Egypt in the modern world Legacy

What Everybody Ought to Know About Ancient Egypt in the Renaissance

The personal apartments of Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope, were suitably decorated in a high renaissance style. Painted by Pinturicchio in that ominous year of 1492 in rich blues, golds and reds, it would have been a dazzling space. Gazing at the paintings you feel closer to the celestial vibration of the universe.

A close study of the images show the usual combination of religious paintings. What is most surprising however, is that the slap bang in the middle of a room with paintings of martyrdoms of the saints, in the very heart of western Christendom, is a set of paintings depicting the story of Osiris, Isis and the Apis bull.

The paintings are intriguing not because they show a rejection of Christianity in favor of Egyptian religion, but because they show coexistence. In one image Osiris sits on a throne topped by a statue of David, the Old Testament King of Israel and Judah and a medieval Worthy. Brian Curran argues that the paintings suggest a fulfillment of profane and sacred history in the Borgia dynasty.

The other aspect that we must discuss is the use of the Apis cow. Ancient Christian writers inveiled against Egyptian animal worship. The Apis Bull was commonly associated with the Golden Calf of the Exodus tale. St Paul wrote many times against idols of “birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things” (Romans 1:23). The bull was a symbol of the Borgias, but in these rooms it is unrepentantly pagan. 

This was not unique. 

The Loggia of the Muses in the Palazzo del Te (1524–34) constructed  for Federico II Gonzaga, contains hieroglyphs and Egyptian style art on the ceiling vault.

Even more intriguing is the missal of Cardinal Pompeo Colonna. Commissioned by Colonna and only completed after his death this luxuriously illustrated book was most likely painted by Giulio Clovio, a Croatian minitatrist (Raphael was traditionally identified as the book’s artist). Pages depict gods, idols and other motifs in a relatively accurate Egyptian style. 

The decorated initial for the front page of the Mass of St John the Baptist depicts an erotic scene with Hercules and Antaeus on one side, a carefully placed lion skin and foot both hiding and extenuating Hercules’ private regions; on the other side, an image of Artermis of Ephesus, the very idol St Paul attacked in the New Testament. 

What do we mean by the Renaissance?

The Renaissance is one of those loaded words which have accrued a weight of associated meanings that break down on further study. Giorgio Vasari first used the term in his important book The Lives of the Artists to describe a break from medieval art and a return to high art. He dated this start to the artists Cimabue (1240 – 1301) and Giotto (1267 – 1337). 

The Renaissance is also linked to a revival in classical learning in the medieval West on the one hand and a growth of vernacular literature on the other. Latin and classical knowledge was never wholly forgotten but the study of antiquity certainly experienced a boom due to different trends like the printing press and the increase in the numbers of Greek intellectuals in Italy in the fifteenth century. 

Other scholars have also associated the Renaissance with the emergence of early modern ‘science’ and link it with thinkers like Copernicus, Kepler and Galileio amongst other figures. 

The idea of a Renaissance must be perhaps identified as an intellectual trend limited to a small group of elite intellectuals and artists. Even within these narrow boundaries, people often unconsciously create additional boundaries: the renaissance was a break from the medieval period, a return to Greek and Roman classicism, a rejection of religious theocracy and a turn to rationalism. As many scholars have shown, this is simply not true.

Reading Festival Cart in the Egyptian Taste

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Rome was full of ancient Egyptian items

One of the most intriguing and little known aspects of the Italian Renaissance was the emergence of a deep interest in ancient Egypt, which reached its peak around 1500, but remained important for centuries.

In a preface added to the second edition of Vasari’s work, Giovanni Battista Adriani claimed that the Egyptians invented art in order to portray their gods.  

There would have been great examples for people interested in Egyptian antiquities. Rome was then home to two pyramids, several obelisks (two standing at this point), sphinges and Egyptian lions. 

These items had gathered important Christian associations.

