Decadence and a certain romantic nostalgia are often associated with ruins, but the recent collapse of historical buildings such as the Gladiators’ house of Pompei, and the neglect towards sites and palaces which are part of
mankind’s historical and cultural patrimony are a sign of moral,social, even emotional, decay, rather than decadence. How will we be able to manage our future if we cannot preserve our past?
Ancient Splendour serenely gazes at us from the ruins of Palmyra, Petra, Carthage, Imperial Rome, from Athens’ acropolis. In all their fragility, the ruins prove stronger than modern cities, and the past seems to momentarily triumph over our diseased present. Their authoritative silent whispers lost stories, tales of passions swallowed by time, daily victories and defeats. Their stones have grown hundreds, thousands of years older, but the moods, the thoughts, the sensations which breathed life into them in bygone ages haven’t known radical changes. Ancient lives live through us, we are the continuation of a millenary story – through each other, we are immortal.
Ruins reveal our selves to us: what we have been in order to understand what we are and what we will be. They do something even more important: they assure us of our ancestors’ presence, of their benevolent observation of our miseries and joys, of their protection. Above all, their heroic resistance against the sands of Time assures us of what we spasmodically desire: eternity, immanence – the certainty that something will be left of us when we’ll be gone.
We are devoured by the fear of being forgotten, of disappearing. We want to be seen, to build our little space in history, we do not accept age and the passing of time. We feel fragile, vulnerable. Invisible. And there the ruins stand, their noble and quiet authority (Winckelmann) injecting harmony, peace and order into the cacophony of modern being.
For two antithetic, yet symmetric, reasons, I deeply love ancient ruins. Their tenacity in resisting the devastating action of Time, their survival over centuries of human history, ideals and failures, give me at least two certainties in a life constantly threatened by insecurity and lack of points of reference: the assurance that everything passes just as everything lasts.
Years ago, when staring at the torquoise Mediterranean from the Tunisian coast which once hosted the only city able to rival the glory of Rome, Dido’s and Hannibal’s Carthage, I realized that human affairs are not of great importance in the inscrutable plan of the universe and existence. The thought comforts me and throws me into the blackest desperation. All that is born is born to die, and yet there is something which survives, symbolized by those immortal ruins: it is the desire to survive Time, to live infinitely. The immortal breath of Life. The desire to show those who will come who we have been, where we have gone wrong and what we have discovered.
The ruins of our splendid pasts give us ‘the sensation of putting our feet on solid ground, of escaping the moving sands of a liquid crystals’ civilization which makes the present unsure, the future uncertain and our postmodern identity elusive.’ (M. Niola).
The glorious past is our decayed future. Disappeared and forgotten before having succeeded in affirming ourselves, we are our own antiquity. We are the ruins.