Article from ARCHEO Magazine

In its April 1994 issue, ARCHEO Magazine published an article by Professor Sergio Pernigotti of the University of Bologna, Italy, regarding the Mansoor-Amarna Collection. Professor Pernigotti is a member of ARCHEO's prestigious Italian Scientific Committee. We are pleased to share with you that article, translated into English by Dr. Fred Stross.


Archeo April 1994

The Mansur Collection

A great collection of Egyptian sculptures from the Amarna period.

The collection of antique sculptures gathered by Egyptian antiquarian Mansur Abdel-Sayed Mansur in the interval between the two Wars, and which has recently been exhibited also in Rome, presents qualities such as to make it altogether exceptional, even in a field such as that of antiquities deriving from the Nile Valley, collections of which certainly there is no dearth.

What is exceptional is the epoch of which the sculptures are part: they can in fact be dated to that historic period which Egyptologists, in their jargon, call "Amarnian," from the modern name of the site, Tell el-Amarna, on which the "heretic" pharaoh Amenophis IV/Akhenaten (1353-1336 B.C.) built his capital, and from which so many treasures of Egyptian art have derived. Exceptional is the quantity and the quality of the monuments, witnesses to an artistic experience, which really only lasted a few years, twenty at most, just about an instant if gauged by the "Countless antiquities" of the Egyptian civilization.

There is no personage in the history of ancient Egypt that has fascinated modern scholars more than Akhenaton, and that has caused more differences of opinion among them on this historical episode, than this individual. There have been those who wanted to see in him the founder of the first monotheistic religion in history, a "prophet," animated by a high ideal of peace and universal brotherhood, a victim, eventually, of the failure of his contemporaries to comprehend a message so lofty.

Other scholars have turned this view upside down, seeing in him a "Fool of God," a sovereign who, in pursuing an abstract ideal of religious reform, isolated himself in his desert city, accompanied by a select group of fanatical followers who were ready for anything; but he neglected the affairs and interests of State, thus risking to compromise the external security of the country itself, and then to draw it into civil war: he was finally defeated by the realistic reaction of politicians less inspired by religious ideals but more interested in the real interests of Egypt.

Few but significant are the solid bits of information in a historical reality that is difficult to interpret: over a period of about twenty years, Egypt was overcome by a revolutionary storm such as it had never known in its long history. Through the action of its sovereign, and of a narrow group of faithful individuals personally instructed by him, its religion, politics, its pictorial art, its architecture, and its literature were revolutionized by a series of innovations that had one obvious common denominator: the desire for a complete rupture with the past.

The area in which this desire of no longer wanting to do what had been done in the past, for about two thousand years, manifests itself most obviously in that of the pictorial arts, particularly in that of sculpture. The latter has left us a series of incredible masterpieces, all united by a search for a new language, for a different way of representing the human figure - of the sovereign as well as of private persons - which was no longer based on the "cannon," by which until then, by the will of the courts, the Egyptian artists had been inspired.

By fortunate accident we also know the names of some of the protagonists of this revolutionary art form: the most outstanding personalities are those of sculptor Bek and his colleague Tuthmosis, whose studio has been found at Tell el-Amarna, where Akhenaten's capital was located. From the shop of one of these artists, or perhaps both, come the sculptures of the Mansur collection, works in which the revolutionary will mentioned above expresses itself clearly. As a matter of fact, if we compare these sculptures with the images produced by traditional Egyptian artistry we realize that we are confronted by a completely different artistic language, one of upsetting novelty.

Impelled by the doctrine preached by their sovereign, the Amarna artists are breaking up the human figure, just to reassemble it according to criteria completely different from the norms by which their predecessors had been inspired. The skulls become elongated in an incredible manner, while the faces show jaws marked by strong prognathism. On these deformed structures are placed almond-shaped eyes and fleshy lips designed in a way so as to form a much elongated V.

Corresponding to the distortion of the face, there is distortion of the body. The drooping breasts - in the case of men as well as of the women - the prominent bellies, the deformed legs had given rise to the thought at one time that Akhenaten was afflicted with a malady that had caused the body to be deformed, and which had been accurately recorded by his artists. As a matter of fact, what we have before us is an artistic language that reaches the threshold of abstraction, and it is perhaps for this reason that we are so sensitive to the suggestion that this art has followed a route similar to that which has moved so many contemporary artists.

When we view certain sculptures from the Amarna period, with their sexless bodies, deformed to their limit, we feel that the artists of Akhenaten have passed through a stage of experimentation that in certain aspects can come close to that which, many years later, the numberless artistic schools of our century will live through, especially in breaking up the human body and reassembling it according to rules that are in no way those of nature: one thinks of Picasso of the cubist period and of works like the Demoiselles d'Avignon!

Of this unprejudiced revolutionary art, the Mansur collection contains most beautiful examples. One looks at, first of all, the heads of the sovereign, in which the "experimentalism" mentioned above turns almost into brutality and provocation: for the feellings experienced by the Egyptians, accustomed to their highly traditional art, could not have been different. Also the heads of some of the princesses exhibit a character that is not very different: only two portraits of Nefertiti show an artistic vision that is sweeter and more poised, while the bas-reliefs in which the heads and figure apear to float in a metaphysical vacuum might be more correctly interpreted as models that were copied in the studios of the artists.

A "programmatical" sculpture of this kind is likely to belong to the first period of the reign of Akhenaten, when the sovereign and his sculptors were driven by a kind of revolutionary furor. Subsequently, a more sober view of the same reality apears to have come about: masterpieces from the shop of Tuthmosis - still portraits of Nefertiti or of the princesses - in which the ideals of the first years of the revolution are not renounced, but are relegated to the inner aspects of a more constructive historical process, subsequent to the erstwhile excesses.

The end of the historic experiment of Akhenaten will inevitably overcome his artists: but still in the reigns of Tutankhamen, of Horemheb, and even in that of Ramses II one will notice the influence of the sculptors and painters of Amarna, the distant echo, ever more distant, of the unforeseen and impetuous wind of liberty that had blown through Egypt during the reign of the "heretic" pharaoh.

Sergio Pernigotti

Notes of the Translator:In this translation of the attached article by Sergio Pernigotti, it has been attempted to stay as close to the original Italian (including most of the proper names) and still maintain a reasonably flowing rendition of the text. The name Mansoor has been retained in its Italian spelling, and so have most of the ancient Egyptian names. Where the Italian spelling seemed too remote from the English counterpart, the Cambridge Ancient History version has been adopted.

Dr. Fred Stross, who holds a B.S. in Chemical Engineering and a Ph.D. in Chemistry, has done translations of French, Italian and German technical texts commercially for a number of years and has also had experience working at the Banca Commerciale Italiana in Cairo as well as the Austrian Consulate General, also in Cairo. Dr. Stross is currently a visiting scholar at the Archaeological Research Facility (Department of Anthropology) at the University of California.