By Christopher Woodward.
Pantheon Books. 280 pp. $24
In this charming, delightfully illustrated book, British historian Christopher Woodward indulges what he admits is “a perverse pleasure” in ruins. Drawing on literature, art, landscape design, and other fields, he examines the inspiration that people both famous and obscure have found in rubble—everything from classical ruins to haunted houses, from the devastation of the London Blitz to the elaborate fake ruins constructed in 18th-century gardens. Although most of his examples are European, Woodward’s range is immense. On a single page, he veers from an 1873 Gustave Doré engraving of an imaginary ruined London to the toppled Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes.
All ruins are not created equal, however: To be deliciously evocative, a ruin must be a bit rough around the edges. Woodward can’t stand ruins that get, well, ruined by excessive tidying and the addition of such desecrations as Keep Off signs, tea rooms, and gift shops. Archeologists are another pet peeve. Their excavations, he charges, have sucked the strange magic from Rome’s Colosseum and rendered it “extinct.”
Left to crumble poetically, ruins can summon a variety of responses. “A ruin is a dialogue between an incomplete reality and the imagination of the spectator,” Woodward writes. Tracing the fixation back to the fall of Rome, he builds a case for ruins as metaphors. Whether real, imagined, or fake, they can serve as memento mori, warn of the perils of decadence, or call into question the inevitability of human progress. They can link a current civilization to a past one’s glory, or to its decline and fall. They can serve as war monuments that evoke an enemy’s barbarity, or as picturesque garden ornaments that hint at ancient lineages. “Ruins do not speak,” Woodward observes. “We speak for them.”
The author is especially eloquent as he charts classical Rome’s rapid transformation from Eternal City to nearly abandoned wasteland, with the Forum collapsing into cow pasture and the Colosseum converted to a quarry. “If such a colossus as Rome can crumble—its ruins ask—why not London or New York?” That’s a disconcerting question, with Ground Zero still fresh in memory. Although Woodward completed his book before the September 11 attacks, what happened afterward only reinforces his point about the potency of ruins. Lest the shattered World Trade Center stand as a portent of empire lost, it was quickly transmogrified into what looks like any other neat-edged construction site.
Some may quibble with Woodward’s tendency to jump from one thing to the next, and it’s true that his transitions often seem arbitrary. But this merely signals his enthusiasm. Like a giddy dinner-party companion, he can’t stop sharing his eccentric obsession in a breathless rush of conversation, skipping from history to travel to memoir (he recounts his boyhood fascination with a decaying manor amid “bright new Lego-like houses”). You just have to sit back and enjoy the ride.