Noon on an April Tuesday. Processing blurbs for forthcoming titles. One, packed with engravings, invites a pause: The Parks, Promenades and Gardens of Paris (1869) by the English horticulturalist William Robinson (1838–1935). Ceasing my labours, I begin to daydream (sorry, Caroline).
I’d never been to Paris. Well, I had a couple of years ago, but that didn’t count. The city was merely a waypoint back then, and rushing your friends through their lunch across from the Gare du Nord is the wrong kind of memorable Paris experience.
It had to be done properly. The boxes, however predictably touristic, had to be ticked. I’d go it alone too. Do the things I wanted to do, at a pace of my choosing. After all, when it comes to museums, I will happily bid goodbye to cherished companions near the entrance and agree to rendezvous only once I’ve made my leisurely solo circuit.
And though advised by a benevolent American – equally averse to other people en masse – I was very much looking forward to the Louvre. There’d be crowds, she said. But it was the Louvre, I said. It had to be done.
Fast forward to a young evening in early September. I’ve just eaten an overpriced but highly satisfying chocolate éclair on the steps of the Madeleine. Time for a stroll down the Rue Royale, a pause in the Place de la Concorde, and an amble east along the famed historical axis, through the Tuileries, reaching at last the Musée du Louvre.
Now, at first foot, I was taking in the vastness and allure of Parisian public space. In the 1860s, William Robinson was considering the merits of the ‘new Paris’ in relation to ‘the wants of our own cities’. Baron Hausmann’s fresh boulevards and plenty of greenery had made for a grander, cleaner capital. We might learn something from the French, Robinson was saying.
Gone, though, were the gingerbread sellers who had charmed him; they’d been replaced by hawkers of miniature Eiffel towers and bottles of tepid water. The greater shame, however, was the absence of the Tuileries Palace, torched during the days of the Paris Commune in 1871 and torn down some years later.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this was the reason why, once I’d lined myself up with the axe historique, I was left asking ‘Where’s the pyramid?’, the glass edifice that dominates the Louvre courtyard – ‘a scar on the face of Paris’ according to the grumpy policeman in The Da Vinci Code (you weren’t expecting highbrow literary references, were you?), though I think it’s more of a quirky monocle (the real carbuncle is the Montparnasse skyscraper). Anyway, the pyramid can’t quite be seen from a distance, because the Louvre isn’t fully aligned with the axis, which originally terminated at the façade of the Tuileries Palace. Apparently there are plans to rebuild it and fill it with the treasures that were saved from destruction but have ever since remained unseen in storage.
The Louvre is open late on Fridays, so the crowds were pleasingly thinned. But I still had to have my personal space encroached upon as I took the obligatory audience with Lisa. Then, after ticking off some majors – Ingres, David, Delacroix – and a few others, it was time to indulge an urge that also had its origins in a CLC book.
The book was Mémoire sur l’écriture cunéiforme assyrienne (1848) by Paul-Émile Botta (1802–70). I’d written the blurb for it myself, which, given my previous ignorance of Assyrian civilisation, is perhaps not something I should confess. But I’d done my research, in the course of which I’d first seen on screen the sculptures I would end up eyeballing.
The son of an Italian historian, Botta served France as a diplomat, and was posted to Mosul in Ottoman Mesopotamia. In 1843, at Khorsabad, just to the north of the city, he uncovered the palace of Sargon II, an Assyrian king of the eighth century BCE. This was the first Assyrian palace to be rediscovered in the modern age.
The inscriptions in Akkadian cuneiform were yet to be deciphered, and Botta was ready to believe he had found the biblical city of Nineveh. The French government got excited and poured the necessary cash into Botta’s excavation and collection of artefacts. These were shipped back to Paris and put on display in the Louvre, although some priceless pieces ended up at the bottom of the Tigris when a raft sank.
Botta was a man of multiple talents. Earlier in his career he’d collected animal and plant specimens on a voyage around the world. One species, found in California, was later named Botta’s pocket gopher (Thomomys bottae) in his honour.
When the written language of the Assyrians presented itself as an unsolved riddle, he naturally devoted himself to its study. While he didn’t crack the code, and other scholars made more significant breakthroughs, Botta’s book, identifying the usage of apparently interchangeable characters, made a notable contribution.
And here I finally was, in the Louvre, in front of the inscribed lamassu, the great winged bulls with human heads dug up by Botta. The Assyrians were superstitious folk and placed these huge sculptures at doorways to ward off evil spirits. Recently, I paid a visit to the British Museum to see the Assyrian antiquities: I counted three pairs of lamassu (some with the bodies of lions). Not long after Botta struck archaeological gold, the British traveller and diplomat Austen Henry Layard (1817–94) made his excavations at Nimrud (he also originally thought this was Nineveh) and then, at Mosul, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, he actually found Nineveh (Botta had been there before, but hadn’t turned up much, so he moved on to Khorsabad). We’ve reissued Layard’s books: Nineveh and its Remains (1849) and Discoveries in the Ruins of Nineveh and Babylon (1853).
But to return to the inscriptions, Assyrian cuneiform is, by all accounts, remarkably tricky stuff. It’s hard enough to clarify which language we’re talking about. It’s officially Akkadian, but up until 1869 this term was applied to the language now known as Sumerian. Thereafter, Akkadian came to be used to describe the East Semitic language that is also known by its northern and southern dialects as Assyrian and Babylonian.
In the Louvre, there are also displays of some of the curved tablets used by Assyrian scribes. With modern lighting and digital imaging techniques, making out these tiny squashed symbols would still be an exacting task. That Botta and others had to do this with the technology of their day makes their labours in deciphering the language all the more impressive.
In addition to Botta’s book, we’re reissuing a selection of other nineteenth-century works relating to the language and history of the Assyrians. These include Henry Rawlinson’s Commentary on the Cuneiform Inscriptions of Babylonia and Assyria (1850) and George Smith’s Assyria: From the Earliest Times to the Fall of Nineveh (1875).
I left the Louvre finally feeling I could stand by the description of ‘marvellous sculptures’ that I’d used in the blurb for Botta’s book, having based that praise on what photographs had suggested to me. They leave some people cold, to be sure. It may well make us uncomfortable to consider these strange remnants of a civilisation preoccupied by power, war and superstition. But here they stand, intricately and artistically executed, in the great museums of once dominant imperial nations, preserved for modern eyes and fresh reflection on the fate of empires and the peoples of a troubled region.