Nefer's ancient Egyptian tomb brought back to life in Rome
by Andrea Carli
This 16th century building houses the valuable "stele of the false door" of Nefer, a dignitary who lived in Egypt during the fourth Dynasty (2575-2465 BC), ruled by the great pharaohs who built the pyramids.
Nefer was the overseer of the king's scribes, the superintendent of the supplies warehouses and of the "house of weapons." Given his important position, Nefer had the honor of being buried in a mastaba within the royal cemetery, at the foot of the Great Pyramid of Cheops.
The mastaba (from the Arabic word that means "bench") are funerary buildings from the time of the first Egyptian dynasties: these monuments housed the funerary shaft that connected the outside area to the underground burial chamber where the sarcophagus of the deceased and his grave goods were laid.
Nefer added to the tomb a small funeral chapel, decorated with reliefs, which was rebuilt in its original size in the Barracco Museum.
The tomb reliefs scattered in several European and American museums (Paris, Louvre; Copenhagen, Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek; Birmingham Museum, University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) are reproduced in pictures displayed inside the funeral chapel that was rebuilt to convey the overall appearance of an Egyptian tomb from the 3rd millennium BC.
The exhibition "In the shadow of the pyramids," running through late May, includes the life size reconstruction -- in the loggia on the first floor of the museum -- of the funeral chapel of Nefer with backlit slides that recreate in their entirety the relief decoration.
The stele preserved in the Barracco Museum was purchased by arts patron Giovanni Barracco at an auction in Paris in 1868: on that occasion, the artworks of the collection of Napoléon-Joseph-Charles-Paul Bonaparte, (commonly known as Plon-Plon, the son of Napoleon I's younger brother) were being auctioned off.
The prince had planned to embark on a trip to Egypt in 1858, retracing the path of the 1798-1801 Napoleonic expedition.
In order to worthily receive such a distinguished guest, Egypt governor Said Pasha decided in advance to arrange a series of excavation campaigns, so that the prince could experience and enjoy the "discovery" of the archaeological treasures of pharaonic Egypt, emerging, as of by magic, from the desert sand.
In order to set up this simulation, famous Egyptologist Auguste Mariette, then assistant curator of Egyptian antiquities at the Louvre, was summoned to Egypt.
Mariette came to Egypt in 1857 and in a short time he managed to open up to 35 excavations, personally directing the operations and supervising all the archaeological findings that occurred in different locations.
The trip was canceled, but the Prince still received as a gift some Egyptian artworks, among which was notably the Stele of Nefer. Plon Plon displayed the artworks in his lavish Maison Pompéienne, that he built in Paris based on a Pompeian domus.
As he encountered some political difficulties, "le prince Napoléon" sold both the house and the collection. The Stele of Nefer thus became the first piece of the Barracco collection.
("In the shadow of the Pyramids. The mastaba of dignitary Nefer," Barracco Museum of Ancient Sculpture, Rome, until May 28)
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