08 December 2016


Part I: click here

Who drew this 'Curious Prospect' of Palmyra?

At the end of his report on his successful visit to Palmyra ('A Relation of a Voyage from Aleppo to Palmyra in Syria', 1695), the Rev.William Halifax added a note to announce the very latest news:

True to his word, Halifax reproduced that 'curious prospect' ('curious' in the sense of an impossible panorama), in the very next Philosophical Transactions, together with extracts from the travel diaries kept by two eminent merchants,Timothy Lanoy and Aaron Goodyear.  Those gentlemen had been on the first disastrous attempt to reach Palmyra in 1678 and gave it a second, successful try in 1691. Their journals recount both voyages in great detail: what they saw on the trail to and from Palmyra/Tadmor (tracks, rocks, ruined villages, empty wells and cisterns, and, the climax of the second diary, a vivid account of their visit to the 'King of the Arabs' in his camp on the Euphrates River).  Lanoy and Goodyear also provided Halifax with the very large (71 x 149 cm/2.4' x 5') copperplate engraving (the Noble Ruins, taken on the Place) which he duly published.

Now, look at A View of the Ruins of Palmyra alias Tadmor (above) and mentally strip out the English legend and all those labels. With them gone, you can better compare the engraving with this painting of Rudera Palmyrae, 'Ruins of Palmyra', (below) in living colour:

This oil painting on canvas (ignore its Latin legend which was added much later, as explained below) was shipped to Gisbert Cuper by Coenraad Calckberner, the Dutch Consul in Aleppo in 1693; and we know from the Consul's earlier correspondance that the artist was busy painting it during 1692 [Part I]. 

Despite some artistic insertions -- such as the colourful figure and exotic natives in the centre foreground -- and, here and there, differing architectural details (e.g. height of towers, tumbled column drums, architraves and such), everyone will agree that, for all intents and purposes, the panoramic views are identical.

Who made the original drawing, the first drawing of Palmyra, then?

The engraving is unsigned and neither Halifax nor Lanoy nor Goodyear ever mention who was responsible for the drawing. However, in their journal of the return trip from Palmyra to Aleppo in 1691, there is this nugget: the travellers had stopped on the Euphrates to visit Assyne, 'King of the Arabs', and casually remark, we let [Assyne] see, too, a kind of rude draught [draft] which we had taken of the Place [Palmyra]; which he seemed to like.

Could this draft be the original master drawing? Unquestionably, some such rough original, made on site, must underlie both the engraving and the painting.  If so, Lanoy or Goodyear could have been the draftsman.  Perhaps, as eminent gentlemen, they were too modest (or too snobbish) to make a public claim. So, if one or the other were the artist, this easily solves our Mystery ... but, alas, there are serious problems with this solution.

We mustn't forget that the travellers remained only four days in Palmyra. It would have been virtually impossible for anyone other than a trained architectural draftsman to have measured and drawn such an expansive, detailed panorama in such a short time. Lanoy and Goodyear were merchants; classically trained, of course, and probably capable of decent sketching, but their interests were elevated: they did not draw buildings; they copied inscriptions. Besides, in those four days, even the indefatigable Halifax couldn't describe in words all that he saw -- let alone draw it all in approximate scale and perspective; in truth, Halifax left out sections of the Great Colonnade, the whole western part of the city, the Funerary Temple, and Diocletian's Camp.

I suspect, too, that Lanoy and Goodyear had a slightly lackadaisical attitude to the actual structures. In page after page, they tell us of their travels, often closely observed, but say almost nothing about the city, with no details of their stay nor descriptions of the sights they had come so far to see.  In fact, this is the sum total of their account of the city itself:

Having tired ourselves with roving from Ruin to Ruin and rumaging among old Stones, from which little Knowledge could be obtained, and more especially not thinking it safe to linger too long .... we departed from Tadmor, being very well satisfied with what we had seen, and glad to have escaped so dreaded a Place...; but else with some regret, for having left a great many things behind, which deserved a more particular and curious Inspection.
That doesn't sound like men who spent every daylight hour measuring and drawing ruins; does it?

So, if probably not Lanoy or Goodyear; then, who?

A Dutch painter?

Unlike the engraving, the monstrously large painting (.87 x 4.31 m/2'10"x 14'2") is signed and even dated.  What does it say? 
G. Hofstede fec: 1693. 1 aug.
Well, that should settle the question of who made the master drawing of Palmyra; except, of course, it doesn't.

In fact, it makes matters worse. For who is G. Hofstede and how did he make (fec.) it? 

What do we know about Gerard Hofstede? 

Nothing. Absolutely nothing. 

That is astonishing.  The study of 17th century Dutch art and artists has been going on for centuries and there are huge databases online (e.g. Allgemeines Künstlerlexikon - Internationale Künstlerdatenbank).  Yet, other than being the artist of the 'Ruins of Palmyra', Hofstede (also named Hofstede van Essen), draws a blank.  Even the very learned Herr Professor
Doktor Friedrich von Duhn, who studied the painting in 1894 (Archäologische Anzeiger) could find nothing to say about him. The man simply vanished, as if into the thin air of the desert.

