The History Department has awarded its second annual Best Seminar Paper award to Jonathan Mandia for his essay on the production and reception of an Egyptian travelogue written by Vivant Denon, a multitalented artist, engraver, and diplomat, during the failed Egyptian Campaign of the French Revolution.
Mandia graduated in December 2014 with dual degrees in history and philosophy. He wrote the essay during the “Eighteenth-Century Travel” senior seminar taught by Associate Professor Heather Morrison. Faculty members who taught the history senior seminars, which also included “Republican Rome,” “Degeneration, Health and Modernity,” “Colonial Anglo-America” and “Race and Ethnicity in the United States,” selected outstanding papers, which were then considered by a prize committee.
Andy Evans, who chaired the department last year, said committee members praised the “clarity of the argument, the crispness of the writing, and the range of sources” employed in Mandia’s essay, entitled “Documenting Egypt, Reflecting Europe: Vivant Denon and the Representations of his Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt for the First French Republic.” Mandia received a small monetary award.
In the senior seminar, Mandia examined images of paintings and artifacts and analyzed the medium of travelogues as primary source materials. Mandia said discovering an 1804 edition of Denon’s travelogue in the Sojourner Truth Library allowed him the opportunity to explore two aspects of the seminar that he especially enjoyed.
Personally appointed by Napoleon Bonaparte, Denon was 51 when he embarked on the Egyptian Campaign in 1798. He catalogued Egypt’s artifacts, people, monuments and landscapes through written descriptions and elaborate sketches that were compiled into a two-volume travelogue entitled Travels in Upper and Lower Egypt, published shortly after his return to France in 1802.
In his essay, Mandia argued that Denon’s descriptions and images of a “foreign and mysterious Egypt reflected deep-seated European cultural values of the enlightenment.” The essay considers the influence on Denon’s work of the pseudo-science of physiognomy, which uses outward facial traits to deduce a person’s temperament or morality.
Mandia learned of the physiognomy movement, which was popularized in the eighteenth century by Johann Kasper Lavater, in a discussion with Morrison about Denon’s use of the word physiognomy in his travelogue. Mandia researched the eighteenth century salons of the enlightenment to better understand how the spaces Denon frequented influenced his descriptions of Egyptian people and culture.
“I found that Denon’s experiences as a noble, courtier, diplomat, artist, and writer…positioned him physically and intellectually to provide an interpretation of a foreign and unfamiliar Egypt that a European reader could understand, accept, and culturally consume,” said Mandia. “As an accomplished conversationalist, which was valued in his experiences at court and salons, Denon had a knack for engaging his audience, which shows in his writing and explains the influence of his travelogue.”
Mandia recently moved to Hawaii and plans to pursue graduate work at the University of Hawaii at Manoa in the future, studying history or secondary education.