De retour à Londres en 1845, il publia plusieurs livres sur l’architecture dans ses manifestations les plus universelles, dont An historical inquiry into the true principles of beauty in art, more especially with reference to architecture, 1849, ouvrage auquel se réfèrent les deux séries d’extraits qui alimenteront la présente note et celle qui suivra.
Bien que non architecte lui-même, l’auteur a un point de vue très tranché sur les pyramides égyptiennes. Parfois partagés à distance par d’autres auteurs, dont certains figurent déjà dans notre inventaire, ses critères d’observation sur la “beauté” des pyramides ne font même pas débat : la majesté, voire la monstruosité minérale, est inconciliable avec les canons de l’esthétique. Une appréciation évidemment contestable : pourquoi vouloir à tout prix comparer le Parthénon et la Grande Pyramide ?
Concernant la configuration des pyramides (inclinaison des faces, orientation des couloirs...), James Fergusson semble hésiter entre un constat d’empirisme ou l’application, par les bâtisseurs égyptiens, de savants rapports entre la division linéaire (la coudée égyptienne...) et la division circulaire (en 28 mesures lunaires).
Il revient aux spécialistes (que je ne suis pas !) d’apprécier de telles considérations. Je constate simplement que, si les pyramides sont, aux yeux de notre auteur, totalement “inartistic”, elles n’en donnent pas moins... à penser !
James Fergusson“In architecture, the Pyramids of Egypt are sublime for their size and their situation, and the mystery that attaches to them as the oldest works of man now existing, but they have not one atom of beauty about them. The Parthenon is, perhaps, the most beautiful of buildings, but has neither the size nor expression of power requisite for sublimity ; nor do I think it affects it, nor that its builders wished to create any such impression. (...)
Almost the only buildings deserving the name of monuments that were erected in Egypt during the first ten or twelve centuries of her historical existence were the far-famed Pyramids, which, by the ancients as well as by ourselves, have always been considered as among the most remarkable works ever executed by man, and as technic attempts at fine art they are, and it is to be hoped will ever remain, unrivalled ; for no buildings with which man ever cumbered the face of the globe are so utterly inartistic as these, and notwithstanding the respect we cannot withhold from them as the oldest buildings on the face of the globe, and the awe which we feel for their size, - for they are also the largest that we know of, - neither of these circumstances will entitle them to the rank of productions of fine art. Nor will their purpose, for though with us it is almost an absolute law of architectural criticism, that a building erected for a merely utilitarian purpose cannot be an object of art, and, on the contrary, that the absence of any such motive necessarily raises the building into that category, I could quote many instances to prove the contrary, but none more striking than these, where not one trace of a utilitarian motive either gave rise to the erection or guided their forms ; yet they do not possess one quality to redeem them from being regarded as mere monuments of tyranny, and not as objects of art.(...)
One of the most striking peculiarities of these buildings is their all facing due north (excepting the great one at Saccara...), and that so exactly, notwithstanding the irregularities of the ground or their relative position, as to prove the existence of some strong motive for placing them in that position ; though what that motive was, no one seems to be able to say. It is, however, so universal, not only in the Pyramids, but in all the tombs and buildings of that age that surround them, that the circumstance would appear to require explanation in any country, but much more so in Egypt than elsewhere ; for this orientation was totally disregarded by all the kings, and in all the buildings, subsequent to the age of the Shepherd Kings. There are no two buildings at Thebes that face the same way, so much so, that the Thebans seem almost to have studied that this should not be the case ; and in their tombs, so gratuitously irregular were they in this respect that, in more than one instance in the Biban el Molok, the excavation of a tomb was stopped by running into another, while it might just as easily have been made parallel ; and at a later age, in Nubia, all the pyramids there shew the same utter disregard of this principle, and face in every direction, but scarcely two of them the same way.
This careful orientation has led many to suppose that, besides being tombs, they were also observatories ; and certainly it would appear that they were meant to mark the return of some astronomical phenomenon ; but what it was, neither I nor any one else have yet been able to discover. The most plausible suggestion arose from their entrances being all on the north face, and sloping downwards on an angle varying from twenty-six to twenty-seven degrees, that they were meant to observe the pole-star. All, however, have failed to establish this point ; and as, among the last, Sir John Herschel has wasted his talents and science in the vain attempt, I will not presume to follow where he has failed : but as I think there can be very little doubt but that all these entrances were meant to be closed hermetically and concealed as soon as the king's body was deposited in the pyramid, I do not think it would be of much importance even if he had proved that the altitude of the pole-star was 26° in latitude 30° north.
