A personal view: Yourcenar, Piranesi and Egypt
By Richard Bruce Parkinson
In the early 1960s, Marguerite Yourcenar wrote an essay on ‘Le cerveau noir de Piranèse (The dark brain of Piranesi)’. Earlier, in 1941, she and her American life-partner Grace Frick had bought four engravings in New York which remained with them for the rest of their lives, and one of them played a part in inspiring what remains her most famous work, Mémoires d’Hadrien (Memoirs of Hadrian 1951). The novel is a poetic evocation of the life of the Roman emperor, including his relationship with the handsome Antinous, who died on an imperial progress in middle Egypt in AD 130. The novel has always had particular resonance for LGBT readers as a profoundly ‘queer’ imagining of the ancient past, but it has also been inspirational for some Egyptologists, notably the great Philippe Derchain (1926–2012), who even composed a fictional account, in an intertextual dialogue with Yourcenar’s novel, of the Barberini obelisk that Hadrian had erected in Antinous’ honour.
The above print, by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778), from around 1769, shows the exterior of the so-called ‘Tempio del Dio Canopo’ at Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli from the series entitled Vedute di Roma, which forms volume 5 in Taylorian founder Sir Robert Taylor’s own set of Piranesi volumes, now housed in the Taylor Institution Library (see http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/taylorian/2014/12/19/unpacking-sir-robert-taylors-library/). The villa was central to Yourcenar’s inspiration, and this is the one image she described in detail in her reflective notes on composing the novel. From ancient descriptions of the villa as containing a ‘Canopus’, the building at its centre was thought to represent the town of Canopus in Egypt, and it was traditionally regarded as the find spot for many Egyptianising works of art from the villa. In the novel, ‘cette chapelle de Canope où son culte se célèbre à l’égyptienne (that chapel of Canopus where his cult is celebrated in Egyptian fashion)’ is evoked as Hadrian attempts to summon up the ghost of his lost beloved. Piranesi’s print is a carefully captioned view of the structure, reflecting his concerns to document the ‘speaking ruins’ of ancient Rome, but it also possesses a romantic quality that appealed to Yourcenar. She described the etching as showing ‘structure ronde, éclatée come un crâne, d’où de vagues broussailles pendent comme des mèches de cheveux. Le génie presque médiumnique de Piranèse a flairé là l’hallucination, les longues routines du souvenir, l’architecture tragique d’un monde intérieur (a round structure, burst open like a skull, from which fallen trees and brush hang vaguely down, like strands of hair. The genius of Piranesi, almost mediumistic, has truly caught the element of hallucination here: he has sensed the long-continued rituals of mourning, the tragic architecture of an inner world)’. The domed building is skull-like, with two fallen masses of the vault placed symmetrically in the foreground like jaws; they still lie in the area today.
As Nigel Saint has noted, the view down the central axis of the etching allows the viewer to look from the outside into as it were the inner parts of the emperor’s private world, as Yourcenar attempted. The strikingly symmetrical composition creates a sense of mystery: what are the three tiny figures doing in the centre of the monumental arena – are they reading palms?
As Yourcenar’s emperor says of his villa, ‘chaque édifice était le plan d’un songe (each structure was the chart of a dream)’. The tree on the left seems playfully to echo the gesturing figure on the right, as if monument, nature and humans are all parts of a single grandiose ruin: such contemporaneous figures appealed to Yourcenar’s desire to explore ways to mediate between the living present and the past, through ‘[les] milliers de vies silencieuses, furtives comme celles des bêtes … qui se sont succédé ici entre Hadrien et nous (the thousands of lives, silent and furtive as those of wild beasts … who have followed in our succession here between Hadrian’s time and ours)’. For her, the depiction of a ruin becomes ‘une méditation à la fois visuelle et métaphysique sur la vie et la mort des formes (a meditation both visual and metaphysical on the life and death of forms)’.
To modern archaeological eyes, the print also shows that any historical certainty is remarkably uncertain, as excavations and reconstructions of the building continually change the picture in every sense: the traditional idea that this building was connected with Egyptianising art-works and cult has been disputed, and its identification as Hadrian’s ‘Canopus’ is far from certain, with architectural historians arguing that it was probably only a scenic triclinium for the summer months.
The architecture is no longer considered in any way ‘tragic’. New layers of interpretation gather around the image, but I retain a fondness for it, partly as a symbol of Yourcenar’s vision of a queer ‘monde intérieur’. And partly because a print of it hung (and still hangs) over the fireplace of the sitting room in Petite Plaisance, the house that she shared with Grace Frick in Northeast Harbor, Maine.
