THE French writer Flaubert is floating down the Nile when he is struck by the sight of a colossal granite fist protruding from the desert sands in the distance. He writes to a friend back in France: “The sight of so much grandeur in ruin makes one give up all desire to go back to Paris and get oneself talked about.”
Four hundred years earlier, on Rome’s Via Appia, in April 1485, stone masons labouring to retrieve a large block of marble from a tomb uncover a sarcophagus. When they opened it they find the body of a girl from Ancient Rome.
From a contemporary letter: “They discovered a body lying on its face, coated with a greasy but fragrant substance to a depth of two fingers. When they cleared away the perfumed coating, they looked upon a pale face with features so clear it seemed as if the girl might have been buried that day. Her long black hair, which was still firmly attached to the scalp, was fastened in a knot and parted in a manner suitable to a maiden … Tiny ears, a delicate forehead, black eyebrows ——and finally —— eyes of a curious shape, with the whites showing beneath the lids. Even the nostrils were unimpaired, and so soft that they yielded to the slightest pressure of a finger. In short, here was a girl of noble family from the days when Rome stood at the pinnacle of her glory.”
After 20,000 people had come to see it in a single day, Pope Innocent VIII issued a curious order and the body was taken, in the dead of night, and reburied outside the Porta Pinciana in secrecy. With this story begins C.W. Ceram’s The March of Archaeology, a book I purchased on August 29, 1969 at the age of 13. Along with his Gods, Graves and Scholars which I’d devoured the previous year and various other publications such as The World of Ancient Rome, a beautiful picture book published by Macdonald in 1967 and which finally I purchased on September 28, 1968, after paying it off over several months with my earnings from working in a local milk bar, the tone was set for what has become a lifelong interest in the cultures of antiquity and the art they produced.
In the mid-80s, I was reading Elias Canetti’s The Human Province and came across a curious exclamation in his daybooks from 1948: “A principle of art: to rediscover more than has been lost!” The object of archaeology is a whole new kind of future. It is retrograde; every new step it takes into the past, every older grave it finds, becomes a piece of our future. The ever-older becomes what lies ahead of us. An unexpected discovery could change our own, still uncertain destiny. View of the Port of Ripa Grande
View of the Arch of Titus
When standing in front of a fragment of classical sculpture — secrets hidden in the stone! –– or when surfing the paint in Titian’s Shepherd and Nymph in Vienna — no colour, just light –– these things overtake reason and a deep sense of continuity of being inside time and of culture, being inside nature, opens up.
Another cardinal quality that such encounters suggest? Something powerfully apprehended, yet never fully understood — the thing that slips away from thought?
For me it is the realisation — a shock of recognition (and it can be a gradual shock, extending over many years) –– that the greatest works of art are only just hidden inside the physical world. There is a gathering sense of the “against-the-odds-ness” –– the sheer unlikeliness — of someone managing to bring these images from the world of the imagination and into the physical world where we can see, smell and touch them — and of the entirely unreasonable trajectory of that arc.
It’s a place where form and content are at the limit of their tolerance for each other and yet are somehow held in a magical, vibrating suspension. Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s etchings represent one of the great mad-catalogues of the world. I’ve always thought of Piranesi as having a kind of haunted relationship to the grandeur of the past. Not so much the obsessively labyrinthine “dark brain” of Marguerite Yourcenar but rather more the Spenglerian need to find a system for understanding the world such as one finds in those deeply strange passages in The Decline of the West where the author describes the different “colour” of various historical periods and societies.
Piranesi unquestionably wanted to learn from antiquity and discover useful applications for this knowledge in his own age but it’s the obsessive repetition and focus on detail that is the hallmark of all re-inventers of the world.
Charles Fourier’s The Theory of the Four Movements is another of those staggering applications of the will to document — in his case, with words — an entire utopia capable of accommodating, to his mind, all that human nature could throw at it.
The strange thing is that we so often fail to see this purposefulness at first because we are distracted by the creative inventiveness (that thing that feels like play in Mozart). I always felt that this system was present in the unstable paintwork of late Rembrandt — surely the overwhelming pathos and humanity that hovers just above the surface of his Return of the Prodigal Son in St Petersburg (one of the greatest pictures hanging on a wall in Europe), contains an entire way of seeing the world — a complete system for understanding how to live in the world. As we know from his own words, Piranesi felt like a constructor of worlds. BACK in the Melbourne of the 1960s, a delusional 12-year-old was scouring the secondhand bookshops in a vain attempt to track down a set of Howard Carter and A.C. Mace’s three volumes on the contents of Tutankhamen’s tomb — published by Cassell between 1923 and 1933. There wasn’t a copy anywhere that I could find in Melbourne; I would eventually acquire these in November 1983.
I, too, was constructing my own imaginary world. Growing up on the outskirts of Melbourne with its unmade roads, orchards and dairy cattle, I spent hours wandering around the flat boggy flood plain of Dandenong creek and one could see, could feel, the low, marshy countryside so beautifully recorded in Rembrandt’s small horizontal etchings, everywhere. The two places became one. A dreamscape.
I can’t say exactly when I first encountered a book of Piranesi’s works. However, I do remember thinking that they were rather more in the nature of “illustrations” much as in the same way I’d responded to the work of Gustave Dore and even William Blake. It would be several years and many glances later before I started to sense a greater depth in the work.
I’d always found the “graphic” — including the hard-edged, line-dominated imagery of etching and woodcuts, which of course were employed in the illustration of books — limited in its suggestive potential. Now I know. How, for instance, could anyone feel that way in front of Durer’s Melancholia? This feeling, however,