Subjectivity in the fictional ruin: the caprice genre.
After Roland Mortier's La Poetique des ruines en France the study of the motif of the ruin in poetry and prose was extended to many schools, periods and types of representation, such that research on the topic, particularly on literary uses of the ruin seems to have little left to uncover. However, the question of how to extricate the ruin as a subject of poetics from references to real ruins remains and as with most questions of a theoretical order, should engage the research community for some time to come. The fine line between fiction and reality disappears in most critical treatments of ruins when the presupposition that the architecture being analyzed could exist encounters no obstacle.
Such a presupposition cannot be made with respect to the caprice, a genre of ruin painting developed in the eighteenth century. This genre designates an imaginary arrangement of celebrated ruins and monuments. These representations announce their distance from reality and invite the viewer to marvel at the ingenuity with which the artist juxtaposed monuments far away from each other in reality. For this reason, we have chosen the caprice as the point of departure for this study of the ruin as a fictional structure.
In painting, as in literature, the ruin often furnishes the landscape in which a narrative is set. As an element of landscape, however, ruins constitute the background of the principal representation. The caprice represents the move of the ruin in painting from the background to the status of subject. We can speak of the poetics of a representation when it has become the subject of invention and thus a work of art unto itself. In the case of the caprice painting, ruined architecture has become the focal point of the artist's invention.
The first part of our argument will therefore examine the development of the ruin as a subject of invention in painting and analyze how Diderot first defined the poetics of this genre in the Salon de 1767. Diderot's ruin poetics takes leave of ekphrasis and invents the viewer's reaction to a caprice by Hubert Robert. One can say that Diderot "invents" the reaction because he describes it as another painting: an extension of the original. In the latter half of our argument, we hope to demonstrate that the fictional ruin in a literary text is likewise first an extension of and ultimately a departure from ekphrasis. From the sketch of the architectural ornament in Gian Battista Piranesi's texts to the ekphrasis of Piranesi's work in the fantastic genre, the fictional aspects of the representation of ruins appear as elaborate extensions of an existing edifice. In literature, the traces of a subjective reaction to architecture eventually translate into the complete portrait of the viewer and his passions. In the fantastic genre's variations on the theme of Piranesi's Prisons, the final portrait of the devastated artist constitutes, as we hope to demonstrate, the literary response to his ruin fantasies as well.
The Ruin in Narrative Painting
Throughout its history in painting, the ruin served only as a setting for religious subjects, among the more famous: the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the stoning of Saint Etienne, the grotto or run-down stable in the Nativity and Christ chasing the merchants from the Temple. In Nativities for example, the ruin symbolized a humble beginning, or as Chateaubriand wrote: "[...]le dernier degre des conditions humaines, parce que nous etions tombes par l'orgueil[...]." (2) Jean Starobinski attributes a deictic funtion to ruins as indicators of an oriental desert landscape in the background of paintings of the martyrdom of Saint-Sebastian and in Nativities:
[...] Tres tot [...]les peintres ont imagine des ruines pour en faire un decor intermediaire entre les structures factices et le monde naturel, entre le palais et le roc[...] l'on sait que pour les peintres du Quattrocento, le martyr de saint Sebastien appelle presque necessairement un fond de ruines. Ce sera un attribut constant de l'Orient des nativites: symbole a la fois d'un pays mysterieux et d'une ancienne alliance qu'une nouvelle foi rend caduque." (3)
While often a pile of bricks in early religious painting, the ruin of classical architecture in Renaissance painting served at once as a source of moral reflection and a subtle reference to the painting's owner. Thus Mantegna depicted a highly stylised, though ruined, gateway to the Paradis de Comus(1511), as a symbol of Isabelle d'Este's knowledge of the Latin poets. As the appearance of the ruin changed, its role as a symbolic gateway, particularly in the image of Christ chasing the merchants from the Temple clearly remains its most frequent narrative use in painting. The crumbling, though sacred edifice, populated not by worshipers, but by itinerants who display the drudgery of everyday existence along its walls, has many secular variants. Thus Les OEuvres de la misericorde of Simon de Vos in the middle of the 17th century shows beggars hanging their clothing, pots and pans along a crumbling wall. Two separate groups of itinerants split a formerly monumental edifice between themselves in Alessandro Magnasco's Soldats et bohemiens dans les ruines towards the beginning of the 18th century. The entrance to the once official building that would have served to keep out the public has been reduced, over time, to a few front steps flanked by fragments of Corinthian columns. The interior rooms appear as if in a cross-section thus abolishing the barrier between outside and inside and the distinction between the rabble and the officials. The niches in the rotunda, which once served to display statues and busts, now serve as storage space for the bohemians' personal effects, while the soldiers lean their spears on the front steps. To these examples one can add the frequent theme of shepherds resting among ruins in the Roman countryside, and peasants setting up stables and farms in ancient, still majestic, archways. Clothing and linen float suspended between an equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius and the interior of an archway in Robert's L'Ancien Portique de l'empereur Marc-Aurele(1784). In fact, a narrative, whether religious, historical, or borrowed from classical literature--Claude Lorrain used scenes from Virgil as "narratives" for his ruin landscapes--was necessary in order to justify any sort of landscape painting. In Dialogues des morts, Francois de Salignac de la Mothe-Fenelon imagines Leonardo da Vinci criticizing Nicolas Poussin for having painted Paysage avec un homme effraye par un serpent without a narrative in mind. "Est-ce une histoire? Je ne la connais pas. C'est plutot un caprice." (4) Da Vinci refers to two aspects of Poussin's painting: the arrangement of the landscape without an underlying narrative structure, and to the choice of an individual's spontaneous emotion as a subject. He of course refuses to recognize the serpent as an allegory of another idyllic landscape and objects to the predominance of subjectivity in the representation. The architectural landscape was susceptible to similar objections through the eighteenth century. The chevalier de Jaucourt expresses indifference towards the plotless landscape in the article "Paysage" of the Encyclopedie:
