Pleasing Decay

by Rochelle Gurstein | February 23, 2004

In Ruins
By Christopher Woodward
(Pantheon Books, 280 pp., $24)
Click here to purchase the book.

For travelers who have experienced the grandeur and pathos of ruins that were once the glory of ancient Athens or Rome, it comes as a surprise to learn that what we are seeing today are tidied-up--its critics would say sterile--archaeological sites that are only as old as the last century. We are accustomed to admiring the noble remains of the Periclean age of Athens, but nineteenth-century travelers encountered an entirely different place--Turkish Athens, which after centuries of rule under the Ottoman Empire, was "interspersed," as Chateaubriand described it, "with minarets, cypresses, ruins, detached columns, the domes of mosques crowned with large nests of storks." And the remnants of ancient Rome as they existed before the unification of Italy in 1869 turn out to be equally unfamiliar. It is not only Gibbon's once-famous description of the moment he realized he would write his history of the tragic fall of Rome--"It was at Rome on the fifteenth of October 1764, as I sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter"--that conjures up images strange and haunting. At the very center of the Colosseum once stood the shrine of the Martyrs' Cross and at its edge, the Stations of the Cross. What is more, the Colosseum, which we are used to seeing as bare, excavated, ordered, and labeled, was lush, colorful, and perfumed, overgrown with more than four hundred varieties of flowers, vines, grasses, shrubs, and trees.  

The Turks who lived in Athens contentedly built their hovels on and out of the remains of the Acropolis, just as they burned marble sculptures and columns for lime without a second thought. Their insensibility to the splendors of the classical world was regarded as a scandal by cultivated travelers, even as they took advantage of the situation to enrich their personal art collections. One such traveler, Dr. Richard Chandler, reported in 1776 that he was able to purchase "two fine fragments of the frieze of the Parthenon which we found inserted over the doorways in the town, and were presented with a beautiful trunk which had fallen from the metopes and lay neglected in the garden of a Turk." And so it was with those who inhabited Rome after its successive sacks beginning in the fifth century with the Goths. Palaces, towers, basilicas, and convents rose triumphant from the moldering wrecks of once majestic temples, theaters, and baths of antiquity.  

One can still see the physical marks left behind by the prying of marble from the walls of the Colosseum, which for centuries was used as a marble quarry by popes and noblemen. But it is far more difficult to picture medieval aristocratic families dwelling in armed fortresses built out of the decaying monuments of the ancients, just as it is hard to believe that well into the nineteenth century the poor made homes in the crannies of crumbling walls and set up their shops between moss-covered columns, and the Forum, submerged under mountains of rubbish, completely covered over with grass, was used as a pasture for pigs, sheep, and cattle (hence its name "Campo Vaccino"). In this light, the fantastic etchings of Piranesi should be regarded as our most accurate record of the remains of eighteenth-century Rome.  

How is it possible, the lover of ruins wonders, to live so un-self-consciously among ruins? Can the sense of history or beauty really be so effectively stilled? Yet it is precisely this insensibility that sets such people apart from those who are painfully aware of the difference between the magnificent past and the squalid present, and are prey to spiritual, historical, and aesthetic associations of the most powerful kind. Where early Christians sometimes took moral satisfaction in the destruction of pagan Rome, the first people to lament its terrible fate, to experience the melancholy that comes with meditations on grandeur and decay, were Renaissance humanists. Poggio Bracciolini traveled from Florence to Rome in 1430 and his sorrowful reflections on the fragments of the vanished ancient city in De Varietate Fortunae shaped every cultivated traveler's experience of ruins:

    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 public and private edifices, that were founded for
    eternity, lie prostrate, naked and broken, 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.

