18 June 2012

Zenobia on the Big Screen

  Did you know that over 60 films have been made about the life and loves of Cleopatra -- and who will ever forget Elizabeth Taylor playing the role of the Egyptian queen, although that was filmed almost 50 years ago (1963)?

Fair enough, she was unforgettable, but what about Zenobia?  Where is she in the stardom stakes?

Lonely as a cloud, it seems.  The scorecard:  Cleopatra 60, Zenobia 1.

The Syrian queen has appeared just once on the big screen.  And that was long ago, too (1959).  Admit it, you not only don't remember the film but, in truth, you've never heard of it.  

Now, Dr Maria Teresa Grassi of the University of Milan and Director of the Italian-Syrian Archaeological Mission at Palmyra, comes to your rescue ....

In an article aptly titled 'Zenobia: the Missing Myth', she pulls the film out of total neglect, a revival, you might say, of The Sign of Rome ('Nel Segno di Roma'); it was an Italian-French-German co-production, one of the earliest shared Euro-disasters.*   According to her -- and to everyone else who even noticed -- The Sign of Rome was a terrible film, and of no historical value whatsoever.  Who cares? For Zenobia was played by the hugely buxom Anita Ekberg (just a year before her sensational role in Fellini's La Dolce Vita).

Here's Ekberg as Zenobia:

Pretty luscious, you have to agree.  And her mountainous mammaries are put to best effect in a series of low-cut gowns, which prompted one reviewer to remark: actually, her huge bosom should have gotten a billing of their own. Filled with romance and subterfuge (everyone seems to have a secret agenda) and -- did I mention it? -- a strong smell of sex, it's a 'sword and sandal' film that manages to find time for two bump and grind belly-dances by hot Cuban starlet Chelo Alonso (seen sizzling below) . 

Belly-dances?  Hey, that's Turkish, isn't it?

Besides those erotic Turkish belly-dances, as Dr Grassi points out, with what I hope sounds like a laugh, The Sign of Rome is a total mismash of Orientalism: pseudo-Egyptian (as in the scene above) rubs shoulders with borrowings from Mesopotamia, Persia, and even India, along with a bit -- if only a little bit -- of Palmyra.

So, thank heavens, I do have something serious to say about The Sign of Rome

In one scene at least, the jewellery is spot-on.  According to Dr Grassi's report card, somebody did their homework. Ekberg (above) wears a gold diadem with two locks of hair combed up on either side.  Compare the lovely female figurine now in the Hermitage Museum (late-second, early third century CE; below left). And check out the star's gold hanging earrings: they look very much like those worn by Aththaia, daughter of Malchos (third century CE; below right) whose bust is in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

For the rest, we have villains: Semantio, a double-dealer plotting with the Persian king to sell out Zenobia -- and he looks the wicked part as he leers and all but curls his mustache.  Needless to say, we also have heroes: Marco Valerio, a handsome Roman consul; and, yes, Zenobia does fall in love with him; and, yes, she will marry him in the end and live happily ever after.

But, really, what it's all about is best summed by a picture, which isn't worth nearly a thousand words.

I bet you knew this would happen in the end.

But I promised you an erotic belly-dance, didn't I?  Here's Chelo Alonso wearing a frothy confection and in eye-opening competition with Anita Ekberg for the most enormous chest. 

Sorry, that's all for today.  I'm off to Crete later this morning ... and some real work, I suppose.  

Have a great summer.  I'll see you again in August.

Directed by Guido Brignone. Assistant directors Michele Lupo and Riccardo Freda. Sergio Leone is one of the script writers. The score is by noted composer Angelo Francesco Lavagnino.

Sources for this post: M. T. Grassi, 'Zenobia, 'un mito assente', in LANX 7 (2010) 299-314.  Brian Bankston, reviewing 'The Sign of Rome' on his blog, AliveNotDead, 16 September 2011.


All from Brian Bankston's review with the exception of close-up of Anita Ekberg (second down, centre) which is from Dr Grassi's article and Aththaia, daughter of Malchos from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

02 June 2012

Rare new head of Nefertiti (Four Updates)

Tiny but choice!

Just breaking news: a new head of  Nefertiti has been identified (left).

This, we now must acknowledge, is a head of the famous Queen Nefertiti, wife of the pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE). After some serious detective work, Dr Christian E. Loeben, Egyptologist at the August Kestner Museum in Hanover, Germany, has established its true and fascinating identity. It had been thought, wrongly as it now turns out, that this fragment of a face depicted the unisex pharaoh himself.

Dr Loeben has been able to demonstrate convincingly that it is in fact the illustrious queen, whose most famous portrait is the polychrome bust kept in the Berlin Museum (below left).

