On Ruins and Prophecy

  At what point in their evolution do cultures become fascinated with ruins? Often at moments of cultural crisis and rapid cultural change, when old truths and old forms suddenly become more fascinating as ruins than as anything else?

What is the relation between reconceiving the past and prophesying the future, seeing new possibilities arising beyond the collapse of the old? Is the present cultural moment, marked by the emergence of new electronic multimedia, equivalent to the cultural shift that occurred with Gutenberg's Revolution (the rise of the book), or with the rise of the codex (the handwritten and -bound book) a thousand or so years before Gutenberg?

Many have said that we are finishing the Millenium of the Book and may be about to enter the Millenium of the Electronic Network---one that will not replace the book but will displace it from a major to a minor way to store information and art. If this is (attempted) prophecy and ruins are associated with prophecy, with envisioning clearly by contemplating the ruins of the past, what ruins should we turn to to see clearly this emerging electronic future? Where are Ruins on the Net?

Everyone is now so fascinated by the New. Yet using our computer screens perhaps also sometimes becomes a way of filtering out haunting visions of the Old, in particular, of the ways in which infrastructures in the U.S. are being left to become ruins---especially in cities---not only ruinous bridges and roads and transportation lines but also other crucial cultural networks like public school systems, job networks, community organizations that provide safety nets, etc. Ruins do not haunt to Web enough as it tries to prophesy its future.

One remedy: consider past artists who have been fascinated with ruins during moments of great cultural upheaval. Consider in particular artists who thought of ruins and prophecy together, who saw them as interlinked: Poussin (seventeenth century), Pannini (early to mid-eighteenth century), and the anonymous artists who illustrated Napoleon's encyclopedic volumes collectively entitled Description de l'Egypt (early nineteenth century).


  Who was Pannini?

Gian Paolo Pannini (1691-1765; sometimes his name is spelled 'Panini') is usually thought of as the inheritor of the French academic tradition in Italy established by Nicolas Poussin. Working at the French academy in Rome as Poussin had, he sold most of his pictures to the aristocracy of both Italy and France. Many of his scenes depict fetes of the aristocracy, the embassies, and/or academies in Rome celebrated in the open air with a backdrop of ornate and well-kept columns and arcades mixing classical and baroque styles. These leisure moments testify to the sense of security and confidence of these classes, or at least to their desire to envision themselves this way. Through these scenes, these classes are also made to be the sole inheritors of the great classical traditions of Greece and, especially, Rome. Over half a million works are attributed to Pannini and his Rome studio assistants (Corbett 189).

A sample work of his (scroll if needed):

In the picture above, note the contrast between the heroic ruins in decay and the everyday people who now wander through them. Many men and women gather in casual poses around a tall speaker with a long beard. He gestures emphatically toward a colossal statue on a pedestal to the right, whose muscle-bound form and dramatic pose loom over the commoners below. What is the speaker saying? Is he telling the story of this imposing man or god (Hercules?)? Is he drawing a dramatic contrast between such heroic poses and the humble lives of those who have gathered at the statue's feet? Only this statue seems to be in the scale of the huge buildings, for he's of superhuman size---his powerful hand is larger than any of the audience's heads. To the lower right, in front of the "Hercules" statue, a chunk of fallen bas-relief reposes in the sunlight. It appears to be an anonymous atrocity from history: a captive on his knees begging mercy from soldiers, including one on horseback. To the far left, a more amorous scene dances around an urn's surface, while below it what appears to be a sphinx's head gazing impassively off into the distance, creating a somewhat comic effect.

Most discussions of Pannini don't focus on the importance of his pictures of ruins. What seems to be most commonly discussed are Pannini's pictures of Italian elites enjoying themselves in grand classical settings.

There is a different way to approach Pannini. For Pannini's most provocative syntheses and revisions arguably come not in his depictions of public fetes in Rome that have received so much attention but in his views of ruins. These are works of great ironic realism that also sometimes transform themselves into works of hallucinatory brilliance. They feature not grand architecture and celebratory crowds but ruins populated with solitary wanderers, laundresses, tourists, and other figures. Meditations on the ruins of tradition and painting's powers of prophecy, they allow us to imagine an entirely different way to see Pannini's importance.

To make a transition from one era to another, the heroic narratives of the past must be turned to ruins before our eyes. In many ways this process can be seen more clearly in a 'minor' artist like Pannini than in a major one.