By the nineteenth century, such meditations on the fleeting quality of all worldly things gave way to further meditations, ever more somber and poignant, on the futility of individual striving--"I too soon shall be no more," wrote an English visitor, a certain Dr. Byron, at the Acropolis--although they were commonly tempered with such bittersweet thoughts as "other mortals, transitory as myself, will make the same reflections on the same ruins." By the time the lachrymose doctor penned these thoughts, they had already become a clich?. And this is because a new way of seeing had entered the world that not only intensified feelings of melancholy, but also added an aesthetic dimension to the experience of ruins: the picturesque. Today, the picturesque is thought of as the rather minor aesthetic key of the quaint or the pretty or it is associated with things oldfashioned, even insipid or maudlin; but once it was experienced as one of the great aesthetic delights. As late as 1849 Ruskin remarked that "probably no word in the language (exclusive of theological expressions) has been the subject of so frequent and so prolonged dispute."  

 

One of the most startling facts about the history of aesthetics is that, as a subject of self-conscious intellectual inquiry, it is no older than the eighteenth century. Earlier artists and art lovers had a language to express their appreciation of the arts, but before the eighteenth century it occurred to no one to try to understand the faculties of taste, genius, and imagination systematically and the experiences of beauty, sublimity, and the picturesque psychologically, or to consider painting, sculpture, poetry, architecture, and music as part of the same unified endeavor called the fine arts. Since the classical hierarchy of genres placed historical painting at the top, other genres such as landscape were neglected before the seventeenth century. By the next century, however, the taste for landscape, above all, those of Claude Lorraine and Salvator Rosa, became a virtual obsession. 

So the appreciation of the actual scenery of nature--mountains, clouds, waterfalls, cliffs, rocks, trees, and, of course, ruins--came late to the West and only after viewers had grown accustomed to seeing nature "improved" and "selected" by the art of landscape painting. Instead of experiencing the passage through the Alps on the Grand Tour as a dangerous, frightening ordeal or regarding fields as potentially profitable grazing or farm land, English gentlemen and ladies learned to take aesthetic pleasure in scenes and vistas. By the second half of the eighteenth century, the picturesque could be experienced in a variety of mutually reinforcing modes that intensified its particular charms. Cultivated people thus enjoyed natural scenery through the eyes of Claude and Salvator and composed letters about their aesthetic impressions, just as they delighted in poems that strove to approximate the ideal vision of the masters and gardens self-consciously modeled after their paintings, complete with faux ruins that finished the prospect, which, in turn, offered the further charms of more poems about the gardens, the ruins, their artistic designers, and of course, their inspiration, Claude and Salvator, not to mention all the sketches, watercolors, and paintings that followed from them. 

 

For those who had acquired the habit of seeing a landscape as if it were a painting, a favorite pastime was "picturesque travel." Arthur Young's Northern Tour (1770) set out typical rules for viewing ruins in the picturesque manner: a ruin was best seen from a distance; it should be difficult, at times impossible, to approach; the edifice should not be able to be viewed in its entirety, and those parts that can be viewed should be "broken, rugged, terrible." These deliberate obstacles were essential for composing distance in the picturesque scene, but they were also essential when it came to another feature of the aesthetic experience: the pleasures of the imagination. Where previously the fragment had been regarded as "mutilated" and in need of restoration, it now furnished an occasion for the viewer's active fancy. In such scenes, Young instructed his readers, "the imagination has a free space to range in, and sketches ruins in idea far beyond the bold strokes of reality."  

The more the picturesque mode of vision was analyzed in this manner, the more intensely the viewer's eye was trained on what were essentially painterly qualities--light and dark, shadow and color. In Reverend William Gilpin's elaborately illustrated Observations on the Mountains and Lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland (1786), there are a number of passages where his aesthetic absorption is so complete that the pleasures of melancholy or the imagination escape notice. At Tintern he instructed his readers to observe the way "the ornaments of Time" had been "superadded" to the beauty of architecture, noting about the mosses on the stone that "all together they give those full-blown tints which add the richest finishing to a ruin." Elsewhere Gilpin insisted that "it is time alone, which meliorates the ruin; which gives it perfect beauty; and brings it ... to a state of nature." Ruins thus became an object of aesthetic delectation in their own right, with time no longer pictured as the hand of devastation or decay, but rather as the hand of the artist. 

