An Image of Cleopatra?

While killing some time this weekend, I was poking around the archives of the New York Times via Google and in the October 12, 1884 edition I found this very interesting excerpt in an Arts column:

If you click on that, you’ll get the full image (I think) but the gist of it is the following:

  • at Cortona there was on view an encaustic image of Cleopatra
  • it is said to be the word of Timomakos of Byzantium (a contemporary of Julius Caesar)
  • it depicts the famous queen sporting jewellery reminiscent of that found by Heinrich Schliemann
  • the queen is also holding an asp

We are told that a Mr. John Sartain would be writing a book all about this image and include an engraving.  This is where the interwebs get all interesting because, as might be anticipated, that book is available online at the Internet Archive: On the antique painting in encaustic of Cleopatra, discovered in 1818 (1885 — there are apparently later versions) . The frontispiece includes the promised image:

Even though it’s a depiction of a depiction, I’m sure folks will readily recognize that ‘upward gaze’ as belonging to an later time in Roman art and it doesn’t seem to be the norm in wax encaustic paintings which we have, but I digress. Another version of the book at Google seems to be missing this frontispiece. The book only spends a few pages on this specific item, but it has an interesting provenance/backstory … especially in these days when we’re used to simply reading that something comes ‘from a Swiss collection’.

This is from pp 10 ff, after a section describing the ‘Muse of Cortona’, found in the same area:

The other example of ancient tablet painting is one of greater importance, and is preserved in the Villa of the Baron de Benneval at the Piano di Sorrento. This also is ingood hands but it ought to find a permanent resting-place in some national collection, where it should be forever safe. It represents Cleopatra receiving her death from the bite of an asp, and of course it cannot be claimed that it is a portraint from life, as it was obviously painted subsequent to her tragic end. It was discovered by Micheli, the well-known antiquary, under the cella of the temple of Serapis, at Hadrian’s Villa.

I haven’t been able to identify this ‘well known’ antiquary (is he someone associated with forgeries?); if folks can point me in a direction, that would be much appreciated … after a digression on the finding of the other painting we get more details on the discovery:

The history of the Cleopatra since its discovery is briefly this. Dr Micheli and his brother, who were associated in the ownership, endeavoured to secure a safe and permanent repository for their treasure in the famous Florentine Museum through a sale to the Grand Duke of Tuscany,but the large price demanded was refused, at a time so little removed from the political convulsions and great wars of the first French Empire, the finances of the Duchy requiring yet many years of economy for their re-establishment. Some years later, the business of the Micheli brothers falling into a decline, they realized funds by pledging the picture with some Jews, and soon after both died. The charges went on increasing with time, and the heirs finding themselves unable to redeem it, sold it to an acquaintance of the Baron de Benneval, subject to these accumulated charges, and he rescued it from the hands of the usurers at serious sacrifice. Subsequently the new owner also found he could not afford to keep it, and the present owner purchased it from him in the year 1860.

I omit a paragraph on times it was exhibited and a passing mention that it was placed “on an underbed of a peculiar cement” for stability purposes; it continues:

In 1869 the Emperor Louis Napoleon made an offer to purchase, which was reluctantly agreed to, and the picture was transported to Paris with the view to the fulfillment of the arrangement; but the war with Germany began, and just on the arrival of the picture in Paris there occurred the battle of Forbach, which caused hesitation as to risking its delivery. During the German siege of Paris and the Commune following, the painting was under the protection of the Prince Czartoryski, and after the liberation of the city the picture was returned to Sorrento, where it has remained ever since.

Now we get an ancient reference:

I have now only to relate what appears to have been the origin of the picture, and how it came to the place where it was found. Augustus Caesar being deprived of the presence of Cleopatra in person to grace his triumph (the Queen having evaded that humiliating exposure by suicide), decided on having at least a representation of her. It is on record that a picture was painted for this purpose, and was borne on a car or litter near his own, along with other objects of Egyptian interest and of great value, taken from the monument in which she died; and since it was carried on the attendant car, it was obviously a tablet picture. After it had answered this use, he placed it as an offering in the temple of Saturn at Rome. There can be little doubt that this is the Sorrento picture.

