26 July 2008

Zenobia and the Marxist Gramscians (Updated)

Here we are again at the Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day -- and it's now Robbert Woltering's turn to strut the blogging stage. Robbert (that's Dutch, with two b's) teaches Arabic and Islamic studies at the University of Amsterdam. He is also editor of ZemZem, a journal about the Middle-East, North Africa, and Islam.

And what, I asked myself, is a ZemZem? Undoubtedly you, too, would like to know.

ZemZem, as some clever readers of my previous post were quick to spot, is the name of the sacred well at Mecca. It surges close to the Ka'ba, which houses the renowned Black Stone -- the holiest site of Islam. ZemZem may be an onomatopoeic word mimicking the bubbling sound of the waters, or perhaps it comes from the root z-m-z-m, which, I'm told, means 'swallowing in small drops' or, I suppose, sipping.

Naturally, an abundant source of water in the middle of the semi-arid Saudi desert is a miracle waiting for a legend to attach. Wait no more. Hagar and her son (by Abraham), Ishmael, were wandering thereabouts:

[ZemZem] sprung when Hagar left her infant Ishmael crying for water and shuttled between Safa and Marwa trying to see if people are coming up to provide water for the thirsty infant. Ishmael was kicking the ground when this well sprung out and she came on telling the water "zimi zimi "meaning 'come close together'. She was trying to get the water in one place to be able to give her son a drink.
Long before Islam, Arab storytellers were telling tales such as this about how things began. Poets streamlined the many contradictory traditions as tribes moved about, and created heroic origins for peripheral places and local events. Just so, Arab and Persian chroniclers, as preserved by Tabari, blended elements of folklore and fiction into a barely remembered history of Zenobia and Palmyra. Many of Tabari's tales rely on pre-Islamic sources and, together, they tell a story entirely different from that familiar to us from the late 4th C Latin Historiae Augustae (we've written about Tabari twice, so go first, if you will, to The Zenobia Romance I and II).

In Tabari's tale, there are no Romans at all. There is no Roman empire, no legions and no Emperor Aurelian. Even the Persians and the King of Kings are hardly mentioned. It is rather an almost timeless world with Arab tribes battling each other -- a pot-boiler of war and intrigue -- in the desert.

Zenobia Lives: the modern Arab reception of al-Zabba

By the time that Arab intellectuals began to revive interest in the Palmryan queen, a millennium or so after Tabari, it came about as part of the cult of Westernization that swept the Arab world in the late 19th/early 20th century.

Alexandria 1927

A good example is the Egyptian romantic poet Ahmad Zaky Abû Shâdy. Abû Shâdy composed an historical opera in 4 acts, Al-Zabbâ or Zenobia, Queen of Tadmor. It was published (in Alexandria?) by the Free Masons.

The Free Masons, I think, says it all.

Abû Shâdy, a Coptic Christian,* was a member of the liberal Egyptian bourgeoisie, that small elite in the process of Westernization in the early 20th century. Egypt was in the vanguard of this movement, which was often expressed by the transformation of Arabic literature through the Western forms of the novel and drama. Abû Shâdy was the founder of the Apollo Society, which aimed to introduce a fresh atmosphere in poetry especially romanticism, and establish modern aesthetics. It must have been quite difficult to produce modernized fictional work which would not enrage the Muslim conservative element but would, at the same time, not dissatisfy the modernists. Although non-political, he was constantly under attack and finally emigrated to America where he died in 1955.

Given Abû Shâdy's background, his time and place, you will not be surprised to learn that his opera follows the Historiae Augustae version of events -- a conflict between Rome and Palmyra and between Aurelian and Zenobia -- and not at all Tabari's Arab story of war between desert tribes. His Zenobia opera, as far as I know, was never performed.

Beirut 1969
Adnan Mardam Bey's Queen Zenobia (left), a play in 4 acts, also depends on the Historiae Augustae; and there is no trace of Tabari's folkloric tales nor of the Arab heroes, Jadhima or Amr ibn Adi.

While searching on-line for information on Mardan Bey (a hopeless task: I think he may be a son of the famous poet Khalil Mardam Bey , an assumption based on the fact that he edited that poet's diplomatic papers), I stumbled across a most serendipitous discovery.

I'm sure Robbert knows about it, but quite unknown to me was Zanûbyâ Malikat Tadmur (1871) by Salim al-Bustani (1846-1884) of Beirut.

Zenobia, Queen of Tadmur is the first-ever Arabic historical novel -- and the second novel written by this almost forgotten 'father of the modern Arabic novel'.** Before al-Bustani (and, in truth, until the 1950's), poetry remained the leading Arabic literary genre; the novel was perceived as a lower form.