 

By the close of the eighteenth century, the aesthetic mode of vision--and the frivolity, the falseness, and the pretense that all too often accompanied it--became a favorite satirical target in poems, popular dialogues, plays, and novels. And by the middle of the nineteenth century, a new and increasingly naturalist tone began to color the impressions of travel writers of widely varying temperament. In chapters on Rome in Dickens's Pictures from Italy (1846), Howells's Italian Journeys (1867), and Taine's Italy: Rome and Naples (1869), one more often reads of dark, narrow streets, cramped quarters, dung-heaps, rubbish, filth, squalor, bad odors--a place "tarnished, faded, full of holes, and infested with human vermin," as Taine put it--than of the grandeur that was eternal Rome. Even the intermingling of past and present that had previously stirred so many wistful meditations was now more likely to be experienced as bizarre, even repellent. Dickens was taken aback not only by the way "every fragment ... has been blended into some modern structure ... with which it cannot otherwise than lamely assort," but also by the way "ruins of the old mythology ... fragments of obsolete legend and observance, have been incorporated into the worship of Christian altars here; and how ... the false faith and the true are fused into a monstrous union." For Howells, the sudden appearance of shards from another world brought only "a keen sense of disappointment." No matter how much he longed for "some affectionate solicitude on the part of Nature to redeem these works of Art from the destruction that had befallen them," when faced with what remained of the Forum, he could see only a "dirty cowfield," "incoherent columns overthrown and mixed with dilapidated walls--mere phonographic consonants, dumbly representing the past, out of which all vocal glory had departed."  

These intensely modern writers were overwhelmed by the stark reality of modern--superstitious, backward, papal--Rome. What is more--and this was entirely new in the long history of ruingazing--they were overwhelmed by the stark reality of ancient--corrupt, blood-thirsty, imperial--Rome. The classical humanist tradition where men of taste and letters knew ancient history, geography, rhetoric, oratory, poetry, sculpture, and architecture with as much, if not more, intimacy as they knew the things of their own time was giving way to a modern historical sense with progress at its core. By these lights, the ancients were no longer exemplars to be imitated and excelled, but rather, in Taine's words, "despots and devastators." And so when Taine came before the Colosseum, its silent masses of broken, crumbling stone, overgrown with green, conjured an entirely different experience from that of earlier travelers: "There is a sudden revulsion, a veritable shock; it is grand--nothing grander could be imagined."

    This, then, you say to yourself, was a circus; on these
    graded seats sat a hundred and seven thousand spectators,
    yelling, applauding, threatening simultaneously; five
    thousand animals were slain, and ten thousand combatants
    contended in this arena. You gather from this some idea of
    Roman life. All this provokes hatred of the Romans.

 

As Taine's revulsion makes clear, an acute awareness of history could have the effect of blocking aesthetic feeling. But this new historical awareness did not so much destroy the love of ruins as give rise to a new kind of picturesque travel literature. In Henry James's collection of occasional travel pieces entitled Italian Hours (1909), the famed ruins of antiquity--the Colosseum, the Forum, and the Capitol--are mentioned once and only in passing. The countryside just outside of Rome, by contrast, merited an entire chapter. And this is because, as James wrote in 1873, a ride on horseback in the Campagna was "the most romantic of all our possibilities," for it furnished "an inordinate scope for the reflective--by which I mean after all the aesthetic and the 'esoteric'--life." It is characteristic of the new picturesque writing that James's painterly eye fell not on a celebrated monument of antiquity with all its troubling historical associations, but rather on what was essentially a neutral object, a Roman wall in springtime: 

    Crumbling grain by grain, colored and mottled to a
    hundred tones by sun and storm, with its rugged
    structure of brick extruding through its coarse
    complexion of peeling stucco, its creeping lacework
    of wandering ivy starred with miniature violets, and
    its wild fringe of stouter flowers against the sky--it
    is as little as possible a blank partition; it is practically
    a luxury of landscape.

