Roman, Greek or Egyptian?
Is the answer in the eye of the beholder?
After a recent trip to Italy and to the ancestral village of my paternal grandparents, I embarked on a quest to find more about the experience of being a hyphenated American, in this case, an Italian-American one. Living in the Rocky Mountains, as I do, far away from the East Coast of my youth, I often feel like I have lost part of my heritage by living where I do. While perusing articles of what it meant to be an Italian American, I found a piece where the author stated that the Fayum Portraits all looked Italian to him. Never having heard of these portraits before, despite having studied two courses of Art History, I decided to learn more about them.
(The article mentioned:(https://themillions.com/2019/02/what-is-italian-america-its-complicated.html) by Ed Simon.)
My quest to discover something unique about heritage became an art and culture exploration, and depending on who you ask, those assessing the look of the portraits all seemed to attribute them to their own or to their desired idea of an ethnic group. They look Roman! They look Greek! They look Egyptian! To me they look like an amalgamation of the cultures of that specific time and place. DNA and dental studies of the Fayum mummies have shown more solidarity with their Egyptian heritage but one can also see Mediterranean features in the portraits. The most striking feature seems to be their enlarged eyes and the realism represented in the portraits.
The Fayum Portraits are a group of naturalistic portraits painted on wood and attached to mummies found from the time that the Roman Empire controlled Egypt. They are classified as 'panel painting' in that they are painted on flat wood panels. The paint is generally done in encaustic style with wax mixed pigments or an egg based tempura. Mummy portraits have been found across Egypt, but these particular portraits date to the time of the Roman occupation of Egypt (approx 1st century BC to 1st century ad and after). The wood portraits are placed in the wrappings of mummies where the face would be, giving personality to the person wrapped within. They are very realistic but all seem to emphasize the face with very large eyes. They have surprisingly contemporary hairstyles and are quite individualistic showing expressions, clothing styles and jewelry, all done in vivid color with even gold inlay on the jewelry. They are in a Greece-Roman style, rather than Egyptian. About 1000 of these portraits exist in various places around the world, such as The British Museum, The Louvre, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and at various colleges and institutions. Most of the portraits have been removed from their mummies. It is speculated that the dry Egyptian climate helped preserve them and the wax mixed pigment technique helped preserve the colors and also aided in preservation.
In the 1800's British, French and Germans scouted them out for art collectors, museums, and even used them for firewood on cold desert nights when on digging expeditions. Some recovered portraits were lost at sea when being transported from Egypt to Europe. Few who sought them out properly documented the portraits or the circumstances of their recovery, so it makes their relevance, as far as academics are concerned, have less value than they otherwise might have.
In 1887, a British archaeologist, Flinders Petrie, excavated at Hawara Egypt and found a Roman necropolis from which he originally recovered about 80 of the portraits. Petrie was one of the few who did document and publish his findings about the portraits. Petrie did another excavation in 1910-11 but by the time this second dig occurred the French, Germans, and Egyptians were also looking for the portraits to sell to art collectors and they did not document their findings. Several of the portraits found in the British museum arrived there under shadowy undocumented circumstances. It makes you wonder how many might be collected in the mansions of the ultra rich that no one really knows about, and if these were plundered, their historical significance has been lost to the world forevermore.
The portraits depict persons from childhood to old age and were set into the mummy wrappings, the artistry shows skilled use of light and shade, 3-d appearance, and all depict large eyes, bringing about speculation about them being similar to icon paintings, whether they were painted before or after the person's death, whether they are truly realistic or are idealized conceptions of the person they represent. They appear to be a combination of Roman and Egyptian funeral tradition, for the wealthy, and only appear after the Romans established Egypt as a province. They look like paintings of the old masters but were in reality done 1500 years earlier.
Sources: Smithsonian.com, Wikipedia, Mikedashhistory.com, themillions.com