East meets West: Crossing boundaries in the Enlightenment

Urals_Caspian_small

Sometime in the 1730s, the Russian administrator and historian Vasilii Nikitich Tatishchev fixed the dividing line between Europe and Asia along an axis connecting the Urals to the Caspian, rather than Ptolemy’s more westerly north-south axis that terminated in the Sea of Azov. European Russia was, well, quite clearly ‘European’ along with the mighty empires of Germany, France and Britain. Indeed, much of the history of southern and eastern Europe seems to be about boundaries. Where should we draw the line? Who in the eighteenth century embodies an Enlightenment world view, and who doesn’t make the cut?

If, however, we frequently discuss dividing lines between worlds, we shouldn’t overlook those people who crossed them. Merchants, migrants, technicians and artists. Peripatetic scholars and clerics such as the polymaths Dosithei Obradovich and Eugenios Voulgaris who travelled west before wandering between one educational or ecclesiastical institution and another in search of patronage for their work. And others like Paisy Velichkovsky, born in Polatava in Ukraine, who spent so much of his life in monastic communities located between Mount Athos and Moldova. Indeed, Velichkovsky is an interesting case: instrumental in translating the Philokalia, a collection of texts on the contemplative life, into Slavonic, he is a prime example of many unsung advocates of Orthodox culture. His translation, the Dobrotoliubie as it was called, contributed to a revival of hesychast monasticism, its many monks being dispersed between Orthodox ecclesiastical centres of the time.

Japanese Philocalia, published 2012.

Japanese Philocalia, published 2012.

It is commonly believed that the importance of the Philokalia in Orthodox thought in the eighteenth century was, for a long time, underappreciated. That is when the work was compiled and translated, of course, but it was assumed not to have been widely distributed at the time. Such views now seem misplaced, an underestimation of the capacities of wondering monks to disseminate a world-view even without a printing press. Furthermore, any attempt to fit the Philokalia into other developments in the history of thought requires caution: should this return to patristic texts be interpreted as a component part of an Orthodox, religious Enlightenment? A reaction to it, a kind of anti-Enlightenment? Or perhaps as both?

This question and many others are explored in our book Enlightenment and religion in the Orthodox world. But to a considerable extent this is in essence a book about people like Paisy Velichkovsky, who cannot easily be categorised or even fitted into any one side. These individuals synthesised and syncretised a range of outside influences as they probed the encounter of Orthodox tradition with the European Enlightenment – and hence with modernisation. Undoubtedly this was, often, a tortured process, but at times it also proved extremely enriching.

– Iannis Carras

Death at Versailles

The Palace of Versailles is mounting a magnificent exhibition entitled ‘Le Roi est mort’ to mark the tercentenary of the death of Louis XIV. The exhibits, artefacts, texts, and background music document the king’s last days, how his body was treated after his death on 1 September 1715, and the rituals of mourning imposed during the long period which followed until his funeral in St Denis on 23 October.

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

Marche et Convoy funèbre de Louis le Grand, Roy de France (BnF).

If you want to know how French kings were embalmed, how their bodies were divided up between different final repositories, and how mourning dress differed between ‘grand’, ‘demi’ and petit’ categories, this is the place to go. There are excellent descriptions too of the great funeral procession from Versailles to St Denis on 9 September, which had 2,500 designated mourners, led by 400 paupers in black cloaks and hoods, carrying torches, and marching through the night.

The high point of the exhibition, however, comes in its first room. It is a reconstruction of the chapelle ardente created within St Denis to house the king’s coffin, which temporarily turned a Gothic interior into a wholly baroque setting, with skeletons and weepers around a high catafalque under a huge crown. The contrast between that and the tiny stone vault in the crypt where the king’s body was placed after the funeral, on an iron trestle next to that of his father, could scarcely be greater. Only then, however, could the traditional formula – ‘the king is dead; long live the king’ – have meaning and be proclaimed.

