Fountainhead of the Acqua Giulia...’; etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi

Yale University Art Gallery

‘View of the Remains of the Fountainhead of the Acqua Giulia…’; etching by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1753

In an early section of the Poetics, Aristotle notes the curious fact that humans take pleasure in looking at images of things they would find painful to contemplate as actual objects or scenes. The philosopher is working toward an account of tragedy that explains why people go to the theater to watch kings tear out their eyes and mothers murder their children. Before he gets to the plays, Aristotle considers the satisfaction we get from examining pictures “of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies” (he seems to be thinking of anatomy books). Why do we like looking at things like that?

It is because of the delight we take in learning, Aristotle says. Looking at images or portraits, we take pleasure in recognizing someone: “Ah, that is he” (or, in another translation, “The man there is so-and-so”). It is through such acts of recognition, what the Greeks called anagnorisis, that we pass from ignorance to knowledge. Not coincidently, this is the same transformation Oedipus goes through at the end of Sophocles’ tragedy, which Aristotle particularly admired. In this case, the act of anagnorisis is one of self-recognition. The king, searching for the murderer of his father, discovers that it was himself, that the criminal and detective are one: “Ah, he is me.”

A variant of Aristotle’s question might be posed about the depiction of ruins, those images or verbal evocations of half-collapsed buildings and crumbling masonry that form such a durable theme in art history. Why is it, Susan Stewart asks in her deeply researched and gracefully written book The Ruins Lesson, that “we so often are drawn—in schadenfreude, terror, or what we imagine is transcendence—to the sight of what is broken, damaged, and decayed”?

At the beginning of her study, Stewart points us toward the writings of the German art historian Alois Riegl, whose essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments” (1903) is a founding text in the field of historical preservation. Riegl distinguished between a work’s “historical value,” a function of its origin in a unique time and place (e.g., the Italian Renaissance), and the work’s “age value,” arising from its ability to give the viewer a visceral sense of time’s passage. Riegl argued that age value, found in such phenomena as erosion, staining, or fragmentation, was made possible by a peculiarly modern appreciation for the organic nature of the artwork, its cycle of emergence and deterioration. “Modern man recognizes part of his own life in a monument,” Riegl wrote. “The modern viewer of old monuments receives aesthetic satisfaction not from the stasis of preservation but from the continuous and unceasing cycle of change in nature.”

Riegl’s argument is a version of Aristotle’s. Part of the pleasure one takes in looking at ruins springs from the spectator’s recognition of the shape of his or her own life in the disintegrating structures. Examining the marks of age and decay, the spectator draws the melancholy lesson: “Ah, that is me.”

But ruins aren’t merely emblems of mortality. What we recognize in ruins isn’t only the inevitable passage of calendrical time. More important are the traces of human labor and artistic intent. Riegl writes that for us to experience age value, to learn the lesson and suffer the emotions that go along with it, “at least a distinct trace of the original form, of the former work of man—of the original production—must remain, since a pile of stones represents no more than a dead, formless fragment of the immensity of nature’s force.”

Stewart’s exploration of ruins is a nuanced and often surprising study of what she calls “human techne.” She is interested in how visual and verbal artists shape matter into meaningful forms and how those forms—even or especially as they fall apart—provide the matter for further acts of fabrication. For her, as for Riegl, what we ultimately recognize in the representation of ruins isn’t our own eventual demise but an image of ourselves as artists. In a neat paradox, a book dedicated to the study of ruins is actually a defense of making.

Stewart is among our most erudite readers of poetry. She is a philologist in the old-fashioned sense: a scholar who combines knowledge of several European and classical languages, a historical awareness of the development and interaction of their literary traditions, and a commitment to philosophical aesthetics that one feels even in her close readings. But she is also a poet, and writes with unfaltering clarity and poise. Finally (a word Stewart might object to), she is a discerning art critic—a skill on full display in her new book, which examines paintings, etchings, and sketches as well as literary depictions of ruin.


The Ruins Lesson begins with a meditation on Christian conceptions of matter as something unformed and possibly sinful, as well as early fables of large-scale destruction: Troy, Sodom and Gomorrah, Babel (a recurring theme). But as Stewart notes, “the story of ruins in Western tradition is…largely a story of Roman ruins.” This is not only because of the size of the city’s classical remains, but also its turbulent history: sacked by Gallic tribes in 390 BCE; largely destroyed by the Great Fire of 64 CE (while Nero fiddled); and sacked again by Visigoths in 410, setting off a sequence of despoliations before the city’s rebirth in the fifteenth century. “If Rome is eternal,” Stewart writes in words that recall Riegl, “it is not because of the permanence of its forms but because it has endured so many cycles of destruction and rebuilding.”

