In Ruins , by Christopher Woodward. Pantheon, 288 pages, $24.
Near the end of World War II, art historian Kenneth Clark began a campaign to keep a few bombed London churches in ruins as memorials to the Blitz. His letter to The Times was signed by T.S. Eliot, among others, and a book to promote the scheme soon followed. Bombed Churches as War Memorials argued for the value of these isolated arches and heaps of rubble as works of art: “A ruin is more than a collection of debris. It is a place with its own individuality, charged with its own emotion and atmosphere and drama, of grandeur, of nobility, or of charm.”
The preservation of ruins for their intrinsic beauty is a radical notion, a late flowering of Romanticism that’s hard to transplant to the present day. Imagine a committee of eminent New Yorkers resolving, last October, to keep the delicate vertical remains of the south tower of the World Trade Center standing. We can see, of course, the “strange beauty” that Clark described in such fragmentary structures, because our eyes have been trained to do so by the smoky medieval-abbey scenery of Masterpiece Theatre productions and by excavations on Nova . It’s something else entirely to disregard public safety-let alone the commercial value of a site-in pursuit of the sublime.
In his whimsical, meandering study of the modern fascination with decrepit buildings, English historian Christopher Woodward tracks the development of the enthusiasm for ruins, from its low point in the Middle Ages-when the Popes leased out the Roman Coliseum as a quarry-through the recent decision of the National Trust not to demolish the mysterious and lovely Cold War–era bomb-test bunkers along the beaches of Orford Ness on the Suffolk coast, but to allow them to “crumble into extinction in exposure to the wind and waves, as if the earth was being purified by Nature.”
No ordinary conservationist, Mr. Woodward’s sympathies are with decay rather than preservation. “A ruin,” he argues, “is a dialogue between an incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator.” Archaeology, for Mr. Woodward, is like a teacher’s voice interrupting this conversation. He tells the story of Shelley composing Pro-metheusUnbound inthetangled wilderness of the Baths of Caracalla in Rome in the spring of 1819. As the poet watched the luxuriant foliage reclaiming the massive walls, he meditated on the short term of any tyrant’s rule. But when Mr. Woodward tried to trace Shelley’s footsteps, he had to pass through a steel perimeter fence and keep to an asphalt path that led to a “Do Not Enter” sign. When he wandered off to sit on a fragment of marble in the sunshine, a guard blew his whistle at him and an archaeologist waved him away. “I want to tell them that a ruin has two values,” Mr. Woodward protests. “It has an objective value as an assemblage of brick and stone, and it has a subjective value as an inspiration to artists. You can uproot that alder tree, superintendente , erect more fences, spray more weed-killer, excavate and polish. You will preserve every single brick for posterity, and analyze the very occasional discovery of a more ornamental fragment in a learned publication. You will have a great many bricks, but nothing more. If the archaeologists had arrived before Shelley there would be no Prometheus Unbound .”
Although ancient ruins have always inspired a sort of wonder in those who discover them, before the Enlightenment-which also brought the beginnings of the tourist industry-they were largely regarded as cheap sources of building material. Most of the marble blocks, casings and statues of ancient Rome, Mr. Woodward explains, were burned in the later Middle Ages to make powdered lime, an essential ingredient of the mortar needed for new buildings.
When it became clear to artists of the 18th century that “a building can seem more beautiful in ruins than when its original design is intact,” the Picturesque was born: “the first aesthetic to suggest that beauty could be subjective, translating to the visual arts the theory that the mind works by the association of accumulated memories.” Painters tramped through the countryside for vistas that included ruins, and wealthy men of taste began to pay for faux ruins (follies) to be built on their country estates, sometimes nestled in hilly new landscapes-such as those designed by Capability Brown-to provide striking, fearful or morally uplifting views. The furthest extremes of the Picturesque were reached at Kenilworth Castle and at Guisborough Priory, where actual abbey ruins were chiseled to soften their outlines and “improve” their appearance.
One of the weirdest instances of an artificial ruin was perpetrated by the architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837), whose London home is now a museum. Christopher Woodward was the museum’s curator for five years; something of Sir John’s fanaticism has passed to his modern-day disciple, who describes with relish the folly (ostensibly part of a Roman temple) constructed at Pitshanger Manor, Soane’s country estate in Ealing, which Soane tried to pass off as genuine-even to the extent of reporting its discovery to a learned journal. When a later owner of Pitshanger demolished the ruins, Soane felt even freer to embellish, publishing views of the folly that revealed a mosaic pavement, urns and bas-reliefs. For a man who was in thrall to history, Sir John showed an impish delight in misleading future historians. When he died, he also left behind a manuscript guide to the future ruins of his London house, in which the fallen columns and collections of antiquities are offered as evidence that the building was either a temple, a convent or the house of a necromancer.
Mr. Woodward’s model for In Ruins is Charles Sprawson’s quirky compendium of swimming lore, Haunts of the Black Masseur (1993). Like Mr. Sprawson, who describes his searches for famous or evocative rivers and swimming holes, Mr. Woodward is always pulling off the highway and bumping along dirt tracks in pursuit of crumbling buildings. These are among the most fetching passages of the book. Mr. Woodward walks us excitedly through the remains of the palace of Sta. Margherita la Belice, the Prince of Lampedusa’s childhood home in Sicily. The palace was destroyed by American bombs in 1943 but immortalized as Donnafugata in Lampedusa’s masterpiece, The Leopard (1958). Only two or three rooms survive; the rest, like the ruins of Rome in Shelley’s day, has been overtaken by vines and shrubbery. Characteristically, Mr. Woodward notes that the palace “is more vivid as a ruin which can be explored with Lampedusa’s writings to hand than if it had survived intact.” Swimming in the stream of the privately owned and intentionally unrestored ruins of the town of Ninfa, near Rome, Mr. Woodward finds the place, like Orford Ness, a site “which demonstrate[s] that if a ruin’s owner is guided by an artistic vision then it can be opened to the public with its strange magic undiluted.”
Mr. Woodward’s enthusiasms are catching, and it becomes easy to regret, with him, that the wartime recommendations of Kenneth Clark and his friends were only carried out in part. Their artistic vision-low, grass-covered walls, birds singing, children at play among the ruins-was at odds with public policy. Like the archaeologists of the Baths of Caracalla, the bureaucrats of the Corporation of London prefer clipped lawns, gravel paths, and the “Keep Off” signs familiar to any traveler. There is no magic, undiluted or otherwise, at Christ Church in Newgate Street, where two bare walls open onto a busy road, and the riot of nature-and of poetry-is kept in check.
Regina Marler is the author of Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom (Holt).