Orazio Antinori, love of adventure

«The Bedouin’s tent is a hundred times better, the camel’s back is better, the continuous struggle and the sublime uncertainty of tomorrow are better… I want to die in Africa, free like Nature.»

Thus wrote the Umbrian explorer and naturalist Orazio Antinori, subject to what we could today call true Africa sickness. In reality, what spoke about him were his adventurous soul and curious nature, which first made him a restless and daredevil boy and then one of the greatest explorers of the mid-nineteenth century.

From early years to exile

Orazio was born in Perugia in 1811 into a family awarded the marquis title. He abandoned his classical studies even before obtaining his diploma and dedicated himself to ornithology and taxidermy. He also defines himself as a “carpenter for pastime and mechanic for leisure” and, at the same time, he dedicates himself to drawing and hunting, then stuffing the birds that he kills. In 1837 he moved to the capital, chased away by his father for having impregnated a waitress – with whom he had a son he never recognized, but whom he decided to support. He was thus able to dedicate himself to ornithology, soon becoming not only the embalmer and general guardian of Carlo Luciano Bonaparte, prince of Canino, but also a valid assistant to him in the drafting of the Iconography of the Italic fauna (Rome, 1832-1841) and of Conspectus generum avium (Bologna, 1842). A Mazzinian, he enlisted as an officer in the papal army which, in Cornuda (TV), was defeated by the Austrian army – something that would also happen, some time later, in Vicenza. Antinori, however, is hit in the right arm, so much so that he begins to write with his left; he returns to Rome and is among those who determine the escape of Pius IX. He is elected deputy to the Constituent Assembly, but takes up the rifle again to defend the Roman Republic from Oudinot’s French who, however, manage to enter the capital. All that remains for Orazio is exile: he heads first towards Greece and then towards Turkey. Here, left almost without means, he entered into a partnership with the Swiss consul Guido Gonzenbach: the two launched themselves into the export of stuffed animals and this work led Orazio to hunt in Asia Minor, Cyprus, Candia, Malta and Syria.

The first trips

In the wake of these travels, in 1858 he moved to Egypt and, the following year, chose Sudan as the starting point for his expeditions. Manlio Bonati writes thus: «He meets other travellers, interested in the trade of rubber, ostrich feathers, ivory and coffee, with whom he plans expeditions on the Nile, the mysterious river which brings together a large number of explorers from various European nations. He experienced his first true African adventures in the Sennaar with Angelo Castelbolognesi, a Jew from Ferrara, and with the Savoyard brothers Ambrogio and Giulio Poncet. In Galabat he wants to enter Abyssinia, but the road is forbidden to him. With the Frenchman Guillaume Lejean he arrives in Darfur, where the caravan is blocked due to the guides and porters, indispensable collaborators in African journeys, who do not want to enter places populated by hostile tribes. With Alessandro Vayssière, also from Savoyard, and with Carlo Piaggia from Lucca he ascended the White Nile in 1860 to its confluence with the Bahr el-Ghazal. The three sail on the Vayssière’s boat with the intention of reaching the Niam-Niam. Unfortunately, after arriving in Nguri, the southernmost locality trampled by ours, “the continuous rains, fevers, dysentery, poor and bad food threatened to bury us all on the spot”. With these words Antinori summarizes the unfavorable outcome of the small expedition, which saw the friend born in Savoy die of fever and the survivors return exhausted to the capital of Sudan.» Added to this is the encounter with a lion, from which Horace could only have defended himself with a rifle loaded with pellets; luckily the feline goes away without attacking him. But our adventures are not destined to end here: selling everything he has, he returns to Italy when, in 1861, the new Savoyard kingdom reigns supreme. He sells his precious ornithological collection for 20,000 lire, which however is dismembered among various museums; on the contrary, he decides to donate the ethnological collection to the University Museum of his hometown, Perugia.

The return to Italy and the Italian Geographical Society

We know that he later entered Freemasonry, although the date is uncertain; this does not affect his passion for travel and exploration, which is enriched by experiences in Sardinia, in the company of the ornithologist Tommaso Salvadori, and by the capture of birds in Turkey, to which he also adds the search for Roman finds and the writing of a correct oro-hydrographic map of the places visited.
In 1867 he moved to Florence and was among the founders of the Italian Geographical Society, of which he held secretarial functions. Two years later he was chosen by the Government as the Italian representative in Egypt on the occasion of the inauguration of the Suez Canal, followed, a year later, by his presence at the acquisition of the Bay of Assab. Immediately afterwards he enters the land of the Bogos to visit the Sciotel colony, organized without luck by some compatriots and to prepare a collection of the local fauna.

The expedition to Shoa

In 1872 we find him in Florence carrying out official duties for the Society, but in 1873 he again lost the use of his right hand due to a painful inflammation. In the meantime, the headquarters of the Italian Geographical Society moved to Rome and Antinori followed. In this period the idea of ​​planning an expedition to Scioa and the equatorial lakes took shape: advancing age did not seem to be a deterrent for the adventurer Orazio, who in 1875 once again headed a scientific mission in the Tunisian chotts to detect the possible entry of the sea into those solitary salt basins.
Finally, in March 1876, Orazio embarked for Abyssinia and, after several setbacks, thefts and problems with the native personnel, the caravan managed to set off towards Shoa. The aim was to create a geographic station there as a base for other scientific and commercial expeditions. Abu Beker, emir of Zeila and slave trafficker, hinders the explorers in every way, who also risk being killed; but, in the end, they manage to get to Menelik II, the king of Shoa. Antonori is fascinated by him, also because he benefits, like his companions, from the hospitality of the monarch and his advisor, the Capuchin bishop Guglielmo Massaja.

The hunting accident and the last years

The latter entrusts him with land where the geographical station is located and where the Marquis can recover, given that he was seriously injured in a hunting accident. Landini, one of Antinori’s companions, speaks: «I found poor Antinori lying on the ground, with his right hand horribly smashed, dripping with blood. I learned that as he held his hand over the muzzle of the rifle, it exploded and took away a large part of his right hand from the palm to the wrist which remained exposed.”
Despite the injury, he continued to practice animal preparation, having taught two young Abyssinians the art of taxidermy.
Unlike his companions who, after various vicissitudes, decide to return to their homeland, Antinori remains near Menelik and dedicates himself to an exploration of Lake Zuai. The rain makes him sick; as soon as he feels strong he goes to Entotto to meet Menelik, but on his return he gets wet again and becomes permanently ill.
However, he is calm: his only concern is his manuscripts, which he prays will be sent back to his homeland – unlike his coffin, which still rests in Let-Marefià, Ethiopia.