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

OSE-2015-12-50pc

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).

Candide and Leibniz’s garden

Lucretia and Tarquin, by Simon Vouet.

Lucretia and Tarquin, by Simon Vouet.

Schopenhauer unkindly wrote that the only merit of Leibniz’s Théodicée was that it gave rise to ‘the immortal Candide’.[1] The Théodicée does seem at least to have given rise to the subtitle of Candide, albeit indirectly. In 1737, a review of a new edition of Leibniz’s book in the Jesuit Mémoires de Trévoux dubbed its central doctrine ‘l’optimisme, thus apparently coining the term.[2] Although it could easily have been elsewhere that Voltaire first came across Leibniz’s idea that this is the best of all possible words, and picked up the smattering of Leibnizian terminology that is found in Candide, we know that he dipped into the Théodicée at the very least, since an edition of the work exists to this day in his personal library, and contains several paper markers in both volumes.[3] So he may well have noticed a key passage in its final pages about a man opting for a quiet life and cultivating his jardin. This striking parallel with the end of Candide seems to have been overlooked.

The climax of Leibniz’s Théodicée is a fable that Borges would have enjoyed, and probably did. Pallas Athena appears in a dream to Theodorus, the high priest of Jupiter, and shows him a palace with an infinite number of halls, each of which represents a possible way for things to be, but only one of which shows things as they actually are. The structure is a pyramid with an infinitely large base, and the single hall at its apex is the actual – and best possible – world. In that world, Sextus Tarquinius rapes Lucretia, which, as Pallas Athena puts it, “serves for great things”: it leads to the overthrow of the Roman monarchy and the founding of the Roman Republic.[4] She also shows Theodorus one of the many other halls in which Sextus does not go to Rome and commit his crime. Such a world, we and Theodorus are supposed to agree, is not as good as the actual one, because in it the Roman Republic does not come to be. And what exactly does Sextus do instead in the possible but non-actual world which Pallas Athena shows to Theodorus?

…Il y achète un petit jardin; en le cultivant il trouve un trésor; il devient un homme riche, aimé, considéré; il meurt dans un grande vieillesse, chéri de toute la ville…[5]

In other words, Sextus ends up as Candide would have liked to and Voltaire at Ferney more or less did. If Voltaire knew this passage – though there are surely possible worlds in which he skipped it and others in which he forgot it – we should perhaps see a wink at Leibniz in Candide’s much-discussed closing words.

– Anthony Gottlieb

[1] Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, ch.46.

[2] February 1737, p.207.

[3] Corpus des notes marginales, vol.5, p.298-99.

[4] Théodicée, section 416.

[5] Théodicée, section 415.

The Bernardin de Saint-Pierre Project

Jacques_Henri_Bernardin
Today marks 200 years since the death of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737-1814). Best known for his novel Paul et Virginie, he was also the author of a voluminous correspondence: nearly 2800 letters to and from the author survive detailing the author’s travels to Eastern Europe and Mauritius, and providing insights into the cultural and social life of Paris at the turn of the eighteenth century.

The Bernardin de Saint-Pierre Project, the first critical edition of his correspondence, generously funded by the AHRC, the British Academy and the MHRA, is now nearing completion. The Voltaire Foundation has been publishing the letters in batches via Electronic Enlightenment since 2008. The publication in electronic format allows us to update letters as more information becomes available, and also to add new letters as they come to light.

Whilst the correspondence project is almost complete, the first complete critical edition of the author is under way under the general editorship of Jean-Michel Racault. This will replace the early nineteenth-century editions of Aimé-Martin which sometimes contain unreliable texts and lack scholarly annotation. A special Bernardin de Saint-Pierre issue of Nottingham French Studies will appear in 2015.

BSP_Paul_Virginie
Further links

  • Anybody taking the ferry from Britain to Le Havre (Bernardin’s birthplace), may wish to see the exhibition on Bernardin: ‘Paul et Virginie, un exotisme enchanteur’, until 16 May 2014.
  • A website hosted by the University of Exeter contains all the manuscripts of the author that are held in the Bibliothèque Armand Salacrou, Le Havre. There are over 10,000 manuscript pages, available to all without password.

-Malcolm Cook

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment – what’s in a name?

jean-franc3a7ois-de-troy-the-reading-from-moliere-c-1728

Jean-François de Troy, ‘Reading from Molière’, c.1728, Collection Marchioness of Cholmondeley .

As it enters its sixtieth year, and approaches its 550th volume, SVEC is changing its name; from 2014 the series will be known as Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment.  

A change of name, yes, but not a change of direction. Over the last few years, the series has published leading research relating not only to France, but also to the UK, Germany and Spain, Russia and Greece, Africa and America; and it has encouraged work across a broad range of disciplines – economics and science, political and cultural history, music and the visual arts, literature and publishing -, as well as promoting new areas of research such as environmental studies.

Print

This editorial policy is quite consistent with the eighteenth century itself, which was constantly crossing boundaries of language, of nation and of discipline. Distinctions we might wish to make between, for instance, exception and rule, reason and emotion, functional and ornamental, laughter and tears, are all questioned in this period.  The Enlightenment is not about a single discipline, methodology, geographical terrain, intellectual position, or even about a defined period; it is an extensive process of exploration, exchange, and transgression.

The title Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment reflects those editorial principles and that intellectual practice.  The fact that the series is published by the Voltaire Foundation, a department of the University of Oxford and birthplace of the Electronic Enlightenment project, could not be more apt. Voltaire was one of the most interdisciplinary and international of writers, who thought beyond intellectual, cultural or even chronological boundaries.

It is in this spirit that the first book of the newly renamed series, India and Europe in the global eighteenth century, looks afresh at the relations between Europe and India using both eastern and western sources to explore the emergence of a new political and commercial order. From their home in Oxford University, Studies in the Enlightenment are well and truly global.

-JM