In its essentials this ritual was common to most monarchies in western Europe; and one of the great strengths of this exhibition, curated with exemplary skill and imagination, is its demonstration of how the ceremony evolved over time, drawing evidence chiefly from France, but occasionally from elsewhere. By 1715, for example, the wax effigies which had generally taken the place of the royal body in funeral processions since 1500 were falling out of use. Louis XIII had condemned the practice as a pagan relic, and in England James I was the last king to have his effigy carried at his funeral in 1625. Waxwork images were made of later English monarchs but chiefly used to show where they were buried in Westminster Abbey (and perhaps what they had looked like).

Ordre du Cortege pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lu

Ordre du Cortège pour la Translation des Manes de Voltaire le lundi 11 Juillet 1791 (unknown artist, 1791). / Image BnF.

The royal funeral was losing something of its special mystery in other words, and it lost much more after 1715 as it was gradually adapted and redesigned to cover secular state funerals, beginning with Newton’s in 1727 in England, and in France with the transfer of the remains of Voltaire to the Panthéon in 1791 (the exhibition contains a painting of the procession.)

The funeral of Louis XIV therefore marked the apogee of the royal funeral. When preaching on that occasion Bishop Massillon, whose sermons Voltaire admired, famously insisted that ‘Dieu seul est grand’, and not the king himself. Whatever one might think of the king, however, his was undoubtedly a great funeral, and this is a great exhibition, wholly worthy of its subject and its setting. It closes on 21 February.

– Paul Slack

See also: Le Roi est mort.

Tolerance and combat

After the killings on 7 January 2015 in the offices of Charlie Hebdo, Voltaire of all people suddenly rushed into public prominence in France, serving as a symbol of (one supposes) free speech, satire, tolerance, and a certain insolence éclairée. His image sprang up on walls and lampposts, quotations and misquotations appeared on placards, and the Traité sur la tolérance flew off bookstore shelves across the country. This sudden public reclamation of the patriarch of Ferney prompted members of the Société française d’études du dix-huitième siècle (SFEDS) to seek some way to engage with the public’s enthusiasm for eighteenth-century ideas, and to highlight their relevance to debates taking place today. An anthology of texts was prepared, and appeared in April of last year under the title Tolérance: le combat des Lumières.

Voltaire_Charlie

Picture taken in Paris a few days after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo.

Scholars in the UK quickly took up the challenge of translating these texts into English as a way of broadening access to them. Thursday 7 January 2016, the anniversary of the attacks, saw the publication of this collective endeavour, involving 102 student and faculty translators, as Tolerance: The Beacon of the Enlightenment, edited by Caroline Warman and made available for free online. This was paired with a roundtable discussion at the British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies annual conference, chaired by Warman and featuring a distinguished panel of four Oxford academics: Catriona Seth, Kate Tunstall, Timothy Garton Ash, and Karma Nabulsi.

Warman introduced the proceedings as an opportunity to ‘think about the eighteenth century from a contemporary point of view’; to ask, as the anthology invites us to do, ‘what does free speech mean, and do we like it?’.

The first to speak was Catriona Seth, president of SFEDS and one of the originators of the French anthology. After the attacks, she said, ‘we were totally shell-shocked’ at what was ‘definitely seen as an attack against free speech’. Yet the book was not conceived to offer bromides or give ready-made, centuries-old answers. ‘The whole point of [the book] was saying we have to adhere to the possibility that other people can think differently to us.’

Speaking next, Kate Tunstall took a stand against the concept that gave the anthology its name. She made clear her distaste for the term ‘tolerance’ and explained that it ‘connotes […] something to be put up with. It belongs […] to the discourse of charity’. To her, invoking tolerance is ‘a way of refusing to allow conflict to be articulated in a productive way, that is to say among equals.’ She quoted at length from one of the passages included in the anthology, a speech delivered in 1789 by the Protestant Jean-Paul Rabaut Saint-Étienne decrying Louis XVI’s 1787 ‘Edict of Toleration’: ‘[T]his, gentlemen, is how, in France and in the eighteenth century, we continue to apply that axiom of the dark ages and divide our nation into two castes, one favoured, and one excluded […] Tolerance! I demand that the very word be banished’.

