Tuesday, January 26, 2010

And one Redouté went to Egypt

Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Loretta reports:

While Pierre-Joseph Redouté was painting the flowers in Josephine Buonaparte’s garden at Chateau de Malmaison, his artist brother Henri-Joseph was in Egypt enduring plague, pestilence, and famine, literally.

Henri-Joseph Redouté was one of the company of “savants”--astronomers, mathematicians, naturalists, physicists, doctors, chemists, engineers, botanists, artists, a writer and a musicologist—who followed Napoleon to Egypt in 1798.  The median age of this group was 25.  Of the 151 civilians, 31 died in Egypt or shortly thereafter; all the survivors were scarred, physically and/or psychically.  Egypt in those days was not for sissies.

To Europeans, it was only marginally more familiar than the moon.  The knowledge they had as they set out was based on the Greek writer Herodotus and tales told by the few Europeans who’d visited.  Both sources offered an interesting mixture of a little fact & a lot of fiction.

Nina Burleigh’s Mirage:  Napoleon’s Scientists and the Unveiling of Egypt, offers a fascinating account, but here are the main icky details:

The savants’ troubles started when the boat containing all their instruments went down in a storm.  Things went downhill from there.

Famine:  Napoleon failed to provide food and water for his soldiers.  Desperate, the men guzzled murky water that turned out to be infested with leeches.  When all they found to eat was watermelon, they overdid it, and developed dysentery.

Pestilence:  Mosquitoes, fleas, tiny gnats, and vicious flies “swarmed into all cavities.”  Nearly every one on the expedition endured a painful eye infection called opthalmia, which left them temporarily blind.

Plague:  “During the French occupation, the bubonic plague epidemic in Egypt was a killer of biblical stature, a germ that caused men to die hideously, rotting from the inside out, sometimes within 48 hours.” 

This was in addition to bronchial infections and bites by snakes, scorpions, and rabid camels.

Meanwhile, on the water, the English Navy was sinking their ships and in the desert, irate Bedouins were shooting at the scientists surveying the ancient monuments.

It’s amazing, yes, that anybody survived.  Even more amazing was that they produced a 23 volume encyclopedia of Egypt, La Description de l’Egypte.  The online source is my favorite for studying the pictures, but there there are smaller (the original was huge) single-book versions, like the little Taschen Description of Egypt and a larger version, The Monuments of Ancient Egypt.


Lucy said...

Thanks for this excellent post:)

Isabella Bradford/Susan Holloway Scott said...

It's interesting that the artistic results of this ill-fated junket set the styles in dress, architecture, and art for decades afterwards. Didn't matter that England and France were at war: neither could resist the exoticism of Egypt.

Jane O said...

You turn up with such fabulous links. Thank you.

Rowenna said...

Pardon, but I thought you said *rabid camels*...oh, goodness, you did. That sounds absolutely terrifying.

nightsmusic said...

Good think I wasn't there. They'd have been a few volumes short...I'd have been on the next boat home the minute some tiny little bug crawled into places I don't want to even think of!


LorettaChase said...

Every time I study their work, I marvel at the detail--and it's all the more marvelous when I consider the horrendous conditions under which they were working. And yes, rabid camels. I'd never heard of such a thing!

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