The Ruins Lesson is not a straightforward history—waywardness is part of its appeal—but it has a strong chronological backbone. Stewart lingers over the long and for most of us rather confused intermission between the end of imperial Rome in the fifth century and its renaissance a thousand years later, a millennium in which the city was essentially used as a quarry. Once Christianity became the state religion in the fourth century, artisans reused material taken from pagan ruins—the technical term is spolia—as a way of asserting the superiority of the new faith. As Stewart notes, all the columns in the first Christian basilica, the Lateran, were taken from older structures, just as the oldest extant English church, the Church of St. Martin at Canterbury, is studded with brick and tile spolia.

“Nothing in Rome has come down to us intact,” wrote Manuel Chrysolaras, a scholar of Greek, translator of Homer and Plato into Latin, and tutor to Leonardo Bruni, among others. “Nonetheless, even these ruins and heaps of stones show what great things once existed, and how enormous and beautiful were the original constructions.” At the time he was writing, in 1411, Rome was a city of some 20,000 people (down from approximately one million in 300 CE), and cattle were pastured within the city walls. For early humanists of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Rome’s ruins were not so much triumphant evidence of paganism’s demise as models for future construction. Rather than a quarry, the city was to them a repository of artistic and scientific knowledge. The rediscovery in 1506 of the Laocoön statue, with Michelangelo supposedly there to witness the unburial, has come to epitomize this shift in perspective.

Stewart argues that another radical change took place in the sixteenth century with the rise of printmaking, especially in Europe’s Protestant north. For medieval thinkers and Italian humanists, the lesson to be drawn from Roman ruins was relatively clear: the triumph of Christianity, or the necessity of restoration. For Protestant artists such as the painters Maerten van Heemskerck and Pieter Bruegel, or the printer Hieronymous Cock, the lesson was harder to make out: Were these pagan ruins, Catholic ruins, or emblems of contemporary conflict, pointing toward the religious violence unleashed by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (in which debates about iconoclasm, the destruction of artworks, was paramount)? In 1527 Rome was sacked again, this time by Protestant mercenaries in the Holy Roman Emperor’s army, whose salaries weren’t being paid.

Consider the puzzle posed by staffage figures in these prints, those diminutive and anonymous persons, often in contemporary dress, whose tiny size highlights the magnitude of the ancient buildings, and who point toward the ruins as if toward some urgent epiphany. What exactly are they pointing at? Stewart argues that the ambiguities found in Protestant prints of ruins encouraged viewers to think of themselves as a new type of reader, engaged in the interpretation of these images, with their multiple strata of historical and contemporary meaning, rather than simply consulting them for spiritual or scientific edification. She also suggests that the layering of historical periods led to a new sense of “deep time,” a feeling of “temporal poignancy” that would mature, in the eighteenth century, into that mood of melancholy that distinguishes so many Gothic and Romantic representations of ruins.

If Stewart’s book has a hero, it is Giovanni Battista Piranesi, the eighteenth-century scholar, printmaker, and polemicist whom Marguerite Yourcenar called “the interpreter and virtually the inventor of Rome’s tragic beauty.” For Stewart, Piranesi brings together the desire for scientific models and accurate measurements, the humanist preoccupation with restoring or at least memorializing Roman grandeur, and a theatrical sense for how ruins might impart a mood (Piranesi’s early training included a stint as a set designer, evident in his dramatic use of light and shadow in the etchings).


But Piranesi’s ruins do more than synthesize his precursors. His most popular etchings are undoubtedly the carceri d’invenzione (“imaginary prisons”) of the late 1740s—oneiric interiors of maze-like architecture and obscurely menacing instruments that captured the imaginations of artists across Europe. Stewart spends more time looking at Piranesi’s equally obscure grotteschi—etchings in which architectural elements are overwhelmed by a bric-a-brac of objects including skulls, urns, shells, and broken statuary—and his capricci, in which real Roman or Egyptian ruins are juxtaposed with fantastical structures (including, in one print, Piranesi’s own imaginary tomb). Contrasting the empty gloom of the carceri with the riot of particulars in the grotteschi and capricci, Stewart celebrates Piranesi as a visionary of “the endlessly open possibilities tradition offers to invention.”

