Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
December 17, 2020
Susan Stewart The Ruins Lesson: Meaning and Material in Western Culture Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2020. 368 pp.; 11 color ills.; 80 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00 (9780226632612)

Ruin sentiment, Henry James suggested, is something of a perverse pleasure, for it must be a “heartless pastime” that takes delight in desolation and destruction (20). So why is it, then, that ruins have been so frequently depicted and described, pondered and praised in Western art and literature? This is the question Susan Stewart pursues in The Ruins Lesson, her minutely researched and beautifully written study of the enduring allure of ruins and ruination in Western culture.

Poised between preservation and obliteration, ruins represent both a presence and an absence that give rise to a range of complex and sometimes contradictory responses. Stewart contemplates Western ruin appreciation in a myriad of forms, teasing out the connections and correspondences among an impressively diverse array of literary and visual sources—as the extensive endnotes and bibliography attest—to consider why “we are so often drawn—in schadenfreude, terror, or what we imagine is transcendence—to the sight of what is broken, damaged and decayed” (xiii).

While not adhering to a strict chronology, her study spans a vast swath of time, from verses inscribed on an Egyptian stele some four thousand years ago to T. S. Eliot’s modernist classic The Waste Land. Observations and ideas are deftly interwoven so that The Ruins Lesson teems with all the fascinating detail and insistent richness of a print by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Indeed, the Italian printmaker, architect, and archaeologist is justly one of the heroes of Stewart’s book. Piranesi’s views of Rome and its ruins were executed with passion, precision, and inventiveness and were avidly collected by Grand Tourists seeking a memento of their experience of the Eternal City—eternal, as Stewart notes, “not because of the permanence of its forms but because it has endured so many cycles of destruction and rebuilding” (19). Piranesi’s image making was yet another form of construction out of the city’s rubble, and his efforts to capture the imposing grandeur of the remains were hugely influential in shaping eighteenth-century tastes, so much so that his prints were sometimes considered a more authentic and memorable experience of a ruin than the site itself.

In addition to insightful observations on Piranesi’s output and his relationships with and influence on European artists and architects, tourists, and savants who gathered in eighteenth-century Rome, The Ruins Lesson covers much of the ground that might be expected of a publication devoted to understanding Western ruin sentiment. Renaissance humanism, Enlightenment melancholia, and Romantic sensibility are all drawn on to describe the ways in which artists and authors wrested moral and meaning out of the crumbling remains of the past. We witness archaeological investigations that legitimized plunder; the delight and sometimes disappointment of Grand Tourists; the Picturesque taste for polite, genteel decay; the playful, contrived obsolescence of ruined garden follies; and the beguiling prescience of the future ruin.

A strength of The Ruins Lesson, though, is that Stewart has also ventured into less familiar territory. She has, for example, expanded the parameters of her study beyond the ruin of structures to include the ruin of people. In doing so she highlights the often gendered nature of ruins discourse, demonstrating how representations of women and ruin have been bound up in ideas about “women as material” in the value placed upon women’s bodies and concomitant ideas about purity and contamination (83). Here we find the fallen women of fallen cities in the Hebrew scriptures, the vestal virgins whose chastity was believed to keep Rome from similar calamity, and dangerously alluring nymphs, temptresses of classical heroes and Renaissance poets. Ruins, Stewart reminds us, might give shelter to virgin birth in Italian and German Nativity paintings, but they are also the site of sexual desire and violence in prints that allude to the Colosseum’s sixteenth-century reputation as a haunt of sex workers and their clients—perhaps, she suggests, visual puns on the Latin fornix, meaning both “arch” and “brothel” (138).

