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On the Making of Ruins

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Written by Löþemplær

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This article was submitted to us by Löþemplær. This and other writings can be found on Löþemplær's substack. ‘On the Making of Ruins' presents a thoughtful analysis on the existence of ruins, what they mean to a people at different times and how we conceptualise and interpret ‘ruin’ both at the individual and the cultural level. It provides insight in to the psychology of the ‘post-history’ society in which it is claimed that we live and also give an introduction to the origins of post-apocalyptic artwork.

John

 

Yesterday and Tomorrow.

When one says the word ruin, it most often invokes gestures of columns and arches in the mind. If you come from our modern world’s abandoned factory cities, it may instead invoke the red and grey hues of rusted metals and brick chimney stacks, long cooled from the fires of progress. For some of you, ruin may instead evoke memories of certain post-apocalyptic games featuring blue jumpsuits and mid-century bangers on the radio. Ruins are themselves something of a paradox in culture. They can only exist at the top-layer of history, but come from a lower layer. Or at least, rarely does one go about building a ruin without first making some rather poor financial decisions. Ruins are not built. They are the result of a failure to build, either as a failure to repair and maintain, or as a failure to see building work through to completion. And when you stand upon the ruins, dear reader, do you hate the past that failed to leave you something that lasts? Or do you long for a future that will replace and heal whatever caused the ruin first?

I wonder about ruins often. I find the entire concept wild. Ruins - the concept - cannot be generated by evolutionary forces or genetic memory. They can only be understood by inference and comparison. One sees a column that supports no roof, then a roof tile on the ground. One comes to conclude this is a ruin. Yet if one never saw a roof or a column before, how could the concept of a ruin be arrived at?

Within your brain are a series of sophisticated specialized cells known as ‘mirror neurons’. They are directly wired into the primary senses, and some secondary senses, and are tasked entirely with comparing the input from outside, to that inside. If your mirror neurons see someone wave, they instinctively know to wave back. This is why babies will attempt to mirror the face you make at them. This is also why you, reader, can’t help but feel something when you see a ruin. And if you don’t, something may be wrong with you.

Mirror Neurons—Family Healing – Back in Control

That means the concept of a ruin does not exist as some kind of firm information in DNA, nor as some universal code in the cosmos. The concept of a ruin exists entirely as local software, of sorts. Every single individual on this planet develops a concept of a ruin independently at some point in their life. After they gather enough contextual understanding from the clues around them, they have a eureka moment, and their mirror neurons compute a new data entry to the deep memory of the brain: “This thing used to be that thing.”

Consequently, there is a disturbing reality afoot here: Given sufficient generations without building something new, or having context to something whole, a people will cease to understand they live in ruins. They will simply assume that is the normal context of inhabitation. Consider that, in the context of medieval art. Have you ever seen medieval art depict roman ruins? Trick question, actually. As by and large such structures were not yet a ruin. Merely a dilapidated state. yet the question can be recontextualized. Did the Romans ever depict buildings which were ancient ruins even in their day? Possibly. But I have not found any. In fact, when one finds depictions of buildings we know were definitively already a ruin by their time, the Romans chose to depict them in a refurbished and operational state.

A New Chronology: Pyramids within the Roman Realms (East / West)

It’s not that the Romans, or past peoples in general, didn’t understand the concept of a ruin. There is a rather famous line from Xenophon’s journals while he campaigned in the fertile crescent around 400 BC:

From this place they marched one stage, six parasangs, to a great stronghold, deserted and lying in ruins. The name of this city was Mespila(Nineveh), and it was once inhabited by the Medes. The foundation of its wall was made of polished stone full of shells, and was fifty feet in breadth and fifty in height. Upon this foundation was built a wall of brick, fifty feet in breadth and a hundred in height; and the circuit of the wall was six parasangs. Here, as the story goes, Medea, the king's wife, took refuge at the time when the Medes were deprived of their empire by the Persians. To this city also the king of the Persians laid siege, but he was unable to capture it either by length of siege or by storm; Zeus, however, terrified the inhabitants with thunder, and thus the city was taken.

