In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature

In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature

by Christopher Woodward

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In this enchanting meditation on ruins, Christopher Woodward takes us on a thousand-year journey from the plains of Troy to the monuments of ancient Rome, from the crumbling palaces of Sicily, Cuba, and Zanzibar to the rubble of the London Blitz. With an exquisite sense of romantic melancholy, we encounter the teenage Byron in the moldering Newstead Abbey, Flaubert


In this enchanting meditation on ruins, Christopher Woodward takes us on a thousand-year journey from the plains of Troy to the monuments of ancient Rome, from the crumbling palaces of Sicily, Cuba, and Zanzibar to the rubble of the London Blitz. With an exquisite sense of romantic melancholy, we encounter the teenage Byron in the moldering Newstead Abbey, Flaubert watching the buzzards on the pyramids, Henry James in the Colosseum, and Freud at Pompeii. We travel the Appian Way with Dickens and behold the Baths of Caracalla with Shelley. An exhilarating tour, at once elegant and stimulating, In Ruins casts an exalting spell as it explores the bewitching power of architectural remains and their persistent hold on the imagination.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Graceful. . . . A brief, spacious and personal book of travels and meditation.” –The New York Times

“A grand tour. . . . Eclectic, learned.” –The New York Times Book Review

“Freshly provocative. . . . Meticulously well-observed and well-traveled. . . . A steady stream of ebullient erudition [and] an outpouring of melancholy grandeur.” –Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Nothing short of a masterpiece.” –Literary Review

“If the painstaking Simon Schama is memory’s metaphysician, the late W. G. Sebald . . . is memory’s poet and its conscience. . . . Among these giants, Woodward’s elegant book has earned him an honored place.” –The Atlanta Journal Constitution

“Intriguing. . . . Woodward’s enthusiasm for ruins is infectious. . . . . A fascinating tour.” –San Francisco Chronicle

“Brilliant, daring and evocative.” –The Guardian

“Absorbing. . . . Delightful. . . . Woodward does a terrific job of showing us the variety of ways artifacts have been interpreted and treated over the years. . . . In Woodward, [ruins] have an accomplished and eloquent spokesperson.” –The Providence Journal

“A handsomely written, constantly surprising meditation upon ruins . . . and the way they provide consolation in the face of so much human folly.” –Daily News (New York)

“An enchanting and informative voyage. . . . Fizzes with felicitous detail, anecdote, literary reference, and art history.” –Evening Standard

“Beautifully written. . . . Contains astonishing facts, interesting digressions, alluring illustrations and tantalizing references. . . . An entertaining, even an endearing work.” –Winston-Salem Journal

“Fetching. . . . Whimsical. . . . Woodward’s enthusiasms are catching.” –The New York Observer

“A thought-provoking grand tour of familiar–and lesser-known–stops along the . . . archaeological trail.” –Archaeology

“Nothing less than a guided tour of the world’s most celebrated ruins as well as a short history of the human intellect as it has contemplated these ruins.” –The Tennessean

“Rich, allusive, learned, delightful. . . . Not a breath of pretension emanates from this engaging, illuminating volume.” –Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“Masterful. . . . Well-illustrated. . . . Constantly entertaining.” –The Times (Trenton, NJ)

“A thoughtful book. . . . After reading it, no building will seem safe from time’s depredations.” –Conde Nast Traveller

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.17(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

chapter 1


Who Killed Daisy Miller?

In the closing scene of Planet of the Apes (1968) Charlton Heston, astronaut, rides away into the distance. 'What will he find out there?' asks one ape. 'His destiny,' replies another. On a desolate seashore a shadow falls across Heston's figure. He looks up, then tumbles from his horse in bewilderment. 'Oh my God! I'm back. I'm home. Damn you all to hell! . . . You maniacs. They did it, they finally did it, they blew it up!' The shadow is cast by the Statue of Liberty. She is buried up to her waist, her tablet battered, and her torch fractured. The planet of the apes is Earth, he realises, destroyed by a nuclear holocaust while the astronauts were travelling in space. He is the last man, and the lone and level sands stretch far away.

