Poliorcetic Art: Orientalism Edition
On Papety's 'Siege of Acre'
You may already be familiar with Dominique Papety’s Siege of Acre, which is a fairly famous work of art. A dramatic scene, it adorns the covers of popular books on the Crusades, medieval combat, etcetera, and also gets used for internet memes. Ostensibly a rendering of events in 1291, when the Europeans lost their foothold in the so-called Holy Land, it was painted around 1840, long after gunpowder had obsoleted every ancient siege weapon, including the ram in the foreground.
It just happens that I visited Acre in 1988, making an extensive tour of the walls and main gate, which interested me greatly. Crusader fortifications are particularly fine examples of late medieval defensive engineering, a hobby I had already developed in grade school. This painting has no resemblance to any part of Acre that I saw — not the gatehouse, nor the sea wall, nor the curtain. Of course, there had been centuries of reconstruction by the time I saw Acre (Akka), not least because of Napoleon’s siege in 1799. By that time, the masonry was so thick that his cannonballs just embedded themselves; they were mortared into place later. I did not see any tall towers, either, as they would have been removed centuries before.
This is not a criticism of Papety’s skill or technique, or even his view of a past Acre, for which real accuracy would be impossible. Rather, this painting has clear nationalist symbolism: Guillaume de Clermont, Hospitaller Master of the garrison, is shown personally defending the walls from the Saracen menace. France was still an empire at this time, with interests in the Levant and Algeria, so a painting of a Frenchman squashing an Arab upstart has obvious context in Papety’s colonial present. He has transformed a famous defeat of the past into a moral victory for his own settling-colonizing France. Thus, as with most art depicting the siege and sack of cities, The Siege of Acre is a political statement. Fair enough.
The siege engine is what bothers me. It always has.
Mind you, I still don’t entirely blame the artist for my dissatisfaction. Papety never got to see an actual battering ram, screw, or pick at work, since none had been constructed or used anywhere in the world for hundreds of years, no museum examples existed, and all drawings of ancient siege engines available to him in the 19th Century were drawn from pure fancy by people who had never seen the real thing, either. Short of building his own experimental designs, no physical models were available. Nor had he ever observed a medieval siege.
Still, I wonder what Papety was thinking here. How is this machine even operating? The ropes seem unattached to anything. Yet it has scored solid masonry at an upward angle, with no leverage. Was it part of an assault tower that smashed the parapet, and then got demolished? If so, where are the remains of the engine? The one thing most noticeably missing is fire. There should be fire in this scene. Why are there no archers on the towers? How is that man falling from a place on the wall where there is no ladder to climb up in the first place? And so on.
I am willing to give the artist room for imagination, yet I remain confused as to what, exactly, he imagined going on here, because this scene is not set in a historical reality.
Or maybe I understand things perfectly. A powerful weapon has been circumcised, and thus transformed into a symbol of effeminate eastern impotence. Eliding the real ingenuity of Arab engineers in attacking Crusader castles, Papety simply projected onto his subject through a cultural chauvinist lens. The context of his scene is a historical period of western colonial ascendancy.
Art historians: feel free to educate me in the comments. Is this what Orientalism looks like?