A palimpsest is a manuscript in which the original script has been erased or scraped off so that another text can be written on top. Parchment was expensive and time-consuming to produce, so this technique for re-using manuscripts was quite common and would often be done several times over the decades and centuries, with tantalizing traces of the imperfectly erased earlier texts sometimes still visible.
I live in Istanbul, a city which is often itself described as a ‘palimpsest city’ being made up of so many layers of history. However, it was a real palimpsest that inspired me to create my own. I live very close to the site in Istanbul where the Archimedes Codex was discovered in the early twentieth century.
This amazing find was a 10th-century Byzantine Greek copy of a lost work by one of the world’s greatest ever mathematicians, Archimedes of Syracuse, who lived in the third century BC. It was then partially erased and written over with a religious text by 13th-century monks. Much painstaking scholarship gradually revealed the lost knowledge beneath, and since 1998 the palimpsest has been thoroughly analysed using ultraviolet, infrared, visible and raking light, and X-ray. We now know that what looked like an ancient prayer book actually conceals even more ancient science. In fact it contains the only known copy of the “Stomachion” and “The Method of Mechanical Theorems” and also the only copy of “On Floating Bodies” in Greek. The story of how it ended up in Istanbul and what happened to it subsequently is worth researching – I am surprised it hasn’t yet received the Dan Brown treatment!
Anyway, my own ‘palimpsest’ starts off with a page from the Archimedes Codex. To this, I added an excerpt of computer code written by Hunter Bacot, which in its totality is a computer program entitled ’21st Century Prophecies’ which also doubles as a piece of poetry. The Work was presented at the second Stanford Code Poetry Slam and contains the tweets of famous celebrities, rendered as working computer code, which were read out in the manner of sacred commandments. Apparently this is a new form of experimental poetry using computer code as a kind of stylistic device. So, to Archimedes I added Beyonce (she has famously given up tweeting, but this excerpt contains her tweeted musings on a failing relationship). I have freely plundered this ‘code poem’, as the nature of the work I was making also addresses the whole idea of the singular work of art being a thing of the past now that everything is available online to be used, abused, adapted, confused.
On top of these elements of ‘original text’ came another manuscript (I partially erased Archimedes and Beyonce, leaving only faint traces of both)
The uppermost manuscript of the palimpsest begins with an abridged extract from the King James Bible: John, Chapter 3, Verse 5. It continues in a similarly archaic style, but addressing contemporary challenges to human inspiration, morality and aesthetics (the “Work of Art in the age of digital reproduction” is a reference to Walter Benjamin’s 1935 ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ which was taken up in turn by John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ in 1972), in particular those posed by the internet as the modern arena of human global interaction. This challenge to authenticity is mediated by a Spinozan sense of pantheistic/atheistic rationality verging on the mystical which paves the way for the re-entry of Biblical text for the final line: “…to everything there is a season.”
The vine leaf border and dragon motifs are adapted from an early fifteenth century Latin Breviary in Gothic style from France.
The Illuminated capitals are in the ‘White Vine’ Renaissance style. The ‘V’ of ‘Verily’ is copied from the 1478 Italian manuscript ‘Exposito Psalmorum Davidis: Augustine of Hippo’ written and illuminated by Rodolfo Brancalupo. The other capitals are my own designs as interpretation of the same style.
Starting from the top of the manuscript we have William Blake’s 1794 design ‘The Ancient of Days’ (a name for God used in the book of Daniel, but as an illustration by Blake it was also associated with Urizen – his own mythological creation representing reason and law – and also with Newton)
Next we have Leonardo da Vinci’s 1489 sketch of a skull sectioned. It is one of his earliest anatomical drawings and shows his desire to get right inside the human head to understand its internal forms (he also developed a dental formula, part of which can be seen to the left of the skull).
The word ‘SPIRIT’ to the right of the skull has the ‘Tinder’ logo (a flame) above each ‘I’.
Below the skull, the ‘Facebook’ logo takes the place of the illuminated capital ‘F’, and to the right of that is a drawing of some Hindu/Jain erotic sculpture – this one from a Khajuraho Temple in Madhya Pradesh, built by the Chandela dynasty in the tenth or eleventh century.
Returning to the left margin beneath the ‘Facebook’ logo, there is a small section of Islamic geometric design (an intricate artform that reached a high level of sophistication in Islam partly due to the prohibition of figurative art, but also reflecting the abstraction of the Godhead – a concept that brings Islam, unlike Christianity perhaps, closer to a Spinozan outlook), incorporating the ‘Twitter’ logo in the bottom right hand quarter (from the sublime to the ridiculous, again and again)
The ‘Instagram’ logo serves as its own illuminated capital and the word “Instagram” is also in the font of the company logo.
The text ends with an ‘Emoji’ acknowledging the dislocating nature of the palimpsest (below this, Beyonce’s ‘tweet as computer code’ can easily be discerned, as can the tear in the Archimedes Codex).