Before the rest, we should mention that Plutarch’s Life of Antonius (86.3) mentions an image being carried in the triumph. Dio (51.21) mentions an ‘effigy’ of Cleopatra on a couch in the procession. As often, we seem to be getting ambiguous/conflicting messages from our sources who are writing more than a century after the fact. In any event, the relevant bit of Sartain continues:

This painting has given rise to voluminous literary research, and some writers claim that it is the work of the famous Byzantine artist, Timomakos, who was the author of two pictures purchased by Julius Caesar at the enormous price of eighty talents ($350,000), which he presented as an offering to the temple of Venus Genetrix. One of these was of ” Medea,” the other “Ajax,” the former one unfinished. It is also asserted that this artist saw Cleopatra when she visited Greece, sum-moned thither by Mark Anthony, and Anthon places him as cotemporary with Caesar and the Egyptian Queen, although some authorities locate him at an earlier period. Be this as it may, by whomsoever done, it was doubtless painted about twenty-nine years before the Christian era — assuming it to be the identical picture known to have been produced for the use named. Some hundred and forty years later, the Emperor Hadrian removed from Rome a large amount of the choicest art treasures of the city to enrich and adorn the vast villa he had caused to be built near Tivoli (the ancient Tibur), and no doubt the Sorrento Cleopatra picture was among the objects thus gathered, and it found an appropriate resting-place in the temple of the Egyptian god Serapis, since that was the locality of its discovery.

Timomachus is, in fact, an encaustic artist of the time mentioned by Pliny the Elder (NH 35.136 … thanks to assorted folks on Twitter and Facebook for helping me track that down efficiently). The rest of Sartain’s book really has little of interest for us. My next foray was into a magazine/journal called Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly (vol. 27; 1889). An article by one John Paul Bocock (pp. 537 ff) entitled “Some Artistic Conceptions of Cleopatra” has an interesting statement on p. 539:

Marvelous as it may seem, the authenticity of the Encaustic Cleopatra was questioned chiefly on account of the freshness of the colors, says Dr. R Schoener, the great German expert. Fragments from the slate have been ground up,however, and the age of the wax and resin colors verified.

I’m not sure what dating methods would have been in use in 1889 … anyone know?

Last, and certainly not least, I direct the reader to a very interesting page at Lacus Curtius (which I stumbled upon, archaeologist-like) while doing the ref to Plutarch above. It’s an extract from Sir Thomas Brown’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica, which seems to be describing just such a painting back in the 17th century. The notes are more interesting, and seem to relate to the discovery of the encaustic under consideration by us. There are also some more references to ancient sources. What I find interesting — but not surprising — is that the author of the page (James Eason) has been unable to trace the whereabouts of this encaustic. He speculates that it’s possibly in a museum in Cortona. Does anyone know what happened to this? It seems very likely to be a fake — does anyone know of any scholarly literature debunking its authenticity? As far as I can find, the Popular Monthly item is the last mention, but it’s clear that there was skepticism about its authenticity by that time.

UPDATE (the next morning):  while getting my five shots of espresso in me this a.m., I came across James Jackson Jarves,  “An Assumed Example of Greek Easel-Painting of the Best Period of Antiquity,” The Art Journal (1875-1887), New Series, Vol. 1, (1875), p. 177, which obviously predates Sartain’s work. A notable quote:

“Certain critics, however, considered it to be one of the experiments made in the last century by Count de Caylus to resuscitate the lost Art [sc. encaustic].”

Jarves doesn’t seem to have actually seen it; he goes on to talk about the Muse of Cortona. Anne Claude de Caylus (the Comte de Caylus) is suitably introduced in the relevant Wikipedia article. He does seem to have been trying to revive the encaustic technique.

File This One Away for Future Reference

An excerpt from a feature on Zahi Hawass in Speigel … I don’t think comment is necessary ….