A century before the film was made, a man in a black cape sits on the arch of a ruined bridge. He holds an artist's sketchbook as firmly as if inscribing an epitaph. Blackened shells of buildings rise at the marshy edge of a slow and reedy river, one façade advertising 'Commercial Wharf'. This is London - or, rather, its future as imagined by the artist Gustave Doré in 1873. The wizard-like figure in Doré's engraving is a traveller from New Zealand, for to many Victorians this young colony seemed to represent the dominant civilisation of the future. He sits on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul's, exactly as Victorian Englishmen sketched those of ancient Rome.

The cathedral-like ruin next to the commercial warehouse

is Cannon Street Station, brand-new in 1873 but here imagined with the cast-iron piers of the bridge rusting away in the tidal ooze.

When we contemplate ruins, we contemplate our own future. To statesmen, ruins predict the fall of Empires, and to philosophers the futility of mortal man's aspirations. To

a poet, the decay of a monument represents the dissolution of the individual ego in the flow of Time; to a painter or architect, the fragments of a stupendous antiquity call into question the purpose of their art. Why struggle with a brush or chisel to create the beauty of wholeness when far greater works have been destroyed by Time?

Some years ago I was walking through the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, past Rembrandt's Nightwatch and into the rooms of hunters, skaters and merry peasants painted during the Golden Age of the Netherlands. I was brought up short by a small, dark painting which hung ignored by the crowds: a view of the interior of an artist's studio painted in the middle of the seventeenth century by a man named Michiel Sweerts. The background of the scene was absolutely predictable: in the convention of artists' academies, students were drawing an antique sculpture of a naked figure, while an older artist was casting a figure in bronze.

In the foreground, however, fragments of ancient statues of gods and heroes formed a gleaming pile of marble rubble, painted with such a heightened degree of illumination and clarity that they seemed to be a collage of photographs cut out and pasted on to the canvas. I was mesmerised by this picture, as unsettled as if I had rediscovered a forgotten nightmare. My mind travelled on to the fragmentary figures in de Chirico's surrealist paintings, and to the pallid flesh of more recent butcheries. On the left of the pile, I now noticed, was the head of a man wearing a turban, as artists did in their studios. Was this a self-portrait of Sweerts? I had never heard of him, a painter who was born in Brussels in 1618 and who died in Goa at the age of forty. Did he kill himself, for a kind of suicide is implied by the painting? There was no more information on the label but I was convinced that, at the very least, he abandoned his career as a painter. The clash of creativity and destruction in this canvas expressed the inner doubts of an artist confronted by the stupendous classical past but, ironically, the promise of ruin has been one of the greatest inspirations to western art.

When I turned away from Sweerts's studio, I felt oddly dislocated but also very calm. Why, I wondered, does immersion in ruins instill such a lofty, even ecstatic, drowsiness? Samuel Johnson spoke of how 'Whatever withdraws us from the power of our senses - whatever makes the past, the distant, or the future, predominate over the present, advances us in the dignity of human beings. . . . That man is little to be envied, whose patriotism would

not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose enthusiasm would not grow warmer among the ruins of Rome.' Sweerts had been to Rome, I was sure. For it is the shadow of classical antiquity which is the deepest source for the fascination with ruins in the western world. Every new empire has claimed to be the heir of Rome, but if such a colossus as Rome can crumble - its ruins ask - why not London or New York? Furthermore, the magnitude of its ruins overturned visitors' assumptions about the inevitability of human progress over Time. London in Queen Victoria's reign was the first European city to exceed ancient Rome in population and in geographical extent; until the Crystal Palace was erected in Hyde Park in 1851, the Colosseum (or Coliseum) remained the largest architectural volume in existence. Any visitor to Rome in the fifteen centuries after its sack by the Goths in AD 410 would have experienced that strange sense of displacement which occurs when we find that, living, we cannot fill the footprints of the dead.

