In Ruins 
by Christopher Woodward.
Chatto, 280 pp., £12.99, September 2001, 9780701168964
Show More
Show More

I read Christopher Woodward’s book in August and then reread it in September: what a difference a month can make. Insistent images of newly ravaged places, like the ghostly fretwork silhouette which looms over Ground Zero, seem to sneer at us, laughing at our fragile optimism. The notion of the ruin as an expression of violence and blind hatred is not Woodward’s subject, however hard it may be to avoid the connection. His interest lies in the questions raised by empty spaces. ‘When we contemplate ruins,’ he writes, ‘we contemplate our own future.’

Filippo Brunelleschi was doing just that when, a Florentine, he arrived in Rome in the early 1400s to explore and measure the ruins of antiquity. This pleasurable task took him some years before he returned home to put the lessons he had learned to remarkable use. Florence had proved wanting in classical history but it provided a fertile ground for the exploration of the new. The Renaissance was a rebirth which took place literally on the ruins of classical civilisation. Many paintings of the Nativity were set against antique ruins, offering a thought-provoking – even challenging – backdrop to modern Christianity.

Well ahead of artists and architects, writers had been quick to respond to ruins. Early among them and venturing further afield, Boccaccio described the impressive remnants of Baiae, near Naples, as ‘old walls, yet new for modern spirits’. Burckhardt, who quoted the phrase, found that his own fascination with Rome kept him ‘perpetually guessing and arranging the ruins of the ages that lie so mysteriously, layer upon layer’. Woodward shares his obsession with that city of stratified ruin, where even below antiquity lies myth.

In the 17th century, a new breed of investigative antiquarians considered ruins worthy of their attention, but found the wreckage of the past strangely disturbing and comforted themselves with a moral view which made a connection between the crumbling structures and the frailty of human endeavour. The ruin became an emblem, in the form of the Latin vanitas (in its literal translation of ‘emptiness’), giving yet another intimation of death.

It was in the 18th century European landscape garden that the ruin finally came into its own. Here, before the appreciative eyes of well-read and widely travelled visitors who knew classical literature but could also recognise the Enlightenment philosophers depicted at the Temple of Philosophy at Ermenonville, newly built ruins appeared, handily closing off a vista or screening a dull farmhouse. Genuine remnants of Leptis Magna were erected at Virginia Water, to please George IV. The divide between antiquity and artifice, ancient and modern, was becoming increasingly blurred.

Literary Romanticism, like the Picturesque, borrowed its tone of mystery from the ramshackle ruins of Gothic religious establishments. With a bit of initiative, the effect was easily conjured up: as a very young man Shelley incarcerated himself overnight in the vaults of the local church, in order to rouse his instinct for terror to the right pitch. He wanted to be ‘harrowed by fear’. Woodward, an unashamed romantic of the same school, has similarly set himself the object of looking into the ‘feelings of pleasure and fear which ruins suggest’.

The absurdity of the Gothick was captured and its pretensions crisply punctured by Jane Austen and Thomas Love Peacock, but reality was often stranger than anything that even the most fetid literary imagination could come up with. Nothing could have been odder, more menacing or even more prophetic – when viewed with hindsight – than the Broken Column built in the final years of the Ancien Régime at the Désert de Retz, a few miles west of Paris. A four-storey folly, set on a rise, with a jagged, torn roofline and deep fissures scoring its fluted walls, it was admired by visitors such as Thomas Jefferson but quickly became overgrown and yet more ruinous (though it was still inhabited). Almost two centuries later, a group of André Breton’s friends climbed over the walls of the inaccessible estate to be photographed, all of them wearing white masks, beside it. Woodward does not include the Broken Column – perhaps because it took a posse of Surrealists to grasp its weirdness.

