Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Festival of Isis

La Scala's wonderful early 19c Egyptian Ballet
This one is dedicated to all my operatic and numismatic friends.
In our decades many critics speak with prim horror of ethnic insensitivity; last decade it was usually of "orientalism" and before that "primitivism" a century ago.  But we're dealing, are we not, in all cases with romanticism.  When I was little, and we played cowboys and Indians, everybody wanted to be Indians; cowboys were rather more like parents and teachers.  Often, certainly, people have let others stand in for what they crave but mustn't act out.  In Rome for a good generation after 30 B.C. Egypt vied with Athens for High Style.  And, considering that the cultures were really different, even after the Ptolemies had somewhat Hellenized Egypt, the artists who catered to Augustus's circle of friends and admirers did rather well—certainly had some models—in emulating their style.  Of course, there are lots of Nile Scenes in paint and mosaic, but coins of the Ptolemaic and Imperial periods are more numerous and informative.  There is a serious, valuable (I only started it) discussion thread in Forum Ancient Coins, that most valuable of serious "social" web sites.  It is in the category where their permanently interesting 'threads' are kept, http://www.forumancientcoins.com/board/index.php?topic=37335.0;all
If you Search Isis in the Forum Discussion section, you will find more, because, not only in Roman Egypt, but all over their world the cult of Isis and Osiris and Harpokrates was widespread; after all, The Golden Ass, by Apuleius culminates in a Festival of Isis.  Also, it is an entertaining novel, ancestral to such as Don Quixote, and it had its readers, though not in such great numbers, throughout the Middle Ages.  The Festival surely is not accidentally the obligatory ballet (obligatory at Paris even for Wagner: the Venusberg in Tannhauser), for Rossini's Mo├»se et Pharaon.  First, all these operas in exotic settings are not like the psychology of Cowboys and Indians, or White Hats and Black Hats.  Even in a comedy like Mozart's The Abduction from the Seraglio or Gluck's Der Betrogene Cadi or Rossini's own Semiramide, the pagan (viz., not Christian) lead proves to have his own ethics and, of course, his humanity.  Even a century later, for Richard Strauss, Hoffmansthal's Joseph and Pharaoh are entangled in their shared humanity—not to say their shared masculinity.  In sum, not to keep on listing things, Isis cult remains serious.
Rome, Capitoline (whether Conservatori or Capitoline Museum...).  Black marble Grecian Urn with Egyptianizing motifs.  Wouldn't this go nicely in the Black Room at Boscotrecase?  I think, however, that it was found in Rome.  Augustan?


Tetrarchy.  Festival of Isis coin, a small bronze.  Photo: courtesy Doug Smith.  Note Isis headdress and the  'Egyptian' stance of the  male figure, comparing the representation, as of a wooden panel mounted in a niche, in the Boscotrecase room.  I don't know of an coin later than c. 300 AD, but depictions of Isis in other media continue, though more rarely, in other media.


The Festival of Isis coin is not very common, though I do have lots of Harpokrates, but just as Enlightenment operas ceased with Freud, so did big celebrations of the Egyptian gods cease pretty much in the course of the 4th century.

Detail from the Black
Room of the Imperial Villa at
Boscotrecase.  Augustan.

I hope that some of you will enjoy that rich thread of shared knowledge that I linked to at the top of this page.

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Somewhat different is the sacro-idyllic interior decorative work in painting or, as below, in stuccoed ceilings, in this case also Augustan from the Villa Farnesina in Rome.  It is not as if these have titles on them, but they obviously show fashionable scenes of initiation into mystery cult.  Though these should not be taken as illustrating specific cults, they commonly allude to Egypt, and I cannot read Book XI (the Festival of Isis) at the end of Apuleius's Golden Ass without thinking of these poetic, romantic, deliberately mysterious stuccos, fragmentary as they are.  These are a quite different category from the styles of the objects above and the actually Egyptian Isis coins and other objects in the collaborative essay linked to above.  I saw no reason to repeat that thread.

