Some say the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But scattered, broken pieces can be infinitely more evocative, unnerving and beautiful than any whole. Ancient ruins have come a long way since medieval days, when they were junked for scrap marble. From garden ornaments and Romantic poetry to Freudian psychology and contemporary art, ruins have finally gotten their due as poignant metaphors for the human condition, creating conversations across millennia.
Eighteenth-century Enlightenment neoclassicists worshipped the order and logic of Greece and Rome, but early-19th-century Romantics were fascinated by these civilizations’ collapse, producing such diverse works as John Keats’s sonnet “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles” and countless moody paintings of crumbling, vine-covered temples. The Eternal City inspired both historian Edward Gibbon and poet Percy Bysshe Shelley—the latter lamenting Rome’s fall in verse, and the former (in his 1776 work History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire) calling it the “natural and inevitable effect of immoderate greatness.” In Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” a “traveler from an antique land” has stumbled upon the desert ruins of a colossal statue, said to be inspired by Egyptian pharaoh Ramses the Great. All that remains are “two vast and trunkless legs of stone” near a sneering, shattered face half covered in sand. The pedestal’s inscription drips with hubris: “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Yet no matter how powerful the kingdom, it was reduced to an expanse of “lone and level sands.” Ruins may convey eternal greatness to future generations but, as Shelley implies, they also remind us of the inevitability of collapse.
Think of the Dark Ages as Europe’s ill-mannered preteen years, the time when kids are programmed to find older generations particularly uncool. Medieval Europeans were deeply unimpressed with the vast trove of ancient Roman ruins at their feet—at best viewing them as a nuisance; at worst, as a one-stop shop for building materials. But later, Renaissance Europeans—not unlike teenagers whose respect for their parents finally surfaces—began to value their ruins, proving the maxim “You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s ransacked.” By the 16th century, ruins had become a symbol of classical virtues and a physical link to Europe’s intellectual and philosophical forebears. Soon it was a point of pride to have ruins in your estate’s backyard. But if by some chance you couldn’t find any on your lawn, there was always plan B: Simply construct a folly, a purpose-built, pre-ruined ornamental structure used in landscaping as the architectural answer to a pink flamingo or garden gnome. You’ll find fake Roman ruins, from aqueducts and arches to colonnaded temples, at London’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens, Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace and numerous other magnificent gardens and estates across Europe.
Romantic poets often celebrated ancient ruins and historical figures, such as the pharaoh Ramses the Great in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” Twentieth-century poets created their own ruins, constructing monuments line by line only to tear them down by poem’s end. Perhaps the most famous of these is “The Colossus” (1959) by Sylvia Plath, in which her long-dead father appears as an impossibly gargantuan—and irreparably damaged—monument, on the scale of the ancient Colossus of Rhodes, a giant statue guarding that Greek city’s harbor. Throughout the piece, Plath tries to fix what has been destroyed—“to dredge the silt from [his] throat,” “to mend the immense skull-plates and clear / The bald, white tumuli of [his] eyes.” We know from the poem’s first lines, however, that it’s a fool’s errand: “I shall never get you put together entirely, / Pieced, glued, and properly jointed.” Her father may be psychologically massive, looming large in her life, but in his deathly silence, he’s effectively powerless. In this way, he’s the perfect embodiment of the defining dichotomy of all ancient ruins, which speak simultaneously to the once-great power of empire and to powerlessness against decline and decay.
Adolf Hitler had what you might call a Caesar complex, an expansionist drive to turn the Third Reich into a 1,000-year reincarnation of an ancient transcontinental empire. He believed Roman ruins—the aqueducts, temples and amphitheaters scattered across Europe—testified to that empire’s greatness. Hitler’s architect, Albert Speer, popularized the theory of “ruin value,” which claimed Nazi buildings should be constructed with their eventual ruin in mind, so they too would be aesthetically pleasing symbols for future generations. As part of the Four-Year Plan of 1937, Speer published “Stone Not Iron,” in which he praised the “permanence of natural building materials,” arguing that Greek, Roman and Egyptian buildings would still be standing had it not been for “man’s lust for destruction”—ironic coming from a Nazi. Speer eschewed modern construction materials, such as steel girders and reinforced concrete, in favor of German-mined granite for such buildings as the New Reich Chancellery and the Nuremberg Zeppelin Field, which was based on the ancient Pergamon Altar housed in Berlin’s antiquities museum. Many of Speer’s creations were destroyed in bombings or dismantled by the postwar occupying Soviets. Far from seeing the 30th century, many Nazi buildings failed to last even into the 1950s.