Even the new Beiruti bourgeois reading public was still used to the oral techniques of the hakawati (storyteller) and the sira sha'biyya (popular tales). Al-Bustani had to adopt a style suitable for this readership.

He wrote three historical novels, all with fiery, patriotic Syrian heroines at the centre of the action. While his Zanûbyâ also follows the outline of the Historiae Augustae (and not Tabari), he is not so much interested in historical facts as in inculcating moral virtues. He admits to leaving out the depressing bits of her story in order not to sadden his readers.

Zenobia and her (non-existent) daughter Julia are captured by Aurelian and taken to Rome. That's sad, so the story concentrates instead on the Palmyran conquest of Egypt, a love affair between Julia and Pisa, a Roman prince, and Zenobia's war with the Romans. Al-Bustani often interrupts the narrative to criticize indirectly the customs, morals, and actions of the Ottoman rulers of Egypt. To avoid the Ottoman censors, criticism is implicit: contrast, he seems to say, today's governors with Zenobia, a model of beauty, courage, and political wisdom. Most of his characters are rather flat and pale, mere mouthpieces for the author's opinions and values. In fact, he emphasizes the fictitiousness of the novel to show that fiction is a vehicle for a worthy purpose. So, the only nail-biting part of the story is what will happen between Julia and Pisa, the classic story of lovers belonging to two hostile camps.

Beirut 1975

This Zenûbyâ emerges from a series of books on Arab heroes (Vol. 14: cover at the top of this post) as an Arab freedom fighter. Her hair is modestly covered to the very last curl. Hadn't the anonymous author ever seen Palmyran statues of women? They wore loose veils over the hair, rather like Benazir Bhutto. No matter.

The purpose of the book is educational and it is going to update Zenobia entirely. At one point in the story, Zenobia turns to her Greek philosopher friend, Longinus ( who may, or may not, be the author of On The Sublime), and says,

We have forty gods and they all do nothing. Find me one god, Longinus, in your wisdom.

Well, yes. Just a trifle anachronistic. But not nearly as anachronistic as her devotion to Marxist Gramscianism:

(Above, left) With her army mustered behind her, she is telling her broken-nosed commanding general, Zabda,

Yes, the empire needs to have a strong army, but we also need knowledge ... provided this knowledge is related to work (or labour).
In other words, as Robbert put it, the book is meant to project the Gramscian concept of the organic intellectual, a quite common ingredient in the Arab leftist ideologies of the time. "Leftist" in this context, designates both the Marxist and Arab Socialist/Nationalist trends in Arab political thought. Gramsci's political theory, and in particular his version of civil society, would, it was hoped, provide a vision to bridge the gap between leftist intellectuals and the people they claimed to represent.

Gramsci is a Marxist: that's why the bad guys in this book are not so much the Romans as the Palmyran sheikhs and merchants who refused to give Zenobia horses, and thus are to blame for making her rebellion a hopeless endeavour; but he is an alternative kind of Marxist -- who adapts the ideas of Marx to his own situation. For Gramsci, that was southern Italy, but, surely, it might equally apply to the backwardness of the Arab masses.

At the end of the book, the Roman Senators insist that Aurelian put Zenobia to death so that Roman women will not be corrupted by her uppity example. Aurelian is cleverer: "No," he says, "it's better to make her marry and be a proper woman -- wife, mother, and cook!"

So much for Marxist equality of the sexes ....

As far back as 1847, in Lebanon, Butrus al-Bustani (the father of Salim) had called for the education of women. He launched a fierce diatribe against the prevailing notion that education of women was dangerous and would lead to atheism and to madness. He stressed women's inalienable right to become men's equals in feeling, opinions, and work.

Hoorah! But let's not get carried away. Here's how he ended his famous speech:

Before concluding this discussion, I would like to say a word to the cultured woman: being such a useful and important member in the world and society does not need to let woman fall into the plight of vanity and pride or lead her to feel superior to her huband even if she is more knowledgeable than he, since nonessentials do not nullify the intrinsic.***
Quite So.

Dubai 2007

For a perfect finish, don't miss The Best Yet Mansour Rabani Zenobia Video (with English subtitles) shown by Robbert at the Amsterdam All-Zenobia Day; and my comments on that epic production, Zenobia Receives Royal Patronage and Zenobia's Terrible Curved Sword.

And still not a hint of Tabari and his Arabic tales!

Has the whole world outgrown the hakawati and the sira sha'biyya?

Save this date:

On September 11th, Johan Weststeijn and Robbert Woltering will give their lectures once again, in an expanded version at the Klein Zenobia Congres voor Arabisten (Little Zenobia Congress for Arabists).