Rome, one of many pieces of the stucco relief ceiling of the Villa  Farnesina.  Now (or recently) installed in the Palazzo Massimo near the Terme.
These (and several dozen more) were taken through glass but near eye level in the Terme itself.
This is one of the details that show that the scene in an initiation into mysteries, and there are clues, too, that indicate Egypt. 
Because I have dozens of sections of these stuccos and do not expect to have another chance to teach from them, I shall post them in a PicasaWebAlbum, with the title STUDY: FARNESINA STUCCOS.  By the time the essay is posted, you'll find them there.  The stucco is of a pale clay color and they may not have been, as ceiling designs, very fully colored, though the white underpainting implies some color, pastels, perhaps some gold leaf.
While these were still, in the 1980s, mounted behind glass, on the walls, I was able (by holding my breath) to photograph them at ISO 400 with TriX film, hand held.  They are now about 10 feet above  one's head.
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As for the ballet in Rossini's opera at La Scala:
Although I lack evidence for the Paris Opera's familiarity, or that of Rossini's librettiests (which were also those of Naples and Paris and later Milan), with the Paris Illuminati, a sort of lodge of learned men (you could compare the Masons of that time, though they are not the same),  who were exiles from Greece before its Revolution and lived in modern Bulgaria and Constantinople, as I recall, as well as in Paris (and some in England), the relevance for many, particularly the illuminati and their friends, of this opera seems plain and contemporary to me.  See the monograph by Darius Spieth, "Napoleon's Sorcerers. The Sophisians", Univ. of Delaware, 2007, for descriptions and their own watercolor drawings of their ceremonies and of their rites, freely derived from Hellenistic, especially Ptolemaic Egyptian, texts.  (Mozart's The Magic Flute, based on Schickeneder, is quite plainly Masonic and only one generation older).  The Sophisians evidently were Hermetic (like Hermes Logios, but not eschewing a lovely word like 'trismegistus', either) rather than Isidic (but all these cults and their initiations share the almost universal requirements, such as sequences of trials or successive discoveries of sacred secrets; so indeed do William James' descriptions; so indeed, mutatis mutandis,  do most religious novitiates.  And, for example, subsuming all the other great goddesses under one, as Isis in all her cult places, is a regular way not of generalizing but of elevating.  That is why the stuccos, above, are appropriate to more than one of the mystery cults that were fashionable (not to call them frivolous) all over the Greco-Roman world, including, not least, Egypt.
Now, by the 16th and 17th centuries, late Renaissance and Flemish Mannerists had developed compositions that were ideally suited for stage design.  And, just as the Illuminati (and Renaissance art before them) had endeavored to recreate Classical and Biblical figure types and realizations of hair styles and accoutrements, having (before the excavations in Greece and Italy, not least of Greek vases) only a very few Egyptian images to help them.  Just look at Jean Seznec's The Survival of the Pagan Gods and, thus, Panofsky's dictum that figures that were actually antique were used for medieval figures, while deities and ancient stories were illustrated, until the Renaissance, with medieval figures.
Anyway, Poussin, Carracci, Guercino, Reni and others who did Classical subjects (just to name a few) by the 1600s had learned to make idealized landscapes, Italy idealized in terms of the reading of Classical poetry, that FELT Classical and into which ancient groups such as Endymion or The Flight into Egypt of Mary and Joseph could be placed in landscape space (yes, the 1st c. BCE, as in the Odyssey Landscapes, had done this long before), or, in an architectural setting Guido Reni, for example, could base paintings on ancient friezes.
All of these were also useful for that new musical form, the opera, the opera which was more than a set of dances and choruses.  Within a couple of centuries, there were 29 operas (last time I counted) based on Orpheus and Eurydice.
Isn't it wonderful how the new musical theater, the new landscape architecture, the new way of thinking all went together?  The novel is part of that, also harking back to ancient novels.  That is why The Golden Ass of Apuleius was followed now by masters like Cervantes, of course.  In a sense, The Divine Comedy, a poem, an epic, a theology, had been itself a novel, too.  Is it too crude to see the arc of the story of John Cleland's Fanny Hill, even, as Golden Ass-like?  What caught my attention was her hair-raising story's collapse into the prosaic and humdrum, the very thing, just as sudden, as Lucius in the Golden Ass, just as suddenly (and greatly distressing some literary critics), after being initiated as three kinds of priest of Isis and Osiris, after embracing them in beautiful language (everyone agrees that Apuleius is a beautiful stylist), reverts contentedly into the prosaic and lucrative practice of law.  It's not as if he went on neo-platonically writing enneads.
Now, what the La Scala stage and costume designers did is, first, to study all the post-antique conventional retro art, then use all the present-day technology and materials, then find their own forms to express these for both opera and its ballet (which requires alternative but recognizable, and danceable, costumes), then use lighting that reminds us of pre-electric lighting (but without any of its shortcomings).  Then they put these together as if they had all been hatched together.  Add that the choreographer, who has a mixed-ethnic sounding name, Micha van Hoecke, who, if he is Dutch, certainly is of the highest rank of Netherlands Dance Company.  Oh, did I add that Isis, when she makes her epiphany, looks perfect in King Tut Paris couture?
I bought this opera without even hearing a note of the Rossini singing score.  But even if it was solemn as William Tell (I had heard and seen the Isis ballet alone on TV), I still wanted it!  But it's early Rossini.  And it hangs together, too.  And you never heard Moses (let alone some old Ramessid pharaoh) sing like that.

And look at my reward: not only a new understanding of Rossini (and, oh yes, it's conducted by Muti) but a new understanding of Apuleius.  Such rewards are worth seeking.

1 comment:

  1. P.S. I omitted mentioning the delightful identification of Osiris, where Isis arouses him in the ballet, by powdering him white and swathing him with the remains of mummy wrappings—he is, after all, a "dying and rising god". A really striking epiphany.

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