Saving The Monuments Of History: ‘To preserve is to arrest change and decay…it is to remove an object from the flow of time’
June 16, 2012
“One entered the city like a god. One scuttles in now like a rat.”
Almost 50 years ago, when a demolition project reduced New York City’s Penn Station from a monumental vaulted hall full of air and light to a stifling underground maze, the Yale historian Vincent J. Scully Jr.’s lament came to be the last word on an act of architectural sacrilege. It stood for the belated realization of an incalculable loss, and the conviction that we ourselves had been reduced in the process.
But as pithy as the line is, it’s not immediately clear why it should be true. Isn’t a god a god anywhere? Isn’t a rat a rat even on Olympus? What exactly do buildings have to do with it?
The destruction of Penn Station helped spark a historic preservation movement that continues to shape our cities; and a half-century later, the debate still resonates, from a Mad Men plot line that saw Don Draper’s advertising agency enlisted to defend the demolition, to a new, ambitious, and contentious reconstruction plan. To the extent that the preservation movement has succeeded in restraining decades of wrecking balls, it has been on the strength of arguments like Scully’s: We conserve the old and outmoded not simply out of nostalgia, not simply for the sake of a living connection with the past, but because buildings are almost like psychotropic drugs. Good buildings elevate, bad buildings alienate—and by replacing the good with the cheap and the practical, we immiserate ourselves in the long run.
Like most ideas that strike us as intuitive or obvious, there was a time when it was strikingly new. It emerged in response to the decay of the richest architectural heritage in the Western world—and it found in that decay something worth fetishizing and saving. This view was in large part the product of a dark and disturbed man, one uniquely attuned to the ways in which buildings can stand as analogues for emotional states—a man who knew how it felt to be both a god and a rat. It might be surprising that one of the fathers of historic preservation was also a father of surrealism, but it shouldn’t be.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, a failed Venetian architect, found his calling in the ruins of classical Rome. By the 1740s, when Piranesi moved there, the Eternal City was eternal in name only. Its temples and arches were viewed less as historic treasures and more as standing quarries, cheap sources of raw materials. Long before Piranesi arrived in Rome, much of the Colosseum had been stripped of usable stone. Maffeo Barberini, who reigned as Pope Urban VIII, had carted off the bronze of the Pantheon; “what the barbarians didn’t do,” the joke went, “the Barberini did.” The alternative to plunder was benign neglect: Hovels and shops clustered hard on the Arch of Titus, and the Roman Forum was better known as the Campo Vaccino—the Cow Field.
In an age whose attitude toward old buildings was far more utilitarian than ours, Piranesi was one of the first to be bothered by the decay. In the preface to one of the art collections that would make him famous, he wrote, “Seeing that the remains of the ancient buildings of Rome, scattered for the most part in gardens and fields, are being day by day reduced by the injuries of time or by the greed of their owners who, with barbarian license, secretly demolish them to sell the rubble for modern houses, I decided to preserve them in these plates.”
His weapon in this campaign of preservation was a hugely popular series of etchings—the Vedute di Roma (“Views of Rome”) and the Antichità (“Antiquities”)—that captured the ruins in all their decrepit, imposing glory. If Piranesi the antiquarian was scandalized by the state of ancient Rome, Piranesi the artist and businessman was intrigued. Few works in any era can match hisVedute for combined artistic influence, commercial success, and political impact.
Piranesi was not the first to draw or paint the ruins, but in a field dominated by souvenir hackwork, he was, by far, the most distinctive. He brought to his more than 1,300 etchings the eye of the architect he always imagined himself to be—along with a sense of drama, perspective, and lighting that made the ruins seem even more titanic on his plates than in life. The novelist Marguerite Yourcenar spoke of “their intensity, their strangeness, their violence—as if struck by the rays of a black sun.”
His Arch of Titus—one end all monolithic right angles, the other end a crumbling slope overgrown with vegetation—looms like a mountain over the tiny figures who pass beneath and gawk upward, or scurry up its sides, or huddle at the side of the frame. His imagined Appian Way is a riot of misplaced bits of sculpture, crammed to the vanishing point with discarded torsos and heads, temple porticoes and archways, spires and tree branches struggling for air and light through the massed walls of marble—and there again, as if at the bottom of a deep and shadowed canyon, two miniature-seeming horses and a rider. His Temple of Janus is a hulk planted squarely in the earth, catching the slanting sunlight and crowned with a garden of shaggy ferns.
This was not the Rome of reality. It was a city filtered through the prism of an artist’s wishful thinking, and generations of visitors to Rome—including Goethe, who grew up captivated by Piranesi’s prints—would find the real thing flat by comparison. But at the cost of this artistic license, Piranesi helped rescue the ruins from a millennium of mundanity. He re-established their power to overwhelm and overawe, and he argued that this power was worth conserving.
His vision, moreover, was priced to sell: Piranesi designed each plate to yield as many as 3,000 prints (the average for his time was closer to 100), so his Vedute were produced on a scale large enough to make them a fixture of European popular culture. Few private libraries lacked a copy. The Vedute and the Grand Tour of Italy caught on in tandem: Piranesi’s work inspired wealthy tourists to make the pilgrimage to Rome, and often to return home with samples of his work as keepsakes. Bought, sold, and reprinted across a continent, the Vedute helped to spark the neoclassical movement in art and architecture.
But even as it shaped a new architecture—from the stately American churches designed by Benjamin Latrobe to the fad for faux “ruins” in English gardens—Piranesi’s work also reshaped the city it depicted. The Roman ruins were suddenly more valuable as tourist attractions than as quarries. He may have set out as a memorialist, hoping only to “preserve” a fading world in ink; but the result was the actual preservation of many (though not all) of the monuments he depicted…