The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature

The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature

The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature

The Poetics of Ruins in Renaissance Literature

Synopsis

The Renaissance was the Ruin-naissance, the birth of the ruin as a distinct category of cultural discourse, one that inspired voluminous poetic production. For humanists, the ruin became the material sign that marked the rupture between themselves and classical antiquity. In the firstfull-length book to document this cultural phenomenon, Andrew Hui explains how the invention of the ruin propelled poets into creating works that were self-aware of their absorption of the past as well as their own survival in the future.

Excerpt

Ex ungue leonem
The lion from its claws

— Latin commonplace

One summer. Rome. After a morning of Italian lessons, a Japanese friend invited me to a walk in the Forum. As we ambled between the Temple of Saturn and the Arch of Septimus Severus, she turned to me and asked, “Andrew, why are there ruins here? Why are they not rebuilt or just demolished?” This question perplexed me, for it was a moment of cultural dissonance for me as much as it was for her. Hailing from the hypermodern metropolis of Tokyo, she was unused to seeing the monumental detritus of antiquity occupying prime real estate in the city center. Instead, in the heart of her capital, nestled within innumerable twentieth-century high-rises, is a fully functioning imperial palace, the residence for a royal line that claims to be the longest continuing in the world. Her query unsettled a large archive of cultural assumptions I had held: from the Tower of Babel to the Fall of Troy, from Pausanias’s records of abandoned Greek temples to the Old English elegy “The Ruin,” from the prints of Piranesi to the paintings of Hubert Robert, from Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” to W. G. Sebald’s On the Natural History of Destruction, Western culture has always expressed its fascination with the physical past through its monuments and ruins. (I discuss some East Asian examples in the epilogue.) I returned to her question again and again over the years, for it made me wonder about Europe’s relationship to classical culture: Why is it in love with the past as past?

This book is a long answer to her question. The ruins are still there in the Roman Forum because they are the invention of the Renaissance. The Renaissance was, if I may say so, the Ruin-naissance . . .

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