I trust the 'Little' refers to the size of the congress and not to our dear Queen.

*  His granddaughter, Joy Garnett, wrote in (see comment below) to correct this information.  Abû Shâdy was Muslim.  My apologies.

** His first novel and the very first Arabic novel was al-Huyam fi jinan al-Sham (Love in a Damascene Garden, 1870). Massi Moosa, The Origins of Modern Arabic Fiction, Ch. 7, stresses al-Bustani's belief that the goal of fiction is to reform and regenerate society. While his themes pertain to the Arab world, he often uses a European setting to speak of Western ideology (socialism), "or to convey to his readers that the West can and must be learned from." (183); a summary of Zanûbyâ and al-Bustani's other historical novel appears in Ch. 8.

*** Quoted from Joseph T. Zeidan, Juzif Zaydan, Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond (24).

Update: 29 July 2008:

Kung Fu at Palmyra

In his comment on this post, Robbert Woltering points out that both of my images of Zenobia from the Beiruti Arab Hero series (1975) show the queen dressed "in her fighting gear. (In the book, Zenobia constantly engages in physical combat herself.)".

I hadn't realized that the anonymous author had put Zenobia so literally into battle.

Like this Kung Fu lady of modern imagination (below, right).*

So I was wrong to give the impression that Zenobia with her hair tucked away was a model of Muslim modesty. Not at all!

Robbert kindly sent me another picture from this book (left) of Zenobia wearing her crown, and with flowing locks of hair. While this hairstyle, too, is non-canonical for a Palmyran woman, it's AOK for late 20th C Beirut. In fact, she looks a little like the 2007 beauty queen, Miss Lebanon (below, left), with a similar sort of tinsel crown.

And the Arabic text on the same page could not be more politically correct (translation, needless to say, due to Robbert, too):

Zenobia, the warrior who battled against the enemies of the Arabs before the coming of Islam, and who demonstrated that a woman is capable of nobly engaging in combat, and of taking up position in the centre of power with firmness and the strength of her resolve and self-discipline.
I have just one quibble (I'm a great quibbler).

No, not about her battling "the enemies of the Arabs", though she didn't do any such thing.

But rather that she looks about 17 years old -- even Miss Lebanon 2007 looks older; and she was nineteen at the time.

We don't know when Zenobia was born, or how old she was when she died; but she certainly wasn't an adolescent when she became Empress of the East. In Zenobia: The Rebel Queen, she was in her late thirties; but I could be wrong.

It would not be the first time.

* Kung Fu Female Fighter © James E. Porter at Elfwood.com

24 July 2008

I've been tagged!

I've been tagged by a delicious blog, foodvox, just when I was in the middle of writing about Marxist Gramscians and ZemZem.

Puzzled? So was I. I've never been tagged before.

Now you'll have to wait to find out what a zemzem is, as I postpone my serious stuff and play tag instead. (There's an impatient editor, too, thrumming his fingers on the desk, waiting for a chapter from me, but I'm used to that ... and can tough it out.) It's summer, after all.

The tag descended in a purely foodie line until it reached me. How does foodvox know that I'm a foodie at heart? Vibrations through the ether, perhaps. But tagged is tagged, and I'm a game old girl.

The rules:

1. Link to the person who tagged you. Done.

2. Post the rules on the blog. Doing.

3. Write six random things about yourself. Attempting.

4. Tag six people at the end of your post. Dare I tag a total stranger?

5. Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog. They'll hate me.

6. Let the tagger know when your entry is up. Risky. What if they retaliate with a meme?

Six Random Things About Me

1. I'm a terrible procrastinator and a time-waster (but you already knew that).

2. In a previous existence, I was one-half of Weingarten & Chaplin b.v., an international direct marketing agency.

3. I had an unexpected encounter in a helicopter once and was fool enough to talk about it.

4. French provincial and Tuscan cooking mix very well and I bastardize frequently. As Sopater, the writer of a play called Lentil Soup, said, "I can carve meat for myself, and I know how to take Tuscan wines with any party of eight."

5. Speaking of wines, I am not named Weingarten for nothing. Old wine, but the flowers of new songs, as Pindar says.

6. I have never won anything in any lottery. I'm sure that tells something about me; but what?

These random remarks are not (to quote Plato) the light jests of a young and noble Socrates, but the serious thoughts of a tagger.

Now the moving finger moves on, as I tag another six unfortunates.

David Derrick at The Toynbee convector, who often provokes me into saying something sensible.

Gabriele C at The Lost Fort, whose blog is an engaging mix of history, fiction, and ruins I've never seen before.

Ridger at The Greenbelt, whose Monday Science Links keeps me on my toes.

