When I first visited Rome with my family, I was impressed by a number of things, but the Forum wasn’t one of them. I was indifferent. I loved most of the scenery, but when presented with ruins, I quickly tired of them. Last summer however, back in Rome, I felt what can only be adequately described as ruinenlust. Ruinenlust is a German word for the pleasure that ruins evoke, although they use ‘lust’ in a different sense to us, with the definition more akin to joy. When it comes to ruins, Diderot put it best;
‘The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures…Wherever I cast my glance, the objects surrounding me announce death and compel my resignation to what awaits me’
Always a sucker for brooding over time running out, perhaps my newly acquired fascination was due to the opportunity I was afforded to indulge in reflecting upon the tragic human condition and bemoan my own eventual demise, all in the name of history! Ruins are strange in the sense that they make you feel insignificant in the grand scheme of things but also simultaneously, acutely self-aware. This was especially poignant for me while visiting the Museum of the Imperial Fora and Trajan’s Markets. At the time of visiting (August 2015) it hosted a temporary exhibition, L’eleganza del cibo: Tales of food and fashion which explored the link between two of Italy’s greatest staples. It was here that I came across one of my now favourite quotes, ‘Food nourishes the body. Fashion feeds the mind’. The location of the exhibition meant that it transcended its confines to take on an additional meaning. The location of the modern art alongside the museum’s permanent ruins of a bygone age was visually and emotionally potent. The juxtaposition emphasized the contrasts between the two subjects but also highlighted the universality and timelessness of culture.
Rome lends itself well to philosophical reflection because of the extent of the remains within its walls. It doesn’t have just one centre piece, but is often described as a ‘living museum’. It’s called the Eternal City for a reason. There is such an unbelievable amount of history in one place. A place which was the seat of one of the biggest empires in history, and its legacy is scattered across the city. It’s hard to process this. It’s odd to stand there and look at ruins, and imagine them through the ages. To think of what they represent and the people who originally built them, millions of lifetimes ago. To think that they too had their own hopes, fears and dreams. It is pretty incomprehensible. While walking around Castle St Angelo, I was having a similar conversation with one of my best friends. She said that sometimes she forgets that history actually happened. Great battles and events seem like stories, so that when she comes face to face with the ruins, it’s hard to take them in.
There is an expression that goes, when the Colosseum falls, Rome will fall and when Rome falls, so will the rest of the world. Perhaps then, it is apt that a great deal of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is set against the grand backdrop of Rome. My favourite part of the poem is when standing in the Colosseum, he calls himself a ‘ruin among ruins’ (and my friends call me a drama queen?!). He also talks a lot about the cyclical nature of life, especially in these famous lines:
’There is the moral of all human tales;
‘Tis but the same rehearsal of the past.
First freedom and then Glory – when that fails,
Wealth, vice, corruption – barbarism at last
And History with all her volumes vast,
Hath but one page.’ – Canto IV
Whilst this thought can be depressing, it can also carry a message of optimism. He realizes that even the greatest empires do not last, and that cruel ambition is foolish as it never ends well. Ruins are captivating in the same way that horror movies are. Death is all too often ignored in our society, it’s something that particularly people in the West try to avoid discussion of. Surely the more comfortable we are with recognizing death, the more we adequately we will be able to deal with it. We’re all desperate to leave a legacy, yet it is likely that one day there will be no evidence that we ever existed. There is a saying that people die two deaths: one when their heart stops beating and the other when their name is said for the last time.
Perhaps then, it is comforting to look at ruins, and imagine something of our own civilization being appreciated, future generations analyzing and imagining our lives. It’s not all doom and gloom though. When you realize that one day no matter what you achieve you will just be dust, it’s a lot easier to care less about trivialities. So go and see the Forum, the Colosseum, the Baths, the Olympic Stadium, the Catacombs, the Castles and the ruins. They will make you more introspective at best, and may trigger an existential crisis at worse, but not to worry as by the time you’re downing glasses of white wine at Campo Di Fiori, you will feel so immortal that you will have forgotten all about it.