What facts do we have?  Only that Coenraad Calckberner, the Dutch Consul in Aleppo, wrote to Gisbert Cuper in mid-1692 telling him that an (unnamed) artist was painting the ruins of Palmyra and that he would send him the painting when finished; a year later, he confirmed that it was on its way -- which agrees with the date on the painting. 

Von Duhn concluded that Hofstede must have been the artist of the original drawing ... since nobody else could have been. The learned professor is both right, and wrong.  The solution, I think, is found in Calckberner's letter (written in a rather old form of Dutch, which  might be stretching my linguistic abilities too far).  This is the relevant extract from his letter to Mr Cuper in 1692:*

He is sending an aftrektekening -- not as usually translated, 'a painting'; but, rather, an old word for a copy, even a calque (tracing), of an existing drawing. In other words, Hofstede is putting into paint the drawing(s) he has made on the site.

What I think happened is this. 

1678 and All That

The eminent merchants Lanoy and Goodyear had both been to Palmyra in 1678, a brief and fearful visit, but which nonetheless allowed them a glimpse of the ruins. On arrival, the company realized their great danger and rode to the top of a hill to defend themselves if need be.  From that eminence, they could discern these vast and noble ruins. Persuaded to descend, they pitched their tents inside the Town Walls, which is in the ruins of a great Palace, the Wall yet standing very high [in fact, the grounds surrounding the Temple of Bel]. Thus, Lanoy and Goodyear had a far better idea of Palmyra than those who only joined in the second voyage. Might they have hired a draftsman to accompany them in 1691, precisely in order to prepare drawings of what they knew they would find?  

Enter Cornelis de Bruijn

Five years after their first, abortive visit to Palmyra, a Dutch artist named Cornelis de Bruijn arrived in Aleppo (May 1682 - April 1683).  De Bruijn had been travelling in the eastern Mediterranean since 1678 (Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, and the Holy Land), drawing views of old monuments -- perhaps not the most beautiful of drawings but better than anything that was known in Europe at the time. Despite the dangers, de Bruijn was eager to attempt another visit to Palmyra ... but the local Arabs would not cooperate, and his plans came to nothing. Disappointed, he started on the long journey homewards.

It's by no means impossible that de Bruijn, an agreeable person who was welcome in the highest Dutch diplomatic and mercantile circles, met Lanoy and Goodyear during his stay of almost a year in Aleppo.  That might have given them the idea of hiring an artist to accompany them on their second voyage to measure and draw the ruins. Cornelis de Bruijn had returned to Holland, but, if you needed an artist, who better than another Dutchman -- who then happened to be resident in Aleppo?  And that was Gerard Hofstede.  This is speculation, of course. Yet we might well have a bit of evidence for Hofstede's actual presence on site in Palmyra in 1691.  Oddly enough, the proof is due to Cornelis de Bruijn....

In 1698, de Bruijn published his hugely successful book, Travels in the Principal Parts of Asia Minor, illustrated with over 200 pictures of spectacular oriental monuments:

I want to offer accurate pictures, of those cities, towns, and buildings that I have visited, and without recklessness I can claim to have done something that no one has done before.
Meanwhile, back in Holland, at sometime between 1693 when he returned home, and before the publication of his Travels, Gisbert Cuper invited de Bruijn to Deventer to study the giant painting of the 'Ruins of Palmyra' which was now in his collection. Accordingly, De Bruyn included in his book a copy of the engraving of the ruins of Palmyra that had been published by William Halifax in Philosophical Transactions (top of this post). But, as he boasted, he was able to add to it details that he had discovered from close inspection of Mr Cuper's painting.  For example, he added a fallen (dark) porphyry column beside the six standing (white) columns in the lower centre, which was not on the published engraving. This porphyry column can only mean that, as he was painting, Hofstede was slightly reworking the panorama -- either from memory or from sketches he had made on the site.

And there he is: he painted himself standing on a stone slab bang in the middle of the painting (detail, left), his hand pointing to his signature written as if incised on the stone.[See update below]

So, I think that Hofstede's original drawing was the basis for the engraving published in Philosophical Transactions in 1695, and that this was also the 'rude draft' that Lanoy and Goodyear showed to the Arab king on their way back to Aleppo in 1691. Hofstede left the engraving unsigned, partly because it was based on an unfinished drawing, and partly because it was the property of his patrons (in modern terms, they owned the copyright).  Meanwhile, Hofstede worked on his painting during 1692-3, and sold it, when finished, to the Dutch Consul who bought it on behalf of Mr Cuper. 

What happened to Gerard Hofstede after that, we know not. 

He disappears from history, but his painting lives on.


Gisbert Cuper died in 1716. In the following year, his collection of 4,100 books and a few antiquities was sold in an auction that lasted nine days. The 'Ruins of Palmyra' was knocked down to Gerard van Papenbroeck (1673-1743), a great art collector and future burgomaster of Amsterdam, for 17 florins -- not a large sum considering its size and historical importance, but the art market was poor in this long period of economic decline. 