David Powell at Studenda Mira, who should blog more, much more.

Debra Hamel at Blogographos, not so much a blog as an open posting place.

Carla Nayland at Historical Fiction, who just reviewed my Zenobia: the rebel queen, and doesn't deserve this in return.

Well, that's another day's work. Not.

* The wonderful photo of a cat burglar (at the top of this post) is shamelessly stolen from I-know-not-who: sent to me by a friend, without any credits, I've not been able to find out who photographed (and photoshopped) it. If anyone knows the creator, please send me the name so credit may be given.

19 July 2008

Cleopatra: Kill Or Be Killed


An Untold Musical Story of the Most Bewitching and Powerful Woman of All Time: Part Epic, Part Soap Opera, Part Tragedy, Part Historical Fact and Part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival.

Cleopatra as a rock opera star

Belting out sensual romantic melodies, blues-rock rhythms, Latin and reggae, CLEOPATRA transports the audience to a time where the major form of news was gossip and innuendo; where centers of power were hotbeds of jealousy and death; where marriages were often mere things of convenience; and where nations made war against their neighbor simply because they could.

What else is new?

Whether thought of as a beloved Queen or disparagingly referred to as "that woman", Cleopatra wanted only one thing - a strong Egypt. But while she made great strides to that end, she could never win over her detractors, always having to deal with gossip, second-guessing (as portrayed here in the classic Greek chorus manner), and predictions of doom which foreshadowed her final downfall.

It sounds like Hillary Clinton.

Crystal Theatre presents the sensual and wondrous story of Cleopatra, who loved and owned the hearts of two of the most powerful men in the world and ruled Egypt with the strength and passion that only the true "Queen of the Nile" could possess.

Crystal Theatre is an independent, non-profit performing arts school. Cheryl E. Kemeny (book music and lyrics, musical director & co-director of CLEOPATRA) is author and composer of over 30 musicals. Founder of the Crystal Opera in 1993, she is also the co-founder and artistic director of Crystal Theatre. I think that is Cheryl on the right, doing a nip and tuck on a very Hollywood-looking Egyptian.

The show will begin performances on July 16th at the June Havoc Theatre at the Abington Arts Complex, located at 312 West 36th Street in New York City -- and runs until August 3rd.

Every year, the Midtown International Theatre Festival likes to introduce something new for audiences and participants. I wouldn't have thought Cleopatra very new, but I see what they mean and it rocks. And it's all there for you to enjoy, so come out and enjoy the festival!

[My thanks to Kat Newkirk via EEF News]

* Press report: "'A Life Unparalleled',
Woman's rock musical about Cleopatra to be staged in New York:

09 July 2008

A Short Tribute to Giovanni Battista Borra

An Artist and Architect at Palmyra

I was somewhat saddened at the treatment received by Giovanni Battista Borra at the elitist hands of Dawkins and Wood after their travels to Palmyra (where Borra did all the measuring and the exquisite drawings, as noted in the the previous post, Lure of the East). While, even today, archaeological architects play second fiddle to the dig director, they do at least get pictured in the inevitable team photograph; not so Borra who is nowhere to be seen in Hamilton's giant painting, James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra.

So, I was especially delighted to find a webpage filled with Borra's engravings from The Ruins of Palmyra.*

I'll make it up to him, I thought.

Left: View of the Triumphal Triple Arch from the West, with the Great Colonnade, rubble, and columns.

The Colonnnade -- c. 1000 m (3,000') in length -- bisects the centre of Palmyra from the north-west to south-east. Shops and trading stations lined both sides of the street -- an early souk, really. Built during the course of the second century AD, it got its finishing touch with the addition of the lavishly decorated arch in c. 220 AD.

The arch may have commemorated the victory of Septimius Severus over the Parthians when the Emperor established the Roman province of Mesopotamia (taking the title Parthicus Maximus in January 198) .

One expects that Palmyran troops would have fought in this war -- and been rewarded with a share in the rich booty. For Severus had sacked and plundered the Parthian capital, Cteisiphon. As Cassius Dio tells us, vast numbers were killed and 100,000 prisoners taken. That's 100,000 slaves to be sold and turned into cash. Plus, as Herodian adds, the royal treasury was captured and all the king's jewels and valuables.

Quite when the Roman army reached Cteisiphon is unclear, but I like to think that this is the Severan triumph still celebrated over thirty years later by the Palmyran garrison at Dura Europos each year on 21st May.

So I propose that a victory toast was first drunk on 21 May 197, while Parthian blood was still wet on Palmyran swords. And then the rich merchants raised the money to build this elaborate triumphal arch.

