1858 Rare Early Treatise – PALESTRINA MOSAIC – ROSETTA STONE – Ancient Egypt

Rare Early Treatise
Nile Palestrina Mosaic
Rosetta Stone
Monuments of Ptolemaic Egypt
Reveals Ancient Ways of Life


Title: Osservazioni sul Musaico di Palestrina. [Observations on the Palestrina Mosaic]

Rome: Salviucci, 1858. Large Folio, measuring 56cm x 39cm (15.5 inches x 22 inches). Original printed wrappers. Text is in Italian. [6], 72, [2] pages, plus 7 engraved plates, 5 of which are double-page. Wrappers chipped at extremities, mild foxing, otherwise in very good condition. Scarce valuable resource on Ptolemaic Egypt.

A scarce account, rarely seen in original wrappers, Pieralisi’s treatise is a noteworthy study of the late Hellenistic Nile Mosaic of Palestrina, which depicts Ptolemaic Egypt and dates to circa 100 B.C. The author, Don Sante Pieralisi, was a librarian of the Barberini Library in Rome with access to many early scholars’ works. The mosaic’s history and construction are described, followed by a presentation of some early and compelling theories of interpretation and dating, by such scholars as Barthelemy, Antonio Nibby, Carlo Fea, and Cassiano dal Pozzo (secretary to Francesco Barberini who was largely responsible for its restoration). Much history of ancient Egyptian life can be drawn from the mosaic scenes, including the Nile’s yearly flooding, Nubian hunters, mythical or extinct creatures, Egyptian-Roman trade, contrasts between peasant dwellings and palatial life, the rise of magnificent walled cities guarded by Egyptian soldiers, etc. Remarkable engravings reproduce details of the historic masterpiece.

The celebrated Nile mosaic dates to circa 100 B.C. during rule of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the last dynasty of Ancient Egypt (305 BC to 30 BC) and forms an interesting connections between ancient Egyptian and Roman civilizations, and the its essence of its design has, for several centuries, been the center of much speculation. Shortly after publication, the observations by Don Sante Pieralisi accompanied the mosaic on display in the Palazzo Barberini, where it had been placed by Prince Barberini after restoration mid-seventeenth century.

Equally interesting is a chapter dedicated to the Rosetta Stone, the ancient stele decree issued at Memphis, also during the Ptolemaic dynasty. The author relates details of the French expedition to Egypt which uncovered it in 1799, and the controversial repossession and transfer to England following the Capitulation of Alexandria. He further presents important details of the temples of Apis, Serapis, and Venus at Memphis, other hidden tombs of Memphis, and pertinent Egyptian rulers.

The Nile Mosaic of Palestrina (ancient Praeneste) is the earliest Roman depiction of Nilotic scenes, and one of the earliest large mosaics preserved from the classical world. The interpretation of the mosaic is still debated; exotic ornamentation, topographical representation of the Nile, and religious allegory connected with Isis and Osiris being some of the suggestions. There is scarcely any relic of ancient art which has been so much the subject of antiquarian controversy.

* Father Kircher considered its subject to express the vicissitudes of fortune.
* Cardinal de Polignac thought it represented the voyage of Alexander to the oracle of Jupiter Ammon.
* Cecconi and Volpi believed that it illustrated the history of Sylla.
* Montfauçon regarded it as a representation of the course of the Nile.
* Winckelmann saw it as the meeting of Helen and Menelaus in Egypt.
* Chapuy saw the embarkation of Egyptian grain for Rome.
* The Abbé Barthélemy viewed it as the voyage of Hadrian to Elephantina.
* The Abbé Fea interpreted it as the conquest of Egypt by Augustus.

A consensus on the dating of the work is slowly emerging. Paul G. P. Meyboom suggests a date shortly before the reign of Sulla (ca. 100 BC) and treats the mosaic as an early evidence for the spread of Egyptian cults in Italy, where Isis was syncretized with Fortuna. He believes Nilotic scenes were introduced in Rome by ‘Demetrius the Topographer’, a Greek artist from Ptolemaic Egypt active circa 165 BC.

Comments are closed.