St Peter was believed to have been crucified within sight of the Vatican Obelisk which was formerly placed in the circus of Rome. It remained standing from the ancient period and was revered because of its association with this first Pope. A painting by Benadino Puturichio shows the saint crucified upside down, between two pointed pyramid shapes. 

Other objects were ‘discovered’, although whether this means via ‘excavation’ or purchase is unclear. For example, Pope Leo X had two sphinges (dated to the 29th Dynasty, 399-380 BCE) moved to a more prominent position in the Palazzo Senatorio on the Capitoline Hill. 

At the same time, new structures were built in the Egyptian style such as the Pyramid tombs of the Chigi family. 

Brain Curran argues that by the middle of the sixteenth century sphinges had become common in Roman villas and gardens. 

sphinx at the entrance of the Park of the Monsters. Lucius on Wikipédia italian CC BY-SA 3.0

Renaissance thinkers went about translating hieroglyphs

Egypt also inspired intellectual work. Scholars could access information about Egypt via Latin authors and then increasingly from Greek authors like Herodotus, Diodorus Siculus and Iamblichus. 

An important ancient author was Horapollo, who wrote a Greek book on Egyptian hieroglyphs in the fifth century. This book combined both accurate information and some flights of fancy. He argued that hieroglyphs had symbolic values. Many scholars attempted to use the text to translate Hieroglyphics, which we now know had phonetic and symbolic values.

Pierio Valeriano was probably the most prominent of this early group. In a letter to his uncle, he describes a seminar in which Egyptian inscriptions were discussed with reference to Horopollo.

Ultimately their effort was wasted due to following Horopollo too closely but also because of the nature of their evidence. Their most valuable source for hieroglyphs was an ancient bronze tabletop, called the Mensa Isiaca or Bembine Tablet, which was covered in hieroglyphs and other Egyptian inspired images. We now know the table was created in the first century, probably by Italian craftspeople, and the ‘hieroglyphs’ are essentially meaningless. 

Nevertheless, Valeriano’s work was an important foundation for Athanasius Kircher in the Seventeenth century.

The Bembine Table of Isis. Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) – Photographed from a reprint in Manly P. Hall’s The Secret Teachings of All. Public Domain

The most important classical author in the Renaissance was an Egyptian god

The understanding of Egypt by Renaissance thinkers was muddled, combining work we now consider relatively accurate and also later texts, some of which are downright forgeries. For example, the Dominican friar Annio da Viterbo specialized in producing various works.

The most important set of texts in this period was the work attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, known as the Corpus Hermetica. This was believed to have been an accurate translation of Egyptian wisdom, a parallel source to Moses.

In 1460-62, a manuscript of 14 Greek dialogues were presented to Cosimo de Medicci. He immediately ordered Marsilio Ficinio to stop translating Plato and to translate these texts instead. The Latin translations were completed by April 1463 and were translated into the vernacular by September 1463. The Latin texts were amongst some of the first ancient texts printed in 1471.

In his introduction to the translations, Ficinio argued that the texts predicted the Christian Revelation, which helped domesticate them within a Christian setting. 

To understand the ‘Renaissance’ we must understand the influence of Egypt

It needs to be said that this interest in Egypt was not universal. Papal patronage was important and different popes had different interests. For example, on Alexander VI’s death his personal apartments were closed up. His successor Julius II moved to a seperate set of rooms in the Apostolic Palace. 

If the Apis bull was co-opted as a symbol by the Borgias, then not everyone saw it as a neutral symbol. On repairing their church in Rome, built over the Great Isis Temple of Rome (the Iseum Campense), the Dominicans discovered a statue of a bull. They immediately smashed it up in a frenzy of anger.

Yet Egypt continued to have an important and enduring pull on thinkers, writers and creatives which continued into the later centuries and bloomed again in the hands of Poussin, Bellini and Piranesi.

Read more: The Egyptian renaissance : the afterlife of ancient Egypt in early modern Italy by Brian Curran

Title image – The Worship of the Egyptian Bull God painted by a follower of Filippino Lippi (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)