The Ruins of Palmyra
In 1751, explorers James Dawkins and Robert Wood, the Italian architect and artist Giovanni Battista Borra and a small group of Turkish guides set out for the Levant. They traveled extensively in the region, visiting, among other places, the then little-known site of Palmyra. Palmyra had been first visited by Europeans, at least in the modern era, only decades before in 1691. Borra’s architectural drawings of the Palmyra site, combined with field notes and descriptions prepared by Dawkins and Wood, were published in a limited edition elephant folio volume in 1753. The book, entitled The Ruins of Palmyra, is now exceedingly scarce. Two copies are known in England: one in the private collection of the Queen and the other (shown here) in the collection of Dawkins’ great great grand-nephew, Oxford University Professor Richard Dawkins.
Borra’s drawings represent the earliest known images of Palmyra and show many architectural elements not recorded in later photographic surveys of the site. In the eighteenth century, there was an intense interest in the ancient world. Books such as this helped inform the taste for neoclassical art and architecture that was sweeping through Europe. Indeed, James Grainger’s 1760 ode “Solitude,” opens with a description of Palmyra drawn directly from this book. Much of Diderot’s account of the sublime of ruins in his Salon of 1767 was also based on images from the volume. In short, it is (and was) an enormously significant book that is rarely seen.