On represente quelquefois dans des paysages des sites incultes et inhabites, pour avoir la liberte de peindre les bizarres effets de la nature livree a elle-meme, et les productions confuses et irregulieres d'une terre inculte. Mais cette sorte d'imitation ne sauroit nous emouvoir que dans les momen[t]s de la melancolie, ou la chose imitee par le tableau peut sympathiser avec notre passion. Dans tout autre etat le paysage le plus beau, fut-il du Titien ou du Carrache, ne nous interesse pas plus que le feroit la vue d'un canton de pays affreux riant. Il n'est rien dans un pareil tableau qui nous entretienne, pour ainsi dire; et comme il ne nous touche gueres, il ne nous attache pas beaucoup. (5)
The unpopulated landscape remains inexorably negative: unfertile ground for a moribund enthusiasm. One would think, upon reading Jaucourt's article, that, aside from its color, architecture itself cannot hold any interest for the spectator. For example, Cornelius von Poelenburgh, exemplary 16th-century artist in the genre of ruins, receives praise for the color and the "soft" (moelleuse) brushwork that he uses and the epithet "soft" is a constant in the description of landscape artists favored by Jaucourt. (6) The potential virtues of the landscape being so limited according to this article, the ruin painter would have necessarily had to add figures to make a narrative out of his subject:
Les peintres intelligen[t]s ont si bien senti cette verite, que rarement ils ont fait des paysages deserts et sans figures. Ils les ont peuples, ils ont introduit dans ces tableaux, un sujet compose de plusieurs personnages, dont l'action fut capable de nous emouvoir, et par consequent de nous attacher. C'est ainsi qu'en ont use le Poussin, Rubens et d'autres grands maitres, qui ne se sont pas contentes de mettre dans leurs paysages un homme qui passe son chemin, ou bien une femme qui porte des fruits au marche; ils y placent ordinairement des figures qui pensent, afin de nous donner lieu de penser; ils y mettent des hommes agites de passions, afin de reveiller les notres, et de nous attacher par cette agitation. (7)
By insisting on the narrative function of landscape, Jaucourt also emphasizes that the human figure alone can trigger our sensitivity to the view. Yet he treats subjectivity as a finished representation, coded by many tiny portraits, each one corresponding to an emotion. Jaucourt's definition, though restrictive from an architect's perspective, corresponds to the manner in which caprice painters animated their canvases. In the Ruines d'architecture avec des personnages (1730-1740) for example, Pannini creates a silent dialogue between several figures. He depicts a shepherd seated at the foot of an ancient ruined edifice who confronts a colossal statue of one of the river gods recognizable by his symbolic urn. The attitude of surprise, even fear, with which the shepherd looks at the statue distinguishes him from the average figure of ruins, most of whom pay scant attention to ancient edifices while setting up their markets beneath the fragile arches. The silent exchange between the ancient river god and the shepherd constitutes what must have been an invention of Pannini's, who chose to privilege the theatrical aspect of ruins instead of the oblivion into which they had actually fallen. Indeed, the shepherd with his staff appears just as symbolic as the river god with his urn; they are two actors in a play staged by the painter through a trompe l'oeil confusing flesh and stone. Significantly, very little background, outside of the architectural elements of the painting appears: the ruined edifice has been freed from the landscape. On the basis of Ruines d'architecture avec des personnages and the details of landscapes in sketchbooks of Robert, Boucher and Fragonard, one might argue that the human figure carries the transition between the two meanings of the caprice--architectural vignette and portrait of human emotion--when the human reaction to architecture appears on an intimate scale, as the focus of the representation. The caprice thus conceived becomes an imaginary arrangement of ancient monuments, ruins, and antique statuary that conveys an isolated moment of perception.
Jaucourt's definition, however, significantly reduces the role of the painter in the conception of the ruin caprice. The sketch, notably absent here from Jaucourt's analysis of landscape, generates architecture's inherent communicative power in the definition that Henri Watelet gives of the view. Watelet shows how an inanimate object--such as architecture in a painting of an unpopulated landscape--entails the artist's repeated subjective and imperfect approach to the subject matter. Instead of drawing on an anterior model, the landscape painter, according to Watelet, undertakes many drawings from as many angles in the search for that landscape's inherent "truth":
On appelle vue le portrait d'un site que l'on a fait d'apres nature[...]Le genre des vues s'etend a une infinite d'objets particuliers[...] C'est pour les grands artistes un delassement, parce qu'ils saisissent avec une facilite qui leur est agreable, et qui fait jouir ceux qui les voient operer de l'exercice de leur talent, et parce que cet exercice qu'ils en font leur donne occasion de remarquer et de sentir une infinite d'objets, de details, de verites qui ne s'offrent jamais a eux sans leur procurer des sensations interessantes. (8)
Rather than a complete, finished canvas, the view in Watelet's text coincides with the multiple sketches that would have gone into it. The search for Nature's truths and sensations animates the inanimate. The artist, like Pygmalion, searches out all the variety of living beauty in a block of a stone, ultimately giving the stone its own life. The spirit of the caprice in turn governs Watelet's description of the sketch. The caprice relies heavily on an unpremeditated exploration: on the fusion of the idiosyncrasies of landscape with the intellect's meanderings. No longer a genre, a fixed type of representation, the spontaneity implied in unrestricted drawing lies at the heart of the landscape's progress towards aesthetic autonomy. Yet it has acquired this autonomy, if we are to interpret Watelet correctly, by introducing a subject other than itself onto the canvas. The view as a genre actually constitutes a portrait of its artist, allowing an unmediated enjoyment, not of nature, but of the evolution of the artist's own thought. Nature, a step ahead of the paintbrush, lays out at once what an artist can only capture through a series of sketches. As in the flipbook, these efforts, a rapid succession of sketches, animate the landscape, but only in Watelet's text, not obviously in the final landscape.
