Rome, roughly 1430: Poggio Bracciolini, free of public duties and cares – he was working for Pope Martin V, temporarily out in the countryside for reasons of health – went on a visit to the abandoned parts of the city with his friend Antonius. By looking at the collapsed buildings, the ruins of the ancient city, they were turning over in their mind the amazing and at the same time devastating effects of fortune, which allowed first the rise and then the mighty fall of so great an empire.
When they finally reach the Capitol Hill, struck by the view, Antonius says: So what is an even more amazing and bitter spectacle, cruel fortune has so changed its (the Capitol’s) appearance and form, that it now lies prostrate, stripped of its ornaments, like some enormous corpse rotting and corrupted on every side.
Another dramatic walk is the one taken by Caesar. After beating Pompey in the massacre of Pharsalus, Greece, in August 48 BC, he resolves to go on a pilgrimage in the plain of Troy. The fictional poetry of Lucan describes Troy’s remains as:
He (i.e. Caesar) walks in the places which bear the memorable name of burnt Troy
and searches for the great vestiges of Phoebus’s wall
by now sterile woods and rotten trunks of oaks
weight on Assaracus’ palace and the temples of the god
are clutched by tired roots, while bushes coverall the Pergamon: even ruins have perished.
Not just a recount and a premonition of the Roman civil war, just fought and still to be fought… but even the overwhelming nature here appears sterile and noxious, and memory and humanity are annihilated by the ruin of the ruins.
I (im)perceptibly shudder at the sight of ruins, relics, rarities, rubbish, uninhabited places, hidden treasures and abandoned objects: as my/our humane nature calls for restoration and rescue, the same humanity leaves behind, ignores and destroys.
Like the young J. G. Ballard, who happened to visit with his father the nightclub of the British compound in Shanghai abandoned year earlier after the Japanese occupation: the gaming rooms are “covered with broken glasses and betting chips” and on the floor “ornate chandeliers cut down from the ceiling tilted among the debris of bottles and old newspapers. Everywhere gold glimmered in the half-light, transforming this derelict casino into a magical cavern from the Arabian Night tales.**
Is there, in those micro or macro ruins, something that leads us to discover an (un)buried truth on our destiny or less ambitiously on our sense of collection-ism and antiquarian-ism?
Our obsessive compulsive (dis)order might be related to the unknown ruins displayed in front of us; an anticipation of decay and death, a somehow intrinsic salvation by saving and polishing the relics, the most useless, the most vulnerable.
Or more cannily a subtle fascination can be found as Ballard wrote, drawing a conclusion from that recalled image of the casino, which “held a deeper meaning for me, a sense that reality itself was a stage set that could be dismantled at any moment, and that no matter how magnificent anything appeared, it could be swept aside into the debris of the past.”**
We should long for an Architecture of the Ruins, of the Debris, an imaginative (non)discipline which leaves the sites as found, which perhaps could project in bi- or tri- dimension what does non exist anymore on the map, ultimately a counter Architecture.
Or maybe, more generally an IN-HUMANIST discipline, as Robinson Jeffers calles: a shifting of emphasis and significance from man to non-man.
We would have nothing to invent, as the in-humanism is already there to be discovered… for instance there in the ruins.
Poggio Bracciolini, De Varietate Fortunae, 1447, translation distributed in UCL Latin Epigraphy class, 2014.
On ruins etc the outstanding work on literary history and criticism by Francesco Orlando, Obsolete Objects in the Literary Imagination. Ruins, Relics, Rarities, Rubbish, Uninhabited Places, and Hidden Treasures, Yale Press, 2006 recently re-published in Italy, as reviewed at www.doppiozero.com/materiali/parole/orlando-gli-oggetti-desueti. Lucanus, De Bello Civili, IX, vv 964-969, as commented in Orlando, p.221.
**J.G. Ballard, The Miracle of Life, London 2008 p. 58-9, also quoted and commented by John Gray, The silence of the animals, London 2013, p.122, and on R. Jeffers’s Inhumanism p.199, from R. Jeffers, The double Axe and Other Poems, New York, 1977, p.xxi On Ballardian Architecture see here www.ballardian.com/ballardian-architecture-inner-outer-space.
Photo by Gayle Chong Kwan, The Golden Tide, 2012, courtesy of the artist, here the link to the whole work