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

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