The Romance of Ruins

It’s a frosty 24 here this morning. Although I have offered to drive the DH to work, my very own Shackleton insists that he will walk as usual. I hope he doesn’t get frostbite.

While my husband ventures out into the frozen north, I will be keeping track of an auction in Williston, VT. There are things about the internet that I find wonderful, and online auctions are right at the top of the list. Williston is within driving distance if I buy something, although I doubt I will. It’s just fun to watch.

On that same internet, while looking for illustrations for a lecture, I ran across Panini’s capriccios, his wildly imaginative paintings of Roman ruins. Here’s one featuring the Pantheon, an Egyptian obelisk, a statue and some nice architectural ruins.

This next one features the Arch of Constantine amidst a jumble of unidentifiable statues and architectural debris.

Finally, here is the Colosseum near more ruins and a working Roman fountain.

Viewed singly they are extremely pleasing and invite the viewer into a historical dreamworld. Were one to view them packed together on walls, the effect would be very different and much less inviting, as in this next painting. Obviously, minimalism wasn’t the fashion in the early 18th century.

Panini had quite an imagination, and even if he did lack restraint, most of his paintings beautifully capture the melancholy aspect of time’s passage. Roman ruins particularly evoke such a feeling because they represent what was once great and powerful and they make us wonder how anyone so mighty could collapse so thoroughly. To the Anglo-Saxons left behind after the Romans left Britain, it seemed that only giants could have built the deteriorating temples, baths, and aqueducts. Certainly, no human could have made them!  Take a look at one of my favorite Anglo-Saxon poems:

The Ruin

Wondrous is this stone-wall, wrecked by fate;
the city-buildings crumble, the works of the
giants decay. Roofs have caved in, towers collapsed,
barred gates are broken, hoar frost clings to
mortar, houses are gaping, tottering and fallen,
undermined by age. The earth’s embrace,
its fierce grip, holds the mighty craftsmen;
they are perished and gone. A hundred
generations have passed away since then.

This wall, grey with lichen and red of hue,

outlives kingdom after kingdom,
withstands tempests; its tall gate succumbed.
The city still moulders, gashed by storms…
A man’s mind quickened with a plan;
subtle and strong-willed, he bound
the foundations with metal rods – a marvel.
Bright were the city halls, many the bath-
houses, lofty all the gables, great the martial clamor,
many a mead hall was full of delights
until fate the mighty altered it. Slaughtered
men fell far and wide, the plague-days came,
death removed every brave man.
Their ramparts became abandoned places,
the city decayed; warriors and builders
fell to the earth. Thus these courts crumble,

And this redstone arch sheds tiles.

The place falls to ruin, shattered
into mounds of stone, where once many a
man, joyous and gold-bright, dressed in splendor,
proud and flushed with wine, gleamed in his
armor; he gazed on his treasure – silver, precious
stones, jewelry and wealth, all that he owned –
and on this bright city in the broad kingdom.
Stone houses stood here; a hot spring
gushed in a wide stream; a stone wall
enclosed the bright interior; the baths
were there, the heated water; that was convenient.
They allowed the scalding water to pour
over the grey stone into the circular pool.
Hot. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . where the baths were
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . that is a noble thing,
how the . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . the city.

[Trans. By Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Anglo Saxon World, An Anthology. Oxford University Press, 2009.]

I do love a good ruin, don’t you? When it’s too cold to go outside, it’s fun to bundle up with a mug of tea, look at some beautiful paintings and read poetry, but right now I’ve got ready for my auction. Have a great weekend!

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