In his comments, Timothy Garton Ash argued that there exists an absolutely basic principle which must be observed in society: a rejection of violence and violent intimidation. To say ‘#jesuischarlie’ in the wake of the assassinations of its staff, as distasteful as one may have found Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons, was according to him an expression of this principle. Because in modern multicultural societies people from a multitude of cultural backgrounds occupy the same space, ‘everyone is a heretic [to somebody else in a given society], and no one is a heretic [from the perspective of the liberal state]’. This is what is meant by tolerance today according to Ash. Amounting to neither acceptance nor endorsement, it is a limited form of respect ‘for the believer, but not for the content of the belief’.

For her part, Karma Nabulsi challenged the very terms of the public debate: ‘I don’t think [Charlie Hebdo] is a free speech issue, and I don’t think it’s a tolerance issue’, she said. She recast the question in terms of the triad of revolutionary Republican virtues: liberty, equality, and fraternity. For her, ‘je suis Charlie’ is not an expression of solidarity, but of exclusion. It evinces an ignorance of France’s colonial history and of the everyday lived experience of Muslims in modern France. It divides the ‘whole’ of Rousseau’s virtuous republic – where ‘each citizen is nothing, and can do nothing without the whole’ – into warring factions. So-called ‘tolerance’ and ‘free speech’ operate as watered-down approximations of the full-blooded virtues of liberty, equality, and fraternity for all.

In these remarks and the discussion that followed, there was broad agreement on basic principles, but there was also a clear division between two ways of considering the questions at hand.

On one side were those who saw the question as one about free speech under threat, to which the answer was a firmer embrace of ‘tolerance’. On this account, free speech and tolerance are universal values, to be applied equally to all, irrespective of attitude or social position. On the other side were those whose principles are no less universal, who agree that violence and the threat of violence are to be rejected, but who take into account when applying their principles the world as it is, and the power structures that exist within it: Tunstall and Nabulsi stressed that all members of a society may ostensibly enjoy formal equality before the law, but still be subject to power relations that make this equality unequal de facto.

Seth described as ‘an irony of history’ an episode in which, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Voltaire’s legacy was celebrated in, of all places, the ‘Salon du Pape’ at Versailles, where a banner was hung bearing his epigram, ‘la tolérance est l’apanage de l’humanité’. Yet this was less an irony than an indication of the fact that, 237 years after Voltaire’s death, his ideas are no longer uncomfortable for those in power.

TraitŽe sur la tolŽrance

Page 1 of Traité sur la tolérance, Geneva, Cramer, 1763.

At the time he wrote the Traité sur la tolérance, Voltaire was taking up his pen against the dominant groups in French society, decrying the manifest injustice of an execution founded on prejudice against a marginalised religious minority. The situation of French Muslims today has its parallels with that of French Protestants under the Ancien Régime. In this light the reflexive alliance between Voltaire and Charlie seems less sure. Last year’s assassinations were monstrous. But to react to them by venerating cartoons that targeted, either in intent or effect, a marginalised religious minority, all in the name of ‘tolerance’, is a less straightforwardly enlightened position than many have supposed.

Contrary to the expectations conjured by a title as univocal as Tolerance: the Beacon of the Enlightenment, this roundtable was no chest-pounding celebration of a code of unassailable liberal values in the face of barbarism. Rather, it came closer in spirit to the subtitle of the French anthology: le combat des Lumières. Combat and querelle are key elements of the Enlightenment just as much as tolérance—perhaps more so. The notions that ideas matter and that intellectual debate has genuine stakes were at the heart of the great flourishing that was the European Enlightenment, as exemplified by Voltaire. Yet rather than make ‘iconoclasts into icons’, as one attendee succinctly put it, we do better to honour and carry forward the legacy of the Enlightenment by enacting that legacy through rigorous critical engagement with the world we live in.