Perhaps equally important to Stewart’s history is William Wordsworth, and especially his ode to memory “Tintern Abbey.” Here we finally move beyond the shadow cast by Rome. Stewart situates the British poet within a tradition of representing “humble ruined vernacular buildings” that includes seventeenth-century Dutch painters along with J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, as well as a local landscape tradition. (An important secondary character in Stewart’s book is William Gilpin, theorist of the picturesque style and author of the popular 1782 book Observations on the River Wye, which Wordsworth brought with him on his first visit to the abbey in 1793.) Framed in this way, the poem’s rhetoric of “lines” and scenes that “impress” suggests a meditation on poetic versus painterly modes, in which Wordsworth continually breaks his own lines free from the strictures of the landscape.

Reading “Tintern Abbey” alongside other poems of rural wreckage, “The Ruined Cottage” and “Michael: A Pastoral Poem,” Stewart emphasizes Wordsworth’s interest in the ethics of hospitality, the social problem of vagrancy, and the difficulty of representing “ruined persons and their environments.” The beggars and rural poor who inhabit the collapsing structures of these poems—distantly related to the staffage figures in paintings and prints—are, as Stewart writes in an especially fine phrase, “lost in place.” More provocatively, she argues that Wordsworth’s famous labors of revision, resulting in a farrago of drafts and multiple versions of the same poem, should not be understood as monuments to failed ambition but rather as evidence of the poet’s commitment to reconstruction and “endless interpretability”:

What seem to be fragments are in fact building materials, and Wordsworth’s work as a whole reveals the way that the unfinished or incomplete work of art is the reverse of a ruin, even though there is a moment, a hinge, when the building coming down and the building going up are impossible to tell apart.

This summary suggests the scope of Stewart’s book—a short final chapter looks at Eliot’s The Waste Land and the postwar monuments of Berlin—but does little justice to its subtlety and abundance of details. Stewart is especially instructive about the tools and techniques of art-making: bricklaying, the printer’s matrix, drafts of poems. Somewhat like Piranesi’s prints, her speculative readings are always reined in by a regard for art’s nuts and bolts. Stewart tells us what ancient concrete was made of (pozzolana and lime), where classical builders got their various types of marble, and what the Latin names are for the many styles of Roman wall construction.

Some of these details are merely good to know—for his quick sketches, Piranesi used iron gallnut ink or else red chalk—while others are unexpectedly meaningful. In her reading of the Babel myth, Stewart draws our attention to the construction materials mentioned in the biblical account: “And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar” (“slime” is what we would call “pitch”). What is the significance of these details? Stewart sees a parallel between the labor of bricklaying and human communication, which God seeks to confound: “If humans can perfectly understand one another, using words, one at a time, like bricks, to form their speech…there is no limit to the addition and accumulation of their knowledge.”

Art-making as a practical and theoretical activity, what the Greeks called poiesis, is one of Stewart’s longstanding interests. Her previous book, The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making (2011), is a series of essays on the nature of art—its working materials and central categories—as well as a defense of its ideal open-endedness. The essays are bookended by a first-person account of watching a boy at the beach slowly building and gleefully destroying a sandcastle. She admits her initial disquiet at seeing the boy take such pleasure in tearing down what he had so carefully built up, but then reflects that the possibility of undoing something might be a condition for valuing it. The prose preface to her book tells this story forward in time—from the sandcastle’s construction to its ruin—while the coda runs it backward, in verse. “One of the greatest resources of art,” Stewart writes (with a nice pun), “is its reversibility.”

The boy at the beach is a happy version of Wordsworth: a Homo faber absorbed by his visions and revisions, whose story shows that, as Stewart says, in a phrase that reverberates throughout her work, “the task of art itself is ongoing and unending.” But here an important question arises. Is this “task” a critical value—such that any instance of making that somehow failed to be “unending” might not be art, properly speaking—or is it just a description of what artists do and have done over the centuries? Stewart’s celebration of Piranesi and Wordsworth suggests that ongoingness or incompletion is indeed a kind of value or artistic ideal. It is because Piranesi’s prints are alive to the “endlessly open possibilities” of tradition that she finds his work visionary; Wordsworth’s poetics of process is “inspiring and unfinished—and perhaps most inspiring because it is unfinished.”

How shall we understand the relation between Stewart’s richly detailed history of the depiction of ruins and her claim that art is an activity of ceaseless making and unmaking? Is The Ruins Lesson the history of a particular theme or an inquiry into aesthetic value?