Hawass reserves the right to announce all discoveries himself. Not everyone likes this. Some people feel that he is about as interested in serious research as Rapunzel was in having her hair cut.

He boasted that there were “10,000 golden mummies” at the cemetery in Bahariya, but only 200 were found. And he mistakenly declared a shabby find in the Valley of Kings to be the gravesite of a female pharaoh.

His own excavation efforts also appear to be somewhat bizarre. For some time, the master has been searching for the body of Cleopatra in a temple near Alexandria — based on an idea suggested to him by a lawyer from the Dominican Republic.

“Are you sure about this?” a journalist wanted to know. Hawass replied: “Completely, otherwise I wouldn’t have even mentioned it. After all, I don’t want to embarrass myself.”

When nothing was found, despite feverish excavation efforts, Hawass took a granite bust of Cleopatra’s lover, Mark Antony, from a museum last year and pretended that he had just pulled it out of the ground.

via Zahi Hawass: Egypt’s Avenger of the Pharaohs | Speigel Online.

Citanda: Cleopatra Podcast Series: Day 1

Black basalt statue of Ptolemaic queen Cleopat...
Image via Wikipedia

The Oxford University Press blog seems to be running a series of podcasts about Cleopatra over the next few days (?). In this first installment, we have an interviewish thing with Duane Roller, who, of course, has recently written a biography of our favourite Alexandrian.

The Curse of Cleopatra?

The Osiris temple at Taposiris Magna, Ptolemai...
Image via Wikipedia

I’ve really got to stop reading email … every time I open it, it seems, there’s something about Cleopatra’s tomb and it’s presented in such a way that I feel I HAVE to respond to it. The latest comes from the venerable Al-Ahram, whose reporter seems (as will be made clear later) to have been at the same news conference/presentation/whatever as our National Geographic correspondent from t’other day. We’ll begin this one a few ‘graphs in, whence comes the title of this post … seems Dr. Hawass was being lowered down one of the shafts at Taposiris that we’ve been hearing about. Ecce:

By this time Hawass, in his Indiana Jones hat, was enclosed inside a red iron cage hung on an anchor which suspended him on a thick wire from an electronic engine. Hawass went downwards, and when he had almost reached the bottom he gave the order for the engine to stop as he had found subterranean water covering the bottom of the shaft. After a few moments of thought, and under the spell of his passion for archaeology, Hawass decided to take the plunge because, he said, he believed that underneath the water there would most probably be a monument or a collection of artefacts. However, when the team on top resumed their drilling, the engine refused to operate and Hawass was trapped inside the cage which swung bashing Hawass against the rough sides of the stony shaft. This went on for 20 minutes until, following several failed attempts, workmen pulled the cage out manually.

“It’s Cleopatra curse!” one of the workers cried out. Hawass laughed, and said that it was not the first time he had been in such a position. “I always face circumstances like this when I am up to something special,” he told Al-Ahram Weekly. “When I was digging inside the Valley of the Golden Mummies I got an electric shock from a lamp I was holding. The shock threw me two metres away and I hit the floor of the tomb. And an hour before my lecture at the opening of the Tutankhamun exhibition in the United States, the light of the gallery went out and the computer didn’t work. “I think this wasn’t the Pharaohs’ curse but Hawass’s curse,” he said with a huge grin.

If nothing else,  you have to admire the guy’s sense of humour. The report goes on:

He went on to say that the ancient temple site might hide the tomb of the legendary lovers Queen Cleopatra VII and Mark Anthony as it was a perfect place to hide their corpses, especially since Egypt was in a very bad political situation at the time of the war with Octavian — later the Roman Emperor Augustine.