– Cameron J. Quinn

 

Beaumarchais à l’agrégation

Le Barbier de Seville

Le Barbier de Séville, II, 14 (le comte déguisé en soldat entre Rosine et Bartholo) / Par Jean Fabien Gautier, l’aîné, extrait de Beaumarchais, Œuvres complètes, 7 tomes, Paris, L. Collin, 1809 / Image César.

La publication du programme d’agrégation dans le Bulletin Officiel est toujours pour moi à la fois source de soulagement et d’inquiétude: soulagement parce qu’on a enfin confirmation du sujet alors que des bruits circulent depuis des mois; inquiétude parce qu’il va bien falloir s’y mettre et que, tous les étés, depuis le programme Chénier en 2005-2006, mes “vacances” sont prises par la préparation d’un cours pour des étudiants de haut vol, candidats à un concours prestigieux dont les origines remontent à l’Ancien Régime. Il faut, en quelques mois, lire et relire des textes qu’on ne connaît pas forcément bien – voire pas du tout: j’ai découvert le Cleveland de Prévost à l’occasion de l’agrégation en 2006 – et prendre connaissance des essentiels de la critique.

J’aurais aimé, en 2015-2016, plus d’audace de la part des prescripteurs – quand mettra-t-on par exemple Zaïre de Voltaire au programme? La trilogie a déjà été au concours. Le choix de Beaumarchais n’a surpris personne. Cela dit, l’avantage de ce programme est de faire travailler les agrégatifs sur des pièces magnifiques. Elles pourront servir aux lauréats du concours, quel que soit le niveau de leurs classes.

Le Mariage de Figaro

Le Mariage de Figaro, I, 9 (la scène du fauteuil) / Par Jacques Philippe Joseph de Saint Quentin et Claude Nicolas Malapeau, extrait de Beaumarchais, La Folle Journée ou Le Mariage de Figaro, Paris, Ruault, 1785 / Image César.

Pour préparer un cours d’agrégation, mon premier outil est toujours la bibliographie du Bulletin de la Société Française d’Étude du XVIIIe Siècle (SFEDS). Il est toujours agréable de découvrir des analyses pertinentes des ouvrages prescrits. L’un de mes plaisirs a été de lire, parmi les ouvrages de fond, celui de Jacques Scherer: La Dramaturgie de Beaumarchais n’a pas pris une ride depuis sa publication en 1954. Un autre de lire les écrits de spécialistes contemporains – dont bien sûr ceux de Jean-Pierre de Beaumarchais – je me souviens à ce propos d’une anecdote racontée par une collègue de classe prépa: elle invitait des conférenciers pour parler des œuvres sur lesquelles elle faisait cours. Le jour où elle a annoncé que M. de Beaumarchais (en personne) allait venir parler de la trilogie, les étudiants se sont demandés si sa langue avait fourché ou si elle se proposait de faire parler le fantôme du dramaturge!

Comme le montrent les travaux de ce collègue, qui a eu accès aux archives familiales, les trois pièces sont des textes qui procurent de véritables bonheurs de lecture et, comme toute grande œuvre, ils sont inépuisables: il y a toujours quelque chose de nouveau à découvrir, parfois dans des détails. L’accès à des bases de données en ligne comme JSTOR permet de faire à distance (au fin fond du Gers en ce qui me concerne) certaines lectures préparatoires comme celle du bel article de Christiane Mervaud sur le “ruban de nuit” de la comtesse paru dans la RHLF en 1984.

Outre la critique existante, le programme d’agrégation suscite la publication d’ouvrages ad hoc, parfois destinés spécifiquement aux candidats (comme l’ouvrage dirigé par J.– M. Gouvard, ou un cours prévu aux PURH, ou encore le volume Atlande revu), alors que d’autres ont une ambition plus large comme le recueil de Sophie Lefay pour Garnier. Le site Fabula est toujours un bon point de départ pour suivre l’actualité des publications et colloques.