Ruins pull our responses in two directions. They offer concrete evidence, of the architectural orders of classical antiquity or of the construction techniques of early engineers, for example, as well as pointing, more obliquely, to the habits and social organisation of distant or unfamiliar societies. Beyond that, we are left to extract from them what we will. Whether the ruin is that of a 1980s steelworks or a military installation (Woodward quotes W.G. Sebald’s fine description of Orford Ness, a Cold War weapons testing station which is now an unusual National Trust property) or a burial place used by an ancient people following forgotten rites, the source of the magic is vulnerable to our attentions. Imagine the Forum in Rome, had the French carried out the plan made during their occupation in 1812 to lay it out in the fashion of the English landscape garden, a tasteful ruff of trees around each monument. Too many sites with their own particular abandoned qualities have been lost to the dead hand of over-zealous interpretation and expensive presentation.

In 1855, Richard Deakin, a Victorian botanist, published a volume devoted to the species he found growing on and around the Colosseum, a six-acre site which supported 420 different plants. Deakin is one of Woodward’s many unsung heroes. The conjunction of nature and ruins is, inevitably, a delight: Flaubert celebrated ‘the sight of vegetation resting upon old ruins; this embrace of nature, coming swiftly to bury the work of man the moment his hand is no longer there to defend it’. But newly unified, modern Italy wanted none of that. In the 1870s, the ruins of the Colosseum were cleansed by archaeologists, who even-handedly stripped out the trees and flowers together with the resident hermit, the black Martyr’s Cross and the circuit of Stations of the Cross around it – all formally consecrated in the early 18th century. This religious clutter was as much a part of the Colosseum as its botany. Excavations of the sewers and cellars left no stone untouched and, clumsily done, led to the arena becoming an embarrassing lake for some years. By the time Thomas Hardy arrived in the city, already trained as an architect whose sympathies lay with William Morris (‘we are only trustees for those who come after’), the rebuilding of Rome, now the confident capital of Italy, had torn away the ancient fabric, leaving no space for accretions, whether of flora or of association.

The shaggy figures of William Morris and his ‘Anti-Scrape’ campaigners peer over Woodward’s shoulder on many pages, but the desire to improve on history is evident well before the ardent restorers of the Gothic Revival. At the time of Garrick’s Shakespeare Jubilee in 1769, Anne Hathaway’s cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon had just been revealed as his birthplace. A shrine was all that was needed to give Bardolatry its focus and the run-down timber-framed house served the purpose well enough. Over the years it became a museum filled with dubious relics whose ersatz charm gave Washington Irving such delight in 1815: ‘I am always of easy faith in such matters . . . and am ever willing to be deceived, where the deceit is pleasant, and costs nothing.’ For the Victorians, however, the physical remains of the house were insufficiently resonant. In the 1840s it was ‘restored’ and the ancient timbers extracted were sold to raise funds. Neighbouring houses, judged too ramshackle, were demolished, lest they muddy the picture. Virtually a fake, from its foundations to its attic, Anne Hathaway’s cottage underwent its own bowdlerisation.

Ruskin and Morris watched horror-struck as the zeal of the Victorian restorers gathered momentum (and funds) in the latter half of the century. Gothic Revival architects ‘finished off’ or rebuilt cathedrals, abbeys and churches by the hundred, in France as in Britain. There was, apparently, something unseemly (or even ungodly) about a place of worship which showed the marks of great age too visibly. Equally, the grim rectitude (and ugliness) of the Ancient Monuments administered by the Ministry of Works were evidence of an institutional view of history. I remember noticing even as a child that the abbeys of North Yorkshire were uncomfortably bare of all living matter, except for the grass around them, which was mowed as smooth as an operating table. Surgical cleanliness appeared to be the prerequisite for historic sites. Nor is the argument yet won. Almost 125 years after Morris’s foundation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, its Scottish arm is energetically opposing plans (currently sub judice) to roof over one of the most romantic of ruined waterside castles and turn it into a house. Neither archaeologists nor architects can be trusted to leave ruins well alone.