Even if, however, an astronomical reason was found to fit exactly the passage of the Great Pyramid, we must find another for the second, where the angle of one passage is 25° 55' and of another 22° 15', and a different one for each of the twenty pyramids whose angles have been measured, as they vary from 22° 35' to 34° 5', and comprehend every intermediate angle, but no two alike.
A much more constant measure is the angle which the face forms with the horizon, which, in twelve of the principal and best-preserved Pyramids, varies only from 51° 10' to 52° 32' ; and there may be errors in measurement which may reduce the difference to even something less. With regard to the entrance-passage of the Great Pyramid, it appears to me to be meant as half this. It could not be made horizontal, as that would have led direct to the secret chamber, and frustrated all those ingenious contrivances for concealment which form the principal motive discoverable in the construction of those buildings ; and if at right angles to the face, it would have been so steep that men could not have gone up and down it, and it would have been most inconvenient to have hauled the sarcophagus or other great masses up and down it. This would not, of course, be the case in the smaller ones ; and it appears the more likely that this really was the motive, for the steepness of the passage is almost in the direct ratio to the size of the pyramid.
But even if this could be so explained, what could have induced the adoption of the other angle of 52° for the face ? Why not 45°, or half a right angle ? or, better still, 60°, making the section equilateral ? Had the height measured along the angle been equal to the side of the base, and consequently the angle at the summit a right angle, that might have been a sufficient reason for adopting it. (...)
So I am afraid this explanation will not suffice. At one time I thought I had found the solution in assuming that the Egyptians divided their circle into 28 lunar measures, each consequently occupying 120-857.
Calling this a we have the following approximation for the three Pyramids of Gizeh, according to the angles of the annexed diagram :
Of course, one angle of a regular pyramid being given, all the rest are absolute ; and the only question is, Did the Egyptians adopt the first angle as the seventh part of a circle ? I confess that sometimes I cannot help thinking that they did, though it will be seen, from the varieties in the above table, that even if they adopted this or any other angle, they frequently deviated from it ; and after all, perhaps, it was merely empirical, and adopted because it was thought to make the most pleasing and stateliest outline and form of such a building ; and which may be, after all, the true solution of the riddle.
At all events, if neither of these will suffice, I can suggest no other, for I have tried every measurement they themselves afford, and every celestial phenomenon I could think of, whether relating to the sun, the moon, or the dog-star, and none of them will fit ; and, except the above, none come near it ; but from what we know of the antiquity and importance of the institution of the week, and the month of four weeks, I cannot help thinking that this is the real division of the circle which guided the Egyptian in the outline of these great buildings.
The division of the Egyptian cubit into seven palms, which is one more than any other nation of the world ever adopted, and each palm into four digits, and consequently the cubit into twenty-eight digits, looks as if they adopted the same division for linear as for circular measures ; otherwise why adopt seven ? It was not the measure of a man's fore-arm, or of anything else that I know of, and, except in this mode, I never could account for its adoption.
With regard to the internal arrangement, I have very little doubt but that Mr. Perring is correct in assuming forty cubits to be the leading measure ; it occurs too often and too exactly for the coincidence to have been accidental ; and as if following out the same division of the scale throughout, we find seven times forty, or 280 cubits, to be the exact height of the whole Pyramid ; while, on the other hand, the length of the base, 448 cubits, is commensurate with this in the ratio of 5 to 8, as pointed out by Mr. Perring, and is divisible by 4, 7, or 28, or twice 4 times or 8 times the last number, and, consequently, similar multiples of the smaller ones. These two measures being given, the angles follow absolutely as a matter of course, so that, perhaps, the whole mystery of the Pyramid lies in the relative value of these two numbers, or in the attempt to reconcile a circular division with a linear one.
The annexed plan of the Great Pyramid, and section of that part of it containing chambers, both of which are drawn to the usual scale, will serve not only as a means of comparing its size with other buildings, but will explain all the peculiarities of its internal arrangements better than can be done in words, and contains all the information that has hitherto been obtained on the subject, either from Col. Vyse's or any other exploration ; and unless there be some lower chamber cut in the rock at such a level as to admit the water of the Nile (which even at the height of the inundation never reaches so high as the floor of the present one), I do not believe that much remains to be discovered by any future explorer of its mysteries.”