It is difficult not to think of Watelet's text when one considers the landscapes which Robert, Boucher and Fragonard worked from. The gardens of Tivoli, an outdoor museum of sorts for Emperor Hadrian's extensive collection of architectural travel souvenirs, and their instructor Charles Natoire's villa Frascati offered multiple views of the intimacy which could exist between architecture and nature. This intimacy would later be captured by Chateaubriand's famous passage on nature's uncanny transformation of antique statuary:
Une guirlande vagabonde de jasmin embrasse une Venus, comme pour lui rendre sa ceinture; une barbe de mousse blanche descend du menton d'une Hebe; le pavot croit sur les feuillets du livre de Mnemosyne: symbole de la renommee passee, et de l'oubli present de ces lieux. (9)
The didacticism of this passage demonstrates that the caprice of nature expresses the narrator's perspective and not the other way around. The juxtapositions of nature and statuary reveal the presence of the artist who conceived them, because they are too coincidental. Nonetheless, a narrative appears to spring spontaneously out of the architectural landscape: jasmine returns Venus' innocence, moss ages the goddess of youth, and poppy obscures Mnemosyne's text. Significantly, the figures of Venus, Hebe and Mnemosyne alone do not suffice to create the moral meaning of the passage. Nature, pushed by its Inventor, completes their allegorical meaning. This passage therefore reverses the hierarchy established by Jaucourt, in which a landscape without animated human figures remains void of meaning. Architecture and nature suffice to create the narrative in the representation.
The Ruin Caprice
The status of the ruin as an accessory to the narrative represented by a painting changed when ancient monuments became the objects of caprices, among the most famous those by Gian-Paolo Pannini, Gian-Battista Piranesi, Gianantonio Guardi, and in France, Hubert Robert, know as "Robert des ruines." The twenty-two works by Hubert Robert that Diderot critiques in the Salon de 1767 constitute imaginary arrangements of architecture. For example, the caprice in the style of Pannini, a "best-seller" in the times of the Grand Tour, would depict hot just any architecture but well-known monuments brought together in an artistic arrangement for the purchaser's viewing pleasure. Such caprices may first be reduced to a basic, deconstructive gesture: creating an architectural landscape based on a model. Classes in perspective entailed exercises with models of Rome's principal monuments of ancient Rome, arrangements in three-dimensions that would eventually inspire two-dimensional views. All of the models were reduced according to the same scale, so one could manipulate any or all of the monuments at once to come up with fictional "views" of ancient Rome. Starobinski compares the caprice of Roman ruins to the "family portrait":
Bientot les antiquites celebres (Obelisques, Colisee, Temple de la Sibylle a Tivoli) deviendront des accessoires figuratifs que les peintres disposeront a leur guise. Lorrain n'hesitera pas a planter l'arc de Constantin sur le rivage d'un fleuve[...] D'apres une tradition bien etablie, ce sont des "paysages-portraits" que l'on peut varier selon trois types principaux: 1) le panorama 2) le grand motif 3) le paysage intime. Pannini, lui, n'hesite pas a rassembler sur une meme toile tout une collection de curiosites fort distantes dans la realite; ainsi l'on reunirait des cousins eloignes pour un portrait de famille. Uamateur pouvait contempler le resume complet des antiquites romaines. (10)
Certain ruins displayed by Robert in the Salon de 1767 constituted just such imaginary arrangements. In Le Port de Rome orne de differens monuments d'architecture antique et moderne like the Grand Escalier qui conduit a un ancien portique, Robert depicted paramonumental structures, because they resembled well-known monuments. The pyramid in the Grand Escalier could well be the one of Cestius, the great temple in Le Port de Rome imitates the Pantheon. (11) For the Grand Paysage dans le gout des campagnes d'Italie, the title of the painting itself indicates the work's imaginary origin. In order to imitate the style of an Italian landscape the artist would have had to try out several sketches before obtaining the final result. The works titled Ruines represent arranged architectures; whether these arrangements or even their constitutive architectural elements can be found in reality, one can readily pinpoint their sources. These landscapes came out of sketches, made in different villas, gardens and squares in and around Rome, of the interplay between edifices, statues, foliage and the human figure. Each constitutive architectural element of these paintings is a building block of a landscape, a fabrique, a term used for architectural elements in a real landscape (i.e. in a garden) and its representation in painting. In his commentary of the Pont sous lequel on decouvre les campagnes de Sabine, Diderot, in the idiom of the art critic dealing with the aesthetics of a representation, deals with two bridges that Robert must have taken from a real landscape as if they were building blocks of a fictional architectural landscape: "Regardez sous les arches; et voyez dans le lointain, a une grande distance de ce premier pont, un second pont de pierre qui coupe la profondeur de l'espace en deux, laissant entre l'une et l'autre fabrique une enorme distance." (12) The fabrique makes a landscape agreeable to look at and be in, the most basic definition of the picturesque. (13) However, Diderot has extended the notion of the picturesque in the representation of ruins to include the spectator's own sense of drama. The notion of a dramatic narrative appears again when he ascribes a "poetics" to the genre of ruins:
L'effet de ces compositions, bonnes ou mauvaises, c'est de vous laisser dans une douce melancolie. Nous attachons nos regards sur les debris d'un arc de triomphe, d'un portique, d'une pyramide, d'un temple, d'un palais; et nous revenons sur nous-memes; nous anticipons sur les ravages du temps; et notre imagination disperse sur la terre les edifices memes que nous habitons. A l'instant la solitude et le silence regnent autour de nous. Nous restons seuls de toute une nation qui n'est plus. Et voila la premiere ligne de la poetique des ruines. (14)
The "birth" of the poetics of ruins in Diderot's Salon de 1767 may be characterized as the sentiment of fear generated by the ruin tableau that inspires its spectator to imagine a parallel tableau of his own universe in ruins. (15) One can see this as a philosophical anticipation of future devastation, a step through the looking glass whereby we become actors in a spectacle that we thought ourselves outside of, a secret, unnameable pleasure derived from the spectacle of death, in the sense of Edmund Burke's delectatio. In the larger context of Diderot's thought, however, the formulation of a "poetics" of ruins represents a gesture in memoriam, the very contrary of anticipation. Robert's ruin paintings represent only a pretext for this gesture's reappearance. Starobinski emphasises the emergence of a theatre of memory in the Entretiens sur le fils naturel:
