This papyrus is not pornographic in nature, but rather comical and satirical. In ancient Egypt, caricatures involving animals and sexually explicit subjects were always considered worthy of a good laugh. In this regard, the mind of the ancient Egyptian who made this papyrus was not that far removed from our own modern mind.
The history of the “Erotic-Satirical Papyrus” (Cat. 2031) begins in Turin, when its fragments arrive in 1824 together with the other objects of the Bernardino Drovetti collection. Just while working on a cumulus of fragments, Jean-François Champollion notices images on papyrus fragments that refer to an unexpected profane sense that does not at all reconcile with the solemn image that the intellectuals of the time attribute to the pharaonic civilization. Champollion did not realize that both the grotesque and the satirical scenes belonged to the same document.
This will become clear only thanks to some scholars who, in the same years, made copies of those fragments proposing reconstructions. Among the first to make copies is the Spanish Louis De Usoz, he drew a facsimile of the drawings on transparent paper and today they are kept in the National Library of Spain. The German Gustav Seyffarth was the first who made the connection between the erotic and the satirical part in 1825, he made a facsimile and a second freehand copy less rich in detail but with the addition of watercolor colors, today preserved in the Brooklyn Museum.
Another copy of extreme importance is the one made between 1826 and 1827 by the Italian Ippolito Rosellini on whose model is also based a copy now kept in the Louvre (E 11656), both in color. These prototypes therefore contain useful information on the appearance that the fragmentary papyrus had about 200 years ago when it was first studied, highlighting what time has inevitably erased and integrating the tools that scientific research and conservation sciences have today at hand to tell us about this extraordinary and enigmatic papyrus.
The papyrus juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated topics, although both comical and satirical in character. The manuscript reads from right to left. The right side of the papyrus carries a topsy-turvy representation of a world where animals act like humans. Some animals wear clothes, other play musical instruments, and others still fight with weapons like bows and arrows. The roles of predator and prey are reversed: mice and birds have the upper hand against cats, and gazelles take lions prisoner with long sticks and ropes.
On the left-hand side we have the erotic part, where young women, most probably all musicians, are having intercourse in a variety of agile positions with men whose absurdly large phalluses emerge from under their kilts. In contrast to the beautifully depicted women, most of the men are shown as balding, and some with large bellies. It is important to underline that this papyrus is not pornographic in nature, but rather comical and satirical. In ancient Egypt, caricatures involving animals and sexually explicit subjects were always considered worthy of a good laugh. In this regard, the mind of the ancient Egyptian who made this papyrus was not that far removed from our own modern mind.
The manuscript came to Turin in 1824 already in a very fragmentary state. The papyrus is very thin, suffering numerous cracks and some characteristic insects’ damages appear in several places. Due to its fragile state of conservation Giulio Cordero di San Quintino, commissioned immediately a restoration, which was conducted between 1825–1827 by Gustav Seyffarth. Jean-François Champollion suggested gluing the fragments on cardboard, however, Seyffarth consolidated the fragments with small, narrow strips of paper. In 1946 the manuscript was again restored by Erminia Caudana, who fixed the fragments on silk, consolidated them with silk strips and finally housed the two parts between glass.
There are more traces of sever conservation treatments visible from the past, rather prominent is the heavy glossy coating covering the entire surface, it seems to be some sort of animal glue or gelatin. Because of the thick layer of covering, the pigments have degraded in brown acidic compounds, less of the original colorfulness has survived. The glue appears to be very hard and causes stress at the papyrus fibers, barely possible to clean of the fragments. Numerous stripes of gauze, some lined with a thin paper layer, were glued on the verso to attach the fragments together. Some, glued to the edge were probably used to fix the fragments on a previous backing support. They are very rigid, a lot of them are broken and do not provide any longer support to the fragments.
The fragile state of conservation of the manuscript after circa 200 years of various conservations treatments made a thorough cleaning, restoration, and consolidation necessary to prevent further deterioration of the important document. Thanks to the generous support of the Fondazione CRC, the manuscript was carefully conserved and consolidated in accordance with preventive strategies, preserving the ancient appearance of the fragments by using reversible methods.
The glue spots with which the fragments were mounted on the glass were carefully removed from the papyrus, all fragments were cleaned as much as possible without destroying the surface, the fibers were consolidated, and the manuscripts was fixed with stripes of removable Japanese paper.
During the restoration process the restorers and philologists were able to locate the right position for some fragments which were misplaced in the past. For the first time in many years, the “Erotic-Satirical Papyrus” is presented in a secure state of conservation and a totally new display, which will delight visitors for long time, thanks to the intervention of the CRC Innova in collaboration with the Museo Egizio.
Infographic with descriptions and explanations
Copyright: Piera Luisolo, Federico Taverni, Susanne Töpfer/Museo Egizio
financial support: Fondazione CRC (Cuneo)
restorer: Eve Menei (Paris)
project managment: Susanne Töpfer
scientific concept: Enrico Ferraris, Cédric Gobeil, Susanne Töpfer
infographic: Piera Luisolo, Federico Taverni, Susanne Töpfer
videos: Robin Studio Turin (https://robin.studio)