Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Ruin lust

The Colosseum seen from the ruins on the Palatine Hill

In my last post I said we were about to head off for Rome and now I am back with a camera full of images of ruins.  Just before we left, I had a look round the Ruin Lust exhibition at Tate Britain, which begins in the eighteenth century with Piranesi and the Picturesque landscape painters and ends with more recent studies of war-torn buildings and urban decay.  Of course we did not travel to Italy to look for modern ruins, although sometimes they were unavoidable (the bus ride to Tivoli took us through Rome's edgelands and I imagined Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley excitedly hopping off there to explore the building sites, waste ground and low rise sprawl, rather than staying on to see the gardens of the Villa d'Este.)  Instead, as you can see from these photographs, our itinerary of Roman sites was a well-trodden one, catering as it did for young boys interested in Asterix and Horrible Histories as well as parents inspired by art and classical literature.

A wall at the Baths of Caracalla

The image used to promote Ruin Lust is Azeville (2006), Jane and Louise Wilson's imposing black and white photograph of a massive Nazi coastal defence structure that has weathered into something that resembles a basalt cliff overhanging a dark cave.  The ruins of Rome have long since taken on the characteristics of landscape.  Looking up from the Forum we saw successive walls of crumbling brick forming steep slopes and crevices.  At the Baths of Caracalla, isolated fragments of wall stood out against the blue April sky like the peaks of the Dolomites.  At Ostia Antica we wandered away from the main path to explore fields of overgrown stone that were once rooms - home now to small lizards and carpeted with grass and daisies.  The ruins are to some extent subterranean landscapes too, with underground passages that are not always accessible (the guide at the Catacombs tells you that its name meant 'near the caves', referring to the abandoned quarry that the tombs were built into).  Even after years of archaeology, parts of the ruins still remain buried and uncovered.

Arches and tree on the Palatine Hill

Standing beneath the towering walls of the Baths of Caracalla it was easy to imagine, like the author of the 'The Ruin' - the Anglo-Saxon poem that describes the crumbling remains of Roman Bath - that these were 'buildings raised by giants.'  But when I sat down to sketch them it was apparent that even the tallest structures are themselves dwarfed by pines and poplars, and that the marble colonnades are no taller than olive trees.  The old walls tended to recede into the background as I focused instead on the spring blossom (another potent symbol of transience).  The bricks themselves have an abstract beauty and there is a fascination in the way stone is configured at different scales, from tiny tessarae to great blocks of marble. But the more they sink into the landscape, the more they operate as setting rather than subject, a neutral background of cool grey and warm terracotta.  The ruins' arches and columns also provide natural frames: in Claude's paintings they stand in the foreground to one side in partial shadow, so that the eye travels on into the distant blue landscape suffused with golden evening light.  

Old stone and spring blossom at the Baths of Caracalla

Stone fragment on the Palatine Hill

All connoisseurs of ruins appreciate the multifarious ways in which plants overgrow them.  Sometimes I was struck by the juxtaposition of living flowers with their petrified form on old stonework.  The city has so many Corinthian capitals it is a surprise to come upon a bank of real acanthus leaves stirred by the wind.  The flowers, trees and birds we saw can be encountered in fading wall paintings, and in the extraordinary garden room of Livia (which I have written about here before) they create an immersive space seemingly more perfect than nature itself.  But frescoes and carvings, like my photographs, are silent, and cannot convey what for us was an overriding impression of the ruins of Rome: the ever changing accompaniment of birdsong. That and the scent of herbs, some growing naturally, some planted, like the rosemary bordering the rectangular pond in the Pecile at Hadrian's Villa.

 Hadrian's Villa near Tivoli: the rectangular pond

Having mentioned the birdsong, I must be honest and admit that the soundscape of the ruins in Rome is as much about car horns and emergency sirens, tour parties, maintenance workers, and some very noisy grass cutting.  The Forum, which I remembered fondly from previous visits, is hellishly crowded by the middle of the day - I found myself thinking of John Piper's chaotic and unappealing depiction of it that features in Ruin Lust (a 'vile painting' according to Brian Sewell). 'If stones could talk,' the tourist sites say, but at the Forum you would be hard pressed to hear what they were trying to say.  This encouragement to imagine the voices of the past made me wonder whether anyone has tried writing a Dart-style poem, drawing on the thoughts of those who inhabit the ruins today: the conservators deciding which areas to restore, the labourers building their scaffolding, the guides with their well-worn stories, the bored looking young women (with, you imagine, PhDs in ancient history) who take your money at the entrance, the recent immigrants selling jewellery just outside the main gate and the mounted policemen who come to intimidate them away.

Exploring Ostia Antica

We found a lot of the ruins out of bounds to visitors (I was particularly disappointed not to see the view from Hadrian's belvedere, the Roccabruna).  No explanations were given but it is obvious that a lot of work is going on to secure the sites for the ever increasing demands of mass tourism.  The problems of conserving Pompeii are well documented and at Ostia one of the finest floor mosaics was covered with a tarpaulin for protection.  Tourists cannot be left to do what they like, or behave like the peasants shown hanging out their washing amid the remains of Hadrian's Villa in a c1765 painting by Richard Wilson included in Ruin Lust.  It is a pity, because one of the joys of ruins is tracing your own path in and out of buildings, entering bedrooms and temples and swimming pools in a way that would be impossible in real life.  I have referred here before to Christopher Woodward's view that there is now too much emphasis on archaeology and not enough on the poetry of ruins.  Metal fences at the Baths of Caracalla prevent you from sitting on the stones where Shelley wrote 'Prometheus Unbound'.

Fenced off: the Baths of Caracalla

There is ample evidence in Ruin Lust of the attraction of aerial perspectives - from what Laura Cumming's review calls Piranesi's 'devastating vision of the Colosseum as it might be seen from the air, dangerously broken and overgrown, tiny figures tangled in the weeds and wreckage of this dead civilisation', to Joseph Gandy's imagining of The Bank of England as a ruinWe actually passed by both these edifices on our journey home.  Our flight took us over the Alps and across what was once just a small part of the Roman Empire.  As we descended towards Gatwick, the outline of London emerged in the distance with the Shard clearly identifiable, rising unfeasibly high over the city, lit by the rays of the low sun.  I thought then of W G Sebald's words in the Ruin Lust exhibition: 'somehow we know by instinct that outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.' 


Ken Worpole said...

A lovely and rewarding post - thanks.

Brings back some very happy memories.

Ken Worpole

Plinius said...

Thanks Ken.

Readers may be interested in the new post at BLDGBLOG on the ruins of Pompeii. They are apparently 'being wired-up by a company otherwise known for its work as a manufacturer of military drones and "electronic warfare equipment."' Geoff speculates on the possibilities for interactive apps and other touristic experiences: 'imagine, at the very least, being able to walk into the center of Pompeii totally alone, with nothing but your phone and some earbuds, tuning into real-time broadcasts of the shuddering masonry all around you, a wireless archaeological orchestra of bleached monuments in the sun, listening from within to the sounds of the ancient city.'

Ken Worpole said...

I forgot to mention that any visitor to Rome should leave a day free to take the bus 50km north to the Etruscan tombs at Cerveteri - preferably with a copy of D.H.Lawrence's Etruscan Place sin their pocket. This sprawling city of the dead now entangled in overgrowth - and rich in birdsong - is one of the most profound places in the world.