Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730–1930 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
Egyptomania: Egypt in Western Art, 1730–1930
“Egyptomania,” the lavish exhibit sponsored jointly by the Louvre, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Vienna, and held last year, had the benefit of an equally sumptuous catalog. This was the first show devoted to the modern fascination with ancient Egypt, and it was inevitably selective. It scrupulously included an early round of King Tut mania in the 1920s, but not its reprise fifty years later. It displayed Theda Bara’s Cleopatra, but not Elizabeth Taylor’s, and, perhaps deliberately, avoided mentioning all the blockbuster exhibits initiated by the second apotheosis of King Tut in the 1970s.1
Instead, this Egyptomania exhibition and its catalog seem to begin from the defensible premise that splashy shows and the popular response to them can be fun, even silly on occasion, and yet still impart something substantial. Indeed for those who missed the show, the catalog is one of the most stimulating books on the Egyptian legacy yet to appear. “Egyptomania” itself is not a new term; it was coined several generations ago in an attempt to capture the peculiar kind of magic the land of the pharaohs has continued to cast on the rest of the world—for the rest of the world does seem, virtually without exception, to be mad for Egypt. The immense, colorful catalog is as packed with treasures as Tut’s tomb, and like that tomb provides a hodgepodge of delights.
The catalog’s starting point of 1730 serves notice that its purview reaches back well before the Napoleonic era, to a time when most Europeans’ visual impressions of Egypt came not from Africa but from Rome, a city that had maintained close connections with Egypt long before an unfurled Alexandrian carpet deposited eighteen-year-old Cleopatra at the feet of Julius Caesar.2 In 31 BC, the naval forces of Cleopatra and Marc Antony turned tail off the peninsula of Actium in western Greece, and the kingdom of Egypt went to their adversary, Julius Caesar’s adopted son Octavian, soon to be titled “Augustus” by a decree of the Roman Senate.
The victory of Actium and the annexation of Egypt played into the Romans’ sensibilities on many levels. The naval battle signaled the end of a viciously long-drawn-out civil war as well as the spread of the Roman Empire; for some classes of society, like the well-to-do freedmen who had outfitted many of the victorious galleys, it was also a sign of their own emerging importance as participants in civic life. 3 And although Egypt itself was administered as if it were Augustus’ personal possession, many Romans felt their own personal tie to the Nile through the Egyptian cult of Isis, which had already enjoyed a solid foothold in Italy for a century, including the grand temple to Isis constructed in Rome.4
Civic salvation and personal salvation promised to come to Rome hand in hand out of Africa, and this may be why, in a burst of post-Actium patriotism, a Roman praetor named Caius Cestius decided, circa 12…
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