It is not yet known when Gilbert Bagnani and his mother returned from London to Rome after his public lecture on October 31, but their friends Harry and Minnie Burton were about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.
Harry Burton was born in Lincolnshire in 1879, the fifth of eleven children of a cabinet-maker on an estate. A near-by estate was owned by Earl Brownlow, one of whose cousins was Robert Henry Hobart Cust. He was an Italian Renaissance art historian who virtually adopted Harry Burton at the age of fourteen. In 1896 they moved to Italy, eventually settling in Florence.
Florence was an oasis of culture attracting artists, musicians, and society outcasts. The art connoisseur Bernard Berenson took up residence in the Villa I Tatti outside Florence at this time and, given their mutual interest in Renaissance art, undoubtedly encountered Cust together with Burton. Florence also happened to be the home of the famous Alinari Brothers Photographic Studio, which had been documenting Italian works of art for decades.
The Buttles sisters lived in a villa in Florence, nieces of Emma Buttles Andrews, the live-in mistress of American millionaire Theodore M. Davis. He would stop by on his way home from Egypt every spring to consult with Berenson about art that Davis was collecting. Davis had also been supporting extraordinarily successful excavations in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt since 1903, having hired professional archaeologists like Howard Carter to supervise the digs.
In 1910, as Cust was moving back to England with his wife, Burton was taken by Davis to Egypt as his photographer. Soon, however, Burton was supervising and publishing the excavations for Davis. Upon their return from Egypt to Florence each year, Burton would accompany Davis viewing and buying Italian paintings. Then, when Davis relinquished his excavation concession for reasons of ill health in 1914, he urged his friend Albert Lythgoe, the first Curator of Egyptian Antiquities at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, to find a job for Burton. He was assigned to make a thorough photographic recording of the monuments around ancient Thebes.
In July 1914, with the prospect of permanent employment, Burton married in London a divorcée, Minnie Duckett Young, whose parents lived in Florence. Harry and Minnie lived at 25 Via dei Bardi, just outside of Florence, and one of her diaries has survived for 1922-1926. Minnie was on a first name basis with Ethel de Fonblanque Harter, a published poet and writer, and it is through Ethel that Gilbert Bagnani’s mother, and eventually Gilbert himself, socialised with Minnie and Harry Burton whenever they were all in Florence at the same time.
As is well known, for many years Howard Carter had been searching for tombs in the Valley of the Kings near ancient Thebes, and in early November 1922 under ancient workers’ houses, he discovered steps leading down to a sealed door and sent for his long-time financial backer, George Herbert, the 5th Earl of Carnarvon to sail from England. After Carnarvon arrived, upon breaking through they found a descending corridor filled with debris leading down to a second sealed doorway. When they broke through this on November 26, they could see by candlelight “wonderful things” in the antechamber, shimmering golden couches with animal heads whose shadows menaced on the walls. At the end of the month, they announced to the media their discovery of a fabulous tomb filled with gold statues, chariots, and furniture including a throne of a long-forgotten pharaoh, Tutankhamen. The discovery of a nearly intact and unplundered tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh was sensational news that sold papers, and soon the modern town of Luxor was invaded by reporters ravenous for stories. Carter and Carnarvon realized they needed expert help to handle the finds and appealed to their Egyptological colleagues for help. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was eager to suspend some of its fieldwork in order to make available its people, in the implicit expectation of an eventual share of the spectacular finds. Among other specialists, the Museum lent the services of Harry Burton as the excavation photographer for the Tutankhamen discoveries.
Thus Gilbert Bagnani would have had a particular personal interest in hearing about the Tutankhamen discoveries since he and his mother knew both Harry and Minnie Burton. Eventually, Gilbert would also come to know Harry Burton’s Egyptian associates, colleagues and friends when he himself directed excavations at Tebtunis in Egypt in 1931-1936.