(Left): View of the Triple Arch and the beginning of the Great Colonnade, with the North-West Wall of the Temple of Bel in the distance.

Wood called Bel's temple 'the Temple of the Sun', a reasonable error: Bel and the Sun were already confounded by the 5th C Byzantine historian, Zosimus, who tells that Aurelian placed the statues of Helios and 'Belos', patron god of Palmyra, in the Temple of the Sun which he founded at Rome. This would have looked right to Wood (who knew his ancient sources), while the carved bas-reliefs of Bel they might have seen were certain to have muddled the issue further.

For Bel was worshipped here as one of a trinity of gods, and is usually pictured along with Yarhibol, the Sun god, and Aglibol, Moon god. Both Yarhibol and Aglibol wear a radiate nimbus about the head (as on the relief below**), like a halo with sun rays. Confusion is easy, to say the least.

Although Bel is the supreme cosmic deity -- the one, sole, and merciful god -- nothing in the many inscriptions ascribes a subordinate rank to Yarhibol (who is also the patron of the life-giving waters of the spring of Efqa, as well as the divine judge) -- and perhaps not even to Aglibol, whose own sanctuary at Palmyra was called 'the Holy Garden', and which must have been one of the earliest temples in the city.

We know that these three gods were already being worshipped as a group in this temple in the very year 32 AD, when the sanctuary was dedicated. An inscription on the pedestal of a statue found in the temple grounds reads:

This is the statue of Lishamsh son of Taibbol son of Shokaibel ... who dedicated the temple of Bel, Yarhibol, and Aglibol, the gods, on the day of their feast, the sixth day of Nisan, in the year 342 (= 6 April 32 AD).

Right: Exterior View of Temple Cella from NW.

When Dawkins & Wood & Borra arrived at Palmyra, the entire courtyard and the temple of Bel itself were built over with the little houses of the Arab village (click here for a larger image).

Borra scrupulously drew all the one- and two-story Arab dwellings that then filled the god's precinct. So, to return for a moment to the theme of the Lure of the East (and charges of Orientalism flung about in recent times), these Occidentals -- at least as a general rule -- faithfully respected the landscape as they found it and did not try to erase signs of later accretions. It was the French who demolished the Arab habitations in the 1930's when they began excavating the +2 m (6') of dirt and rubble that had accumulated over the centuries within the temple grounds.

You Win Some, You Lose Some...

On the other hand, the plans Borra drew of the temple interior did not show the small mosque which was inside the building and only removed (by the dastardly colonialist archaeologists) in 1929.

When in London, Do As The Romans Do

After their travels in the Middle East, Borra went with Wood to London to prepare the engraving for The Ruins of Palmyra.

He stayed in England for eight years, busy with commissions for noble patrons. First came the Music Room (left) in the London house of the 9th Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, unveiled to rapturous acclaim in 1756.

There is no evidence that the room was used as a setting for music, but the Duchess of Norfolk certainly received her guests here during the reception in February 1756, when Horace Walpole remarked on the 'scene of magnificence and taste. The tapestry, the embroidered bed, the illumination, the glasses, the lightness and novelty, of the ornaments and the ceilings are delightful'.

On Borra's recommendation, Jean Antoine Cuenot was hired to make the extreme fine Carvings, the Arts and Sciences all Gilt , being paid 2643 pounds sterling 3s 8 1/2 d -- quite a lot of money -- for work undertaken at Norfolk House between 5 March 1753 and 24 February 1756. His carved woodwork caused a sensation when the interiors were first shown in 1756 (and again when the refurbished music room was installed in the British Galleries at the V&A in 2001). Bills indicate that he worked from preparatory drawings by Borra. It is not known how much Borra was paid but one cannot help but feel that Borra was again short-changed, at least in matters of fame.

To be fair, the white and gold interiors had a Parisian ambience, reflecting the latest French fashions -- which might well be due to Cuenot. It is certainly impossible to spot any trace of Palmyran ideas in these designs.

That is not the case with his second great commission.

Stowe House, 'the largest and most completely realised private neoclassical building in the world'.

Sir Richard Temple’s original seventeenth-century house was enlarged significantly by his son Viscount Cobham in the early eighteenth century -- with input from architects such as John Vanbrugh, James Gibbs, Robert Adam, and Sir John Soane. One of the finest neoclassical buildings in Europe, Stowe is set within an Arcadian classical landscape designed by Capability Brown and William Kent.

Roman Grandeur

But it was our hero Giovanni Battista Borra who designed the awesome Marble Saloon at the heart of the building, and for this commission he pulled out all the stops. The room takes its name from the marble floor, made of over 72 squares of veined white Carrara marble

Recalling the Pantheon of Rome, it contains 16 great imitation stone (scagliola) columns, supporting an entablature surmounted by a spectacular plaster frieze showing a procession of triumphant soldiers in high relief.