Stewart’s answer is brilliant but problematic. She treats ruins as a theme of art history, extending from Babel to the present, while at the same time recognizing ruins as allegories of the artwork as such—that is, as visual or verbal emblems of incompletion and ongoingness. Her book is both a history of art and a work of aesthetics. But incompletion is a tricky sort of value. For while the critic can certainly recognize ruins as a theme, how can she recognize the presence (or absence) of ongoingness? How can we know, except in retrospect, whether any act of making is open-ended or an artistic dead end? The mere presence of ruins as a theme won’t decide the matter. Critics argue on behalf of the works they value, hoping they will find favor with future artists. But to celebrate a work as ongoing or inspiringly unfinished is simply to hope that history will prove you right.

Given Stewart’s notion of art as an unending task, it is unsurprising that The Ruins Lesson keeps returning to the idea of translation. Stewart is herself an accomplished translator from the Italian, and, as she points out, ruins are often located on the borders of historical eras and civilizations, such that “their very appearance depends on an act of translation between the past and the present, between those who have vanished and those who have survived.” In more practical terms, translation is an exemplary act of making—and therefore of artistry—since it is by nature unfinished and unfinishable. There will never be a definitive English version of Homer.

Here again, Stewart’s historical examples are fascinating. She reads Edmund Spenser’s translations of Joachim du Bellay’s well-known sonnet series Antiquités de Rome (1554), several of which were themselves translations (or, to use the Renaissance term, “imitations”) of earlier works. In one version, Spenser punningly laments that Rome has become “the spoyle of all,” alluding to both the ruin of the city and the artistic reuse of its spolia. Extending the conceit, Stewart writes of “the long Western narrative that leads from the Roman destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem to the translation of the spoils from that event into the building of the Colosseum.” The history of ruins, in Stewart’s telling, is in fact all about “the translation of spoils”—a story in which art survives through reuse and reinterpretation, in which ruins are often impossible to distinguish from new beginnings.

Reading Stewart can be a disorienting experience. Her commitment to the protean, open-ended possibilities of art-making carries over into the style of her critical writing. Like Anne Carson, Susan Howe, and Maureen McLane, she continually undermines the boundary between scholarship and poetry, commentary and creation. Stewart is determined to avoid writing anything that feels predetermined. As a result, her criticism rarely takes the form of arguments with other scholars (though she cites them generously); she proceeds through the association of ideas rather than rigidly sequential logic; instead of subverting or deconstructing a text, she carefully unpicks its stitches and ties them on to something new. Even her sentences resist the neatness of epigrams or tidy syllogisms.

The idea that art and criticism should avoid any form of finality is unsettling to conventional ways of thinking about artworks (i.e., “masterpieces”), intellectual traditions, and even authorship (against the stereotype of genius, Stewart’s reading of Piranesi emphasizes his collaborations with scholars and artists from all over Europe). If ruins are allegories of unrealized potential or the artwork’s afterlife, to use Walter Benjamin’s apposite term, then the opposite of the ruin is a monument, a symbol of stasis. “There is a homology,” Stewart writes toward the end of her book, in an uncharacteristically polemical tone, “between the reification of monumental forms and the unquestioning acceptance of ideology.”

On the other hand, Stewart’s notion of art history as a tradition of individuals using the spoils of their precursors to make new works is thoroughly familiar (as is her progression from the Renaissance to the Reformation to Romanticism). “It is only in the continual transmission of our values, in the life of thought, language, and critical reconsideration, that we can find any permanence,” she writes. But which texts and values shall we transmit? And who are “we”?

Stewart is explicit about the limitations of her study. “I have tried to understand the fascination and appeal of ruins throughout the history of Western art and literature,” she writes. “A scholar of other traditions…would have looked elsewhere and along other paths.” Her book shows that the history of ruins art in the West has regularly relied on Eastern materials. Eighteenth-century antiquarians such as Robert Wood traveled to Palmyra and Baalbek, returning home with full sketchbooks and other foreign spolia—manuscripts, marbles, fragments of statuary—otherwise known as thefts. One could go further. The nineteenth-century craze for ruins was full of Orientalist fantasies and cultural borrowings. One of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s best-known poems, “Locksley Hall,” is a ruins poem based on ancient Arabic models, which he knew through the translations of Sir William Jones.

It would be churlish and even perverse to fault Stewart for not being wide-ranging enough. Her book is a model of criticism that is historically deep and geographically broad. But it is strange that she does not scrutinize more closely the idea of “Western” art itself, especially when so much of that tradition is enlivened by materials and ideas from elsewhere. The breakdown of that category—its ruination, so to speak—seems called for by Stewart’s own intellectual commitments. For the West to remain a site of possibility and invention, it cannot be treated as a thing with unquestioned boundaries. Doing so turns it into a name for exactly the sort of rigid “ideology” that Stewart rightly abjures. We would be mistaken to recognize ourselves only in such monuments.