L'artiste philosophe, qui croit avoir perdu la chaleur des energies Premieres, exploite le sentiment de la perte, met a profit, de loin, la connaissance qu'il a prise de tout un monde perdu, pour en mimer avec surete le trace et les mouvements. Dans ce mimetisme, la recherche de l'intensite va de pair avec le sentiment de la fiction. (16)
By ascribing a poetics to the ruin caprice that would dictate a mental imitation of Time's destruction, Diderot offers a mise en abyme of the memory process. In the case of his commentary on Robert, the need to describe paintings for foreign readers of Grimm's Correspondance litteraire might have incited the dramatization of Robert's ruins in a verbal spectacle of devastation. Ruins just happen to emphasize the idea of a lost world that can really be anything or anyone left behind. In the case of the Entretiens, the narrator of the introduction represents the memory of his conversations with Dorval, the protagonist of Le Fils naturel, in terms of its immanent disappearance:
Mais quelle difference entre ce que Dorval me disait, et ce que j'ecris! ... Ce sont peut-etre les memes idees; mais le genie de l'homme n'y est plus ... C'est en vain que je cherche en moi l'impression que le spectacle de la nature et la presence de Dorval y faisaient. Je ne la retrouve point; je ne vois plus Dorval; je ne l'entends plus. Je suis seul, parmi la poussiere des livres et dans l'ombre d'un cabinet ... j'ecris des lignes faibles, tristes et froides. (17)
The dramatization that becomes necessary to Diderot in the memory of a certain tableau inspires fiction, that is, entire texts tangential to the verbal recreation of a painting or ekphrasis. Far from mimesis, the memory of a painting in one of Diderot's texts implies the reinvention of the composition: it is as if he were Robert himself, having to invent an architectural landscape. Fictional "walks," which the salonnier describes taking in Robert's landscapes, become endless manipulations of architecture, landscape and figures-in the experimental caprice genre. The memory of the painting becomes, in itself, a new and original landscape. In this way, the description of Robert's paintings often resembles the fictional promenade that the ekphraste takes "inside of" seven of Joseph Vernet's paintings. Once "in" Robert's paintings, the narrator invents encounters with lively characters, animations of their two-dimensional counterparts in the original paintings and vandalizes Robert's ruins with invocations to Augustus and Nero and citations of Virgil. (18) His text presents the entire range of caprices that have been and will be explored here, from the imaginary arrangement of monuments on a canvas to the insertion of a figure, (the narrator in meditation), into a spectacle that at first was no more than a postcard. The ekphrasis of the Grande Galerie eclairee du fond highlights the different registers inherent in the caprice in painting:
O les belles, les sublimes ruines! quelle fermete, et en meme temps quelle legerete, surete, facilite de pinceau! quel effet! quelle grandeur! quelle noblesse! qu'on me dise a qui ces Ruines appartiennent, afin que je les vole; le seul moyen d'acquerir, quand on est indigent. Helas, elles font peut-etre si peu de bonheur au riche stupide qui les possede; et elles me rendraient si heureux! proprietaire, epoux aveugle, quel tort te fais-je, lorsque je m'approprie des charmes que tu ignores ou que tu negliges. Avec quel etonnement, quelle surprise je regarde cette voute brisee, les masses surimposees a cette voute! les peuples qui ont eleve ce monument, ou sont-ils? que sont-ils devenus! dans quelle enorme profondeur obscure et muette, mon oeil va+il s'egarer? a quelle prodigieuse distance est renvoyee la portion du ciel que j'apercois a travers cette ouverture! l'etonnante degradation de lumiere! comme elle s'affaiblit en descendant du haut de cette voute, sur la longueur de ces colonnes! comme les tenebres sont pressees par le jour de l'entree et le jour du fond. On ne se lasse point de regarder. Le temps s'arrete pour celui qui admire. Que j'ai peu vecu ! que ma jeunesse a peu dure! (19)
The narrator distinguishes here between two entirely different concepts of the caprice. Firstly, he describes the arrangement of monuments according to the imagination of the artist in a painting, which, for the wealthy, primarily English, participants of the Grand Tour, amounted to a memento. Secondly he presents ruined architecture as a vehicle for daydream ... not entirely melancholy as we shall see. For the traveler returning home from the Grand Tour, the painting represents the essence of all the ruin-strewn Italian landscapes, architectures and antique statues gathered in a canvas commensurable with the purse. For the art critic narrating this passage who recognizes the uniqueness of the architecture, the ruin's attentive husband, (ruine in French is, incidentally, a feminine substantive), the commercial value of the Roman memento has nothing to do with the value of the painting. Rather the critic privileges the sensual qualities of the architecture, a mode of discourse that necessarily generates a fictive scenario. Desire, like melancholy, represents a potent starting point for the creative amateur. In the ekphrasis of the Grande Galerie eclairee du fond, the narrator introduces a woman who feels comfortable enough in the obscurity to let her guard down:
Sous ces arcades obscures, la pudeur serait moins forte dans une femme honnete; l'entreprise d'un amant tendre et timide plus vive et plus courageuse. Nous aimons, sans nous en douter, tout ce qui nous livre a nos penchants, nous seduit et excuse notre faiblesse. (20)
The Grande Galerie eclairee du fond has graduated from the status of the memento of a Roman holiday to the representation of the possibility of pleasure. Even the "idees accessoires" or the historical and philosophical reflection that characterize the first part of the ekphrasis of this work, "les peuples qui ont eleve ce monument, ou sont-ils? que sont-ils devenus!" (21) make way for the pursuit of pleasure. Without ever labelling the Grande Galerie eclairee du fond, the ekphraste hesitates between considering this ruin painting as belonging to the historical genre or to the category of genre painting. Thus, l'oeil egare, the wandering eye distracted by the ruin as a symbol of a remote and thus obscure past becomes the look that seeks an intimate darkness.