It measures barely 5.5 cm (2.2") in height, but the red-brown quartzite* head is a tiny masterpiece of Egyptian art.

"Until now, no Egyptologist had noticed that at the time of Pharaoh Akhenaten, only women's portraits were done in quartzite. Nefertiti is the only possible option for this remarkably fine miniature portrait," says Loeben.

"This is a truly sensational discovery," chimes in Dr Christian Bayer,  Egyptologist at the University of Munster and specialist in Nefertiti: "It is very exciting to be able to add this extraordinary piece to the relatively limited collection of statues of Nefertiti."

The fact that this discovery has taken place this year is all the more remarkable given that it is exactly one hundred years since the German archaeologist Ludwig Borchardt found the world-famous bust of Nefertiti (left) in 1912, during his excavations at Tell el-Amarna, the new capital city founded by Akhenaten: 

Suddenly we had the most alive Egyptian artwork in our hands, Ludwig Borchardt wrote in his diary for 1912. You cannot describe it with words. You can only see it.

That "most beautiful woman in the world" now reigns over the Neues Museum in Berlin, enthroned alone in a domed room that overlooks the length of the Museum (see Zenobia's low-down on her contentious discovery and possessive tug-of-war between Germany and Egypt in Two-Timing Nefertiti II). 

The small quartzite head, on the contrary, is secluded in a private collection in Europe and is therefore not normally accessible to the public.

Queen Bee at BAAF

For the 10th jubilee edition of the Brussels Ancient Art Fair (BAAF), the organizers have arranged a large Egyptian art exhibition, entitled Ancient Egypt: Masterpieces from Collectors and Collections (June 6th to 10th). For the first time, the visitors will have the possibility to see mostly unknown Egyptian pieces, a majority of them coming from private collections. 

The new Nefertiti will undoubtedly be the Queen Bee among those 120 exhibits.  Dr Loeben describes his research in the limited-edition catalogue which will be sold during the BAAF exhibition (a snip at € 49).  It's worth more than a peek as, after 10 June, the head returns to its private quarters ... and who knows when it will be seen again.

I am most grateful to Dr Stephanie Budin for the first report of this new identification on Pandora's blog (Pandorastudies@yahoogroups.com).  There will surely be many updates.

* Quartzite is a hard (7 Mohs) metamorphic rock of nearly pure silica, coloured by a small amount of iron oxide.

Updated 4 June 2012

Well, I did say there would be many updates, but I hadn't reckoned on their coming so thick and fast.   

First, a new argument for the identification of the head as Nefertiti's:

SwissInfo.CH reports that details around the ear indicate that the head was wearing a certain crown, which would suggest it was the queen, and not Akhenaten (Details am Ohr wiesen darauf hin, dass die Figur eine bestimmte Krone trage und es sich um Nofretete handeln müsse.)

But, now, the opposition is massing as well.

An Egyptologist on the EEF-list  argues that the piece is a shabtis or funerary figurine and thus should not be judged by the rules for statuary.  Prof. Anneke Bart of St. Louis University points to three quartzite shabtis in the Metropolitan Museum of Art depicting Akhenaten and remarks that "the argument that it has to be the queen because it is made of quarzite is not really valid." And, for good measure, citing a shabti of the king in this collection: "With the size of the head being 5.5 cm, it is identical to the size of this head of a shabti."   

And, further, Lise Manniche (Copenhagen) notes "the prominent feature of what has been termed 'sfumato eyes', a detail that seems to be characteristic of, and perhaps even unique for, shabti figures of Akhenaten."

I wouldn't call it "Game, set, and match" but the argument is certainly heating up. 

Updated again 6 June 2012

Back to the EEF-list where a number of Egyptologists have plunged into the debate.  There are a few new arguments.

Does a shabti of Akhenaten always wear a beard?  If it does, this head must be female; if not, it still could be Akhenaten.  Right?

Martin Wolff (from France) says: "...all the known specimens for this pharaoh wear a beard and usually have no neck." 

But, rebuts Anneke Bart (see above), "There are however plenty of examples of [shabtis] of men without a beard." And she cites examples dating to before and after Akhenaten of kings without a beard.

So the question of whether or not shabtis of Akhenaten himself could be beardless is still open. 

The stone 

Maria Sansalone (Egittophilia Forum Admin) points to a large use of quartzite in the Amarna period, citing Relief n° 171, showing Akhenaten offering to the Aten, from the  Great Temple -- Copenhagen, Carlsberg Glyptotek (AEIN 1718) (http://www.flickr.com/photos/10647023@N04/3901689668/ 

The choice of red-brown quartzite, she suggests, alludes to the colour of the Sun.

