mardi 26 janvier 2010

Selon Joseph Gwilt (XIXe s.), les Égyptiens sont parvenus au summum du savoir-faire dans l'art d'extraire, de tailler, de polir et de mettre en œuvre la pierre

Dans son Encyclopédie de l'architecture ( An encyclopaedia of architecture : historical, theoretical and practical), publiée en 1842, l'architecte et écrivain anglais Joseph Gwilt (1784-1863) traite des spécificités de l'architecture égyptienne prise globalement, les pyramides n'étant, à ses yeux, qu'un maillon dans l'histoire de l'art.
Des extraits que j'ai choisis de ce volumineux ouvrage, je propose l'articulation qui suit. On la retrouvera dans les mots et phrases en gras du texte original.

Portrait de Joseph Gwilt, par Andrew Robertson (1777–1845) - Wikimedia commons
- Les Égyptiens, depuis les temps immémoriaux, ont été habitués a creuser dans les rochers pour leur habitation. Tout reflète les origines de leur architecture : sa simplicité, pour ne pas dire sa monotonie, son extrême solidité, presque sa lourdeur, forment ses principaux caractères. Il est vrai que cette architecture est influencée par l'utilisation exclusive de la pierre, puisque le bois de construction (timber) fait défaut en Égypte.
- La construction des imposants monuments égyptiens (lesquels contrastent avec ceux de la Grèce ou de Rome, qui privilégièrent la beauté plutôt que la grandeur) est marquée à la fois par la très abondante force de travail que représentait la population locale et par l'ambition des monarques du pays. Ceux-ci donnaient plus d'importance, sans regarder à la dépense, aux édifices indestructibles qui devaient accueillir leur dépouille après leur mort qu'aux palais qui les abritaient, tels des hôtels, de leur vivant.
- Il est quelque peu impropre d'appeler les pyramides des "monuments sépulcraux", que les corps des souverains égyptiens y aient été ou non ensevelis.
- Avec son clergé puissant et ses rites immuables, la religion égyptienne a fortement influencé l'architecture de ce pays : d'où les variantes peu nombreuses ou sans importance majeure, ainsi que la très grande similitude et l'uniformité que l'on observe dans la configuration des temples égyptiens.
- L'absence de bois de construction et l'abondance des carrières de granite en Égypte expliquent le caractère premier de la construction dans ce pays : la robustesse. Si la solidité est un mérite, elle bat des records en Égypte où les édifices ont été construits pour durer aussi longtemps que le monde lui-même !
- Les Égyptiens sont parvenus au summum du savoir-faire dans l'art d'extraire, de tailler, de polir et de mettre en œuvre la pierre.
- Concernant la construction des pyramides de Guizeh, l'auteur précise : "Les édifices, que l'on connaît sous les noms de Khéops, Khéphren et Mykérinos, sont extraordinaires par leur taille et le travail important dont ils ont fait l'objet ; mais en tant qu'œuvres de l'art (works of the art), leur importance tient au fait qu'ils sont un maillon dans la chaîne de l'histoire de cet art."
- Il faut relever en outre cet étrange constat de Joseph Gwilt :"Les pyramides sont construites extérieurement avec du mortier (mortar) habituel, mais aucune trace de mortier ne peut être observé dans les parties les plus parfaites de la maçonnerie."
- Un petit coup d'œil enfin au Sphinx, ne serait-ce que pour mentionner la présence des deux temples qu'y a découverts Belzoni.

