From the 3rd to 13th of April 1932, Escher went on an archaeological expedition to the Gargano peninsula. It was led by Italian professor Ugo Rellini. Rellini was one of the first archaeologists to study this mountainous area. The peninsula stretches about 70 kilometres into the Adriatic Sea and is also known as the ‘Spur of the boot’. The area was declared a National Park in 1995. The Garganic coast is one of the wildest in Italy.
The base for the expedition was the town of Peschici and the its primary focus was the Manaccora cave, also known as the Grotta degli Dei (Cave of the Gods). Excavations were also made at Monte Pucci, home to a necropolis with hundreds of underground tombs.
The Dutch archaeologist Hendrik Leopold and their German colleague Elise Baumgartel also worked in the Rellini team. Leopold’s main focus was researching stone tools. He later wrote in the ‘Announcements of the Royal Dutch Institute in Rome, 1933’:
‘[Professor Rellini] invited me to participate in excavations on the Gargano peninsula during the Easter holidays. As chance would have it, I discovered a rich collection of stone tools on the North shore. After discussing this with Prof. Rellini, I amassed a large quantity of material.’
Baumgartel, who was primarily known as an Egyptologist, led the investigation into a crypt found in a Manaccora cave. It contained a large quantity of human remains. In a world dominated by men, her role as leader of this project was quite remarkable for the time.
Why Escher joined this expedition is unclear. Rumour has it that he was asked to do so by Leopold, whom he befriended after they met at the Dutch Historical Institute in Rome. In 1926, Leopold had written a raving review in a Dutch newspaper (NRC) about an Escher exhibition in the Palazetto Venezia in Rome. During the expedition, Escher produced sketches and photos of the archaeological work. He had agreed that the sketches would become the property of Professor Rellini. They were handed over accordingly and have not resurfaced since. Drawings of prehistoric objects from Gargano are known, but they do not seem to be by Escher’s hand. The photos and the albums in which Escher stuck these are still extant, however, and include neat descriptions of where the photos were taken, when and who is featured in them.
After the expedition in Gargano, Escher was at home in Rome for a week before leaving on another journey on 22 April. This time with his friend Giuseppe Haas-Triverio with whom he would make a trip through the northern part of Sicily. The journey would take them to places like Gangi, Caltavuturo, Monreale, Patti and Segeste.