Module 1 - Egypt

On the Search for Origins

[Current state of progress]

Module 1 first directs the view to Egypt, which was regarded in many discourses of the early modern period as a decisive ‘origin’ and/or mediator of a prisca sapientia in visual form. Here, the focus is on the genesis of Athanasius Kircher’s texts dealing with Egyptian monuments as well as on Filippo Buonanni’s catalogue of Kircher’s personal ‘museum’, which is one of Montfaucon’s most important sources. What can be gained from a precise reconstruction of the routes of origin of objects and visual material, what can be deduced from personal networks with respect to the knowledge of Egypt in the Rome of the seventeenth century, and how much unsorted material is offered by the Vatican Archives alone can be shown anew and confirmed based specifically on the example of the traveller Pietro della Valle (Burioni 2017).
This first module is thus dedicated to a comparative consideration of Egyptian and ‘Egyptianized’ antiquities that comes to light in selected collections of drawings and graphic reproductions.


What are documented are, among other things, the history of their reception and the interdependencies between reproductions and/or the ‘new images’ that resulted from them. In the early modern period, there was great fascination with antiquity along the Nile and its, in part, mysterious world. Intellectuals, antique dealers, scholars of antiquity, collectors, and artists increasingly examined the ostensible manifestations of Egypt. Their knowledge, however, was based to a great extent on a Greco-Roman tradition, based on which cultic customs (above all Isis and Serapis rituals), visual traditions, and material culture had been assimilated, interpreted, and adapted since Hellenism.
Numerous illustrated publications were created as of the seventeenth century – and still prior to the great, pivotal exploratory expeditions to Egypt of the nineteenth century. They visualize the perception of this ancient culture, the conjectured significance and/or interpretation and function of many objects, the development of its iconography, and the deciphering of hieroglyphs. Based on the images, taxonomic criteria for systematizing the knowledge gathered emerged.
They were derived on the one hand from ‘serially’ produced objects – in particular burial objects such as djed-pillars, scarabs, amulets, and Shabti figures, cameos, and canopic jars—and on the other from unique specimens and/or larger sculptures – as, for example, the Mensa Isiaca, the Florentine ‘offering-bearer’ from the collection of Leonardo Agostini, as well as sphinxes, baboon figurines, relief scenes, tripod stands, obelisks, and so forth.

The objects came from excavations (for instance, of the Temple of Isis and Serapis in Rome or Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli), were part of private collections (Barberini, Fabretti, Bellori, Strozzi, et cetera), or had meanwhile, like the obelisks, become part of the Roman cityscape. Information about them is provided in part by accompanying texts of varying scope or, occasionally, by images captions.
An important aim of the project is to trace the specific monuments or group(s) of objects from which the graphic depictions originated in their contexts of the time and based on where they were currently preserved, and/or to determine the extent to which more recent images or reproductions relied solely on earlier drawings or publications from the period of time being examined, and are thus not based on a direct, personal look at the ancient artefacts.
From this, it is possible to derive developments and processes of transformation that also become visible not least as a result of the different scope of the publications. The ability to reference particular works at the same time also facilitates insights into the personal networks and networks of publicists in the European republic of letters in the early modern period with respect to their treatment of the private collections that were known at the time and the pieces preserved in them.

Select Sources

Lorenzo Pignoria, Characteres Aegyptii, hoc est Sacrorum, quibus Aegyptii utuntur, simulachrorum accurata delineatio et explicatio, Frankfurt/M. 1608

Cabinet de Peiresc, Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, RESERVE AA-53-FOL, c. 1620

Cabinet de Peiresc, Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, RESERVE AA-54-FOL, c. 1620

♦ Giovanni Battista Casali, De profanis et sacris veteribus ritibus opus tripartitum, Frankfurt/M./Hannover 1681

Athanasius Kircher, Obeliscus Pamphilius, Rome 1650

Athanasius Kircher, Oedipus aegyptiacus, 3 vols., Rome 1652–54

Athanasius Kircher, Obelisci aegyptiaci interpretatio, Rome 1666

Filippo Buonanni, Musaeum Kircherianum sive Musaeum a P. Athanasio Kirchero in Collegio Romano Societatis Jesu iam pridem incoeptum…, Rome 1709

Dissegni di cinque statue egizzie donate al Campidoglio della Santita di N. S. Papa Clemente XI [...] delineate [...] da Francesco Moratti, Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, RESERVE PET FOL-FB-19, 1714-1715

♦ Bernard de Montfaucon, L'antiquité expliquée et representée en figures, 1st ed., Paris 1719, Supplement, Paris 1724
   vol. 2,1 ; vol. 2,2  ; supplement vol. 2