Mankind has always lived among its own ruins. Since our earliest history, we have explored ruined places, feared them and drawn inspiration from them, and we can trace that complex fascination in our art and writing.

One remarkable ancient artefact, a Babylonian world map from the Sixth Century BCE, marks the beginning of this obsession. The map, inscribed on a clay tablet, shows how ancient people imagined the quadrants of the earth: it describes lands of serpents, dragons, and scorpion-men, the far northern regions “where the sun is never seen”, and a great body of water they called “the bitter river”.

But the map also makes one other curious reference. It describes “ruined cities… watched over by… the ruined gods”. By that time, the ruins of great cities like Ur, Uruk and Nineveh already littered the landscape, destroyed and abandoned due to natural causes or cataclysmic wars. These ruined places were thought to be places of magic, terrible warnings to living humans and the haunts of ghosts and evil spirits.

When the Fifth Century BCE Greek writer and soldier Xenophon fled back to Greece after an unsuccessful campaign in Persia, he and his fellow adventurers marched past these same ruined cities. He describes seeing the ruins of Nineveh, “a great stronghold, deserted… The foundation of its wall was made of polished stone full of shells, and was 50ft in breadth and 50 in height.” Xenophon describes the desolate emptiness of the place, how local people were afraid to enter the ruined site for fear of the ghosts believed to roam there.

Perhaps because the broken parts in a ruin require our imagination to fill them in, ruins have always been associated with the occult and with dreams. They are places an observer can get lost, where time slips away. Ancient Hebrew poets found inspiration in the ruins of Sumer, Assyria and Babylon. They told stories about the wrath of God, the Tower of Babel and Sodom and Gomorrah, to explain the ruins that still scattered the land. In the Koran, the Surah of The Cow (Sūrat al-Baqarah) contains a parable where a traveller enters a ruined village, the sight of which fills him with sorrow and makes him doubt the power of God. In answer, God sends him into a deathlike sleep. When he wakes, God asks, “How long didst thou tarry [here]?” The man answers, “Perhaps a day or part of a day.” God replies, “Nay, thou hast tarried thus a hundred years”. Centuries later, artists would still portray ruins as places outside of time, where a man might get lost in his thoughts.

Discovering the past

In the First Millennium, ruins took on their most significant role in the poetry of the Arabic-speaking world. Pre-Islamic master poets like Tarafa and Imru’ al-Qais wrote elegies in which a wandering Bedouin tribesman returns to a ruined campsite where he once met a lost love. The lovelorn hero pauses for a while; time comes to a standstill, and memories of his sweetheart return to him. This trope, known as wuquf ‘ala al-atlal, or “stopping by the ruins” recurs throughout the history of Arabic poetry. In these poems, ruins are spectral and ephemeral things, that in the words of Tarafa, “appear and fade, like the trace of a tattoo / on the back of a hand.”

Meanwhile, Medieval depictions of Britain’s Stone Age ruins showed them as places associated with magic and Arthurian legends. The first known image of Stonehenge, for instance, shows it being constructed by the wizard Merlin with the help of giants.

True artistic representation of ruins began with the Renaissance. In that flourishing of art and science, the ruins of classical civilisation became symbols of enlightenment and repositories of lost knowledge. Ruins began to appear in the backgrounds of the etchings that illustrated volumes of anatomy. Even here, the ruins spoke to the passage of time, reminding readers that the human body will one day degrade, that life is fragile and fleeting.

The greatest draw for ruin artists during this period were the overgrown and crumbling remains of Rome. Painters flocked there in ever-increasing numbers to paint the Forum and the Colosseum, the Pantheon and the Appian Way. The first representations of Rome were true to life, but soon the imagination of artists took flight.

Frustrated at the un-picturesque distance between the great landmarks of the Roman ruinscape, artists like Panini began placing them in more pleasing arrangements. This gave rise to the trend for capriccio, imaginary scenes of buildings and ruins that bore only slight relation to reality. The early association of ruins and dreams had reached a natural conclusion: artists simply began imagining their scenes.

Once the trend for capriccio had been established, painters in the 18th Century let their imaginations run wild in the ruins, creating whole imagined landscapes scattered with classical pillars and arches. One of the masters of these scenes was Piranesi, who created such vivid scenes of Rome that tourists to the eternal city, including the poet Goethe, were disappointed to arrive and find the ruins to be nothing like what he depicted.