In memoriam 1743

When he, in turn, died in 1743, Van Papenbroeck bequeathed his antiquities to the universities of Leiden and Amsterdam.  The Illustrious Athenaeum of Amsterdam got the prize of Palmyra. Van Papenbroeck won a permanent commemoration with a Latin legend superimposed on the painting in gold letters:
Whereupon the painting, while known to interested scholars, became all but invisible to the public, hanging first in the entrance of the Library of the University of Amsterdam, and then moved next door into a storeroom of  the Allard-Pierson Museum, where I first saw it in 2006. 


And now it has moved back to Deventer for the first time in almost 300 years as the centrepiece of a splendid little exhibition that highlights the unexpected historical relationship between Palmyra and the charming city of Deventer.  Finally, members of the public can now see the painting as close up as they like.  There is so much to enjoy in it.

Palmyra. City of a Thousand Pillars in Deventer

The Museum De Waag (the medieval weighing hall) is hosting the exhibition, telling the story of Palmyra from its discovery by the Western world in the 17th century, until the dire exploded monuments and murders that scarred the city in 2015. 

The exhibition is triggered by the recent mayhem in Palmyra committed by ISIS. What motivates the violence of ISIS? And how do Syrians themselves experience the loss of their cultural heritage? When the painting by Gerard Hofstede arrived in the home of Gisbert Cuper, 'the oracle of the world of learning' and mayor (burgomaster) of Deventer, it was the first representation of the ruins ever to be seen in the West.  It marks the start of western fascination with the almost mythical desert city.

I'll be visiting the exhibition in late January and will briefly report.  I wouldn't miss it for the world.

Palmyra. City of a Thousand Pillars in Deventer, Deventer History Museum De Waag

Update 11 February 2017

Yesterday, I finally got to Deventer and saw this wonderful show.  Thanks to an unexpectedly large number of visitors, the exhibition has been extended until 12 March, so you still have time to get to charming Deventer to see it ... and it's really worth the visit.  


I took the opportunity, too, to get a much better view of Gerard Hofstede's painting.  I was particularly dissatisfied with the image (above) showing a portrait of the artist himself in the middle of his painting -- boasting, as it were, that he had made it. Close-up, it's possible to see much more detail ... and my young colleague, Drs Lauren van Zoonen, kindly took this crystal-clear photograph (left) for me.  We can now see that his hand is not only proudly pointing to his signature but is also holding one of his unrolled drawings: even the shadow of the ruins is visible in this sketch.  Hofstede, in short, paints himself with the 'rude draft' in hand while simultaneously pointing to his name.  There can be no doubt now that he was there, on site, along with the company of Englishmen.  Game, set and match for solving the Mystery: Who made the first ever drawing of Palmyra? 

Gerard Hofstede made it.

* I am immensely grateful to Dr L. Dirven of the University of Amsterdam who kindly sent me the digitalized files of Mr Cuper's correspondence now archived in the Royal Library in The Hague -- a fascinating bundle, as well as (I hope) an instructive one.

** My warmest thanks to Laura Gibbs of the wonderful blog Bestiaria Latina for correcting my rusty Latin translation of the legend; as well as giving me and many others years of fun blogging posts [her cats speak Latin].  Everyone who likes Latin (or even vaguely remembers it) should check out her blog.

Sources.  As in Part I, plus: 'An Extract of the Journals of Two Separate Voyages of the English Merchants of the Factory of Aleppo, to Tadmor, Anciently Call'd Palmyra'. Phil Trans. 1695, XIX; F. von Duhn,  'Die älteste Ansicht von Palmyra', ARCHÄOLOGISCHER ANZEIGER, 1894, 112-15; for the life and works of Cornelis de Bruijn I have consulted with much pleasure the always interesting Livius.org: Articles on Ancient History


Top centre: Engraving, 'View of the ruins of Palmyra alias Tadmor: taken on the Southern Side',** published in Philosophical Transactions, 1695. Reprinted in G. Astengo, 'The rediscovery of Palmyra and its dissemination in Philosophical Transactions', Notes Rec R Soc Lond 2016 Sep 20, 70(3): Fig. 1, published online 2016 Mar 16.

2nd centre: Oil painting, signed G. Hofstede, dated 1693, 'The Ruins of Palmyra', sent to Gisbert Cuper in 1693. Photo credit: Allard Pierson Museum, Amsterdam. 

3rd centre: Extract from a letter written by Coenraad Calckberner to Gisbert Cuper, 1692 (KB 72 C 3, fols. 49r–50r). 

First left: Cornelis de Bruijn, by Godfrey Kneller (c. 1698). Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.  Photo credit: Wikipedia

2nd left: Detail taken from oil painting, signed G. Hofstede, dated 1693.
3rd left: Last page of the list of Cuper's books and antiquities auctioned in 1717.  Photo credit: Communications Dept. Deventer Museum, to whom I am most grateful for this illustration.  I take this occasion, too, to thank the PR staff for their generous help.

Bottom centre: Palmyra in Deventer, an article published in the National Geographic online: 12 Nov., 2016. Author and Photographer Servaas Neijens

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