 

It is hard to find a picturesque traveler before James who envisioned the world so completely filtered through painting. Surely no one before him was as excruciatingly aware of what he was doing. In a vignette of a "very picturesque old city on a mountain-top," James describes his joy at coming upon a young man who is singing: "The spectacle, generally, was operatic, and as his vocal flourishes reached my ear I said to myself that in Italy accident was always romantic and that such a figure had been exactly what was wanted to set off the landscape." After a chance conversation with the man, however, James realizes that the habit of aestheticizing the world has blinded him to the truth before him: "He was an unhappy, underfed, unemployed young man, who took a hard, grim view of everything." Which led to the inescapable conclusion: "This made it very absurd of me to have looked at him simply as a graceful ornament to the prospect, an harmonious little figure in the middle distance." And he was quick to imagine himself from the Italians' perspective, who "would be sure to exclaim upon the impudence of the fancy-picture." 

All these misgivings come together in a scene much favored by latter-day writers on ruins, where James, returning from a ride in the Campagna at twilight, expresses ambivalence about the "strange and intense suggestiveness" of "mouldering villas": "To delight in the aspects of sentient ruin might appear a heartless pastime, and the pleasure, I confess, shows the note of perversity." This perversity is nothing other than James's disconcerting awareness that the very refinement of his reflective life marks the distance that he feels from the continuity of lived experience. In this, he is one in a long line of painfully sensitive souls who yearn for the immediacy of lived experience--a type that would become a familiar presence in modern literature. In "Travelling Companions" (1870), a story James wrote at the time he was composing his travel sketches, the leading character laments to his companion:

    What a real pity we are not Catholics; that that
    dazzling monument is not something more to us
    than a mere splendid show! What a different thing
    this visiting of churches would be for us, if we
    occasionally felt the prompting to fall on our knees.
    I begin to grow ashamed of this perpetual attitude
    of bald curiosity.

 

In his revulsion at his own detachment, James's character (and perhaps the young James, too) failed to grasp the necessary condition of the aesthetic life: it is precisely detachment that allows one to view things artistically. 

For all of James's apprehension about the pitfalls of the aesthetic life, he also knew that experience heightened by art enlarged one's consciousness by allowing one literally to occupy the standpoints of others in imagination. This is precisely what his own vivid word-pictures of his rides in the Campagna accomplished. In a particularly luminous description of one such outing, he made the reader long to gaze upon Soracte Mountain, which "rises from its blue horizon like an island from the sea and with an elegance of contour which no mood of the year can deepen or diminish." James, who at this point seems to be speaking as much to himself as to the reader, could not help but note, "You know it well, you have seen it often in the mellow backgrounds of Claude." For the connoisseur of the picturesque sensibility, painting, vision, and experience, as well as the pleasures of remembering the scene and re-creating it for others, are so completely entangled that "you begin to take your saddle for a faded old arm-chair in a palace gallery." 

Happily, Rome is so arranged that someone like James can conveniently see Claudes at a nearby palace gallery. When he speaks of "their delightful air of reference to something that had become a part of my personal experience," the reader experiences in all its freshness what has now become a stale, even maligned, notion--that art can transcend its time and place. And when he mentions the further delight of feeling "the common element in one's own sensibility and those of a genius whom that element has helped to do great things," the reader feels in all its intensity the long-forgotten power of art to free the self from the suffocating confines of its own subjectivity. For James, "the unbroken continuity of impressions" that he has been describing represents "an excellent example of the intellectual background of all enjoyment in Rome." His observation that it "effectually prevents pleasure from becoming vulgar, for your sensation rarely begins and ends with itself" makes clear how the aesthetic perspective creates a distinct texture to sensation: "it reverberates--it recalls, commemorates, resuscitates something else."  

