A craze for all things Egyptian gripped Europe in the early 1800s. Continuing our series of stories from the exhibition Connecting Seas, exhibition co-curator Peter Bonfitto reveals how, through the lens of Egyptomania, even an Aztec sculpture could seem to hail from the banks of the Nile.
In 1813 Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), the renowned naturalist and explorer of Central and South America, published a monumental volume describing peoples, landscapes, and antiquities he encountered during his journeys. This work, Vues des Cordillères, et monumens des peuples indigènes de l’Amérique, includes a full-page lithograph of an Aztec statue. For a number of years, this statue (now in the British Museum) was in the possession of Guillermo Dupaix, an antiquarian appointed by the King of New Spain to explore and document the ruins of ancient Mesoamerican civilizations. While on his own scientific expedition through New Spain, Humboldt was able to study Dupaix’s statue.
Along with the illustration, Humboldt describes the statue at length. He generically identifies the Aztec sculpture as a “water priestess,” known today as an image of the water goddess Chalchiuhtlicue. What’s most fascinating about his analysis is the way he describes the statue’s stylistic features. He relates them to forms adopted by ancient cultures known to him. In particular, he compares this Aztec statue to the faces carved on the tops of columns at the temple of Hathor at the ancient Egyptian site of Dendera.
Humboldt writes of the statue that it “presents the greatest likeness to the grooved drapery around the heads seen on the capitals of the columns at Tentryris [Dendera], as can be proved by looking at the accurate drawings that Denon has given in his Voyage en Egypte.”
Why would Alexander von Humboldt, traveling through the mountains and jungles of the Americas, think to liken an Aztec statue to the remains of a sanctuary over 7,000 miles away, on the banks of the Nile? The first part of the answer to this question is “Egyptomania,” the widespread cultural fascination with everything having to do with ancient Egypt.
Egyptomania has a long history in Western culture. The ancient Romans fetishized and emulated the art and religions of Egypt for centuries. Egyptian signs and symbols have been implemented by nearly every mystic or occult movement originating in Europe since the Renaissance. And even today there are signs of Egypt all around us—just take a trip down to Hollywood to the Egyptian Theatre!
At no point was Egyptomania more feverish than during the 19th century. Egyptomania exploded following Napoleon Bonaparte’s campaign in Egypt from 1798 to 1801, which failed to conquer the region politically but succeeded in encyclopaedically documenting its ancient past, contemporary culture, and natural history. The first work published about the expedition was an illustrated travel narrative by Vivant Denon (1747–1825), one of the most adventurous members of the scientific civilian group that accompanied Napoleon’s army. Denon paid special attention to Dendera in his Voyage en Egypte, which was reprinted and translated as it became a best-seller.
After Denon’s publication, the faces on the columns at Dendera began to appear everywhere. They were copied and published in book after book on Egypt, used as models for theater sets, and replicated on everything from decorative vases to clocks. Perhaps they are most beautifully seen in the epic publication sponsored by Napoleon himself, the massive, multi-volume Description de l’Égypte…, a copy of which is on view in the exhibition Connecting Seas. In the first decade of the 1800s, when Humboldt wrote his work on ancient Mexico, Dendera was in the mind’s eye of every intellectual in Europe.Something very interesting happens when we are confronted with things that are unfamiliar. Human nature tries to identify it with anything that is known, anything that is familiar. When Alexander von Humboldt conducted a visual analysis of an Aztec statue, he saw Egypt. He even compared the statue’s braided hair to images of the Egyptian goddess Isis, well known in European collections at this time.
The Egyptomania brought on by Napoleon’s expedition affected the interpretation of Mesoamerican antiquities broadly—Humboldt’s Egypt-inflected vision was no isolated case. Campaigns of exploration into the Americas were modeled after the endeavors of Vivant Denon and his fellow savants in Egypt, and the famous monuments of the Yucatan, like those found at Uxmal and Chichén Itzá, were compared to Egyptian pyramids in early published descriptions. Some of the authors even proposed the idea that in the very distant past, the ancient Egyptians themselves had constructed these “lost” cities in the jungle.
This story is one of many featured in the “Expeditions and Explorations” section of Connecting Seas at the Getty Research Institute, which presents some of the seminal volumes created in the first half of the 19th century. These books show the first steps by Europeans, some two centuries ago, toward serious scholarship of ancient cultures around the world.