Nothing could have been odder or more prophetic

Gillian Darley

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’.

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