Ruin Imagery and the Iconography of Regeneration in Eighteenth Century French Art

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While the extraordinary popularity of ruin imagery in eighteenth century France is well known to art historians, it has remained a largely unstudied, and thus misunderstood, cultural phenomenon. The profusion of ruin pictures and ruinous garden pavilions during the Enlightenment is generally interpreted as symptomatic of the emotional febrility and escapist perversity of a society bogged down in decadence. The popularity of ruins as motifs of interior decoration is taken as proof of the reign of rococo frivolity. The present study seeks to bring into focus how eighteenth century artists, connoisseurs and writers themselves felt about their ruin imagery. This examination is called for because the evidence of documents, literary sources and the art itself overwhelmingly suggests that ruins were considered to be symbolic of nature's regenerative vitality and wholesomeness. To the contemporary viewer, therefore, the experience of a ruin was an antidote to, not a symptom of, social and personal lethargy. Early signs of the new iconographical trends appear in the art of students at the French Academy in Rome and were probably influenced by the commitments to ecclesiastical and cultural reform expressed by Italian ruinists associated with the academy. Ruins had a longstanding association in visual imagery and literature with the contemplative life, intellectual insights and poetic inspiration; in the eighteenth century, to frequent ruin settings implied a rejection of hypocrisy, pomposity and spiritual complacency. In France, catastrophes, urban renewal projects and the Revolution created "fresh" ruins which, even more poignantly than ancient ruins, illustrated the transience of life. Images of these modern ruins clearly embodied the unstable blend of anxiety, excitement, hope and resignation with which French society watched the shirlwind of change sweeping their country toward the year 1800.