The reflective life, then, always holds out the possibility of leading to something larger than the self and its meager preoccupations. Over two hundred years after Claude first painted these scenes, James was still seeing and enjoying what Claude had seen and enjoyed, and by writing these beautiful passages, he made it possible for its pleasures to reverberate with both his contemporary readers and future ones. But the thread that links one generation to another through shared aesthetic experience is made of delicate material, and as time has worn on it has grown ever thinner. The passages in James that would have most delighted his contemporaries are the ones that modern-day readers--accustomed to instant-camera images--are most likely to skim over, or if they have the patience to read them, find excessive. And the same fate has been visited upon much of eighteenth-century picturesque painting, poetry, and gardens as well as upon the picturesque view of ruins. This is not just because few people still see natural scenes with a painterly eye or appreciate ruins as masterpieces of time. Of equal consequence, the most celebrated ruins of antiquity literally ceased being picturesque well over a hundred years ago when, as in the case of the Colosseum, the grass, wildflowers, ivy, and fruit trees were removed in the name of modern, scientific archaeology, and picturesque guidebooks began speaking of the Colosseum, along with other famed ruins, as if beloved works of art had been vandalized. 

 

Christopher Woodward's book belongs in this tradition. His starting point is the image of the Colosseum pathetically reduced from its former botanical glory to a "bald, dead, and bare circle of stones" and it is his project to "show what a source of inspiration ruins have been in earlier centuries" and to "remind [readers] of their own enjoyment of ruins." These are essentially aesthetic motives, and so Woodward has written a book of sensibility, moving back and forth between travel guide, anecdote, personal impressions, autobiography, and art, architectural, and literary history. Rose Macaulay's celebrated Pleasure of Ruins (1953), along with Elizabeth Wheeler Manwaring's Italian Landscape in Eighteenth-Century England (1925), Christopher Hussey's The Picturesque (1927), and more recently William L. Vance's America's Rome (1989), set the standard for evoking earlier appreciations of ruins. Woodward wants to do more than simply re-hash quotations from them, although many of the best ones rightly find a place in his book. Surprisingly, none of these books appear in his sketchy bibliographical notes.  

Woodward has labored hard to find wonderful new observations from travelers, writers, and artists, for which anyone who cares about ruins must be grateful, even if these additions do little to revise the well-established picture of the experience of ruins in the melancholy or picturesque keys. The same is true of his informative chapters on the familiar themes of human frailty and mortality, the fate of empires, ruins seen through the eyes of artists and writers, the picturesque sensibility, and the craze for artificial ruins. In each, Woodward strings together a number of well-chosen anecdotes and quotations for the reader's delectation, but he acts more as a genial guide to popular destinations than as an interpreter of foreign lands or an explorer of virgin territory. His enthusiasm for ruins has left him strangely incurious about his subject.  

Woodward's reader quickly learns not to expect a well-developed argument or a sustained historical account, but on too many occasions Woodward simply looks away. Of James's complicated feelings about the aesthetic of ruins, he writes "James seems to have glimpsed an understanding of the 'perversity' by which we find a pleasure in contemplating decay. Frustratingly, however--frustratingly for us, that is--he kicks his heels and rides away without pausing to explain." This is more true of Woodward himself. Languor sets the tone of much of this idiosyncratic, meandering book, which is not surprising, since in Woodward's view languor is central to the experience of ruins. More than once he speaks of the "soporific spell of decay," the "lofty, even ecstatic, drowsiness" produced by ruin-gazing. And so his book must stand or fall as a book of sensibility, a very belated (and somewhat bathetic) installment of the genre that reached its height with picturesque travel guides.  