It has to be emphasized the scale with which Xenophon was describing. For convenience, consider here the ruins of Nineveh compared to that of ancient Rome, matched in scale:

Few western readers will understand the scale of Nineveh at its height. When the Biblical Jonah is said to have taken Three whole days to walk its breadth, he was not kidding. It was quite a massive city. Nineveh was actually something of a twin city with Mosul, cut between with the flood plains that fed it and the empire all around. It was comparable in both size, complexity, and population to that of Rome. In fact, it had even more aqueducts: Eighteen to Rome’s Eleven. Moreover, not only were there more canals, they were bigger, and wider, too:

While it is unwise to compare the water demands of a desert city to that of a Mediterranean one, this at least hints at the true scale of Nineveh’s presence. That it is unlikely Xenophon was lying when he said the walls were One Hundred and Fifty Feet High.

Nineveh was perhaps the western world’s first experience with the concept of a ruin. By this time, Troy and other ancient cities had already fallen under the swifts of Anatolian mudslides and earthquakes. But Nineveh, preserved most pristinely, was there as a testimony that man’s cities are not eternal. They rise, and then they fall. Beyond the Greeks, the early Romans had the concept of a ruin in terms of their projected origin myth that they were Trojan refugees. The Romans had several origin myths, of course. All contradictory. But the one about the Trojans was a powerful orientation device. They knew Troy existed somewhere in Anatolia. They knew their homeland was real, but it was gone now. Fallen into ruin from the Bronze Age collapse. They had within their psychology the desire to do better than their past failures, and the knowledge that they could fear and become like them. Behold! The birth of historical eras.

It would not be until the Late Medieval Era that ruins would become more prevalent in art and culture again. The crusades likely contributed something to this development, what with the wanderings amongst greater Byzantium’s influences, but the sudden discovery by the Latins that they lived atop the ruins of past glory was not entirely without cause. As most of Rome had not been ruins until the late medieval era anyway. Yes, despite popular depictions of Rome’s various apocalyptical sieges, sacks, and occasional plundering, most were no such case. The famed sack of Rome in 410 AD was remarkably tame compared to the popular depiction. In total, there was one death documented. That of St Marcella, who was struck in the face by a hand, not a sword, of a greedy goth looking for treasure she didn’t even have. That is not to say the city suffered. Alaric was out for gold, and looking for it house to house. But what is not discussed is just how much a nothing-burger the sack was. Alaric was welcomed in, it is said. There wasn’t even a battle. The slaves of the city, already hungry from past failed sieges, swung open the gates. Alaric, rather than the common depiction of a shirtless bearded German, was dressed in roman military wares. His warriors were dressed in standard roman equipment at the time. They marched in a well-organized fashion to the city’s leaders. They arranged for official locations of sanctuary and ordered the general population to the sanctuaries for three days. During those three days Alaric would conduct a general search for all gold to pay Rome’s debts. The churches, both Nicene and Arian, would be unharmed. The Pagan temples however, long abandoned, would have their gold melted down and minted to pay Rome’s debts.

This wasn’t a sack. It was a debt collection visit.

Don’t get me wrong, there are rumors and hear-say that there was violence. But by all accounts it seems to be in typical Roman extravagance. There are no mass-burials from the time. No mighty tombs to the victims of the siege. Nothing of the sort. Rome, by and large, did not become a ruin that day. It merely became poorer. And many of its citizenry, having woken up to the reality that their city was no longer as safe as supposed, fled to parts unknown. Often being sold into slavery and brothels by their own fellow citizens along the way.

Rome was sacked again in 455 AD. Under the same general terms and agreements as had been the case when Alaric had sacked Rome almost half a century prior. It’s rather hilarious that Rome had started forming official sack contracts with the Germans with official guidelines and rules of raiding. The bureaucracy of it all is phenomenally familiar to modern urban elite and their responses to various riots and thefts. This contract, rather than Alaric’s three days, was extended to fourteen. You see, it was becoming hard to find treasure as Rome went into poverty. Once again citizens fled, once again they were sold into slavery and whoredom.

