The Enduring Appeal Of Ruins

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In a review of the Tate Britain’s current show Ruin Lust, Frances Stonor Saunders suggests that urban wrecks offer a shortcut to self-transcendence, “a steroidal sublime that enables us to enlarge the past since we cannot enlarge the present”:

When ruin-meister Giovanni Piranesi introduced human figures into his “Views of Rome,” they were always disproportionately small in relation to his colossal (and colossally inaccurate) wrecks of empire. It’s not that Piranesi, an architect, couldn’t do the math: he wasn’t trying to document the remains so much as translate them into a grand melancholic view. As Marguerite Yourcenar put it, Piranesi was not only the interpreter but “virtually the inventor of Rome’s tragic beauty.” His “sublime dreams,” Horace Walpole said, had conjured “visions of Rome beyond what it boasted even in the meridian of its splendor.”

Piranesi’s engravings were such a potent framing device for the cultural imagination of the 18th century that the actual ruins had to compete with them. Many Goethes and Gibbons arrived in Rome with these images imprinted on their minds, and when this superimposition cleared, the real thing was initially something of a disappointment. François-René de Chateaubriand’s account of a visit to the Colosseum in July 1803 conformed to all the requirements of the ruin gaze: “The setting sun poured floods of gold through all the galleries … nothing was now heard but the barking of dogs”; a distant palm tree, glimpsed through an arch, “seemed to have been placed in the midst of this wreck expressly for painters and poets.” But when he returned to this locus romanticus a few months later, he saw nothing but a “pile of dreary and misshapen ruins.”

Previous Dish on ruins herehere, and here.

(Piranesi’s Veduta dell’ arco di Costantino, e dell’ anfiteatro Flavio detto il colosseo, 1760, via Leiden University.)