Unpacking Ruins: architecture from antiquity. Online exhibition


12 September - 28 November 2002 ~ de Beer Gallery
Central Library, University of Otago

Through the last five hundred years, ancient ruins have been uncovered, rediscovered and reinterpreted. They have provoked architectural inspiration. They have been studied to develop and support theories on how to build and how to value building. They have prompted reflection upon the end of Empire and upon the demise of civilization. In turn, they have provoked thoughts of future civilizations rising.

This exhibition of books and prints of the last four centuries traces changes in the way the West has related to the architecture of antiquity. Works displayed are from the collections of the University of Otago Library. Through text and illustrations the exhibition ponders how the material of the past has variously been unpacked and repackaged.

To unpack - to undo or open, to bring something out of storage.

Ruins, the weathered fragments speak of loss. They tell of the buildings that once were, of the people who made them, and of the cultures from which they arose. They tell of destruction, abandonment and decay. When viewing the larger volumes displayed in this exhibition one cannot help but feel a profound sense of absence. One may be filled with a longing for the past, or could be drawn to reflect upon the inevitably of the future. However, absence and loss are not the intended focus of the exhibition. Rather it is to chronicle how people have attempted to make sense of the ruins, how they have represented them, and how they have used them to understand the times in which they lived.

These volumes, selected from the Special Collections at the University of Otago Library reveal how ruins and fragments of antiquity have been variously cited over the last five hundred years. The 16th century edition of Vitruvius is evidence of the Renaissance search for an authentic voice from antiquity. Works from the century following present theoretical arguments and the search for architectural perfection, with surviving buildings, ruins and texts being compared and debated. Similar analysis has continued long after these works appeared. It is also apt to compare them with the text by Le Corbusier who returned to his youthful perceptions in Greece, Turkey and Italy for inspiration, example and origin.

Travel guides reveal how existing remains became part of the visual vocabulary of the 17th and 18th centuries. Authoritative accounts by British architect-travelers of ruins in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East were published as large folios between 1750 and 1850. The works of Wood and Dawkins in the Levant, of Stuart and Revett in Athens, of Adam in Dalmatia and of Cameron in Italy, follow the scientific archaeological approach of the Frenchman Desgodets. However these journeys were romantic and at times, fanciful, explorations as well. In the published volumes, travelers presented the surviving fragments and reconstituted them into reinvented larger works. In doing so, they changed the Western understanding of architecture and its day-to-day practice.

In considering the fall of empires in the late 18th century, it was inevitable that the survey of ruins would prompt reflection on the future of the West. In 1774 Horace Walpole wrote to Horace Mann,

"The next Augustan age will dawn on the other side of the Atlantic. There will perhaps be a Thucylides at Boston, a Xenophon at New York, and in time a Virgil at Mexico, and a Newton at Peru. At last some curious traveller from Lima, will visit England, and give a description of the ruins of St Paul's, like editions of Baalbec and Palmyra."

It is not surprising that sixty years later, at a time when the colonisation of New Zealand was actively debated in the Houses of Parliament, Macaulay would speculate upon a future New Zealander surveying the ruins of London. Doré's romantic image of the Mäori, draped in Renaissance gown and sketching, recalls illustrations of Wood and Stuart in the East, and it confirms the city in the line of great imperial centres. However the figure seated on the ruins of London Bridge may have seemed oddly chilling to the Victorian viewers.

The cutaway view of the Bank of England drawn by Joseph Gandy (in the vitrine outside the gallery) may have prompted a similar response. It presents the completed structure opened, clean, and viewed from the eye of God. The sunlit ruin appears timeless.

As well as being an emblem of transience, ruins signal persistence over time. It is this sense of permanence, or at least of a very slow decay, that perhaps provokes a continuing fascination and a pleasure that some recent writers have found in the them.

This exhibition has been curated by Robin Skinner of the School of Architecture, Victoria University Wellington. He was assisted by Elizabeth Tinker, Catherine Robertson and Sarah Jones of the Reference Department of the University of Otago Library.

Collection Items

Roma aeterna Petri Schenkii
This publication by Amsterdam publisher and engraver Peter Schenk is typical of those that were appearing at the turn of the 18th century. The page shown depicts the ruins of the aqueduct the Aqua Marcia. It conveyed water to both the baths of…

The ruins of Balbec
This book documents the Roman monuments of Baalbek in present-day Lebanon. It was a result of Robert Wood and James Dawkins' 1750-53 trip to Asia Minor. Wood was a member of the Society of the Dilettanti These volumes exhibited mark the beginning of…

The antiquities of Athens, measured and delineated
In 1742 James Stuart went to London where he met Nicholas Revett. With support from English travellers and residents in Rome, they raised funds and issued proposals for a ‘new and accurate description of the Antiquities &c. in the Province of…

Tvtte l'opere d'archittetvra, et prospetiva
In his seven-volume Tutte l'opere d'architettura that first appeared in 1584, Serlio aimed to provide a practical manual of architecture while avoiding explicit theory. As such the work became one of the most influential of all publications on…

Le terme dei Romani
This drawing of Diocletian's Baths can be traced to Andrea Palladio. The Bertotti-Scamozzi illustrations in this volume follow those included by the English architect, Lord Burlington, in his study of the Baths of the Romans, Fabbriche Antiche…

The ruins of Pæstum
The Greek temples at Paestum in southern Italy were almost unknown until the 1750s. They became better known through publication. This book by Thomas Major was one of the first that enabled architects of Northern and Western Europe to study the three…

Aedificiorvm et rvinarvm Romae ex antiqvis atqve hodiernis monimentis liber primus
This book on the buildings and ruins of Rome by the 17th century artist and engraver, Giovanni Maggi, is typical of the works by which the ruins of antiquity became known outside Italy through that century. The remnant of the Temple of Jupiter Stator…

Romae antiquae notitia: or, the antiquities of Rome
First published in 1696, this short history by the Anglican churchman and scholar, Basil Kennett, recounts the rise, progress, and decay of Ancient Rome eighty years before Gibbon's Decline and fall …. A popular publication, it was reprinted no…

A parallel of the antient architecture with the modern
Following a stay in Rome in 1650, Fréart de Chambray published this anthology of ten ancient and modern writers on the classical orders. He argues that the Greek orders (the Doric, the Ionic, and Corinthian) are perfect models for all architecture…

The New Zealander in London
In the 1870s the artist Gustave Doré depicted Macaulay's New Zealander visiting future London. In the accompanying text Jerrold wrote, ‘Macaulay's dream of the far future, with the tourist New Zealander ... contemplating "The glory that was Greece…

Ruins of the palace of the Emperor Diocletian at Spalatro in Dalmatia
In 1754 Robert Adam left Scotland for France and Italy on a Grand Tour. In Italy he met the French architect, Charles Louis Clérisseau, and the Italian, Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who would both have a significant influence upon him and his later…
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