Rome was then thrice sacked in 546 AD after several attempted sieges, and a forth time once again during a particularly long siege from 549 AD to 550 AD. The sacks got longer, and netted fewer treasures each time. Until interest in sacking the old faded jewel of the west depleted. The city would remain under tepid Byzantium rule, but after sacks and plagues had passed through a century of hell, little remained of the people of Rome. The structures still stood, fairly intact, but unpopulated. Later in the 8th century it would again return to Germanic control, and be forever host to the whims of popes and emperors of the west.

In the year 1084, Rome would finally experience actual destruction. The Normans came to fight the Pope and won. But the damage to the city was partially by its own citizens starting a riot to kick the Normans out. And partly by the Normans spreading the fires of that riot to counter-attack. And it was here, with the city finally coming into a wave of destruction, that the Latins began to realize they were living in ruins. Enter, Mirabilia Urbis Romae. Written a century after the Norman desecrations, it was an early attempt to document Rome. Something of a tourbook, something of a pilgrim’s guide, it soon became the standard document.

Mirabilia Rome (1499 edition) | Open Library

The text had a nice little series of maps and diagrams plotting out the city’s various degrees of development:

Mirabilia Urbis Romae: la prima guida turistica di Roma - Neapolis Roma

Later through the 13th century, ± acentury, Rome experienced devastating damages not from sacks and sieges, but from family feuds of the Orsini family. The tourbook needed updating, and it was in those later years that brick and stone began being recycled into the new projects of popes and emperors. Thus one day the damage became sufficient that the average Latin could discern those partial structures standing in the past from those new standing atop. They awoke to the realization they had made their heritage a ruin. And the oft-visiting pilgrims took notice too. Very soon, scholars across the late medieval era began documenting this “discovery”. In maps of the time, you can see the first renditions of the imperial architecture as a “ruin”. Faded out uncolored buildings, disregarded from the Renaissance city rising along the banks.

This disregard for imperial heritage is most amusing considering it’s focus today. Renaissance Rome seemed far more interested in progress than preservation.

These maps do depict the imperial ruins, but often they are passed to the side and ignored for the bright vivid images of “Modern” Rome. I feel a certain familiarity with how the mid-century modernist architects treated heritage.

However, self-respect was waiting in the progress, and as the myth of ruin began to spread through Europe - conveniently forgetting they had only become a ruin due to the recent disrespect - many traveled to Rome to preserve what was being destroyed. An early documenting artist, Maerten van Heemskerck, sketched one of the first selfies before the now-desecrated Colosseum, with a smirk only a tourist could give:

Maarten van Heemskerck - het oude Rome herleeft - Museum Boijmans Van  Beuningen

One such Giovanni Antonio Dosio took to similar efforts, recovering ancient Rome’s stone maps of the city (more on that another time), and in turn etched some of the first proper respect these ruins deserved:

It’s my hope that you see Europeans didn’t wake up one day and realize they sat and lived upon ruins. First came the, rather recent, destruction that rendered them a ruin, then came new projects which part-recycled those buildings and also made common people realize they had a past to draw from. Suddenly, the rich heritage of Rome entered common thought, and the concept of ruin was born. First in Rome, then later in Egypt and Babylon. Suddenly Europeans became aware of the ruins of the past.

But let’s pause there.

It is here I want to take a detour from the Past, and make a stab at considering the Future. I have a question for you, reader. Amidst all these depictions of Rome’s glory, when do you suppose was the first time someone depicted their own civilization as ruins? That is, when do you think was the birth of the post-apocalyptic genre? I can imagine the smartest among you would imagine it must be when the atom bomb was invented. After all, only then could man conceive of his own civilization’s demise, right? Wrong!

