Prisons of Ash and Ink
Posted on March 17, 2017
Working on last weeks blog, I was reminded of my trip long ago to the city of Pompeii. It is hard to look away and forget disasters—and yet despite an account by Pliny the Younger, the story of the volcano Vesuvius and the city it destroyed remained buried under many feet of volcanic ash for 1,500 years before anyone decided to look. Even then, and for reasons unknown, it was largely ignored for another 150 years. Finally, in 1748 a Spanish engineer began to excavate the site and the world became captivated by the story and the glimpse of Roman life that the the ashes preserved.
I remember walking the cobblestone streets gazing with wonder at the shapes, colors and textures of this ruined city. Much of the artwork was removed and transported to Naples to the Museo Nazionale, which I had visited before touring the site. It is hard to understand the displaced murals and bodies—created by inserting plaster into the holes in the ash created by the decomposed bodies—until you see the ruins and the elements join together, imagination running wild trying to complete the ruins into the city you imagine.
I loved walking through the houses—or Domus’s—celings opened to the sky and rooms wrapping around pools and courtyards. The outside perimeter more like walls, the houses seemed turned inside out from what I was used to.
Another effect of the ash is that it did not allow moisture or light reach the artwork and therefore much of it survived in full color. Many of the murals were of a hedonistic nature—possibly this is why the site was ignored for so long—and as they were exposed many were destroyed, hidden away or moved. In addition to the generally scantily clad humans, many were also detailed and architectural.
The discovery of Pompeii coincided with the neo-classiciscalism movement gaining momentum—this was in part due to the fact it was a stop on the “grand tour” of Europe. The grand tour was a somewhat standardized trip through Europe by people of means popular until the middle of the 18th century when the neo-classical trend began to give way to modernism. As we touched on in the last blog, Claude-Nicolas Ledoux was swept up in the neo-classical movement of the late 1700’s and was clearly inspired by Roman architecture.
Years later, Philip Johnson uses Ledoux’s design as the basis for the design of the Gerald D. Hines College of architecture building for the University of Houston. Johnson had to design the interiors as Ledoux had never gone beyond the shell for his Utopian city designs.
In addition to traveling to see antiquities, another way that the artifacts of Rome influenced popular culture was through the early engraving archaeologist Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720–1778) who spent extensive time documenting ancient Rome. Many of the subjects of Piranesi etchings have long since disappeared, but his work remains. He famously once said: “I need to produce great ideas, and I believe that if I were commissioned to design a new universe, I would be mad enough to undertake it.”
In addition to his etchings of great Roman works, Piranesi became known for his vases—often composites of fragments he would discover.
He also designed two series that stood apart from the rest of his work. The first, a series of unusual fireplace mantels full of the influences of different ancient civilizations. The second is his series “The Prisons”. The visions are a series of etchings said to be visions he had when deep in fever, they have lasting significance and influenced many artists—notably Romanticism and surrealism. They seem to me like they could be an imaginary storage area for the antiquities that he studied throughout his life.
According to Wikipedia, we are beginning another cycle of neo-classisicm, at least in architecture. Ruins and Relics—in stone or in ink—will keep inspiring artists from across time. When I think of walking through Pompeii and seeing the human scale—not to mention many modern comforts, central heating, baths, shops, restaurants and theater—the past completely at home with the present—and it seems to me we have been exploring the same ideas for a very long time.