The perfect ruin. Destruction, reconstruction and romanticism

In Rome, ruins are impossible to avoid. They are everywhere: grand, small, insignificant, victorious. In Rome, the ruins may be greater than anywhere else, but also the smallest stone is a bearer of history; even the tiniest potsherd on the ground is a potential object to interpret and preserve.

Therefore, when I read André Gide’s novel The immoralist, the sentence ’I started to avoid ruins’ struck me particularly. The protagonist of the book, a classical scholar, has started a journey away from ’books and ruins’, away from conventions and society; he exhorts himself to carpe diem, to live in the present, and follow his real desires (this, parenthetically, of course destroys him in the end).

My own relation to ruins has changed several times over the years. First, as an ambitious student, I was eager to understand the ruins of Rome, and by understand, I meant to reconstruct the monument or building in detail and to depict this reconstruction with my inner eye. This aim most often failed, and I found myself in despair in front of the Forum Romanum, defeated by the myriads of marbles in their scattered and mysterious universe. I wanted sentences, chapters; all I found was mutilated letters and mute erasions.

Forum Romanum, November 2007

Forum Romanum, November 2007

Then, on a warm November day in 2007, something happened to me as I took a stroll over the Forum. I had no special errands, I just happened to be there, and I had my camera with me. As I started to take pictures quite randomly, I suddenly began to see the ruins and the marble fragments as physical forms, almost as individuals: their colour, their shape, their surface. The columns came alive and spoke to me; they felt much closer than when I had regarded them only as remains of something lost. I can still feel the effect on my senses that this autumnal promenade produced, and from then on, I often wandered through Rome with my eyes open and my mind off-duty. Stratigraphies, dating criteria and building phases meant less to me – I only saw colours, shapes, surfaces.

Later still, my perception of ruins changed again. The more familiar I had grown with the topography of Rome, the more possible it became to widen my vision in the way I had wished for earlier, but had not managed. Now, I saw ruins not as singular objects or isolated monuments: rather, they became longitudes and latitudes of a culture, of a period; like the pattern of heart-beats on a monitor they marked out directions, regions, movement, interaction, conflicts and connections. Especially evident is the case of the medieval itineraries of this blog: moving along the routes with both eyes and mind in action has made me understand the structure of medieval Rome much more deeply than I could have imagined.

What is a ruin? The very word comes from the Latin verb ruere, which means collapse. Ruina, the noun, signifies the falling down, the collapse, but also the result of the collapse: the debris, the remains. Thus, the etymology underlines the actuality of the destruction process: the building falls, and becomes a ruin. Normally, when any old barn in the countryside falls into decay, the ruinous process just continues until earth and greenery has taken over completely. But what happens when we try to preserve ruins?

In the Middle Ages, the ruins of Rome gained a new status as symbols of not only the destruction of ancient Rome, but also of the greatness that once was Rome. Hildebert de Lavardin wrote in the 12th century: Par tibi, Roma, nihil, cum sis prope tota ruina; Quam magni fueris integra fracta doces. ’Equal to you, Rome, is nothing, though you are almost entirely a ruin; broken you show, how grand you were when you were intact.’ A certain master Gregory, known only by name, who wrote De mirabilibus Urbis Romae in the 12th or 13th century, described the ruins of Rome as the greatest, highest and largest things he had ever seen: he is drawn to the magnificent, and cheers when he finds out that the remains of the Baths of Diocletian are so huge that he cannot throw a stone higher than their towering walls (one can imagine him trying, as one of the small staffage figures in the vedute of Rome from the age of engravings). The ruins became temples to the cult of Rome, symbols not of decline and fall, but of the eternity of great things past.

What is a ruin? How do we perceive it? How do we use it? What do we need it for?

In the Middle Ages, apart from the occasional ruin-induced emotion, as described above, ruins were viewed quite pragmatically as something that could be reused. An ancient monument could be turned into a fortress; the immense vaults of a theatre or a stadium could house entire churches or habitations. The ruins were not static, not eternal: they were remodelled and reshaped (and thus, paradoxically, preserved for later times – in the words of Renaissance poet Janus Vitalis: immota labascunt, et quae perpetuo sunt agitata manent, ’the immobile falls, and what is in perpetual motion remains’).

The Renaissance and the following centuries continued this practice, albeit on a larger scale: urban planners and monument makers without remorse deconstructed the ancient ruins, and left them in an even more ruinous state. Quod non fecerunt barbari, fecerunt Barberini, as the saying went (’what the Barbarians did not do, the Barberini family did’). But the ruins of Rome were great enough to survive also this assault, even if a few disappeared from view in this period, for example the baths of Constantine on the Quirinal hill and the baths of Alexander Severus east of piazza Navona.

It was, as is commonly argued, the Romantic era that first formed the view of ruins that still is in vigour today. With Romanticism, a concept of ruins similar to that in my ’phase 2’ of ruin perception was born. A ruin all of a sudden was a monument in itself, a monument that had a specific form and expression and that evoked emotions as grand as the ruins and the memories that lingered around them. But that did not mean that the ruins were entirely static: shrubs and plants were gladly allowed to overgrow them; their fragility and ongoing decay was perceived as symbolic of the vanitas of all worldly things (a thought originating already in the Middle Ages).

Then came the 20th century, and the 21st. Never, I believe, has so much change, both physical and mental, taken place over such a short period. Never has so much been destroyed, but also reconstructed and recreated, since we nowadays (hopefully) are ruled by a feeling of guilt if we destroy what earlier generations have built. We have invented cultural heritage, something that is global and belongs to all, something that carries the memory of history and humanity, and in its physical form represents values that must not perish. This has left us with the summon that the ruins of the world must be preserved, in order to keep the bonds with what is important to us. The cultural values are eternal, and therefore we strive to preserve the ruins as eternal monuments of these values.

But eternity is always problematic. The long-since excavated walls of Pompeii start to crumble, while at the same time large parts of the site still is unexcavated, and thus protected from our culturally interested intrusive influence. What tourists bring with them to a site is mainly sweat and dust, I read in an article about the Vatican museums, and these things are very noxious to the sensitive cultural heritage. With our interest and enthusiasm, we slowly ruin the ruins that we have decided to keep at all costs.

When I write this, the threats to destroy Palmyra in Syria are imminent. Syria, the country I always wanted to visit but never did, the sites I always wanted to see out of my romantic love for ruins. My friend Valeria once gave me a red scarf from Syria, and each time I wore it I dreamt of the wonders of Damascus, Aleppo, and Palmyra, ’the Venice of the Sands’. Palmyra now faces the risk of disappearing into the sands of the desert just as Venice gradually sinks into the lagoon. The city of Palmyra may be destroyed again, although it is already destroyed, collapsed, ruinous. I am reminded about my early stages of studying Latin, learning that when the Romans won, they not only conquered, vicerunt, but rather ’conquered thoroughly’, devicerunt. The destruction of something already destroyed hits us as hard as the destruction of something intact. We wanted the ruins to stay eternal, immortal and unchanged although they already signalled to us that all things must perish. We put so much effort in preserving the ruins, that we sometimes overdo things and destroy by too much restoring and retouching. And if Palmyra would be destroyed, should we rebuild it? How does one reconstruct a ruin? Can Diego della Valle’s philantropic money prevent the Colosseum from falling, and thus Rome, and the world?

When the ruin falls, what world is falling with it? ’In time the Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble, they’re only made of clay’ – or is the ruin here to stay?

Forum Romanum, November 2007

Forum Romanum, November 2007

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