In fact, the depiction of your own civilization in ruins - at least in painting - appears to first emerge in the 19th century AD. Moreover, and I may be wrong here, it appears it is only the Anglo-centric world that has ever put to painting such depictions. Joseph Michael Gandy appears to have been the first man to conceptualize the architecture of his own time as a future ruin. He painted a series of sketches of London’s Bank of England as an abandoned husk, frequented by future children for play and adventure:

Sir John Soane's Rotunda at the Bank of England in Ruins Art Print by  Joseph M Gandy | King & McGaw

Gandy also did a larger piece depicting the entire bank in a ruined state, revealing all of its intricate details:

If you are curious as to how Gandy knew the building so well, one of his best mates was the primary surveyor for the project, John Soane. He had access to every aspect of its design.

I consider this to be one of the greatest achievements of Anglo-Saxon culture. The capacity to envision their own demise does not appear to be a quality of any other people group on Earth that I have observed. The Norseman and the Levantine had Apocalyptic literature. But I have never found painting or mosaic like what Gandy accomplished here. And, he wasn’t the last. A few decades later, the Frenchman Gustave Dore would make a similar accomplishment when he etched “The New Zealander contemplates St Paul’s”. An unusual work, whereupon a future citizen of Britain’s cubs returns to the motherland - now a ruin - to take up inspiration for some unknown work back home:

Dore says he was inspired by something of a critique-turned-poem written by Lord Macaulay while he was reviewing a book on the history of the popes. A Catholic Englishman, one must then confess that Dore did not invent the idea. He merely depicted the idea from, yet again, an Anglo-Saxon conception. The text goes:

Ironic, considering Thomas Babington Macaulay was a Whig. However, even as a Lutheran this speaks to me. I believe in apostolic succession and the institution of the church, and the beauty of this passage touches me fondly. Here, we find peace and solitude for those aware the ages of man were beginning yet another dark one. There’s much to learn from Catholic dissidents under Anglican oppression. They themselves lived in the shadow of the ruins of Catholic Britain. In England, their churches were stolen. In Scotland, they were burned. The skeletons of desecrated churches are a common theme in this era:

St Andrews Stock Illustrations – 104 St Andrews Stock Illustrations,  Vectors & Clipart - Dreamstime

And so, with that, the post-apocalyptic genre was born and though it's didn't enjoy great popularity, it would experience a revival during the Cold War under the umbrella of nuclear fears. But it was born a product of Anglo-Saxon self-awareness that their own empire was entering its twilight, and soon would be replaced. They envisioned the daughter-nations of Britain as successors to their glory. They hoped for a future where the cubs grew into lions. Perhaps we cubs are entering adolescence, and the chaos of today is not the doom of the Anglo-Saxon race, but the start of its adulthood. I am cynical though, and remain hesitant to hope. But regardless of what comes, dear reader, I hope you have a greater appreciation on this little corner of Art. And perhaps find new ways to express your fears and hopes in a similar way.

File:Joseph Gandy 001.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Michael Gandy’s Architecture: Its Natural Mode

 

Links for further reading:

'Beyond the End: Ruins in Art History': What kind of beauty lies beneath ruins? | The Japan Times

Xenophon, Anabasis, Book 3, chapter 4 (tufts.edu)

Architectural Ruins in Art | DailyArt Magazine | Art History Storiess

The timeless allure of ruins - BBC Culture

A New Chronology: Pyramids within the Roman Realms (East / West)

The Shape of Rome – Ex Urbe

Brief History of Medieval Rome - Life in Italy

Ruins and Vestiges in the Time of the Humanists | EHNE

The ‘New Zealander’ contemplates the ruins of London | Vivienne Morrell (wordpress.com)

Macaulay's Catholic Dissidents | RealClearReligion

Macaulay on the Roman Catholic Church as the Most Successful Institution that Has Ever Existed (victorianweb.org)

Architecture in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Design, Deep Time, Science and Philosophy (umich.edu)

 

 

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