Lotus and Pyramid

“This country is a palimpsest in which the Bible is written over Herodotus and the Koran over that”

- Lucie Duff-Gordon, (Letters from Egypt, 1865)


The sign

In the past, travel books were accompanied by images long before the invention of photography. These works — illustrated with a more fantastic than real view — enriched the imagination of readers who dreamed of Egypt as a mysterious land full of ancient monuments and populated by strange creatures. In the coming years, towards the mid-nineteenth century, the pictorial imagination of the East was replaced by the more scientific imagination of designers, architects and scribes whose masterpieces appear in many works, such as, the beautiful works that were published in the Description d’Égypte of the Napoleonic expedition or in the works of Lepsius and Rosellini. Here, the art, in the service of the study, gave a major contribution to the new-born science of Egyptology. However, some artists continued to capture the exotic nature of Egypt, passing it on to their audience. David Roberts was one of the most important artist of that period, spending two months and half in Egypt in 1838, drawing and painting the most important monuments and scenes of local life. The Belgian Louis Hague, an expert lithographer, prepared Roberts’ works for publication in the next eight years. His colourful and often romanticized works, accompanied by texts by famous writers of the time, such as Binon, Birch and Brockedon, have always been very popular among collectors. Other renowned artists visited Egypt, bringing back beautiful images: William Henry Bartlett, David Wilkie, Frederick Catherwood, Edwar Lear, Owen Jones, and with the Orientalism — through representatives such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugène Delacroix, Étienne Dinet — The French transformed the representation of Egypt in a painting movement.

The invention

In 1839 one of the earliest forms of photographic process was invented that had great resonance in France as elsewhere in Europe: the daguerreotype by which it was possible to depict the image in an objective way, without using the creative work of the artist. Unfortunately, this method created a single image that could not be duplicated, which is why the shots of the first photographers — in order to be depicted in the books — were copied in the form of engraving. Between 1841 and 1843 the French optician Noël Paymal Lerebours published “Excursions daguerriennes: vues el monuments les plus remarquable du globe”, an album in two volumes illustrated with aquatints made using daguerreotypes. The images were taken in various parts of the world by people who history will remember as the first photographers: Frederic Goupil-Fesquet, his uncle Horace Vernet, Hector Horeau, Joly de Lotebinière. In travel books, drawings — often made by the travellers themselves — began to be replaced by the engravings derived from images obtained through the camera obscura. Any loss of romantic mood — with the undoubted gain in accuracy and objectivity — was replaced by the engraver with his art often adding people who animate the view, since the long exposure time do not allow to set the movement.

The journey

Pictures of books accompanied by engravings, taken from photographs, to replace drawings… My interest in travel literature began with the discovery of some prints by David Roberts. His romantic vision of Egypt fascinated me so much that lead me to investigate this fascinating subject. Collecting travel books was the choice that enabled me to know the stories of many travellers, some of whom spent a few months in Egypt, while others stopped there for the rest of their lives. Among these adventurers, other consuls, wealthy aristocrats, scholars… various people including both the dishonest and the generous, the snob and the simple. I met the generosity and the soul of Belzoni, the curiosity and respect of Burckhardt, the intelligence of Drovetti, the dangerous devotion of Finati… Although the experience of reading would take me beyond the images accompanying the text — some books were completely short of images — these illustrations helped to dream about the words that ran through the pages. The love of books made me love a gender, men and women who knew how to live, and decided to recount it, I envied the experiences and loved the written word, the illustrations helped to imagine those words, a world of pages with which I dreamed a country in another era. It is difficult to do justice to readings lasting over the years that have accompanied me for some time and continue to move me. With these images — perhaps also a palimpsest, as Lucie Duff-Gordon wrote — I hope I have traced a long path of memory without losing the sense of travel. I replaced the colours with the dark shades of many shadows caressing the notebooks of travellers, at the light of the lamps inside their tents. The colour is for life, reality, journey. The black and white allowed me to evoke and uniform figures that were sometimes so different. For the writing, the images were only a glory box, but isn’t the picture itself a narration for images? It therefore makes sense to collect these photographs as beloved evidence of a personal discovery, whose desire is to arise the curiosity of others to unveil the memory of a bygone era, travelled by men who knew how to give meaning to their journey, to their life. I want to finish my impressions with a text of a traveller, the Italian Carlo Vidua, who, in a letter of 1810 described what travelling meant for him. Reading these words I think it is clear what was his motivation — like many others — of dedicating his life.

“You know that there are so many ways of travelling, as a savant as a man of the world, as a lover of literature, as a grand gentlemen, as a ladies’ man, as a meticulous researcher of every notable thing, as an artist as a draftsman, as a messenger, as a financier or merchant, etc. etc. As I am not and I do not want to be anything in this world, and as I have told you many times, I would not want to take the trouble of being mediocre in something, I have adopted a system of travelling completely different from all of these people, at least so for as it seems to me. My principal objective is to see the important things of whatsoever kind and, above all, to get to know the way of thinking of various classes of people. When I go to a country, I try to get to know two classes of people: the nobility and some men of letters. Nobility in order to see the world, and customs, and to understand other ways of thinking because, generally speaking, a man of such rank who has wits, having many relationships and being in touch with many, understands their ways of thinking. To the contrary, a shopkeeper, for example, knows well only his shop and that which is beneath him and so forth. The men of letters, because they could help me to see, with profit, that which is most beautiful and to have advantage from their Reason, when they have it, which does not happen so often”.

These are twelve pictures from project Lotus & Pyramid.