A second shadow falls on the same ground. This is the Christian doctrine that man's achievement on earth is a fleeting transience, that pyramids and houses and skyscrapers will crumble into oblivion at the sound of the Last Trump. The apocalyptic finale is not exclusive to the Christian religion, but what is unique is the conjunction of the cult's holy shrines with the greatest ruins of classical civilisation. The two greatest influences on the mind of Europe share the same circle of hills above the River Tiber. So the Eternal City is the place to begin an investigation into the feelings of pleasure and fear which ruins suggest.

In AD 400 Rome was a city of eight hundred thousand people glittering with 3,785 statues of gold, marble and bronze. Its encircling walls were 10 miles in length with 376 towers, and vaulted by nineteen aqueducts carrying fresh spring-water to 1,212 drinking fountains and 926 public baths. There is no evidence that any writer or painter imagined its future ruin, and the poet Rutilius Namatianus expressed his contemporaries' view that Rome was as eternal as the universe itself:

No man will ever be safe if he forgets you;

May I praise you still when the sun is dark.

To count up the glories of Rome is like counting

The stars in the sky.

In AD 410 the Visigoths seized and plundered the city, and in 455 the Ostrogoths. By the end of that century only a hundred thousand citizens remained in Rome, and the rich had fled to Constantinople or joined the Goths in their new capital at Ravenna. In the sixth century the Byzantines and the Goths contested the city three times and the population fell to thirty thousand, clustered in poverty beside the River Tiber now that the aqueducts had been destroyed and the drinking fountains were dry. The fall of Rome came to be seen by many as the greatest catastrophe in the history of western civilisation.

In architectural terms, however, change was slow. The Goths plundered but they did not burn or destroy. In the words of St Jerome, 'The Gods adored by nations are now alone in their niches with the owls and the night-birds. The gilded Capitol languishes in dust and all the temples of Rome are covered with spiders' webs.' The public buildings on the Capitoline Hill and the Forum were abandoned while a new city, Christian Rome, rose around the outlying sites of St Peter's martyrdom and the Pope's palace of St John Lateran. Over the centuries the Forum became a cow pasture, and cattle drank in the fountains where Castor and Pollux were said to have watered their sweating steeds after the battle of Lake Regillus. Debris slid down the steep slope of the Capitoline Hill to bury the Temple of Vespasian in a mound 33 feet deep. Four-fifths of the vast area enclosed by the old fortified walls of Rome became a wasteland scattered with ruins, vineyards and farms. It remained disabitato until after 1870, when the city became the capital of a reunited nation, the 'third Rome'.

But if the Goths did not demolish the buildings, where did the dusty, cobwebbed temples disappear to? They were recycled: in the thousand years that followed, ancient Rome was remade as Christian Rome. In the darkness of the deserted ruins the colonnades echoed with the clang of mallets as thieves stole the gold and bronze statues in order to melt them down. And why open a quarry when the Forum was on the new city's doorstep, with its stones polished and ready? The Colosseum was leased as a quarry by the Popes: picking up one receipt in the Vatican archive we see a payment of 205 ducats for the removal of 2,522 tons of stone between September 1451 and May 1452. One of the first Popes to introduce legislation to protect the few monuments that still stood was Pius II, in 1462. A humanist scholar, Pius had praised the ruins in a poem written many years before:

Oh Rome! Your very ruins are a joy,

Fallen is your pomp; but it was peerless once!

Your noble blocks wrench'd from your ancient walls

Are burn'd for lime by greedy slaves of gain.

Villains! If such as you may have their way

Three ages more, Rome's glory will be gone.