Nazi architecture was designed to be timeless, its plans incorporating the aesthetics of its ultimate ruin. Adolf Hitler–approved visual art followed suit, most notably in monumental nude sculptures that might look as comfortable among the rubble of ancient Rome as they would in postapocalyptic Berlin. But contemporary art is a bit of a misnomer in this case, considering the amped-up neoclassical formalism of these works, which emphatically reject the preceding Weimar Republic’s avant-garde expressionism—“degenerate art,” as Hitler called it, believing it tainted by Jews. Nazi sculptors took inspiration from the classical simplicity of the Greeks and Romans. For a brilliant example of Nazi stylistic regression, look no further than the athletic nudes surrounding Berlin’s 1936 Olympic Stadium. Works like Joseph Wackerle’s Horse Tamers, Karl Albiker’s Discus Throwers, Josef Thorak’s Boxer and Arno Breker’s The Decathlete are all technically well crafted. But in their idealized depictions of Aryan masculinity, rendered in the stone or bronze idiom of Olympian Greek statuary, they’re essentially interchangeable and anonymous. Without any defining period uniforms or props, the only things pinning them to the modern era are their close-cropped hairstyles, decidedly more Hitler Youth than the flowing curls found on Zeus or Hercules.
When Rome’s Colosseum and the Greek sculpture Venus de Milo fell into ruin, it was against the will of their creators, who used the hardiest materials and sturdiest construction to delay the inevitable. Nowadays, contemporary artists explore the notion of art with an expiration date, art set to self-destruct. American sculptor James Grashow spent four years painstakingly transforming humble cardboard into representations of sea monsters, rolling waves, fish-tailed horses and King Neptune for his Corrugated Fountain, inspired by baroque architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s work. But unlike their marble forebears, Grashow’s sculptures were fated for a much quicker demise: After a brief gallery show, they were relocated to the lawn of a Connecticut museum, where the elements obliterated them within six weeks. Swiss artist Urs Fischer’s works take things a step further by containing the seeds of their own destruction. At the 2011 Venice Art Biennale, Fischer presented a full-scale wax replica of Giambologna’s 16th-century sculpture The Rape of the Sabine Women, watched over by a wax everyman spectator. Wicks burning through them left the pieces drippy and ever-changing until they became mere pools of wax. Both works show not only ruins but the process of ruination—decay in fast-forward.
Psychologist Sigmund Freud was obsessed with the ancients, decorating his Vienna office and home with more than 2,000 classical artifacts. Although he was most inspired by mythology and tragedy (think Thanatos and the Oedipus complex), Freud also found a powerful metaphor for the human mind in the inevitable collapse of civilizations and the ruins left behind. In his 1896 essay “The Aetiology of Hysteria,” Freud lays the groundwork of his psychoanalytic theory amid the metaphorical foundations of architectural ruins. He suggests that performing an analysis of memories is akin to an archaeologist rummaging through ruins, clearing away centuries of rubble, piecing together scraps and translating fragmentary inscriptions. It’s not a skill to be undertaken lightly. Much as a novice explorer might damage precious finds, an untrained analyst could destroy years of stored memories. In his 1930 work Civilization and Its Discontents, however, Freud complicates the analogy. The mind is not like a hidden ruin, he theorized, but like the Eternal City, Rome. Just as modern Rome simultaneously contains remnants of the ancient city, reconstructed ruins and layers of new additions, so is the brain filled with memories of previous events—which, under the right circumstances, can be unearthed and explored.