… we’ll forgive the typo; they get it right later on … but again we see the ‘hiding the corpses’ scenario. It continues:

“Searching for the tomb of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony is very exciting,” Hawass said. He pointed out that his fondness for Cleopatra blossomed in his early youth, when at 16 years old he began to study Graeco-Roman archaeology in the Faculty of Art’s Greek and Roman Department at the University of Alexandria. He once asked Fawzi El-Fakharani, professor of Greek and Roman archaeology, about the place that he thought might be the location of the tomb of Cleopatra. Fakharani told him at the time: “To our knowledge and information Cleopatra was buried in a tomb beside her palace, which is now submerged under the Mediterranean Sea.”

Hawass relates that he forgot about the issue until four years ago, when Dominican archaeologist Martinez came to pay him a visit and tried to convince him of a theory that Cleopatra and Anthony were buried in Taposiris Magna, near Alexandria.

“When actually you look at such a temple and remember the Osiris myth, you will be convinced by such a theory,” Hawass said. He explained that the temple was dedicated to the worship of the god Osiris, who according to ancient Egyptian myth was killed by his brother, the god Seth, who cut his corpse into 14 pieces which he spread over the Earth. Egypt has 14 temples dedicated to Osiris. Each temple is known in hieroglyphics as Per Oser, or the place of Osiris, and each contains one of these pieces. And that, according to Hawass, is why such a temple could be a perfect resting place for the legendary lovers. We know from the Greek historian Plutarch, he says, that the pair were buried together.

I don’t get it. Yes, the place does sound like a perfect place for burials — and as will be seen below, it clearly was — but again (and again and again) we have to ask why would Tony and Cleo have any special connection to this place?  And if it’s such a great place for burials, why don’t we hear of other pharaonic types being interred in such milieux? And as long as we’re claiming Plutarch as a source, we should confirm that in the life of Marcus Antonius 84 we read (via Lacus Curtius):

But Caesar, although vexed at the death of the woman, admired her lofty spirit; and he gave orders that her body should be buried with that of Antony in splendid and regal fashion. Her women also received honourable interment by his orders.

Again, we stress that it is Octavian directing the funerary matters here and, if the reader does explore the section of Plutarch dealing with Cleo’s final days (book 80 and following) there is no indication of any of the events happening anywhere other than Alexandria and although an argument e silentio, I think we might reasonably expect at least one ancient source to mention the burial site if it were in an ‘irregular’ place. But even if we avoid such arguments (as I’d prefer to do)   as before, we can again wonder whether the body of one or both would have undergone mummification — I have had no enlightenment in regards to the burial practice of the Ptolemies and the sources seem confused in regards to the treatment of Antony’s remains. Timelines for ‘traditional’  mummification may or may not have been possible. Now we can skip a bit and bring up something that occurred to me while stuck in traffic today … writing about that recent statue find:

The statue is very well preserved, and is was one of the most beautiful statues ever found carved according to the ancient Egyptian style as it bore the traditional shape of an ancient Egyptian Pharaoh wearing a collar and kilt. “I believe that the statue may have been an image of King Ptolemy IV, the founder of the temple,” Hawass suggested. Inside the temple, Hawass continued, the mission found a temple dedicated to the goddess Isis, mythical sister and wife of Osiris.

One of the things that always seems to be brought up as evidence that Tony and Cleo were buried here are the various statues and coins we mentioned quite a while ago. By that same logic, should we not think/postulate that Ptolemy IV is buried here?

Skipping a couple of graphs:

The mission began excavating at Abusir five years ago with the goal of discovering the tomb of the famous lovers Cleopatra and Anthony. According to Hawass, there is evidence to prove that Cleopatra was not buried in the tomb built for her beside the royal palace — which now lies under the waves in the Eastern Harbour on the Mediterranean coast of Alexandria.