It's jaw-dropping stuff.

Containing 280 human figures as well as horses and lions, the frieze supports a huge elliptical coffered dome which reaches a height of over seventeen metres (50') at its (also elliptical) central skylight.

The plasterwork of the dome is spectacular, and nearly every single one of the 160 coffers is different in shape and size due to the elliptical design.

Am I the only one reminded of the ceilings of the South and North Shrines in the Temple of Bel (below left)?

Although these ceilings are made from monolithic sandstone slabs, one could easily imagine the designs transferred to a Roman dome

Networks of descending lozenges had again decorated ceiling vaults in Italy from the 16th C (in erudite reference to the apse of the classical Temple of Venus and Roma), but High Renaissance artists filled the panels with elaborate figures of man, animals, and emblems, rather than repetitive -- if highly decorated -- rosettes as in Borra's design.

In fact, his rosettes (below right) are rather sun-like, a conceit conceivably borrowed from the mis-named 'Temple of the Sun'.

But I don't insist on it.

* The properly eclectic Cabinet of Wonders alerted me to the Borra engravings at the website of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collection (with thanks again to David Derrick of The Toynbee convector for the tip). Not to look a gift-horse in the mouth, but I do wonder why the University puts a copyright sign on the images! Surely, copying engravings from an 18th-century book to the web does not give you rights of copyright; or so I think.

** Monument aux dieux Bêl, Ba’alsâmin, Yarhibôl et ’Aglibôl, now in the MBA Lyon, dated January 121 AD

01 July 2008

The Lure of the East

James Dawkins and Robert Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra
by Gavin Hamilton, 1758 (Oil on canvas, 3.1 x 3.9 m [12'x 16'])

I had not intended to write about the exhibition, The Lure of the East now on at Tate Britain. I confess to having no special insight into how British painters represented the people and places of the disintegrating Ottoman empire in the late 18th and 19th centuries. But David Derrick of The Toynbee convector directly challenged me to say something about this extraordinary huge painting (left)* and I'll try to rise to the occasion.

I shall be frank. I have not seen The Lure of the East nor have I ever seen this painting by Gavin Hamilton in the flesh.* To comment on art you haven't seen is rather like reviewing a book you haven't read.

Although -- come to think of it -- Oscar Wilde (the patron saint of non-readers) recommended six minutes as the proper time to spend reading a book for review. Having examined this reproduction for rather more than six minutes, I expect that I'm now well qualified to comment on it.

Lurid Orientalism

The burning question in 'Lure of the East' is whether the painters who were lured east faithfully represented the people, cities and landscapes they encountered -- or reflected, as Edward Said argued in his influential work Orientalism, a quest for Western superiority and control over them:
Orientalism is a political vision of reality whose structure promoted the difference between the familiar (Europe, West, "us") and the strange (the Orient, the East, "them").
A colonialist mind views the East as 'mysterious'. Presumably, despite new railroads and steamships, artists should have stayed at home, portraying the 'unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible' at English fox hunts. Or, if they did travel east, painted the people with sympathy, as if they were British under the skin. Fascination = phooey! On the other hand, it does not do to be too faithful to the subject: an essay in the catalogue roundly condemns the Brits as "content to paint a static world of exquisite surface" (Rana Kabbani). I suspect it's the word static that convicts them of Orientalism.

Yet I find it hard to find much in the way of imperial disdain in these detailed, dreamy, lazy, hazy,and colourful portrayals of mosques, markets, domestic life, and bustling coffee houses.

Certainly, even the most offensive British Orientalists were never as base as their French counterparts. Some of the French painters really did turn the East into 'the Other'. The first and greatest age of Orientalism in art began around the time of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt and peaked as the Romantic Movement swept through Europe. Full-blooded French painters, needless to say, often depicted the East as a place given to sexual excess, wanton cruelty, mass murder and unbridled sensuality.

Tut tut. British Orientalist Painting was very different.

You won't find a single British painting at Tate Britain showing a massacre, a beheading or a naked slave girl.

There are many reviews of the Lure of the East on the web.** Almost none, however, noticed the oddity of placing the Neoclassical artist Gavin Hamilton (1723-1798) -- and his painting of the 'discovery' of Palmyra -- within a show essentially dedicated to Orientalism. Decidedly earlier in date, he was entirely uninterested in the Ottoman Empire, the Bible lands or Egypt.