Egypt (...), from time immemorial, was accustomed to hollow out rocks for habitation. (...) Thus,
in Egyptian architecture, every thing points to its origin. Its simplicity, not to say monotony, its extreme solidity, almost heaviness, form its principal characters. Then the want of profile and paucity of members, the small projection of its mouldings, the absence of apertures, the enormous diameter of the columns employed, much resembling the pillars left in quarries for support, the pyramidal form of the doors, the omission of roofs and pediments, the ignorance of the arch (which we believe to have been unknown, though we are aware that a late traveller of great intelligence is of a different opinion), all enable us to recur to the type with which we have set out. If we pursue this investigation, we do not discover timber as an element in Egyptian compositions, whilst in Grecian architecture, the types certainly do point to that material. It is not necessary to inquire whether the people had or had not tents or houses in which timber was used for beams or for support, since the character of their architecture is specially influenced by the exclusive use of stone as a material ; and however the form of some of their columns may not seem to bear out the hypothesis (such, for instance, as arc shaped into bundles of reeds with imitations of plants in the capitals), all the upper parts are constructed without reference to any other than stone construction. It is, moreover, well known that Egypt was extremely bare of wood, and especially of such as was suited for building.
The monarchical government, certainly the most favourable to the construction of great monuments, appears to have existed in Egypt from time immemorial. The most important edifices with which history or their ruins have made us acquainted, were raised under monarchies ; and we scarcely need cite any other than the ruins of Persepolis (...) to prove the assertion : these, in point of extent, exceed all that Egypt or Greece produced. Indeed, the latter nation sought beauty of form rather than immense edifices ; and Rome, until its citizens equalled kings in their wealth, had no monuments worthy to ho remembered by the historian, or transmitted as models to the artist.
Not the least important of the causes that combined in the erection of their monuments was
the extraordinary population of Egypt : and though we may not perhaps entirely rely on the wonderful number of twenty thousand cities, which old historians have said were seated within its boundaries, it is past question that the country was favourable to the rearing and maintenance of an immense population. As in China at the present day, there appears in Egypt to have been a redundant population, which was doubtless employed in the public works of the country, in which the workman received no other remuneration than his food.
The Egyptian monarchs appear to have gratified their ambition as much in the provision for their own reception after this life as during their continuance in it. If we except the Memnonium, and what is called the Labyrinth at Memphis, temples and tombs are all that remain of their architectural works. Diodorus says, that the kings of Egypt spent those enormous sums on their sepulchres which other kings expend on palaces. They considered that the frailty of the body during life ought not to be provided with more than necessary protection from the seasons, and that the palace was nothing more than an inn, which at their death the successor would in his turn inhabit, but that the tomb was their eternal dwelling, and sacred to themselves alone. Hence they spared no expense in erecting indestructible edifices for their reception after death. Against the violation of the tomb it seems to have been a great object with them to provide, and doubts have existed on the minds of some whether the body was, after all, deposited in the pyramids, which have been thought to be enormous cenotaphs, and that the body was in some subterraneous and neighbouring spot.
Other writers pretend that the pyramids were not tombs, assigning to them certain mystic or astronomical destinations. There are, however, too many circumstances contradictory of such an assumption to allow us to give it the least credit ; and there is little impropriety in calling them sepulchral monuments, whether or not the bodies of the monarchs were ever deposited in them.
The religion of Egypt, though not so fruitful, perhaps, as that of Greece in the production of a great number of temples, did not fail to engender an abundant supply. The priesthood was powerful and the rites unchangeable : a mysterious authority prevailed in its ceremonies and outward forms. The temples of the country are impressed with mystery, on which the religion was based. (...) Numerous doors closed the succession of apartments in the temples, leaving the holy place itself to be seen only at a great distance. This was of little extent, containing merely a living idol, or the representation of one. The larger portion of the temple was laid out for the reception of the priests, and disposed in galleries, porticoes, and vestibules. With few and unimportant variations, the greatest similarity and uniformity is observable in their temples, in plan, in elevation, and in general form, as well as in the details of their ornaments. In no country was the connection between religion and architecture closer than in Egypt, and as the conceptions and execution in architecture are dependent on the other arts, we will here briefly examine the influence which the religion of the country had upon them.
In Egypt, all change was forbidden, and a constant and inviolable respect was entertained for that which had existed before, when all its institutions tended to preserve social order as established, and to discourage and forbid all innovation, the duration of a style was doomed to become eternal. Religion, however, alone, was capable of effecting the same object, and of restraining within certain bounds the imitative faculty, by the preservation of types and primitive conventional signs for the hieroglyphic language, which, from the sacred purposes for which it was employed, soon acquired an authority from which no individual would dare to deviate by an improvement of the forms under which it had appeared. (...)
Uniformity of plan characterises all their works ; they never deviated from the right line and square. " Les Égyptiens, observes M. Caylus, ne nous ont laissé aucun monument public dont l'élévation ait été circulaire." The uniformity of their elevations is still more striking. Neither division of parts, contrast, nor effect is visible. All this necessarily resulted from the political and religious institutions whereof we have been speaking.
In analysing the architecture of Egypt, three points offer themselves for consideration : construction, form, and decoration.
In construction, if solidity be a merit, no nation has equalled them. Notwithstanding the continued effect of time upon the edifices of the country, they still seem calculated for a duration equally long as that of the globe itself. The materials employed upon them were well adapted to insure a defiance of all that age could effect against them. The most abundant material is what the ancients called the Thebaic granite. Large quarries of it were seated near the Nile in Upper Egypt, between the first cataract and the town of Assouan, now Syene. The whole of the country to the east, the islands, and the bed of the Nile itself, are of this red granite, whereof were formed the obelisks, colossal statues, and columns of their temples. Blocks of dimensions surprisingly large were obtained from these quarries. Basalt, marble, freestone, and alabaster were found beyond all limit compared with the purposes for which they were wanted.
We have already observed that Egypt was deficient in timber, and especially that sort proper for building. There are some forests of palm trees on the Lybian side, near Dendera (Tentyris) ; but the soil is little suited to the growth of timber.
The Egyptians arrived at the highest degree of skill in quarrying and working stone, as well as in afterwards giving it the most perfect polish. In their masonry they placed no reliance on the use of cramps, but rather on the nice adjustment of the stones to one another, on the avoidance of all false bearings, and the nice balance of all overhanging weight. (...) We consider, however, the raising of the obelisks a far greater test of mechanical skill than the transport of these prodigious weights ; but into the mode they adopted we have no insight from any representations yet discovered. We can scarcely suppose that in the handling of the weights whereof we have spoken, they were unassisted by the mechanical powers, although, as we have observed, no representations to warrant the conjecture have been brought to light.
In the
construction of the pyramids it is manifest they would serve as their own scaffolds. The oldest monuments of Egypt (...) are the pyramids at Gizeh, to the north of Memphis. Mr. Wilkinson supposes them to have been erected by Suphis and Jeusuphis his brother, 2120 years в. с., that is, previous by nearly 400 years to the entrance of Joseph into Egypt ; but the same author admits that, previous to the reign of Osirtasen, 1740 в. с., there is nothing to guide any one with certainty as to dates. The edifices, however, more commonly known by the names of Cheops, Cephrenes and Mycerinus, are extraordinary for their size and the consequent labour bestowed upon them ; but as works of the art they are of no further importance than being a link in the chain of its history. They are constructed of stone from the neighbouring mountains, and are in steps, of which in the largest there are two hundred and eight, varying in height from 2½ ft. (French) to 4 ft., decreasing in height as they rise towards the summit. Their width diminishes in the same proportion, so that a line drawn from the base to the summit touches the edge of each step.
(...) The pyramids are built with
common mortar externally, but no appearance of mortar can be discerned in the more perfect parts of the masonry.

(...) About 300 paces from the second pyramid stands the extraordinary gigantic statue of the Sphinx, whose length from the fore-part to the tail has been found to be 125 ft. Belzoni cleared away the sand, and found a temple held between the legs and another in one of its paws.

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