Dickens, for whom, as Woodward says, ‘architecture is the material expression of the human spirit,’ traced the Via Appia and looked across the Roman Campagna to see the ‘ruined aqueducts . . . stalking on their giant course across the plain’. The vitality of the image owes more to Fellini than to Dickens’s own contemporaries, tentatively sketching the scene in oil or watercolour. For Henry James, less cinematic, more plangent, the appeal of the ruins along the Appian Way ‘seems ever to arise out of heaven knows what depths of ancient trouble’. James confessed to taking a ‘perverse’ pleasure in ruinous places. His novella A London Life offers a memorable dénouement in Sir John Soane’s house on Lincoln’s Inn Fields, where Woodward, who worked there as a curator, was drawn into the subject of this book. In the catacomb-like basement, crowded by an astonishing accumulation of statuary, casts and architectural fragments, with the central space given over to the immense alabaster sarcophagus of Sethi I, James’s New England characters play out their family drama, emerging from shadows fleetingly lit by an electric storm. The setting is quite as architecturally menacing as Orson Welles’s Viennese sewers.

Like many architects of his generation Soane had begun his career immersed in classical antiquity, first in the pages of treatises and then in Italy. Later, he built himself a miniature ruin at his house in Ealing, filled his house with cork models of ruins and finally had his assistant, Joseph Gandy, envisage his own work of 45 years at the Bank of England – ‘the pride and boast of my life’ – in a painting which showed the entire site as a ruin. Meanwhile, he mused bitterly on the ruins of his forlorn hope for a Soane architectural dynasty carried forward by generations of sons and grandsons. The young Byron, meanwhile, in his own estimation ‘the last and youngest of a noble line’, saw in the ruinous Newstead Abbey the image of the dissolution of his family fortunes, yet it was an inheritance to which he clung tenaciously for as long as the tide of his rising debts allowed.

‘Whatever makes the past, the distant or the future, predominate over the present, ‘advances us in the dignity of human beings,’ Samuel Johnson wrote. ‘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.’ Rome had another effect altogether on Thomas Cole, the 19th-century American landscape painter, who, struck by the fate of the Roman Empire and the likely end of all empires, translated his apocalyptic vision to New York rather than Babylon. In a series of five paintings, The Course of Empire, Cole showed the ascent from Innocence to Arcadia, and the descent via Empire to Destruction, its ‘towers falling, arches broken, vessels wrecking in the harbour’. In a similar moment in Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston realises that he is the last man on Earth as the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, buried in the sand with her torch shattered, falls over him. Always vivid in his imagery, Woodward continually, if inadvertently, pulls us back to recent events, above all with Eliot’s elegiac lines from ‘Little Gidding’. ‘Dust in the air suspended/Marks the place where the story ended.’

Woodward reminds us that Churchill argued, to no effect, that Ypres should be left standing as a skeletal, ruinous memorial to the British dead of the First World War, while after the Blitz, Kenneth Clark suggested a similar strategy for some at least of the ruined churches in the City of London, ‘with their going the ordeal which we passed will seem remote, unreal, perhaps forgotten. Save us, then, some of our ruins.’ As if to guard against the onslaught of prim amnesia, John Piper painted Coventry Cathedral on 15 November 1940, the morning after the onslaught by four hundred German bombers. He took up his seat at the window of a nearby office, as the flames still licked at the Gothic tracery. There was no equivocation in this image, but the ruined churches in the City of London were quickly tidied back into municipal orderliness. Years later, the plea Clark had made was repeated for St Ethelburga’s in Bishopsgate, after its bombing by the IRA – most insistently by Morris’s SPAB. It, too, was disregarded.

Rose Macaulay’s visceral reaction to the bombing of London – and with it the loss of her house and her lover – was the raw expression of the wreckage of her life. For her the Blitz was an ‘an irremediable barbarism coming out of the earth, and of filth flung against the ivory tower’. Any more measured response would have been inappropriate. Yet after years of nihilism, which gave her writing a new and disturbing edge, Macaulay converted to Catholicism. With that came her book The Pleasure of Ruins, which ended with her confident, now optimistic, assertion that ‘Ruin must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings . . . in beauty, wholeness is all.’

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences