Pannini: The Beggar in the Ruins of a Roman Bath

---for Kaori Kitao

The man in the center of the picture above has placed his ragged bundle and its carrying stick to one side and his rumpled clothes on the other. He won't stray too far from these: they are all he possesses in the world. Naked now, he reaches down into the waters of the bath and laves it over one leg at a time, slowly and methodically, trying to remove the grime of the endless roads, trying to make his muscles ache a little less.

The waters of the bath are murky and dirty, but they will have to do. These baths and the buildings that housed them were once famous, once crowded with people from all walks of life. But something has happened, an order has fallen and taken with it even such simple pleasures as bathing. The place is almost deserted now, the buildings in ruins. Did the beggar come expecting these waters to be bright and bubbling, the stone seats by the wall filled with bathers relaxing and exchanging the latest gossip? Could he have even found a space where, divested of his rags, no one would know him for a beggar? Or did he come knowing it would be deserted and in decay, knowing no one would challenge him as he tried to enter?

As the beggar lets his exhaustion rise within him, the empty spaces of the building soar and recede beyond him in a dizzying way. Best to keep his eyes on the task in front of him, getting a bruised knee clean. If he peers into the water he can see his bedraggled reflection: his scruffy beard and hair, his pained eyes emerging from shadow. Does a kind of peace come from thinking of the long ways he has travelled, or does he see how uncertain are the roads he must face in the future?

The beggar's thoughts, whether peaceful or not, are also being invaded. The picture captures the moment when two figures have emerged from the shadows, in front of the man and behind him. Orient yourself by looking once again at the full picture above, then see the two closeups below. First, a laundress (?) enters stage right, underneath a wall with a huge statue looming in its niche:

 

 

 

 

Closeup: On the right side of the picture, in the foreground, a huge statue poses ambiguously in its niche in the wall. It is spectrally lit (with its shadow to the right) from an unknown and impossible light source. (It can't be the sun, which is setting near the picture's invisible vanishing point beyond the long arcades; it casts shadows in the opposite direction.) This sepulcral lighting creates perhaps the eeriest effect in the entire picture. Remember this is the 18th century: no artifical lighting is possible. Could it be a fire's light? A fire from where?

 

 

 

Below this statue, a woman (she may be a laundress because she wears what appears to be a laundress' apron) makes a sharp gesture of surprise at what she sees as she looks toward the baths and the beggar and the old man behind him. She doesn't seem pleased, though its hard to know if her gesture means anger or fear. Perhaps she expected to be able to do her cleaning alone in this favorite spot. Behind her a sinister fountain-head spouts water from a wall into a basin, contemplative as Medusa.

 

[continued below]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another closeup (to left). Meanwhile, behind the seated beggar a very strange old man has suddenly stepped from the shadows into the light of the setting sun. He appears to have stepped out of the Old Testament. He wears a long flowing robe and a turban or cap; he also wields an impressive white beard. With a grand gesture he waves his arm towards the upper vault of the building. It is a gesture precisely like that of St. Paul surrounded by a crowd in an earlier illustration of Pannini's.

Has this prophet figure come to chase the beggar away? Or is he orating on the sins of this place, the contrast between its present condition and the former glories of its decadence? The old man's words have lost their ability to draw a crowd; a few figures in the far distance seem to ignore him, as does the beggar by the side of the water. If we listen carefully we can hear the old man's words echoing along the receding capitals and columns. They multiply and rebound upon themselves. They exfoliate as insidiously as the foliage gnawing on the arches. Perhaps it is this old man's emergence that has made the laundrywoman so vehement, or the sound of his words. Yet still the beggar takes no heed; he continues gazing away, perhaps gazing vacantly at vacancy.

 

The picture's vanishing point is hidden by a huge shadowy wall on the right, as is the setting sun. (See the full image at the top of this page.)

At the vanishing point where this picture's linear perspective and ambiguous shadows converge rises the spectre of de Chirico.

"To live in the world as if in an immense museum of strangeness.... There is nothing like the enigma of the Arcade---invented by the Romans." [from Giorgio de Chirico, unpublished manuscripts, reprinted in The Autobiography of Surrealism, ed. Marcel Jean (New York: Viking, 1980), pp. 6, 7. Translated by Louise Bourgeois and Robert Goldwater.]

Pannini, vanished from standard art histories, rises at this vanishing point as well.

 

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