"Salammbô", the matrix work whose influence extends from the arts to the sciences

“Ah! Show it to me, the coconut that will portray Hannibal. (…) It was not worth using so much art to leave everything vague, so that a pignouf come and destroy my dream by his inept precision “. In this extract from a letter of June 24, 1862 to his friend Jules Duplan, the writer Gustave Flaubert drives the point home: no, definitely, he does not want his book to be imaged. Salammbô which must be released in the fall of the same year. But what is Salammbô ? The story of the war, three centuries before our era, between Carthage and the Mercenaries, which the Punic city had employed and then betrayed in its war against Rome … The story of the devouring passion between Lybian Mathô and the mystical Princess Salammbô , daughter of said General Hamilcar Barca … “A sort of prose opera” According to Guy de Maupassant’s formula, which splashes with color, rustles with the radiance of swords, resonates with that of bugles, intoxicates with the thousand scents of incense from the temples and the aromas of the feasts of Carthage … Salammbô, it’s all of this at the same time, and “opera” which is played in the reader’s brain needs no other mediation than Flaubert’s pen to provoke dazzling.

Quasi-scientific documentation for writing Salammbô

However, the evocative power of the novel is too strong. And the death of the author, inevitably, removes the reservations as to a presentation in images: “Salammbô”, whose bookstore success was immediate, is from the end of the 19th century the subject of numerous illustrations, but also sculptures. , paintings … and even fascinates the musicians who adapt it for the opera (a track which, moreover, had the approval of Flaubert). About 350 of these works are presented in the exhibition “Salammbô. Fury! Passion! Elephants!”, To be seen until September 19, 2021 at the Musée des Beaux-Arts in Rouen, then at the Mucem in Marseille from October 19 to February 20 2022; she will then travel to the Bardo National Museum in Tunis (Tunisia). One of the attractions of this exhibition is that it offers a testimony on Flaubert’s methodology. It is quasi-scientific! “Do you know how many volumes I have swallowed up on Carthage now? About 100!”, he wrote to the same Duplan in 1857. “He consults everything that is accessible: historians who speak of this period, archaeological evidence, information on flora and fauna, ancient cults …” explains Sylvain Amic, general curator of the exhibition and director of the Réunion des Musées Métropolitains de Rouen. Flaubert also haunts the medal cabinets, where ancient coins are exhibited, the iconography of which will inspire him in his descriptions. Thus in one of his notebooks, he notes the physiognomy of a character represented on a Punic coin from Sicily: on his head he wears the skin of a lion making a hood, tied under the chin. A “look” that he will use in the book to describe the mercenary Mathô preparing for battle.

The question of child sacrifice

So certainly Flaubert used the sciences of his time to write Salammbô. But in a strange swing, the book then influenced the archaeologists who followed! And this even if Flaubert never claimed to write a historical book. “What he needed was a frame that made sense, that held together, a starting point to then unfold his story”, resumes Sylvain Amic. The profusion of details in the book, however, is so great that it leads to a form of confusion. “The story of ‘Salammbô’ is so present in people’s minds that one has the impression that Flaubert will then pollute archaeological reasoning” explains the director of museums. A manifest mechanism when a site was discovered in 1921 during excavations in Carthage where many urns filled with children’s bones were found. Gold Salammbô includes an edifying chapter where the Carthaginians sacrifice their young to the god Moloch, on a site that Flaubert calls the Tophet in reference to the Bible. No source indicates that such barbarism could have existed in the real Punic Carthage: it is a pure literary invention of the Norman. “With this discovery of the remains of young children, the specialists nevertheless said to themselves: ‘This is the Tophet of which Flaubert spoke, these are the sacrifices of the children of Salammbô’, explains Tunisian archaeologist Ahmed Ferjaoui. Decades of scientific debate followed: “Were these children killed on the site, where is this place not a sort of cemetery where the remains of children who have died of natural causes have been deposited?”, continues the researcher at the National Institute of Heritage in Tunis. Even today, the question remains. As remains the heady charm of “Salammbô”.

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