La Dolce Vita

He spent most of his life in Rome and never seemed tempted to venture eastwards. He visited the main sites of Italy, especially Pompeii and Herculaneum, and did a lot of deplorable digging up of antiquities in and around Rome, the results of which inspired the Neoclassical movement.
As an art dealer and archaeologist he undertook excavations at Hadrian's Villa in 1771, at first occasioned by the need of marble for his sculptor to restore sculptures. His excavators reopened the outlet of a low-lying swampy area and "after some weeks' work by lamp-light and up to the knees in muddy water" retrieved sculptures from the where they had been thrown with timber when the sacred grove was levelled.
Hamilton was permitted to excavate (or loot, if you prefer) by the Vatican -- which claimed one-third of the excavated works -- and lived well by selling many of his discovered statues, busts, and bas reliefs to British collectors.

Whether his own art brought the ancient world to life, or killed it dead, is a matter of taste. But there's no doubt about how he painted:
being perfectly familiar with the works of the great masters of Grecian and Roman literature, he displayed a highly classic taste in the choice of his subjects; and the style at which he always and successfully aimed, made him at least equal to his most celebrated contemporaries.

Hamilton's paintings provided patrons with illustrations of Homeric subjects treated in a stern and moral manner. For example, his Andromache Mourning the Death of Hector (click for a better image),the first of his large Homeric canvases (1761) of scenes taken from the Illiad, is built up of ranks of figures strictly parallel to the picture plane. The figures, overly eloquent in their restraint and absurdly noble in their form (in some cases derived directly from antique statues), gather round the bed of the dead hero rather as you would expect on a Roman sarcophagus. The subject is Greek, but the source of its style is seventeenth-century classicism. It is an interesting sidelight on Neoclassicism that an artist who had so much opportunity for examining newly found Greek and Roman antiquities tried in no way to break away from it.

His portraits, however, were a good deal fresher. And they certainly made a change from the oppressively hieratic, classical frieze composition of his history paintings. He painted the notorious, delicious Emma Hamilton (her husband, the English consul in Naples, perhaps a distant relative)^ as the goddess Hebe in a new 3/4 pose. This caused a craze in England where the goddess of youth and beauty and cup-bearer to the gods became the ultimate disguise for fashionable society portraits. Although Hebe is the personification of domesticity, there are erotic possibilities in the menacing eagle (Jupiter). That may explain why he painted her scandalously bare-breasted.

So we may add a grain of salt to the life of Hamilton, as told by Significant Scots , the paragon painter who
studied the chaste models of antiquity with more attention than the living figures around him; which has given his paintings of ancient histories that propriety with regard to costume, which distinguished them, at the time from most modern compositions.

Palmyra Ho!

In 1750-1753, Robert Wood and his friends James Dawkins and John Bouverie travelled to Syria:
A ship had been commissioned from London and met them at Naples. It was well stocked with a library of classical authors and historians, the relevant travel books, treatises of antiquities, and mathematical instruments; and they were accompanied by their own draughtsman.
The 'draughtsman' was the Italian artist and architect Giovanni Battista Borra, whose task was to measure and draw the ancient ruins. Gentlemen did not draw columns but copied inscriptions instead.

They arrived at Palmyra in 1751. Though not the first Europeans to reach the city, their timing was perfect: artistic style and refined taste was increasingly influenced by the classical ideal. The publication of their magnificent folio volume in 1753, The Ruins of Palmyra, contained templates for a new classicism in architecture that resulted in buildings in many parts of Europe being adorned with antique decorative motifs copied from Palmyra. The engravings became valuable sources for the emerging neoclassicism of the late 18th century and cemented the notion of ‘Palmyra' in Western minds.

From Wood's Preface:


We visited most of the island of the Archipelago, part of the Asiatick and European coasts of the Hellespont, Propontis, and Bosphorus, as far as the Black-sea, most of the inland parts of Asia Minor, Syria, Phoenecia, Palestine and Egypt.

The various countries we went through, furnish, no doubt, much entertainment of different sorts. But however we might each of us have some favourite curiosity to indulge, what engaged our greatest attention was rather their antient than present state. It is impossible to consider with indifference those countries which gave birth to letters and arts, where soldiers, orators, philosophers, poets, and artists have shewn the boldest and happiest flights of genius, and done the greatest honour to human nature.

Circumstances of climate and situation, otherwise trivial, become interesting from that connection with great men, and great actions, which history and poetry have given them: The life of Miltiades or Leonidas could never be read with so much pleasure, as on the banks of Marathon or at the streights of Thermopylae; the Iliad has new beauties on the banks of the Scamander, and the Odyssey is the most pleasing in the countries where Ulysses travelled and Homer sung.