It should be said, however, that Christian Loeben said that almost 100% of quartzite portraits were of women, which leaves some wiggle room for the head to be, exceptionally, of a male ruler.

The crown

Ah, the crown.  This, as Lutz Franke (from Germany) stresses, depends on whether or not the details above the ear of the head refer to the specific Blue Crown of Queen Nefertiti.  That's what she's wearing as the "most beautiful woman in the world" portrait in Berlin Museum.  

The argument may well hinge on such traces of her crown -- but that's not something we can determine from the published photograph (top left).  There's clearly tabs and things above the ear ... but what?. 

So, Nefertiti ... or not?  We'll probably have to wait until Christian Loeben comes out with his full case for identifying this head as a portrait of the queen.

A third update on 8 June 2012

Martin Wolff, who is quoted above on Akhenaten's beard, returns to the EEF-list to report on his re-examining many of the known shabtis of the pharaoh.  Yes!  There is one example that is -- and always was -- beardless: It's a shabti head in the Brooklyn Museum (left).  It's made of grey quartzite or, more likely (to my eyes, at least) of sandstone and its dimensions are very close to those of our rare new head. 

Eureka!  Or not?

Does one shabti make a summer?

But now Christian Loeben speaks for himself (his text and photographs are in the Ancient Egypt catalogue [link via Martin Wolff]), so you can read Dr Loeben's full case for the prosecution.  He discusses the stone and the crown but the crux of the matter is in the ear:

I've made the ear-plug clearer by circling in red
The clearest indication that the facial fragment exhibited here originated from a statuette featuring Queen Nefertiti comes from close examination of the left ear. The entirely preserved lower part of the ear (if indeed this is meant to be the earlobe) is disproportionately large. This is likely to be the circular disk of a mushroom-shaped ear-plug often displayed on such statuettes, as shown on both of Nefertiti's ears on a famous limestone exhibit (Berlin 21263 ). 

So, if Egyptologists agree that Akhenaten was never represented with ear-plugs, then it's more than likely that Dr Loeben is right in identifying the subject of the statuette as Queen Nefertiti. 

But will the Egyptologists agree? Stay tuned for more updates as they get their teeth in Christian Loeben's text.  I wouldn't bet good money yet on 'Game, set and match'. 

A fourth update on 12 June 2012

A consensus seemed to be forming, but it's not what you think!

Ear-plugs (or earrings)

Will it all come down to the ear-plugs --  and not the crown, as I previously thought?

There's general agreement that wearing ear-plugs or earrings in this period does point to a female.  Have a look at this plaster head (left), another artist's model from the same sculptor's workshop in Amarna as the Berlin Museum's Nefertiti ('most beautiful woman in the world').  It's thought to be a study of Kiya, a secondary wife to the pharaoh Akhenaten.  She, too, wears prominent ear-plugs or earrings.   And so do other models of the royal ladies.

Which is pretty good evidence, one would think, that the quartzite head does at least represent a royal Amarna female, even if not necessarily Nefertiti.  It could as well be Tiye, Meritaten, or any other female member of the family.  On the basis of this feature alone, it really can't be assigned to any particular individual lady.

But at least it's firmly female.  That's the consensus.

Or so I thought.

And lo and behold, Philip Arrhidaeus (of Flanders) has snatched away this simple certainty.  There's been a long discussion of the new head, too, on the Egypte forum Pr Kmt (in Dutch). 

The starting point is that Akhenaten was often depicted with pierced ears.

As Martin Wolff (on the EEF-list) had asked quite reasonably: "Why would Akhenaten have pierced ears if not to wear earrings?  The fact that to date we have never found a statue of him with earrings does not mean it never existed." 

In Ancient Egypt, indeed, never say 'never'.

Philip Arrhidaeus showed this relief on the Egypte forum (left).  The pharaoh is wearing an earring.  He also pointed to a drawing on an ostracon that was found at Amarna: the king is again depicted with an earring.

Neither image is of a statue, it is true.  So we haven't come full circle with our identification of the quartzite head.

Not yet.


Upper left:  photograph from the EEF BBS website (submitted by Raymond Betz).  Photo credit: Alain Speltdoorn.

Below left: Welt Online.

Illustrations added in third update

Above: Statue Head of Amenophis IV. Quartzite or sandstone, 2 3/16 x 2 1/16 in. (5.5 x 5.3 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Charles Edwin Wilbour Fund, 37.514. Creative Commons-BY-NC.

Face of Queen NefertitiAncient Egypt, Masterpieces from Collections and Collectors.

Illustrations added in fourth update

Above: plaster face from the Amarna workshop of the sculptor Thutmose.  Photo credit: Keith Schengili-Roberts (via Wikipedia).

Below: relief of Pharaoh Akhenaten, Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.


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