The caprice as an arrangement of the principal monuments in a city or several cities and the idea of architecture as a setting for unsatisfied passions show why Robert's ruins waver between the historical genre and genre painting. Historicity and seduction fuse in the painting of ruins and the combination allows the ruined architecture to play more than an accessory role. By insisting on desire in his interpretation of Robert's painting, Diderot privileged a fictional element exterior to architecture, but fundamental, as we hope to demonstrate, to the literary representation of ruins.
The Serpent and the Caprice
Though definitions for the caprice as a baroque architectural genre and as a genre of eighteenth-century ruin painting exist in historical dictionaries, the term's other definition--"[...]a desire or opinion arbitrarily or fantastically formed[...] (22)"--from its etymology, capra (goat)--has turned into a subject of literary representation as well. At least one discourse on the caprice genre in painting already includes the aspect of arbitrariness. In Le Discours de Piranese, Didier Laroque cites the Dialogues des morts of Fenelon, in order to demonstrate how the word "caprice" was interpreted at the rime of Piranesi's architectural inventions. In the dialogue, which was cited earlier, da Vinci rejects Poussin's subject for depicting no more than a human emotion. Da Vinci calls Poussin's painting a caprice, pejoratively. Poussin accepts this classification, but amends the pejorative notion of the genre, defending its acceptability "[...]pourvu que le caprice soit regle et qu'il ne s'ecarte en rien de la vraie nature." (23) The double derivation of the word caprice from caporiccio, which "describes the terror inspired by a monstrous phenomenon" and from capra, the goat, (24) makes Poussin's subject-terror-into a mise en abyme of the genre to which it adheres as Laroque's examples demonstrate. Thus Fenelon's dialogue defines the caprice as a subject, the representation of an emotion, and as the procedure by which the artist captures and tames the emotion through the act of representation. The artist's subjectivity, so negative should it manifest itself on the canvas in da Vinci's view, becomes a subject of controlled and necessary calculation in Poussin's rehabilitation of the genre. Poussin's view of the genre, as a representation modelled on true nature, echoes the meaning of the caprice in at least one form of literature. The article "Caprice" in the Larousse du XIXe siecle, cites Theophile Gautier's Caprices et zigzags (25) as an example. Though the article insists on the whimsical side of Gautier's narrative, Caprices et zigzags begins with a statement concerning the unpremeditated nature of the narrator's travels: "[...]il n'y aura exactement dans ma relation que ce que j'aurai vu avec mes yeux, c'est-a-dire avec mon binocle ou avec ma lorgnette, car je craindrais que mes yeux ne me tissent des mensonges." (26) As we argue in the conclusion of this paper, unpremeditated exploration applies not only to the caprice as the representation of architecture in painting but links the imaginary edifice to narratives of travel in the literary text.
The Capricious Owner of an Immense Palace
Diderot's critique of Hubert Robert's ruin paintings in the Salon de 1767 stands at the crossroads of the caprice genre and the caprice as a motivation for travel. He prefaces his comments with a passage about the human being in perpetual motion:
Que diriez-vous du proprietaire d'un palais immense qui emploierait toute sa vie a monter et a descendre des caves aux greniers, des greniers aux caves, au lieu de s'asseoir tranquillement au centre de sa famille. C'est l'image du voyageur. Cet homme est sans morale. Ou il est tourmente par une espece d'inquietude naturelle qui le promene malgre lui. Avec un fond d'inertie, plus ou moins considerable, nature qui veille a notre conservation, nous a donne une portion d'energie qui nous sollicite sans cesse au mouvement et a l'action. (27)
The energy evoked here represents the key to the role of caprice in painting, if we understand the term not as a genre but as a restless search for new perspectives. Robert, a Parisian in Rome and thus a traveler before he was recognized as a painter, experimented with various views of landscapes and with Roman antiquities in the canvases that Diderot commented upon. However, the full expressive range of the architectural landscape, as Diderot's text suggests, lies beyond the landscape and the edifice alone. His text evokes a sense of drama stemming from the exploration, bit by bit, of an immense edifice. The infinite proportions of the edifice correspond to the unsatisfied passion of the explorer. The traveler indeed resembles an artist in Diderot's conception, whose interminable wanderings fill a sketchbook containing the entire palace he inhabits ... in fragments. This preface turns the literary representation of architecture into an expression of a personal obsession. Diderot's traveler, prisoner of his own palace, has never been compared to the best-known example of an architectural sketch turned portrait of the architect: the case of Piranesi. The many facets of Piranesi, as an architect, aquafortist, and prisoner in the works of the French Romantics modulate through the uses of the caprice, just as they appear in the Oxford English Dictionary: "[...]folly and caprice[...]strangest caprice[...]wild caprice[...]boundless caprice[...]." (28)
Piranesi's Prisons, originally Invenzione capriciose di carceri, present a particular case of the human figure as vehicle for metaphoric meaning in the representation of imaginary architecture. These etchings enjoyed a renaissance as caprices in the fantastic literature of the nineteenth century and Georges Poulet, in Piranese et les Romantiques francais: Trois essais de mythologie romantique, demonstrates how the English and French Romantics had imagined Piranesi climbing the endless staircases for which his Prisons are known. However, it was the architect himself, in the Ragionamento apologetico in difesa dell'architettura Egizia e Toscana, who first wrote of his conception of architecture in oneiric terms:
The task would be long for whomsoever would describe the anonymous monsters that we perceive in works of antique architecture. Besides the griffons, centaurs, hippogriffs, sirens, chimeras and others that belong to the poetic imagination, an infinity of them exist that are no less capricious and bizarre and that spring from the artists' need to adapt ornaments to the serious purpose of architecture. Thus we see waves running along a straight line, unfurl equally and stop oscillating; we see the stems of a fruit or flower confined and entwined between two parallel lines and soon no longer reminiscent of flower or fruit; curled branches twisting always in the same manner without being identical. Art, always in need of new inventions, composes ornaments by more or less imitating nature, altering the latter and adapting it in its manner and according to its needs. (29)
The ornament, while modeled on nature, enjoys a life of its own according to Piranesi. His dynamic description of sculpted fruits and flowers turns nature into a source of fantastic forms that populate antique architecture. The hypotyposis in the last part of the paragraph has a practical purpose: to assert the needs of the edifice over rules of verisimilitude. Piranesi aims his argument at those who judge the architectural achievements of past civilizations by their ruins. Firstly he argues that the remnants of this antique architecture constitute incomplete evidence of its former grandeur, and secondly, that one cannot judge the aesthetic quality of an ornament outside of its original context. The ornament, according to Piranesi, ought to be judged according to its function in the edifice as a whole. Quite interestingly, the overall vision or harmony of the edifice determines whether the ornament has been thoughtfully placed there or whether it has been added after the construction of the entire edifice, by caprice. Comparing the talent of the Egyptian architects to the more fanciful work of the moderns Piranesi writes:
[...]what majesty in the Egyptian lions, what gravity, how tame, how sober, what skill in the stylization !All belonging to architecture appears artfully, while the rest remains hidden. On the contrary, the lions imitated exactly from nature, that the sculptor arranged according to his caprice, what are they doing there? (30)
The architectural ornament in this text supports and amplifies the principal structure which it was meant to decorate: it is at once an organic part and extension of the whole. By proposing such a thesis, Piranesi highlights the intimate relationship that exists between architecture and the ornament, its conceptual extension. The ornament thus represents the architect's calculations for that edifice. The importance of measure in Piranesi's discourse manifests itself in nineteenth and twentieth century interpretations of the Prisons. These interpreters saw measure as the instrument of an imaginary prolongation of a finite, material edifice into an abstract one. As Marguerite Yourcenar wrote in an essay inspired by a verse from Hugo, "Le Cerveau noir de Piranese": "Notre vertige devant le monde irrationnel des Prisons est fait, non de manque de mesures (car jamais Piranese ne fut plus geometre), mais de la multiplicite des calculs qu'on sait exacts et qui portent sur des proportions qu'on sait fausses." (31) Piranesi, as we have seen, expresses the infinite potential of sinuous shapes, like the staircases that characterize Piranesi's Prisons, in his own discourse on the ornament. A winding staircase, at once ornamental because of its sinuous shape, and fundamental to the creation of the illusion of perspective in painting, functioned at once as an extension of the old edifice and as the fabrication of a completely new architectural landscape. Human invention, derived, but ultimately different from nature, defines the caprice; a genre which involves two distinct moments. The first is to capture nature by the laws of perspective, which govern the accurate representation of landscapes. The second is to continue calculating and to invent further forms that even nature itself would not have suggested. Thus the caprice as a genre in painting illustrates a favorable view of the human endeavor. From this perspective, Diderot's opinion on the pyramid in the Salon de 1767 may be useful to understanding the success of the architectural landscape at the time of Robert and Piranesi:
C'est d'une montagne dont le sommet croit toucher et soutenir le ciel et d'une pyramide seulement de quelques lieues de base et dont la cime finirait dans les nues, laquelle vous frapperez le plus. Vous hesitez [...] rien n'etonne de la part de Dieu, auteur de la montagne[...]la pyramide est un phenomene incroyable de la part de l'homme[...] (32)
This hesitation on the part of Diderot's contemporary interlocutor is as meaningful as the answer that follows. One possible interpretation for the indecision is a will to accept the audacious productions of human creativity. Diderot's question represents a return to the case of the tower of Babel, as if to defend the structure's very audacity. The pyramid of Cestius, visible in many caprices by Pannini and by Robert, would thus strike the spectator for its unique geometry: a figure that stands out symbolically in the crowd of colonnades and arches in the typical Roman view.
The nineteenth-century Romantic imagination would return to the question of Babel-like structures as a narrative ploy. Thus a third moment, already present in the nightmarish caricatures of society that are Goya's Caprices, and which characterizes the writings of the Romantics, was to clip the ornament from the edifice and loose oneself entirely in the realm of chimeras. Theophile Gautier's Mademoiselle Dafne neatly accomplishes the transition between the plausible realm of the here and now and the extended realm of nightmare when she pulls the lever of the divan on which a naive would-be lover has stretched himself out:
A cette pression, le dessus du divan s'ouvrit comme au theatre une trappe anglaise, precipitant Lothario dans un gouffre sombre d'ou sortit violemment une bouffee d'air humide, et se referma aussitot par la reaction du mecanisme d'une maniere si exacte, qu'il etait impossible de soupconner qu'un homme etait assis la trois secondes auparavant. (33)
Lothario then disappears into an obscure Piranesian underground. As Daniel Roche writes, obscurity in the eighteenth century was as much a physical state as a mental one; it represented: "[...]le desordre de la nature et le sommeil de la raison, une zone d'ombre peu penetrable dans les comportements de l'homme, dont Goya illustrera les sombres arcanes." (34) Diderot would borrow from Burke's writing on the role obscurity played in the sublime, the combination of fear and pleasure that we have already mentioned with respect to the poetics of ruins. (35) It would be inaccurate to say, however, that Piranesi chose to represent the dark side of human nature with carceral architecture. The Prisons were inspired by subterranean passages of Roman palaces. Indeed, they resemble ruins, but for their title and the continuous line of perspective provided by a spiral staircase in several of the etchings. The prisons represent more of a juxtaposition of architectural fragments along breathtaking perspectives than the atrocities of carceral lire. Yourcenar points out the absence of torture in the etchings:
[...] au fond d'une gigantesque fosse pareille a une ruine eventree de monument antique, deux pygmees trainent par les pieds un grand condamne tout semblable lui-meme a une statue renversee; des badauds juches au bord de cette latomie excitent les bourreaux, a moins toutefois que leur gesticulation ne s'adresse a un tailleur de pierre qui un peu plus bas cisele un bloc. (36)
The figures in the Prisons and the etchings of Roman antiquities are the same: antique statues themselves play the role of the torture victim. Yourcenar's observations prove completely verifiable when one looks at the etchings. In the views of Roman antiquities, ruins overwhelm the canvas, for they are the principal subjects of the composition. Consequently, human figures, clambering up the crumbling walls, gesticulating and pointing as if they were discovering the site for the first rime or engaging in private conversations in the obscure arcades, appear miniscule. On the contrary, in the Prisons, where the principal subject constitutes the torture victim, these same tiny, animated figures appear as sculptured ornaments on an edifice in the background. In the foreground sits the victim, rather in an attitude of a seated stone god of antiquity than writhing in pain. Indeed, the central victim is not much smaller in the engraving The Man on the Rack, than the statue of Minerva in Fantasy of Ruins with a Statue of Minerva in the center foreground. (37) Moreover, the emphasis in both of these works appears to be on ornamental fragments of ancient edifices, such that the two belong, despite the ostensible difference in subject matter, to the genre of the ruin caprice. The Man on the Rack, like the ruin caprice with a statue of Minerva, represents a clear case of the artist's creating a detached realm for the expansion of the architectural ornament. As this particular engraving does not employ the Prisons' trademark staircase for the creation of perspective, successive archways, some greater than others, all differing in their distance from the viewer, accomplish the same effect as the landings without floors that captured the Romantic imagination.