The process of dismantling heroic narratives into ruins begins first as fervor, a warning not to cease believing in the old truths. It also can begin as one world prophesies its rise to glory amidst the ruins of another.

It proceeds as uncertainty and doubt; the old stories don't fit together anymore: the narrative lines are ambiguous, their meanings knotted and unresolvable. New characters who don't fit the old stories have somehow wandered into the scene to go about very different business. They may ignore the grand setting entirely, to do laundry or cook or gossip. Or they may view it all in awe and shock, or with amusement.

In the end (the focus of several other Pannini pictures linked to this page), laughter and indifference undoes everything else; the spaces hold not an audience filled with nostagia or yearning but one with open disdain or boredom, one that lolls about irreverently and knows that it is the lively center of the scene, that it is the future. Ruins are suddenly seen to be ruins.

Pannini depicted it all in his works.

For these reasons, he should be studied alongside of a more famous Italian visionary like Piranesi---a prophet whose work (or at least part of whose work) represents a dark underside of Enlightenment confidence.

By a century or so later, the consensus about what the highest and most heroic form of painting is beginning itself to be in ruins, though the old genres are still supported by the Academies in France and elsewhere. Young painters paint the Italian landscape in the open air, sometimes with ruins in the distance, but never are so fixated on them as Pannini as century earlier was. And then suddenly it seems as if plein-air painting can be about the present, not just about ruins in a landscape. Suddenly we have the heroism and the ironies of modern life en plein air, in plain sight---Baudelaire and the Impressionists claiming all the power of the old forms of history painting and mythology painting for the new renditions of modern life.

I think this shift would have been impossible without Pannini's vedutae of ruins and the way in which he used this minor genre to reinterpret the meaning of the past. For some stunning examples of his reinterpretations, read on:

The materials linked to these pages are organized along several lines of thought:
  • There are separate discussions of individual prints that represent Pannini's most ambitious meditations on ruins and prophecy.


St. Paul Preaching


The Beggar in the Ruins of a Roman Bath


Minerva (?) and the Laundrywomen


A Soldier's Tale


An Anonymous River God Has a Few Thoughts for Youth

On Pannini's "Imaginary Gallery,
with Views of Ancient Rome"
painting [excerpt below]

  • Check out some short essays on crucial traditions and works by Nicholas Poussin that represent his exploration of the connections between ruins and prophecy and the act of painting itself.
  • There are brief quotations on the veduta [view] tradition in Italian landscape painting, from the work of the scholar Peter Galassi
  • There is also a set of short pieces on the most important nineteenth-century depictions of ruins in French art---those that were done in Egypt by artists hired as members of Napoleon's expeditionary force annexing Northern Africa and the Middle East to the new French empire and published in the Description de l'Egypt, encyclopedic volumes that are as important to Napoleonic France as the earlier Encyclopedia is to the French Enlightenment. Visions of the ruins of Egypt as well as the ruins of classical Greece and Rome had haunted French art since Poussin. But if Poussin's legacy is radically transformed by Pannini, it is changed yet again in alliance with Napoleon, whose expedition gives a new urgency to the drive to link ruins with the power of prophecy. Reading the illustrations in Description de l'Egypt against the background of both Pannini and Poussin produces important new ways of interpreting France's imperial project in Egypt.

  • Sources

    Arisi, Ferdinando. G. P. Panini e i fasti della Roma del' 1700. Rome, 1986. catalogue raisonné.

    Bowron, Edgar Peters and Joseph J. Rishel, eds. Art in Rome in the Eighteenth Century. London: Merrell, 2000; in association with the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Pages 416-29 on Pannini, especially 425-27.

    Bowron, Edgar Peters. Untitled review of books on Panini. Burlington Magazine, February 1994: 117-18. The books reviewed are: Michael Kiene, Pannini. Paris: Editions de la Reunión des musées nationaux, 1992; Michael Kiene, G. P. Pannini: Römische Veduten aus dem Louvre. Brunswick: Braunschweiger Zeitungsverlag, 1993; Ferdinando Arisi, ed., Giovanni Paolo Panini, 1671-1765. Milan: Electra, 1993; and Ferdinando Arisi, G. P. Panini. Soncino: Edizione dei Soncino, 1991.

    Corbett, Patricia. "Pannini (1691-1765)." Apollo, March 1993: 189-90.

    Panini, Gian Paolo. Gian Paolo Pannini, pittore. Torino: E. Celanza, 1921. Con introduzione di Leandro Ozzola.