Pius's laws were disregarded like many before or since, however. In 1519 Raphael told Pope Leo X, 'I would be so bold as to say that all of this new Rome, however great it may be, however beautiful, however embellished with palaces, churches and other buildings, all of this is built with mortar made from ancient marbles.' In the twelve years since Raphael had known the city the Temple of Ceres and one of its two pyramids had been destroyed. The lime-burning which Pius II and Raphael decried was the most banal, yet most destructive, aspect of the recycling. In mixing mortar the best aggregate is powdered lime, and the easiest way to obtain powdered lime is to burn marble. At the end of the nineteenth century the archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani discovered a lime-kiln abandoned by lime-burners in a sudden hurry many centuries before. Inside stood eight marble Vestal Virgins ready to be burned, stashed 'like a cord of wood, leaving as few interstices as possible between them, and the spaces formed by the curves of the body filled in by marble chips'. Once when he was sketching in the Forum, the great French seventeenth-century painter Nicolas Poussin was asked where to find the spirit of ancient Rome. He knelt down and scooped up a handful of earth. 'Here.' The cow pasture was mingled with marble dust, the richest sediment in the world.

From the fall of classical Rome until the eighteenth century the only houses in the Forum were the cottages of the lime-burners, and the hovels of beggars and thieves. To Christian pilgrims in the Middle Ages the ruins were the work of mysterious giants of folklore and not fellow men, and the Colosseum was thought to have been a domed Temple of the Sun. The marshy, fetid wilderness of the Forum was to be avoided in the journey from one shrine to another. A soldier in the army of Frederick Barbarossa which invaded Rome in 1155 described the ruins crawling with green snakes and black toads, its air poisoned by the breath of winged dragons, and by the rotting bodies of the thousands of Germans who had died of the fever during their occupation of the city. When Adam of Usk travelled from Henry V's England he saw dogs scrapping outside St Peter's: 'O God! How lamentable is the state of Rome! Once it was filled by great Lords and Palaces; now it's filled with huts, thieves, wolves and vermin, and the Romans tear themselves to pieces.'

It was not until the Renaissance of the fifteenth century that we find a new approach, in which the study of ancient inscriptions and manuscripts replaced superstitious legends, and artists and architects tried to piece together the scattered jigsaws of antiquity. The first painting of the ruins of the Forum was made by Maso di Banco in the church of Santa Croce in Florence in 1336, and at the dawn of the following century Brunelleschi and Donatello came from Florence to study the remains. When they began to excavate, the local rabble assumed they were treasure-hunters; when they used compasses and rulers to establish the measurements they needed for their own works of art they were accused of being necromancers using occult secrets to discover the gold and silver. The antiquary Poggio Bracciolini arrived in Rome in 1430:

The hill of the Capitol, on which we sit, was formerly the head of the Roman Empire, the citadel of the earth, the terror of kings; illustrated by the footsteps of so many triumphs, enriched with the spoils and tributes of so many nations. This spectacle of the world, how it is fallen! How changed! How defaced! The path of victory is obliterated by vines, and the benches of the senators are concealed by a dunghill. . . . The Forum of the Roman people, where they assembled to enact their laws and elect their magistrates, is now enclosed for the reception of swine and buffaloes. The public and private edifices, that were founded for eternity, lie prostrate, broken, and naked, like the limbs of a mighty giant; and the ruin is the more visible, from the stupendous relics that have survived the injuries of time and fortune.

Poggio's lament became a new way of seeing Rome. And nowhere was the lesson of Sic transit gloria mundi more evident than in the Colosseum. It had served as a quarry, a private fortress and a bull-ring: earthquakes had struck in 422, 508, 847, 1231 and 1349 AD. Its external arcades, littered with dunghills, were full of beggars and occupied by shopkeepers who slung their awnings on poles slotted into the holes where clamps of bronze had once held the marble cladding in place. Even inside you could smell the cabbages from the surrounding farms.

Quamdiu stat Colyseus, stat et Roma:

Quando cadet Colyseus, cadet et Roma:

Quando cadet Roma, cadet et Mundus.

As Byron translated the words of the Venerable Bede:

While stands the Coliseum, Rome shall stand

When falls the Coliseum, Rome shall fall

And when Rome falls - the world.

Meet the Author

Christopher Woodward is the director of the Holburne Museum of Art in Bath, England, where he lives.

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