The scope of Stewart’s study is commendably broad, but if there is something to cavil at in The Ruins Lesson, it is that her geographical reach is not as generous, for she rarely journeys far from the shores of the Mediterranean. Understandably, given that her study is focused on Western responses to ruins and ruination, Greece and particularly Rome dominate. As Stewart has noted, “The story of ruins in Western tradition is . . . largely a story of Roman ruins, and the representation of Roman ruins has proved to be a paradigm for the apprehension of ruins” (19); but perhaps she could have given more consideration to Western attitudes toward the ruins of non-Western cultures. She acknowledges that ruins “call for an active, moving viewer—often a traveler with a consciousness distinct from that of a local inhabitant” (2), and she does venture as far as Egypt (the aforementioned stele), Troy, and Palmyra, as well as to biblical cities and structures laid waste: Sodom, Gomorrah, Tyre, Ai, Nineveh, the walls of Jericho, the Temple of Solomon, and the Tower of Babel. The last is the subject of fascinating analysis that covers not only the tales of its destruction found among the lamentations and exhortations of Old Testament prophets but also its popularity as a motif in sixteenth-century Flemish art, which Stewart explores against the backdrop of a cosmopolitan and polyglot Antwerp, subject to Spanish rule and site of the devastating Spanish Fury.

There is little in The Ruins Lesson, though, on more distant locales. Brief mention is made of the building materials of Maya culture ruins (limestone), but nothing on how these remains were first received by the North American and European public. Western knowledge of the Maya sites was largely shaped by the mid-nineteenth-century publications of John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the pair are name-checked in an endnote that credits them with alerting Western audiences to the existence of the remains. That there is no further elaboration on this seems something of a missed opportunity, for Stephens’s observation that remains found at Copán in Honduras proved that “the people who once occupied the Continent of America were not savages” demonstrates the significant contribution that ruins made in shaping Western assessments of non-Western peoples (Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, vol. 1 [John Murray, 1841], 102).

As Francis Haskell suggested in his excellent History and Its Images (1993), in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries an assumption that a society’s artistic and architectural legacy could provide an accurate estimation of its condition or character—perhaps even more so than the more conventional histories of martial or mercantile accomplishment—became widely accepted. Such ideas proved especially attractive to those attempting to understand societies about which little was known or of which written records had yet to be found or deciphered. The existence of extensive and impressive remains, as Stephens’s pronouncement on the Americas suggests, was recognized as hugely significant in determining a people’s level of development, no matter where they might be found. Suggestions such as Thomas Stamford Raffles’s that ruins such as Prambanan and Borobudur represented “striking and obvious proofs . . . of the claims of Java to be considered at one period far advanced in civilization” (“A Discourse . . . ,” Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British India and its Dependencies 1, no. 4 [April 1816]: 353) and, nearly half a century later, Henri Mouhot’s that the builders of Angkor “appear to have done their utmost in order to leave to future generations proofs of their power and civilisation” (Travels in the Central Parts of Indo-China (Siam), Cambodia, and Laos, vol. 1 [John Murray, 1864], 280) are typical. Just as typical, though, are their less favorable opinions of the then current inhabitants of Java and Cambodia: Mouhot lamented that Angkor’s splendor presented “a sad contrast to the state of barbarism in which the nation is now plunged” (Mouhot, 279), while Raffles similarly opined that “the grandeur of their ancestors sounds like a fable in the mouth of the degenerate Javan; and it is only when it can be traced in monuments, which cannot be falsified, that we are led to give credit to their traditions concerning it” (The History of Java, vol. 2 [Black, Parbury and Allen, 1817], 6). Assessments such as these are important, as their ramifications were far-reaching. The presence of large-scale, imposing architectural remains that suggested long-dormant potential, as well as—all too often—disparaging judgments on the degraded state of local populations in need of “rescue,” were used as justification for the expansion of empire. And as imperial expansion brought the material remains of more and more cultures to Western notice and into Western collections, so it in turn fed Western imaginations and appetites for ruins and ruination.

The extent to which ruin appreciation has been implicated in Western imperial ambitions and acquisitions (of realms and of objects) might have been worthwhile for exploration in The Ruins Lesson, for it has been hard-learned by subjected peoples around the globe, but this omission in no way detracts from Stewart’s achievement. There is only so much an author can cover in one publication, and it has to be said that Stewart covers a great deal. There is much to admire in The Ruins Lesson: it is an erudite study, written in elegant prose that is a pleasure to read for the specialist and nonspecialist alike.

Sarah Tiffin
Independent Scholar