In Ruins is a good introduction to its wonderful subject. Still, Woodward might then have thought more carefully and critically about a familiar claim in the literature which he repeats throughout the book: that he "cannot find a single writer or painter who has been inspired by the Colosseum since 1870," when archaeologists began cleaning it. Woodward gives the impression that scientific archaeology singlehandedly ended the long-standing appreciation of ruins and the works of art they inspired. But this is at best a partial explanation, for it ignores the enormous change in sensibility that also took place during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Its most striking manifestation can be seen in the important paintings and poems of the time, work that was defiantly modern. For a modernist sensibility seeking tragedy, sublimity, or transcendence, the delights of the picturesque came to seem paltry, even trivial, just as melancholy meditations came to feel hopelessly outdated to an avant-garde dedicated to the new and the shocking. What could ruins, even luxuriantly overgrown ones, possibly offer to a world infatuated with progress? An important consequence of the cult of progress is the change in feeling toward "pleasing decay," a phrase coined in 1948 by the English artist John Piper. Where pleasing decay was for centuries admired by cultivated people as the ultimate picturesque experience, Piper could complain that it had come to be regarded as "criminal neglect." And in our present clean, deodorized, hygienic, youth-obsessed age, pleasing decay is understood at best as an oxymoron, if it is understood at all. 

 

Woodward's love of ruins has blinded him to the critical reasons for their eclipse in the popular imagination, but it has also made him insensitive to the tensions within the aesthetic of ruins itself. It is one thing to enjoy ruins that have been leisurely sculpted by time, but quite another to take pleasure in ones made by disaster, especially recent disaster. Woodward completed his book before September 11, so he could not discuss the World Trade Center, but he does have a good chapter on ruins brought about by twentiethcentury wars. He identifies three typical responses: rebuild to create a facsimile of the original edifice; replace the remains with something entirely new; preserve the ruined site as a whole in perpetuity. He points out that in the case of the destruction caused by the German blitz during World War II, the British War Artists Advisory Committee devised a novel proposal: some bombed churches would be preserved in ruins as war memorials, but ruins that would be given over to nature to transform over time. 

Woodward regrets that the proposal was ultimately rejected, but he is glad that the group did succeed in appointing artists to paint bombed buildings, often at the very moment of their destruction, and he believes that the "strange beauty" that the Committee hoped to preserve was captured by artists such as John Piper. Woodward's appreciation of ruins is such that he is able to take pleasure in their formal qualities quite apart from the terrible violence that created them. In this, he lacks the self-consciousness, the sense of irony, displayed by Henry James when he caught himself in what he called the "very absurd" act of turning actual people into harmonious figures in a landscape. And so Woodward is in sympathy with Kenneth Clark's astounding declaration at the height of the Blitz that "bomb damage is in itself Picturesque," just as he has no reservations about Piper's equally astounding belief that "bomb damage has revealed new beauties in unexpected appositions." For Woodward, ruins caused by bomb damage have ultimately inspired the best of postmodern architecture: "[Piper's] words conjure up an architecture of transparency, of fractured colliding perspectives, but it was not until the 1990s that architects such as Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind showed that architecture could achieve such excitement of form."  

Woodward's admiration for the bomb aesthetic of postmodern architecture has taken on an eerie prophetic note now that Daniel Libeskind's design for a building composed of fractured colliding perspectives has been chosen to fill the empty space previously occupied by the World Trade Center towers. But even more to the point is the reaction of certain prominent journalist-aesthetes to the actual mouldering ruins at Ground Zero. There was something "grotesque," as Leon Wieseltier noted in these pages a few months after September 11, about The New York Times' critic Herbert Muschamp's enthusiasm for the alleged "resemblance between the wreckage at ground zero and some Frank Gehry projects" and his insistence that "Gehry's architecture ... has constructed an aesthetic context" for the site. Mesmerized--better yet, numbed--by the sophistication of their own sensibility, some people literally could not see the terrible reality before their eyes.  

The enormous popularity of photographs of Ground Zero suggests that many people were able to appreciate the striking visual qualities of the awful devastation, at least when it was framed and edited by the lens of a camera, the view-finder being the modern-day equivalent of the picturesque. Indeed, the most arresting pictures--one need only think of the hauntingly beautiful images of New York City firemen encased, like sculpture, in white dust--made those of us who admired them heartlessly forget what we were looking at. Apparently, the habit of taking pleasure in visual composition alone is now so deeply ingrained that not only aesthetes but even ordinary people are capable of seeing beauty unproblematically in places where it has no right, morally speaking, to exist.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang). 

By Rochelle Gurstein

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