And what is that evidence? Apparently that very statuary, along with something WAY more interesting:

Hawass pointed out that over its years of excavations the mission had unearthed a number of headless royal statues, which might have been destroyed during the Christian Byzantine era. A number of heads featuring Cleopatra VII were also uncovered, along with 24 metal coins bearing an image of the queen’s face and one of Alexander the Great. All these objects suggest that Queen Cleopatra once built a religious chapel for her cult inside the temple of Osiris at Taposiris Magna. Outside the temple, at its back courtyard, a necropolis containing mummies from the Greek and Roman eras has been discovered. Hawass describes it as the largest ever Graeco-Roman cemetery to be found, stretching for more than half a kilometre. “Up to now the mission has succeeded in uncovering 22 rock- hewn tombs with stairs inside the necropolis,” Hawass told the Weekly. He went on to explain that skulls and mummies were also unearthed inside, two of which were gilded. On the west side of the temple another cemetery was located. “Early investigations show that the mummies were buried with their heads turned towards the temple, which indicated that the temple housed the tomb of a significant royal personality,” Hawass said, pointing out that if this were not so nobles would not have dug their tombs near the temple because, according to ancient Egyptian traditions, nobles always built their tomb near their kings and queens as demonstrated in the Valley of the Kings and Queens on Luxor’s west bank.

So it is the statuary. Outside of that, though, we’ve had hints that there were other burials here, but I don’t think we’ve heard of  how huge this necropolis is or anything about these ‘gilded mummies’ before (perhaps we have and I’ve missed/forgotten about it … we did hear about the rock cut tombs etc. a year ago last summer). That said, we have to ask: did any “nobles” have tombs near the mausoleum of the Ptolemies? Do we have any evidence that burial practices in Ptolemaic times mirrored those of Valley of the Kings times?  Or better, let’s ask: What pharaoh is buried at the Bahariya Oasis where all those gilded Greco-Roman mummies were found — they’re clearly “nobles and dignitaries”? It’s interesting that Dr Hawass makes no suggestion of pharaonic burials at Barhariya in any of his pages about the site. It’s even more interesting that he believes (probably not unreasonably) that  the Greco-Roman burials were in that area because of their proximity to a temple to Alexander the Great. Should we not be using the same logic as we’re using at Taposiris Magna and suggest that Alexander is buried at Bahariya? (and no, I don’t think Alexander is buried there).

We then get something similar to what was said in the National Geographic piece:

A radar survey carried out in the area revealed three anomalies or locations inside the temple, and it is possible that one of them could be the entrance of a tomb that goes down 20 metres below ground. “We are hoping that it could be of Queen Cleopatra and Mark Anthony,” Hawass said. “But as I always say, archaeology is based on theories and here we are experiencing one of them. If we succeed in discovering such a tomb it will be the discovery of the 21st century, and if not we still unearth major objects and monuments inside and outside the temple which shed more light on the history of the era and this mythical queen.”

After a few paragraphs with Kathleen Martinez reiterating that ‘political situation in Egypt’ claim, the journalist lets his imagination run a bit in his conclusion (note the leap in logic in regards to the gilded mummies; I wonder if that’s what Martinez was alluding to in July of 2009):

Hawass promises that next week he will travel to Alexandria in an attempt to explore the shaft. But first the water must be pumped out of it. As for now, searching for the lost tomb of Cleopatra and her beloved Mark Anthony is still in full swing, but can the mission find the tomb of the legendary lovers who, according to Plutarch, took their lives in 30 BC after losing a power struggle between Mark Anthony and his rival Octavian, who later, as Emperor Augustus of Rome, ordered that Cleopatra be buried in a splendid and regal fashion along with Anthony? The question is, where? Could the gilded mummies recently found of a man and a woman have been the two lovers? Or perhaps the three shafts found inside the temple will reveal their tomb; or does it house more anonymous skulls and bones? Nothing is in hand, and we must wait and see what the days hold.

via: So where are Anthony and Cleopatra? | Al Ahram

I suspect we all really know why there’s all this hype and this desire for a ‘big find’ in the next week or so … on June 5th, the Cleopatra exhibition is opening at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Interesting, though, that Action News is heading to the harbour at Alexandria … Okay … now unless Hawass and Martinez find something REALLY spectacular when they pump out that tunnel, I’m declaring a personal moratorium on anything related  Taposiris Magna for at least the long weekend.