La Mere coupable

La Mère coupable, V, 7 (la lettre) / Par Jean Fabien Gautier, l’aîné, extrait de Beaumarchais, Œuvres complètes, 7 tomes, Paris, L. Collin, 1809 / Image César.

La dimension théâtrale permet d’envisager des prolongements agréables. Le site César répertorie l’histoire des représentations et quelques illustrations. Souhaitons aux candidats de voir jouer les pièces. On en trouve des versions en ligne comme Le Barbier de Séville de Jean Pignol (qui ne respecte pas l’unité de lieu), tourné à Séville en 1980. On a accès, sur youtube, à plusieurs versions du Mariage de Figaro. La Mère coupable, la mal aimée des trois pièces, est moins facile à retrouver. Finalement, pour passer un bon moment, on peut se détendre en regardant Beaumarchais l’insolent, le film de Molinaro qui montre que la vie du dramaturge fut… un véritable roman!

– Catriona Seth (octobre 2015)

 

 

 

Liste des articles et ouvrages consacrés à Beaumarchais et à son œuvre (VF).

Greg Brown, new General Editor of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment

Un éditeur ‘est un homme de lettres qui veut bien prendre le soin de publier les ouvrages d’un autre’ [1]

Gregory_Brown

Denis Diderot, in the Encyclopédie, defined the role of the editor in terms of the values of Enlightenment. It is, first, an act of care; an editor brings forth the works of others. At the same time, it is an act of humility and toleration; an editor must neither take the place of the authors by revising texts to reflect his own opinions nor distort authors’ distinct styles and ideas in pursuit of uniformity. Finally, it is an act of community; the editor must ensure consistency in different authors’ usage and placement of terms and must ensure that authors engage with other writers on the topic. Above all, for Diderot, the editor’s role is to put the best material possible before readers.

In assuming the general editorship of Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, I am inspired and humbled to take on the challenge set forth by Diderot and incarnated for the past 60 years by the high editorial standards of the series long known as the Studies on Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century / SVEC. I aspire to retain and build upon those high standards, even as I am excited to guide forward its editorial evolution. I understand my role then as a duty to the authors, readers and editors of the series – past, current and future.

The Studies is a world-renowned series of rigorously peer-reviewed monographs, themed volumes, and collections of edited documents – published in both English and French. It is known as well for its breadth – ecumenical in spirit, cosmopolitan in make-up, and transdisciplinary in coverage. It presents the Enlightenment with French literature and thought at its heart but not its limit. It engages an Enlightenment not defined by any particular theme, nation, or subject but as an ongoing dialogue about culture. As General Editor, I look forward to working with an editorial board whose members span six nations on three continents and represent seven distinct academic disciplines. I intend to draw upon the breadth of this board to maintain this aspect of its identity; for the same reason, I intend to continue and deepen its close relationship with the International Society of Eighteenth-Century Studies and ISECS’s constituent national societies.

Diner de philosophes

Jean Huber, Un dîner de philosophes (1772/1773)

While I will be the first American to serve as General Editor and moreover the first not to be in residence in Great Britain since the establishment of the Foundation in 1976, I am no stranger to the British and European academic worlds. I will be the first historian but I am deeply engaged with and committed to study of littérature in all senses of the term. I have engaged across the past 20 years in many interdisciplinary and collaborative scholarly endeavors, and I am committed to being responsive, to board members, staff, authors, and readers, whether I am working from Las Vegas, Oxford or Paris.

Taking on the editorship of the Studies at this time represents a civic duty to advance the broader set of Enlightenment values. The horrific attacks of November 13, on the city of Paris including the boulevard Voltaire make clear that the values of Enlightenment and the work of Voltaire and his kindred spirits retain an undiminished urgency. While these events remind us that there is indeed evil in the world, and that optimism alone is an insufficient response, we also know that the “infamy” we seek to crush is not any particular doctrine, belief or creed; it is indifference and non-comprehension. We who devote ourselves to the scholarly study of the Enlightenment must maintain and continually renew our enterprise to better understand the full range of human experience, thought and belief.

