Description de l’Egypte
Taschen 25th Anniversary Series (paperback edition), 2007
If you are interested in the images contained in Description de l’Egypte, the book produced by Napoleon’s “savants”, and particularly the illustrations of Pharaonic Egypt, this is a very good place to start. If you want an in-depth analysis of the background to Description, its purpose and a good sample of all the original sections and topics then you may be disappointed.
The book is a substantial offering for the price, with 752 pages of good quality slightly shiny paper, stuffed full of good quality reproduction of the original copper plate engravings.
There is a short 3-page introduction in French, English, German, and Chinese. This is the only explanatory text in the book. It explains Napoleon’s motives for taking his army to Egypt in 1798, accompanied by 167 scholars or “savants” whose job it was to record everything that they discovered in Egypt. The publication of the fabulous ancient structures with their engraved deities and hieroglyphs generated such fascination in Europe that the Description was the main cause behind the birth of Egyptology, but Description, published in multiple volumes, also recorded all aspects of modern Egyptian life and natural history. The introduction looks at the conditions under which the savants worked, and the topics they recorded. Napoleon was defeated and the English confiscated the objects gathered by the French, but they allowed through all the papers assembled by the savants. As the introduction says, many of these papers were turned into a ten volume catalogue and description of Egypt, produced over 20 years.
The rest of the book is made up of images and their captions (in French). There is a useful List of Plates in French at the beginning, which show that the book is divided up into a number of volumes, based on Egypt’s geography, starting in the south and ending in the north. This book has only a sample of the original 837 engravings and 3000 illustrations (in black and white), with a handful of the colour plates also reproduced. Pharaonic Egypt dominates, making up perhaps three quarters of this book, with the rest showing fascinating images of contemporary Egypt as experienced by the scholars who were there with Napoleon. The latter included Islamic monuments, Nile and Nile-side scenes, craft activities and rural and urban vistas. None of the other topics covered in the original 10 volumes are covered.
The Pharaonic (including Graeco-Roman) images are a spectacular resource for anyone interested in the ancient Egyptian monuments as they were when Napoleon’s scholars located and recorded them. Hieroglyphs had not been deciphered at this time so the illustrators documenting them in their thousands, in hieratic and cursive forms, had to render them as individual pieces of art. It is amazing how accurately they recorded those hieroglyphs. Being part of a scientific project the illustrators did not attempt to put a romantic spin on the monuments and – they recorded in detail and precision exactly what was in front of them. This means that the images that eventually returned to Europe were not merely fascinating to both the scientific community and the public but gave readers a very accurate view of the individual elements.
Some of the temples shown have either vanished or are in considerably deteriorated states and Description is a valuable record of the cultural landscape as it was at the time of Napoleon’s invasion.
This book offers a wonderful set of reproductions of the original engravings and illustrations. Apart from the short three-page introduction and the original one-line captions beneath some of the images, there are no explanations or further details. This really is a picture-book, showing Egypt as it was recorded in the late 1800s.