The Roman Forum: Part 3, Ruins in modern imagination

Ruins function as political and private symbols even in the modern era.

Ruins in Modern Imagination: The Roman Forum (part 3, Enlightenment to World War II), an ARCHES video. Speakers: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:03] While there are plenty of representations of ruins and of antiquity in the Renaissance, interest in ruins, interest in antiquity, is accelerated exponentially because of the discovery in the 18th century of the ancient city of Pompeii, a city that had been covered by ash, that had been extinguished, but also preserved.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:25] For the first time, Europeans had a sense of the daily life of an ancient Roman city, but this is also the time of the beginnings of art history.

[0:36] With all of the discoveries that were being made of classical fragments, there were those like Winckelmann, who attempted to date them to correlate what was being found with ancient Greek and Roman literary sources. Art history, in a way, was born.

Dr. Zucker: [0:53] This was a period, the Enlightenment, when philosophers and political thinkers began to question absolute faith in God and the monarchies of Europe, thinking instead logic and the rational might be more important. In the context of the Forum, we could use scientific analysis to understand the way that history had unfolded.

Dr. Harris: [1:15] There was the beginning of the understanding of layers of history, of stratigraphy, of digging down in order to dig through time.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] The law of superposition. That is, when something is layered over something else, it’s newer than the thing below it. These ideas are being expressed in the work of artists who begin to include a kind of melancholy in their representations of ruins, a melancholy that speaks to the grandeur of time, that acknowledges the transience of human accomplishment.

Dr. Harris: [1:47] And the ruin is beautiful and a reminder of the transience of human life, but it also, for artists like Fuseli, became a symbol of a past era that couldn’t be surpassed. How could those in the late 18th and early 19th century possibly equal the incredible grandeur of Rome?

Dr. Zucker: [2:08] Those kinds of thoughts are very much the product of a moment when England and France and other increasingly industrializing countries are gaining more and more mastery over the environment, are building enormous cities, and are beginning to ask themselves, “Will our cities also become ruins?”

Dr. Harris: [2:26] We also see artists like Hubert Robert, who painted an image of the Louvre in ruins. He’s imagining a future when this important palace, this expression of the monarchy, of Napoleon’s empire, is one day in the future itself a ruin. We also see an image where the Bank of England is represented as a ruin. We know also that artists are intentionally fabricating ruins.

Dr. Zucker: [2:54] The late 18th and early 19th century used the ruin as a vehicle to come to terms with modernity. Science had really come to the fore. Traditional religion was receding, and artists and poets, people that we associate with the movement of Romanticism, were looking for the awe, the grandeur, the power that we once associated with God, but that was more difficult to locate in the modern world.

[3:19] The fragment reminded us of the futility of empire. It reminded us of the awesomeness of time, something that man could never triumph over.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] We see this expressed in paintings by Caspar David Friedrich, where instead of classical ruins, we see the ruins of a Gothic church. There’s also a sense that not only has time eroded human achievement and human glory, but also that human beings themselves are responsible, that we’ve let things decline, we’ve allowed civilizations and their traces to vanish before our eyes.

Dr. Zucker: [3:55] And so we have a responsibility, and it’s at this moment that modern archaeology develops. That is, an effort to understand the past through physical remains, through excavations, using scientific methods.

Dr. Harris: [4:08] Just as there was an awareness of history, of the way that empires rise and fall, there was also a sense that you could build monumental architecture so that when it became a ruin, it still spoke of your culture’s grandeur, and perhaps the most disturbing example of that is the theory of ruins put forward by Albert Speer, Hitler’s favorite architect.

Dr. Zucker: [4:36] This is the height of hubris, that the Nazis would outlive even their projected Thousand-Year Reich and that their constructions would equal the Romans, not only when they were intact, but even projected far into the future.

Dr. Harris: [4:51] They wanted to rival ancient Rome. Ancient Rome had left majestic ruins that spoke to the greatest achievements of humankind.

Dr. Zucker: [5:00] And one of the allies of the Nazis, Mussolini, had at his disposal the actual ruins of Rome and undertook enormous excavation projects, demolishing the medieval, demolishing the Baroque, in order to highlight the great ancient traditions of the city.

Dr. Harris: [5:16] He had Hitler come and visit, and Mussolini put on a show highlighting ancient Rome’s grandeur.

Dr. Zucker: [5:23] Some would argue that modern archaeology, and not just the archaeology of Mussolini, did damage. That archaeology in search of knowledge has served also to destroy the beauty of the accumulation of time.

Dr. Harris: [5:37] They’re no longer overgrown. They’re no longer so topsy-turvy. There are no cows grazing here. You have to pay to enter.

Dr. Zucker: [5:46] The Forum has always been a place of pilgrimage and is now a place of modern mass tourism. And with vendors just outside the historical park selling souvenirs, the experience might seem to be trivialized. But for me, and for many visitors, even when it’s crowded, it is still possible to experience the grandeur of time, the sense of the sublime that was so important to artists in the late 18th and early 19th century.

[6:11] Those things are still true. And so when we walk through the Forum, when we look at its monuments, when we look at its fragments, at these ruins, what we’re seeing is not simply a fragment of ancient Rome. What we’re seeing is the testament to the changing meanings of the ruin through time.

[6:28] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "The Roman Forum: Part 3, Ruins in modern imagination," in Smarthistory, July 23, 2020, accessed June 14, 2024,