– Gregory S. Brown

[1] Encyclopédie, article ‘Editeur’ (vol.5, p.396).

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Fanatisme

Pour la France, et pour Paris en particulier, l’année 2015 se sera terminée aussi douloureusement qu’elle avait commencé. Il nous a paru opportun, pour cette dernière livraison avant le nouvel an, de revenir sur la place centrale qu’occupait le combat contre l’intolérance chez Voltaire et ses amis philosophes.

La Liberte

‘La Liberté armée du Sceptre de la Raison foudroye l’Ignorance et le Fanatisme’ / Dessiné par Boizot; Gravé par Chapuy. 1793-1795. Paris, BnF.

Voltaire écrivit maintes fois contre le fanatisme religieux et ses conséquences néfastes pour le genre humain. Mais il appréciait également les textes des autres dans ce domaine. L’un de ces écrits, l’article ‘Fanatisme’ de l’Encyclopédie, rédigé par Alexandre Deleyre, a fait l’objet d’une réécriture voltairienne, où le Patriarche condense ce qui était déjà un texte frappant pour le rendre encore plus incisif. Cette réécriture fait partie d’un groupe de textes publiés de façon posthume à partir de manuscrits tombés entre les mains de ses éditeurs. Cet ensemble difficile à interpréter, provisoirement appelés les ‘manuscrits de Kehl’, sera publié dans la série des œuvres alphabétiques de Voltaire au sein des Œuvres complètes. Dans cet article ‘Fanatisme’, Voltaire emprunte donc la voix d’autrui pour disséminer une énième fois le message contre l’intolérance et la superstition:

« Imaginons une immense rotonde, un panthéon à mille autels, et placés au milieu du dôme; figurons-nous un dévot de chaque secte, éteinte ou subsistante, aux pieds de la divinité qu’il honore à sa façon, sous toutes les formes bizarres que l’imagination a pu créer. A droite, c’est un contemplatif étendu sur une natte, qui attend, le nombril en l’air, que la lumière céleste vienne investir son âme. A gauche, c’est un énergumène prosterné qui frappe du front contre la terre, pour en faire sortir l’abondance. Là c’est un saltimbanque qui danse sur la tombe de celui qu’il invoque. Ici c’est un pénitent immobile et muet comme la statue devant laquelle il s’humilie. L’un étale ce que la pudeur cache, parce que Dieu ne rougit pas de sa ressemblance; l’autre voile jusqu’à son visage, comme si l’ouvrier avait horreur de son ouvrage. Un autre tourne le dos au Midi, parce que c’est là le vent du démon; un autre tend les bras vers l’Orient, où Dieu montre sa face rayonnante. De jeunes filles en pleurs meurtrissent leur chair encore innocente, pour apaiser le démon de la concupiscence par des moyens capables de l’irriter; d’autres, dans une posture tout opposée, sollicitent les approches de la Divinité. Un jeune homme, pour amortir l’instrument de la virilité, y attache des anneaux de fer d’un poids proportionné à ses forces; un autre arrête la tentation dès sa source, par une amputation tout à fait inhumaine, et suspend à l’autel les dépouilles de son sacrifice.

« Voyons-les tous sortir du temple, et pleins du Dieu qui les agite, répandre la frayeur et l’illusion sur la face de la terre. Ils se partagent le monde, et bientôt le feu s’allume aux quatre extrémités; les peuples écoutent, et les rois tremblent. Cet empire que l’enthousiasme d’un seul exerce sur la multitude qui le voit ou l’entend, la chaleur que les esprits rassemblés se communiquent, tous ces mouvements tumultueux, augmentés par le trouble de chaque particulier, rendent en peu de temps le vertige général. C’est assez d’un seul peuple enchanté à la suite de quelques imposteurs, la séduction multipliera les prodiges, et voilà tout le monde à jamais égaré. L’esprit humain une fois sorti des routes lumineuses de la nature, n’y rentre plus; il erre autour de la vérité, sans en rencontrer autre chose que des lueurs, qui, se mêlant aux fausses clartés dont la superstition l’environne, achèvent de l’enfoncer dans les ténèbres. »

– G.P.