The successive archways, like the spiral staircase, symbolize meditation, and if each plateau no longer represents a practical, physical destination, it does represent the open-ended progress of meditation. Rembrandt's Le Philosophe en meditation, presents us with an interior, in which a philosopher sits at a table next to a spiral staircase which one must imagine ending outside of the frame. Hugo wrote of such settings: "[...]des interieurs de Rembrandt avec[...]des lanternes bizarres au plafond, et dans le coin des chambres, des degres en colimacon qu'un rayon de soleil escalade lentement." (38) The ascent suggested by this ray of light suggests the presence of a human figure, like those climbing the steps in Piranesi's Prisons. In the Romantics' interpretation of the Prisons, the many would be seen as the multiple appearance, as in a series of today's film stills, of an individual. One finds the idea of the individual face to face with a monstrous staircase in "Puits de l'Inde! Tombeaux! Monuments constelles!" where the ekphrasis of a ruin caprice serves to represent a piranesian nightmare. The narrator dares the reader to enter this detached world:
Cavernes ou l'esprit n'ose aller trop avant! Devant vos profondeurs j'ai pali bien souvent Comme sur un abime ou sur une fournaise, Effrayantes Babels que revait Piranese! Entrez si vous l'osez ! Sur le pave dormant Les ombres des arceaux se croisent tristement; La dalle par endroits, pliant sous les decombres, S'entr'ouvre pour laisser passer des degres sombres Qui fouillent, vis de pierre, un souterrain sans fond; D'autres montent la-haut et crevent le plafond. (39)
Piranesi's staircase appears to move by itself in this poem, its steps at once excavating and destroying. They embody the archeologist's task by digging (fouillant) in the ruins, others menace the ceiling (crevent le plafond). Except for the staircase, the site of the physical edifice remains characterized by the solitude that prompted Piranesi to commemorate the endangered monuments of ancient Rome with collections of engravings like Vedute di Roma and Le Antiquita Romane. While the poem illustrates Ovid's tempus edax on one level, it also demonstrates the ruined edifice in terms of a dream sequence populated be extravagant ornaments. When the text addresses the reader in the fifth verse cited above, it introduces this figure into the architectural setting. The spirit need only dare to enter (oser) in order for the meditation to unfold. Once the poet's interlocutor enters, taking a step downward as the enjambment illustrates, the architectural caprice imitates the intellect's capricious nature, its excesses and uncertainties:
Des sphinx, des boeufs d'airain, sur l'etrave accroupis, Ont fait des chapiteaux aux piliers decrepits[...] Tout chancelle et flechit sous les toits entr'ouverts. Le mur suinte, et l'on voit fourmiller a travers De grands feuillages roux, sortant d'entre les marbres, Des monstres qu'on prendrait pour des racines d'arbres. (40)
The ornaments, here the sphinxes and the bronze bulls, recall the chimeras of which Piranesi spoke in his defense of Egyptian and Etruscan architecture. They are fragments that once added to the harmony of a complete edifice, and now look out of proportion in its ruined version. Ornament is not exclusively, as Piranesi himself suggested, functional. Ornaments serve as supports and creative extensions of the edifice. In fact, the notion of nonrepresentational architecture, for, as we have seen, motifs occurring in nature were only points of departure for the conception of chimeras, contains the notion of art for art's sake: a celebration of the artist as a creative subject. In painting, if one were to observe the uses of architecture in Pannini, Boucher and Fragonard outside of the architectural caprices with famous monuments, one would see that it often appears reduced to a fragment or an ornament. These suggestions of edifices, replacing complete structures, show that architecture could participate in a representation other than a mimetic one and that it was more theatrical than utilitarian. As in the theater, optical illusion played a role in highlighting the ornament's expressive nature: in Boucher's paintings of Ovidian themes, flesh-and-blood cherubs seemed to spring from among their stone counterparts to surround the amorous couple. Thus Starobinski described the style of painting represented by Boucher as: "Un jeu de miroirs[...]un art qui veut dispenser le plaisir, en prenant le plaisir meme pour sujet." (41) At the rime in which the architectural caprice in painting reached its apotheosis, architecture, far from being exclusively monumental, or "paramonumental," served to represent sentiment and played upon the spectator's subjective reaction to painting. Pleasure and melancholy constituted two variables in the place human sentiment was to play in the compositional equation of the architectural caprice, (the other perhaps being the pride of being able to display the greatest monuments of Ancient Rome in one's own home). Ultimately, the architectural caprice, from Pannini's picture-postcard arrangements of Roman antiquities to Piranesi's Prisons were but two variants of the caprice in general: a painter's choice, outside of the canon of historical narrative, to represent what we would call today "the human factor."
Different kinds of human emotion correspond to different architectural arrangements. The sinuous colonnades in Pannini's Le Festin sous une architecture ionienne and in Boucher's Renaud et Armide or Apollon revelant sa divinite a la bergere Isse lead the viewer's eye towards the center of each painting, towards the representation of their principal subject: a celebration or a lovers' tryst. In contrast, the representation of meditation demands a distribution of architectural elements in a vertical line, which would direct the viewer's attention upwards, to the spiritual realm.
