Cite this exhibition
Exhibition URL: www.getty.edu/palmyra
Cite this page
Terpak, Frances; Bonfitto, Peter Louis, The Legacy of Ancient Palmyra, Creating Palmyra's Legacy,
Presented by Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
In this 21st century, war in Syria has irrevocably changed the ancient caravan city of
Palmyra, famed as a meeting place of civilizations since its apogee in the mid-2nd to 3rd century CE.
The Romans and Parthians knew Palmyra as a wealthy oasis metropolis, a center of culture and trade on
the edge of their empires. Stretching some three kilometers across the Tadmurean desert, the ruins of
Palmyra, like all ruins, stand as bearers of meaning marking their place in history. For centuries,
traveling artists and explorers have documented the site in former states of preservation. Created as a
tribute to Palmyra, this online exhibition captures the site as it was photographed for the first time
by Louis Vignes in 1864 and illustrated in the 18th century by the architect Louis-François Cassas.
Their works contribute to Palmyra's legacy, one that goes far beyond the stones of its once great
Creating Palmyra’s Legacy
“Every part of Palmyra’s terrain is considerably enhanced by
monumental rubble. There are columns and capitals overturned in the middle of entablatures and door
frames, richly adorned and half broken. Beyond all these wonderful ruins, extends an ocean of
blazing sand stretching all the way back to the horizon that appears to shimmer like a blue sea.”
–Louis-François Cassas Louis-François Cassas recounting his 1785
entry into Palmyra. Unpublished manuscript
(p. 15). Getty Research Institute, 840011
In 1784 French artist and architect Louis-François Cassas (1756–1827)
traveled to the Eastern Mediterranean as part of a diplomatic mission to the Ottoman
court. Cassas was commissioned by French Ambassador Marie-Gabriel-Florent-Auguste de
Choiseul-Gouffier, an antiquarian and author of important works on Greece's classical
past, to record the monuments of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Cyprus, Palestine, and Asia
During this three-year expedition, Cassas created hundreds
of drawings that formed the basis of his 1799–1800 publication Voyage
pittoresque de la Syrie, de la Phoénicie, de la Palestine, et de la Basse
Egypte. The more than 100 large-format etchings representing Palmyra, which
appear in the first volume of this publication, constitute nearly one-third of its
illustrations. In 1984 Getty Research Institute acquired an extraordinary collection
of "proof" or trial prints made after drawings that Cassas produced during his voyage,
in addition to a manuscript written in preparation for the publication. This unpublished
manuscript provides detailed notes on the architectural splendors of Palmyra's tombs,
temples, aqueducts, arches, porticoes, sculptures, and friezes, with an added précis
of its history, rediscovery, and exploration.
Arriving in Palmyra on either May 22 or 23, 1785, Cassas
assiduously worked to record the immense quantity of ruins scattered across the
landscape until departing a month later with a caravan of 500 camels heading on to
Baalbek in modern-day Lebanon. Aspiring to surpass earlier publications on Palmyra,
Cassas wanted to awe and inspire
his European audience by lavishly documenting this great ancient city surrounded by the
desert. His panoramic etchings conform to the voyage pittoresque tradition,
the viewer to simultaneously marvel at the grandeur of antiquity and lament its
inevitable decay. An amalgamation of orientalism and antiquarianism, the prints made
from his drawings
show local Bedouins inhabiting a dramatic landscape strewn with antique blocks,
Corinthian columns, and monumental doorways. His primary objective to systematically
record the artistry and ingenuity of this
civilization is evident from Cassas's numerous technical renderings of the imposing
civic and religious architecture. Floor plans and reconstructed architectural elevations
are complemented by details of
After returning to France, Cassas became a professor of drawing at the renowned
Gobelins Manufactory, where he most likely used his own ornament studies for teaching.
By recasting his drawings into etchings for publication, Cassas created ready sources of
inspiration for architects, painters, and designers working in the decorative arts.
Produced some 75 years after Cassas’s etchings, these pioneering
photographs of Palmyra complement the prints to create an unparalleled visual record of this
extraordinary ancient site.
Photographing the ancient ruins of Palmyra was the vision of French nobleman
Honoré Théodore Paul Joseph d'Albert, duc de Luynes (1802–1867), an exceptional savant
with varied interests ranging from archaeology, natural history, metallurgy, and
chemistry to collecting antique works of art. In 1864 Luynes assembled a scientific
expedition to the Dead Sea that included surveying the Transjordan region and exploring
the famous rock-hewn city of Petra.
For these investigations, he recruited several scientists including naval lieutenant
Louis Vignes (1831–96) because of Vignes's navigational skills and knowledge of eastern
To visually record the sites reached on his self-funded expedition, Luynes had Vignes
trained in photography by artist and photographer Charles Nègre.
After the completion of much of the mission, Luynes returned to Paris, leaving Vignes to
continue to Palmyra via Beirut.
Luynes was a committed enthusiast of the newly invented medium of photography,
particularly its potential to be translated into a more stable photomechanical process.
He commissioned Nègre to print the glass, or occasional paper, negatives produced
by Vignes, and then to mass-produce the images for publication with a special
photoengraving process developed by Nègre himself. However, because of the duc's
untimely death in 1867, only the Dead Sea, Petra, and Transjordan images were made into
photoengravings, and thus only they appear in the multivolume, posthumously published
report Voyage d'exploration à la mer Morte, à Petra, et sur la rive
gauche du Jourdain (1874).
Until their acquisition in 2015 by Getty Research Institute, the Palmyra
photographs featured in this exhibition were largely unknown because they had remained
in the possession of the Luynes family and never appeared as photoengravings. Printed by
Nègre, probably soon after Vignes's return, these three dozen photographs of
Palmyra are extremely rare and, in some cases, unique prints. They are the earliest
known photographic images of the ruins, making Vignes the first to aim the camera's lens
on the monuments. Produced some 75 years after Cassas's etchings, these pioneering
photographs of Palmyra complement the prints to create an unparalleled visual record of
this extraordinary ancient site.