A perceptive British museum director speculates on the significance of architectural ruins for artists, writers, and the rest of us.
The author wastes no time establishing his literary and artistic credentials: the first page alone contains allusions to Henry James, The Planet of the Apes, Gustave Doré, and “Ozymandias.” (Shelley’s entire sonnet appears later, as does a lengthy disquisition on his second wife’s dystopian novel, The Last Man.) But Woodward’s considerable skills as a writer make all this—and much more—go down easily; not a breath of pretension emanates from his engaging, illuminating volume. Eleven essays connected by theme and style discuss ruins of all sorts—crumbling antiquities, restorations (some he likes, some he abhors), war-damaged landmarks, even “ruins” created in the age of the picturesque to please the eye and engage the imagination. Woodward roams the Western world (mostly) to examine a variety of sites ranging from Lord Byron’s Newstead Abbey to Dresden’s Frauenkirche, destroyed by Allied bombers in WWII. (An equal-opportunity historian, he examines the responses in England to the Nazi bombing of English churches: some were razed, some, like Coventry, established as memorials.) At Rome’s Baths of Caracalla, in whose lush, verdurous ruins Shelley composed much of Prometheus Unbound, Woodward notes that the poet would not today find much inspiration; assiduous archaeologists have employed weed-killers and a rigid notion of preservation to destroy the allure of the site, which is now all stone and keep-off-the-grass signs. Woodward romantically argues that nature and the ruin must interact if the site is to inspire the artistic imagination. (His own volume, of course, is a counter-argument: he found fecundity in the infertility at Caracalla.) In his essay on the ruins of war and what to do about them, one wonders why he neglects the sites of the Nazi death camps: Auschwitz decays; Bergen-Belsen does not.
Rich, allusive, learned, delightful. (42 illustrations)