frittered, mashed, grilled, pickled, fried . . ."
There were no creature comforts.
"You never get used to how hot it is and how sick you can get. It can reach 130 degrees in upper Egypt in the summer. It's like being thrown in a pizza oven. On one dig we lived in a mud brick hut" that might as well have been one, Bianchi says.
"We've dug by the light of the moon and a Coleman (lantern) because it was impossible to go out in the day."
Although he travels in more comfort these days, illness is still a spin of the wheel: a piece of fruit, an errant sip of water, and you are wretchedly sick, Bianchi says.
When he returns to New York, weary of the sun, of bottled water without ice, of the insides of airplanes, he goes out for sushi and a concert, if there is time. If not, Ray's Pizza delivers his favorite mushroom, green pepper and extra-cheese pie.
Still, the thing he craves most, he confesses, is "another sympathetic human being."
He has left behind too many, but keeps reminders. The gray cowboy boots on his feet were prompted by a past love, as was the pierced left ear, today holding a gold Egyptian lotus earring.
Archaeologists, he says, are a different breed.
"Young students come up to me at speeches and classes and say they want to be an archaeologist. They think we're Indiana Jones, that we always get the girl, the golden statue."
Bianchi recalls Howard Carter, the famous British archaeologist who discovered the riches of King Tutankhamen's tomb. He died alone. "Like any dedicated professional, they are so possessed with doing their job, their personal life becomes a shambles," he says.
The Egyptians believed this life was one chapter in a book that will continue, Bianchi says. "Death was a commercial break between wonderful, wonderful existences." Scenes on the walls of tombs celebrate life -- "an uproarious celebration," Bianchi says.
As he scoops up his satchel and heads off to work in a borrowed office at the Barnett Tower, handling paperwork rather than a trowel or magnifying glass, he looks as dapper and as cheerful as any of his ancient subjects.
Splendors | Post Cards | SPT Articles | Extra Credit
©Copyright 1995, St. Petersburg Times.
All rights reserved.
To email us: eMail Connections