(Credit: Alamy)

Venetian architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi printed his imaginary reconstruction of the ancient Vias Appia and Ardeatina multiple times between 1761 and 1799 (Credit: Alamy)

Closer to home, the ruins of Britain’s abbeys were a favourite subject of artists. Painters like Turner depicted Tintern Abbey as a wild and overgrown paradise. Here the ruin became a part of nature, a perfect marriage between the work of man and that of the natural world. In 1782, writer William Gilpin visited Tintern and described how “nature has now made it her own”, adding to the human decorations with “the ornaments of time.”

But ruins were more than just sites for idle romanticism. As the empires of Europe continued to increase their power through the 18th and into the 19th Century, ruin-gazers read fearful portents into the crumbling remains of previous civilisations. “If Rome could fall,” the Imperial subject wondered, “could it also happen to London, or Paris?”

No one embodied this trend more powerfully than French painter Hubert Robert, who earned himself the nickname ‘Robert des Ruines’. After spending 11 years painting the ruins of Rome, Robert returned to Paris and aimed his imagination at his own city. One of his most famous paintings shows Paris’ Louvre Gallery in ruins.

The trend for depictions of future ruins soon caught on. In 1872, Gustave Doré’s famous etching The New Zealander showed a future tourist gazing over the ruins of London, just as people in his day gazed at the ruins of Rome.

British painters were no less obsessed with the possibility of the future fall of their empire. After working in the office of architect John Soane, who designed the newly-built Bank of England, artist Joseph Gandy was commissioned to paint a view of the bank in ruins. Around the crumbling ruin, London appears as an overgrown wilderness like Rome or Babylon.

The painting was intended as a compliment to its architect: he had created something to last forever, Gandy meant to say. But the image also held a melancholy promise that all the present greatness of London could one day fall into ruin.

The fear embodied by the imperial ruin-gazer would find realisation in the coming centuries. Soon the citizens of London and Paris would see their own cities in ruins, just as the Victorian artists had warned, and with the dawn of the 19th and 20th Centuries, the first photographs of war ruins changed the image of the ruin forever. In 1865, the city of Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy during the US Civil War, was burned by retreating Confederate forces. The photographs of the devastation, the first true photographs of war ruins, would form a terrible foretaste of what was to come for cities like Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima and Stalingrad in the next century.

Past and prophecy

As bombs and shells rained on European cities during World War One and World War Two, the ruin painting took on a new form: an expression of horror. Painters like Graham Sutherland and John Piper documented the shattered holes that German bombing campaigns opened in Britain’s urban landscape, using modernist techniques to express the dark new age of warfare.

Before World War One, Australian artist Arthur Streeton spent his whole life painting ruins such as Corfe Castle in Dorset and Chepstow Castle in Monmouthshire. He painted the ancient ruins as solid parts of the landscape, reassuring in their looming permanence. But when he took a job as an official painter of landscapes during World War One, he saw the devastation of cities like Péronne, near the Somme battlefield, and his style changed completely.

Streeton painted his modern ruins as ghostly, ephemeral entities, washed out and bleached in a shattered landscape. In the modern age of warfare, he returned to the ancient motif of ruins as silent, empty places, places where time stops and ghostly presences can be felt. “True pictures of battlefields are very quiet looking things,” Streeton said of his war paintings. “There’s nothing much to be seen, everybody and thing is hidden and camouflaged.”

Echoes of Streeton can be seen in images by the Iraqi journalist Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, who painted the ruins of Mosul during the campaign to retake the city from IS. Abdul-Ahad uses the same tradition of washed-out watercolour and ink to portray these modern ruins as ghostly places full of sorrow.

Today, artists are still finding new ways to represent the ruins of our modern wars, and the ruins brought about by redundancy and economic crisis. Photographers like Rebecca Lilith Bathory or Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre have turned their lenses on the abandoned and forgotten places of the world, once again finding beauty in the lost.

Despite the shifts in how people have reacted to and imagined ruins over the millennia, the artist’s fascination with ruined and abandoned places has never waned. Ruins make us feel connected to history, and to cultural memory. By their very existence, they form critiques of ideas concerning the march of capitalist progress. They fill us with an evocative melancholy and form moments of stillness in our hectic lives. While the modern ruin has become a specific container for traumatic and horrific memories, the ruins of the past are still places where time stands still, where the ghostly presence of history can be felt, and where an artist can lose themselves in dreams.

As published by BBC – Paul Cooper – 1-16-18