John Bouverie, who had funded the trip, died on the voyage. Dawkins, who was also very wealthy, paid for the folio volume but was too much the gentleman to put his name on it. So Robert Wood alone published Palmyra , becoming famous as 'Palmyra Wood': at about 36 years of age, his reputation was
high and praise was unanimous.

Much less fuss was made about Giovanni Battista Borra (1712-1786) who actually drew the monuments and prepared the engravings for publication, So, rather than condemn Wood & Dawkins as proto-Orientalists, I see them as snobby elitists who didn't give proper credit to the hired help. Nor did Hamilton: Borra is left out of his painting entirely.

What did Wood think of Palmyra?

Although it's all the rage today to view people of earlier times according to our own modern, enlightened constructs, I cannot help but wonder what Robert 'Palmyra' Wood thought he was doing. Why did he go to Palmyra? What did he learn from it?

Wood, though not a professional scholar, was a student of ancient history, sharing with his more famous contemporary Edward Gibbon an interest in the rise and fall of great nations. For Wood, it was the traveller's duty to analyse the forces which led to the rise and fall of past civilizations, rather than simply describe the splendour of their monuments. Despite its splendid engravings, therefore, Wood's book is less significant for its description of Palmyra's ruins than for its prophecies with regard to Great Britain.^^

Palmyra as a portent of the future of Britain.

According to Wood, Palmyra achieved a high level of civilization as a result of its own unaided efforts -- as did England--- rather than through contact with supposedly superior cultures. There were many parallels, he wrote. Just as the sea contributed to Britain's "riches and defence," so the desert had contributed to Palmyra's: both states profited from their strategic position in terms of commerce and their ability to ward off potential invaders.

Palmyra had prospered as a result of its independence from surrounding nations and only declined after it had become a tributary of Rome. This dependence sapped their morale and weakened their resolve. There was a lesson here for his own country.

Like Palmyra, too, during the time of its greatness, Britain was blessed with a form of government that was essentially sound [Wood later became a politician,
serving as under-secretary to Prime Minister William Pitt from 1756 until 1763 and was secretary to the Treasury during the administration of Lord Bute, 1762-1763]. Nevertheless, Wood argued, if Britain fell victim to the dissensions of the age, it might suffer the fate of Palmyra, and he warned his fellow countrymen that they should not allow the pressure of the moment to pervert the noble simplicity of their constitution.

Wood believed that once a great civilization had established itself, it was unlikely to die. Palmyra, he imagined, could still regain its past glory, since the basic conditions that had promoted its rise to power were still present: the caravan trade and the desert.

That was a little too optimistic: today most of the traffic flowing toward Palmyra is composed of bus loads of tourists who come to view its ruins. Wood would not have been amused. He took his ancient ruins seriously.

Modern historians wouldn't judge his analysis an alpha effort, but Wood was an 18th-century gentleman of modest birth and varied talents, whose Palmyra nonetheless made a profound impression on his contemporaries.

He does not appear to have had a hidden imperial agenda.

No more did Gavin Hamilton.

In 1758, Henry Dawkins (James' father?) of Standlynch, Wiltshire and Overnoxton Park, Oxon, commissioned a painting from Hamilton to commemorate the discovery of Palmyra. The work remained in the Dawkins family until 1954, when it was given to the National Gallery of Scotland partially in lieu of taxes.

The line between moralizing and sentimentality is always a thin one in Neoclassicism and seldom thinner than in Dawkins and Wood Discovering the Ruins of Palmyra. However striking the rosy background ruins, the overall effect is decidedly silly.

I'll give the last word to Brian Sewell, the trenchant art critic of the Evening Standard, from his headline review, Lost in the East at the Tate Britain:

The biggest picture in the exhibition is Gavin Hamilton's James Dawkins and Robert Wood discovering the Ruins of Palmyra, of 1758 — 12 square metres of inflated nonsense, the discoverers dressed in togas of a kind that no ancient Roman ever wore, flanked by sub-Van Dyckian servants in a far from Dyckian disorder, clad in costumes borrowed from an Adoration of the Magi, the classical and baroque references confused, the ancestral composition fractured, the whole monstrosity irrelevant to the history of Orientalism.

* I am most grateful to Tate Britain for providing me with this excellent reproduction.

** An excellent review by Rachel Aspden in the New Statesman and another by Brian Sewell [cited above].

^ The story of Lady Hamilton, her antiquity-loving husband, and her passionate affair with Admiral Lord Nelson, is superbly told in Susan Sontag's historical novel, The Volcano Lover: a romance. Another portrait of Emma Hamilton by Gavin Hamilton, can be found here.

^^I am indebted to John Munro (American University of Beirut) for this discussion of the moral lessons that Wood sought at Palmyra.

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