The Future of ruins past: Syria and Italy

At the beginning of his 1791 Les Ruines, Constantin-François de Volney describes himself sitting amidst the ruins of Palmyra, on the edge of the Syrian desert. As his gaze shifts back and forth between the ancient monuments and the open horizon, he sinks into a profound reverie. It is the beginning of a long meditation on the principles that govern the rise and fall of civilizations.

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra

Temple of Baalshamin, Palmyra, before its destruction. (Bernard Gagnon (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

A thriving cosmopolitan city in which the Persian and Greco-Roman worlds merged in complex ways, Palmyra was at its height between the first and second centuries AD. Its ruins, a destination for countless European travellers from the seventeenth century onward, bore witness to its greatness. Volney, like many others before him, was fascinated and at the same time dismayed by the sight. For him the ruins of Palmyra evoked not only the glorious past of an ancient Empire, but also a possible future for the great Western civilizations. They echoed the fragility itself of human society, and their shattered architecture was the material embodiment of the incessant cycles of history. By observing the rubble of the past, visitors were also stimulated to reflect on the causes that led a people to ruination. The knowledge of ruins past – for Volney – could help nations avert the eventual collapse of civilization.

ff N5740 .P49 v.1-4 Le Antichita Romane...

Figure 5: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the subterranean foundations of the Mausoleum built by the Emperor Hadrian, Le Antichità romane (1756), vol.4, pl.9. High Def image also available to view on line.

The ruins of Palmyra are today under attack. As the ancient city has become a battlefield in the war between the Syrian regime and ISIS, we have seen its architectural heritage disappear – razed to the ground with explosives. The latest to fall, after the temples of Baalshamin and of Bel, was the 2000-year-old Arch of Triumph. The eighteenth-century etcher Giovanni Battista Piranesi, whose depictions of ruined landscapes are still so eloquent, was convinced that ruins had a voice and that they would continue to speak to our imaginations over the centuries. The ruins of Palmyra are powerful, stirring symbols and the fighters of ISIS must fear their collective voice if they are now trying to silence it once and for all. There is a sense of both disbelief and horror that seizes us at the thought of a piece of our collective history being ruthlessly destroyed.

In my book Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836 I discuss the layered symbolism of ruins in Italy during its transition to modernity between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I explore how the multiple meanings assumed by ruins are inextricable from the way we think about history, the relationship between past, present, and future, and categories such as progress and change. Ruins are never neutral symbols. If their destruction is an act of war, it is one aimed at rewriting history.

ff N5740 .P49 v.1-4 Le Antichita Romane...

Figure 6: Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View showing a part of the foundations of the Theater of Marcellus, Le Antichità romane (1756), vol.4, pl.32. HD image.

As George Orwell suggested, far more terrible than the power that desires to control the future is one that attempts to dominate the past as well [1]. By erasing ruins, historical memory is destroyed. There is no more effective way of delegitimizing the present in order to lay the ground for a new regime and its new historical narrative. While the preservation (and reinvention) of its ancient ruins was both a poetic and a political act in Italy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, in Syria today it is an imperative of salvation.

There is some hope on the horizon. In October 2015, a group of activists started #NEWPALMYRA, an online archive of 3-D models that reproduce Palmyra’s monuments with the aim of “rebuilding” the city. The Oxford Institute of Digital Archaeology has also launched the Million Image Database project, whose goal is to construct a 3-D photographic record of objects from endangered sites across the Middle East and North Africa, including Palmyra. To save the ruins of the past is an act of resistance crucial to saving the future.

– Sabrina Ferri

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Sabrina Ferri, Ruins past: modernity in Italy, 1744-1836. Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, December 2015. ISBN 978-0-7294-1171-4.

 

 

 

 

 

[1] See George Orwell, ‘Looking Back on the Spanish War’ (1943), in Facing Unpleasant Facts: Narrative Essays. See also Orwell, 1984 (1949).