Cleopatra and the line of the kings of Egypt

The beautiful image of Cleopatra as an African queen is probably the best-known detail of L’Abreujamen de las estorias. The image differs strongly from that of her counterpart in the Latin-language illustrated history known as the Compendium (known also as the Chronologia magna), now in Venice (produced in Avignon as well as Venice c.1321-26). Why are the kings of Egypt shown as African rulers in this vernacular text but not so in the Latin versions?

Several answers spring to mind. L’Abreujamen is a text written mostly in the vernacular, Occitan, language. It adds legendary/romance details into its summaries of Latin sources such as Justin’s Epitome (see the post below on Alexander the Great). It is likely that the manuscript’s French-speaking artists (one of whom noted Sarrazin – Saracen – as an instruction in a margin) identified the kings of Egypt with familiar figures in vernacular epic poetry, the Saracens of the chanson de geste. Furthermore, L’Abreujamen contains a summary history of the crusades, and its artists make a deliberate visual association of the biblical kings of Egypt with some of the medieval rulers of the Islamic kingdoms involved in the crusade. However, the rulers of Persia and of Assyria are depicted in a different way, with a wash of grey, as are their successors. The same grey wash is used for the Visigothic rulers of parts of Iberia and southern France, thus creating a visual connection between these lines of succession, and separating them from the Egyptian rulers. Are these encodings of appearance part of the history’s drive to map history onto geography, or are they ideological markers? There were negative associations with Egypt, some of them intellectual (some calendars included ‘Egyptian days’), some political (crusading treatises of the early 14th century proposed a blockade of Egypt), but religious conflict, and religious ideology, may well be the underlying theme, running from a founding king, Mesraim, through pharaohs and on to the powerful rivals to Venetian interests (in trade as well as war). Paolino drew heavily on the crusading treatise by his fellow-Venetian Marino Sanudo, and Paolino’s later work, the Satyrica Historia, includes anti-Islamic material, but polemical writing is absent from the Avignonese manuscripts. Instead, the images contain that polemical content.

The artists’ use of bared teeth for the rulers of Egypt (also used for some Persians and for ‘Tatar’ rulers of the end of the thirteenth century) is clearly a mark of aggression. These teeth appear in an attenuated form in the image of Cleopatra as two lines of dots. Tooth-gnashing is a feature of some (by no means all) Saracen warriors in some chansons de geste, and it may therefore also point to some vernacular, literary influences. In the Latin, Venice-Avignon Compendium, produced at the same time as L’Abreujamen, the kings of Egypt are depicted without bared teeth, with similar features to other kings and queens, except for a wash of grey ink (the images are not painted in this Latin version but rather in pen-and-ink). Does the visual choice of this vernacular manuscript reflect a different literary and ideological context?

It remains however that visual representation is slippery and can allow the viewer to develop their own interpretations, far away from the written text (for example, none of Paolino’s histories have yet been edited in full). The images of Cleopatra and her forebears and successors have their own significance as a representation of an African presence in papal and royal Avignon.

These ideas are developed in my article, ‘The Kings of Egypt in L’Abreujamen de las estorias‘, currently forthcoming (arising from a conference organised by Roberta Morosini, held in Venice on 24 October 2016, ‘Paolino Veneto. Storico, narratore e geografo’). More details to follow once it is in press.

See also Federico Botana, ‘The Making of L’Abreujamen de las estorias’, eBLJ, 2013.

About Catherine Leglu

Catherine Leglu is Professor of French and Occitan Studies at the University of Reading.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.