Before "Puits de l'Inde," in 1821, the Confessions of an Opium Eater by Thomas de Quincey had generated Piranesian architectural fantasies in the works of Baudelaire, Nodier and Gautier, among others. De Quincey's text represents Piranesi climbing the steps he himself had etched, without ever being able to reach their end. Indeed the space seems to swell, multiply and attain infinite proportions. However, this extravagant representation of architecture also generates an impression that the two-dimensional space of an etching precludes: a sense of rime passing. De Quincey's delirious Piranesi ages as he renews his efforts to master the ever-multiplying spaces that he had designed. (42) The ekphrasis treats the architectural elements as if they were self-generating, a sort of hydra of steps. Charles Nodier clearly translates this aspect in Piranese: Contes psychologiques, a propos de la monomanie reflective: "Piranese arrive. Il arrive, helas! au pied d'un edifice semblable au premier, dont l'acces presente les memes perils, qui exige de lui les memes efforts dans une proportion accrue, multipliee par sa lassitude, par son epuisement, par vieillesse aussi, car il a vieilli en marchant[...]." (43) Before resorting to the explanation that the Romantic Piranesi character definitively suffers from a psychological disorder one could recall what Diderot wrote of the poetics of ruins: "nous anticipons sur les ravages du temps; et notre imagination disperse sur la terre les edifices memes que nous habitons." The Romantic Piranesi embodies the caprice, for he has sprung out of his own architecture; he represents the infinite capacities of human calculation that characterize this pictorial genre and its literary legacy.
(1.) The House of Mirth, p.168.
(2.) Francois Rene de Chateaubriand, << De la Redemption, >> Essais sur les revolutions, Genie du christianisme, Part I, Book I, chapter IV, p.484.
(3.) Jean Starobinski, L'Invention de la liberte, p. 179.
(4.) Didier Laroque, Le Discours de Piranese, p.86.
(5.) Chevalier de Jaucourt, "Paysage", Encyclopedie, vol. XII, p. 213.
(6.) Jaucourt, "Paysagiste", Encyclopedie, vol. XII. p.213.
(7.) Ibid., p.212.
(8.) Cited in Starobinski, op.cit., p.171.
(9.) Chateaubriand, Genie du christianisme, IIIe partie, livre cinquieme, chapitre IV, "Effet pittoresque des ruines", p. 885.
(10.) Starobinski, op. cit., p. 179.
(11.) Jean de Cayeux, Hubert Robert, p.86-87.
(12.) Denis Diderot, Ruines et paysages: Salon de 1767, p.334.
(13.) The art of the fabrique reached its apotheosis in the development of the eighteenth-century English garden, in which edifices and statues could be discovered in a promenade rather than be seen all at once, as in a French garden. As Michel Baridon has demonstrated for the English garden, the appearance and placement of a gothic ruin in a landscape were more than an aesthetic arrangement. Rather, it participated in the creation of feudal spaces representative of a myth of origin for England. Michel Baridon, "Ruins as Mental Construct," Journal of Garden History, vol. 5, no 1, p.84-96. In other words, the fabrique constitutes a building block of real and represented landscapes and even in actual gardens, suggests ideas not pertaining to the landscape itself. The author would like to thank Professor Michel Delon for this reference.
(14.) Diderot, op.cit., p. 335.
(15.) Roland Mortier, La Poetique des ruines en France, p.88-97.
(16.) Starobinski, "Diderot dans l'espace des peintres," Diderot et l'art de Boucher a David, p.32.
(17.) Diderot, Entretiens sur le fils naturel, OEuvres estbetiques, ed. P. Verniere, Paris Dunod, 1994 p. 79.
(18.) Diderot, Ruines et paysages. Salon de 1767, p.360.
(19.) Ibid., p.337.
(20.) Ibid., p.339.
(21.) Ibid., p.337.
(22.) "Caprice," Oxford English Dictionnary, vol II, p.868.
(23.) Laroque, op. cit., p.87.
(25.) Pierre Larousse, << Caprice,>> in Grand Dictionnaire Universel du XIXe siecle, Vol. III, First part, p. 331.
(26.) Theophile Gautier, Caprices et zigzags, p.1.
(27.) Diderot, Ruines et paysages: Salon de 1767, p.325.
(28.) "Caprice," Oxford English Dictionary, vol. II, p. 868.
(29.) Piranese, Discours apologetique en faveur de l'architecture egyptienne et toscane, trans. Didier Laroque, op. cit., 193. The English translation is our own.
(30.) Ibid., p. 191-192.
(31.) Marguerite Yourcenar, Essais et memoires, p. 95.
(32.) Diderot, Salon de 1767, p. 178.
(33.) Gautier, Mademoiselle Dafne, p. 48.
(34.) Cited in Didier Laroque Le Discours de Piranese, p.49 note 46. Daniel Roche, Histoire des choses banales: naissance de la consommation dans les societes traditionnelles, XVII-XIXe siecle, p. 134.
(35.) Gita May, "Diderot and Burke: A Study in Aesthetic Affinity," p. 533.
(36.) Yourcenar, op.cit., p.98.
(37.) John Wilton-Ely, Giovanni Battista Piranesi: The Complete Etchings, vol. I, p.51 and p. 178 respectively.
(38.) Victor Hugo, "Lettre dix-huitieme", Le Rhin, t.I, p. 242.
(39.) Hugo, "Puits de l'Inde ! tombeaux ! monuments constelles !", Les Rayons et les ombres, CEuvres poetiques, t.I, p. 1056.
(40.) Ibid., p. 1057. The italics are ours.
(41.) Starobinski, op.cit., p. 64.
(42.) Georges Poulet, Piranese et les Romantiques francais, p. 138-143.
(43.) Ibid., p. 151-152.
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Joanna Augustyn Columbia University
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|Date:||Nov 1, 2000|
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