The print thus not only evokes the ancient past of Hadrian and Antinous, but also the modern personal, domestic world of Yourcenar and Frick. For me, as a gay Egyptologist, it has become an image of what historians do in trying to recapture a sense of ancient lived experiences—not only with precision, but also with imagination and empathy.
Richard Bruce Parkinson
Professor of Egyptology & Fellow of The Queen’s College
University of Oxford
The opportunity to view this and Piranesi’s other etchings took place during a special seminar, ‘G. B. Piranesi: Sir Robert Taylor’s Collection of Etchings & the Ashmolean Candelabra’, held at the Taylor Institution and the Ashmolean Museum in late 2017. The occasion arose from Oxford’s 2017 Slade Lectures, ‘The Material Presence of Absent Antiquities’ (http://www.history.ox.ac.uk/event/slade-lectures-2017), during which Caroline van Eck (Uni-versity of Cambridge) focused on the works of Piranesi, thus prompting further investigation of the Taylorian’s collection. In remarkable condition and logistically difficult to display, the Library’s full set had rarely (if ever) been shown in its entirety. The Piranesi seminar, led by Professor van Eck, thus enabled an international group of academics and curators from a variety of disciplines to examine and discuss Sir Robert Taylor’s set; and also to hear, from Christoph Frank (U. della Svizzera italiana, Mendrisio), about the discovery of a previously unknown album of Piranesi drawings at Karlsruhe, throwing light on the conservation history of one of the Ashmolean candelabra.
To many, the most compelling component of the seminar was volume 17. This, an ‘elephant folio’ (79 x 61 cm.), unfolded at one end to a 3.5 metre-long etching of the Colonna Traiana (Trajan’s Column, fig. 9); and, at the other, to an equally long Colonna Antonina (also known as the Colonna di Marco Aurelio or Colonna Aureliana).
Italian Literature & Language Librarian
Taylor Institution Library
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoires d’Hadrien (Paris: Plon, 1951). English translation by Grace Frick: Memoirs of Hadrian (London : Readers Union, 1955).
Marguerite Yourcenar, ‘‘Le cerveau noir de Piranèse’ in Sous bénéfice d’inventaire (Paris: Gallimard, 1962). English translation by Richard Howard in The Dark Brain of Piranesi and Other Essays (Henley-on-Thames: Ellis, 1985), 88–128.
Véronique Beirnaert-Mary and Achmy Halley (ed.), Marguerite Yourcenar et l’empereur Hadrien: Une réécriture de l’antiquité (Gand: Snoeck, 2015).
Thorsten Opper, Hadrian: Empire and Conflict (London: British Museum, 2008).
R. B. Parkinson, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity Across the World (London: British Museum, 2013), 118-121.
Nigel Saint, Marguerite Yourcenar: Reading the Visual (Oxford: Legenda, 2000).
G. B. Piranesi:
Ghent University Library/Universiteits Bibliotheek Gent. Prints by Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1778): http://www.theeuropeanlibrary.org/tel4/collection/a1004 (viewed 03/02/2018).
Georg Kabierske, “A Cache of Newly Identified Drawings by Piranesi and His Studio at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe”, Master Drawings LIII/2 (2015), 147-179.
Georg Kabierske, “Vasi, urne, cinerarie, altari e candelabri: Newly Identified Drawings for Piranesi’s Antiquities and Sculptural Comporsisions at the Staatliche Kunsthalle Karlsruhe” in Francesco Nevola (ed.), Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Predecessori, contemporanei e successori: Studi in onore di John Wilton-Ely (Rome: Quasar, 2016), 245-262.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, [Opera Piranesi]. Rome, [1748-1779]: v.1-4. Le antichità romane. — v.5-6. Vedute di Roma. — v.7. Ioannis Baptistae Piranesii antiquariorum. — Osservazioni. — v.8. Antichità d’Albano e di Castel Gandolfo. –Antichità di Cora. -v.9. Alcune vedute di archi trionfali. — Opere varie di architettura prospettive grotteschi antichità. — Le rouine del castello dell’Acqua Giulia. — Trofei di Ottaviano Avgvsto. — v.10. Ioannis Baptistae Piranesii antiquariorum regiae. — v.11, 12. Vasi, candelabri, cippi, sarcofagi. — v.13. Descrizione e disegno dell’emissario del Lago Albano. — I. B. Piranesii Lapides capitolini. — v.14. Raccolta de tempj antichi. — Diversi maniere d’adornare i cammini. — v.15. Différentes vues de quelques restes de trois grands édifices. — v.16. Raccolta di alcuni disegni del Barberi da Cento. — Carceri d’invenzione. — Il teatro d’Ercolano alla maestra di Gustavo III. — v.17. Trofeo o sia magnifica colonna. — Colonna Antonina come si vede oggidi. — Colonna eretta in memoria dell’apoteosi di Antonino Pio.