Obelisks! Egyptomania and the Enigma of Hieroglyphs in Renaissance Art
Earle Havens, Nancy H. Hall curator of rare books and manuscripts at the Sheridan Libraries of Johns Hopkins University and adjunct assistant professor, department of history
Ancient Rome marked its imperial achievements in high symbolic style by transporting a host of monolithic stone obelisks from their original seats in Egypt, raising them up high again as spoils of conquest in the central squares and circuses of the Eternal City. All but one fell down in a symbolic echo of Rome’s own decline and fall in the centuries that followed, only to be resurrected in seeming miracles of engineering during the Renaissance. The resurgence of this cultural phenomenon coincided with a new era of “Egyptomania,” perhaps most conspicuously preserved in late 15th-century paintings of ancient Egyptian pagan deities that adorned the Vatican apartments of the pope himself. Scholars wondered at the enigmas left by this most ancient of cultures, and speculated wildly about the true meaning of the hieroglyphs inscribed upon these mysterious masses of stone. Could those marks reveal the ultimate secrets, the original wisdom of the world’s first archpriests? In this illustrated talk we will journey across 3500 years of human history, from the XII Dynasty of the Egyptian Middle Kingdom, to the age of Michelangelo, onwards to the latter-day obelisks that now form the urban hearts of the Place de Concorde in Paris and the National Mall in D.C. —echoed in Baltimore’s very own monument in Mt. Vernon Square.
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