The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
"The Dialogue of Frederick Ruysch and his Mummies" (1827)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
“The Dialogue of Frederick Ruysch and his Mummies” (original: “Dialogo di Federico Ruysch e delle sue mummie”) was written by Giacomo Leopardi and first appeared in Operette Morali (1827). Leopardi (1798-1837) is little-known outside his native Italy, but inside Italy he is seen as perhaps the country’s greatest writer after Dante. Leopardi was a poet, scholar, and essayist whose work is regrettably obscure to non-Italians.
Late one night Frederick Ruysch, a scientist, is fast asleep when the mummies in his laboratory begin singing. This wakes Ruysch up, and he irritably asks the mummies why they are singing and why they have never previously spoken. The mummies reveal that once every year they sing a chorus of poetry and then fall silent, but for fifteen minutes afterward they are allowed to reply to questions posed to them. They can talk to each other but do not, as they have nothing left to say to each other. Ruysch is curious about the experience of death and what happens after. The mummies tell him that they didn’t notice their own moments of death, just as while living they didn’t notice when they fell asleep. The mummies turn out to be rather content with their lot, finding relief in the freedom of emotion in death: “¼the languor of death ought to be pleasing in proportion to the intensity of pain from which it frees the sufferer.”1 When the fifteen minutes are up the mummies fall silent, and Ruysch happily returns to bed.
When Leopardi wrote “The Dialogue of Frederick Ruysch and his Mummies” mummies had long been familiar to Europeans, being imported and used from the twelfth century onward for medicinal purposes.
Such traffic serves as the background for the first horror story involving mummies, an anecdote related by Louis Penicher in his 1699 Traité du Embaumements (Treatise on Embalming)¼.it was Napoleon Bonaparte’s invasion of Egypt a century later that launched modern Europe’s first true Egyptomania, driving fashions in costume, painting, furnishings and architecture. The Egyptomania sparked a fad for public unrolling of Egyptian mummies in the 1830s and 1840s¼.2
Leopardi’s “Dialogue” was a part of this Egyptomania. “Dialogue” appeared the same year as the first mummy novel, Jane Loudon’s The Mummy! A Tale of the Twenty-Second Century (1827), about a reanimated Cheops who does God’s will by giving wicked men bad advice, and between The Mummy and Leopardi’s “Dialogue” the two created the archetype of the intelligent, reasonable, and very wise mummy, an archetype used by Edgar Allan Poe in “Some Words with a Mummy” (1845) and Théophile Gautier’s “The Mummy’s Foot” (1863). It was only in the 1880s and 1890s, in stories like Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Lot No. 249,” that the mummy became monstrous—a reflection of the rise of the “imperial gothic,” in which the mummy becomes an angry, active subject of the colonial rule and a threat to European epistemological supremacy.3
Ruysch’s mummies have a haughty and severe dignity and are glad of their mummification and current state of unlife. In their own words,
As a vague reminiscence:
Such memory of our living
Is left to us: but very far from terror
Our remembrance is. What were we?
What was that acid spot in time
That went by the name of life?4
Print: Giacomo Leopardi and Charles Edwardes, Essays and Dialogues of Giacomo Leopardi. Seattle: Amazon Createspace, 2016.
1 Giacomo Leopardi, “The Dialogue of Frederick Ruysch and his Mummies,” in Giacomo Leopardi and Charles Edwardes, Essays and Dialogues (Boston: Osgood, 1882), 115.
2 Kenneth Hite, “Mummy,” in Jeffrey Andrew Weinstock, The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2014), 426.
3 See Karen E. Macfarlane, “Mummy Knows Best: Knowledge and the Unknowable in Turn of the Century Mummy Fiction,” Horror Studies 1, no. 1 (Jan. 2010): 5-24, for more on this.
4 Leopardi, “The Dialogue of Frederic Ruysch and his Mummies,” 110.