I realized today, having just taught my Renaissance art class on Monday, that the Renaissance never would have happened if it had not been for the trauma of the collapse of the Roman Empire. There would have been no need to be inspired to recreate the past glories of Rome in the Sixteenth Century if the past was still the present. So, despite the fact that much of Western Civilization has bemoaned the fall of the Roman world over the last fifteen hundred years, starting perhaps only a generation after the last emperor capitulated in 476AD, there seems to be value in destruction, because otherwise there would never be any of the joys of rebuilding.
I find interesting parallels in the history of St. Louis and that of Rome. Both once ruled vast portions of the world, either politically in the case of Rome, or economically in the case of St. Louis. Rome saw its power fade, so much so that its rumored population of one million inhabitants once shrank to less than 5,000 during the Dark Ages by some estimates. St. Louis likewise has lost 500,000 inhabitants; like Rome centuries ago, you can now walk for miles through portions of the city that seem more akin to the countryside than an urban center.
Just like St. Louis in the Twenty-First Century, Rome in the Sixteenth Century was a city dominated in many places by ruins, crumbling but still retaining their magnificence. The Baths of Caracalla, once the largest thermae in ancient Rome, lay in ruins when Michelangelo and Raphael advanced their careers in the Eternal City.
But we know the two great artists visited the ruins, as their greatest paintings, sculpture and architecture drew inspiration from its lofty vaults and buried sculpture. Simultaneously, New St. Peter’s Basilica was rising in the ruins of the old basilica, itself already over a thousand years old. Take Raphael’s School of Athens, where the artist recreates the grand vaults of the Baths of Caracalla, suspiciously similar to the newly built vaults of St. Peters Basilica.
Likewise, Michelangelo was inspired in his design for the dome of St. Peters by the classical past; implemented by a successor, the massive dome is loaded with classical imagery.
I’ve been to St. Peter’s Basilica three times, and each time I notice something different; the last time I realized for the first time that there’s a huge number of columns salvaged from ancient Roman buildings used in the various side altars around the church. The builders of St. Peter’s could have just as easily built brick columns and covered them in plaster to make fake columns, but they actively chose to drag dozens of granite columns, each weighing several tons, all the way across the city of Rome, just so they could use them in the new basilica. They clearly understood that sometimes a giant hunk of granite is not just a hunk of granite, but rather it is imbued with a special power, full of history, theft and reuse. I feel the same way about the built environment of St. Louis; those piles of brick and terracotta that built our city are no longer just baked clay, but something so much more. The ancient Roman columns now in St. Peter’s Basilica are stained, chipped and cracked from a thousand years of neglect and abuse–but I have a feeling that is the very reason the builders of St. Peter’s Basilica wanted them. Those columns have a patina that can’t be made in a factory; only the passage of time and history can give that “appearance or aura that is derived from association, habit, or established character.”
Let’s also take the example of the Temple of Hadrian, located in the center of Rome. After the temple fell in to ruins, another building was built inside its shell; this building later served as the stock exchange in Rome. Surely it would have been more logical to tear the old temple down, but the architects who renovated the building clearly wanted to keep that aura in their new building that the old temple provided. It’s a wonderful mixture then of the ancient and modern.
Interestingly, in downtown St. Louis, the Paul Brown Building likewise reused the beautiful, pink granite lower columns of the previous, older skyscraper on that location (though admittedly they were obscured by the later construction until uncovered a few years ago). While in both cases it might have merely been economic necessity on the part of the builders, something tells me that builders of the new buildings saw the beauty of the craftsmanship and what those stones represented, and were inspired by it, leaving them behind as they built the new building around them.
I also wanted to take this opportunity to confront the whole concept of “ruin porn,” an intellectually lazy term that many critics now place on any modern photograph of abandoned buildings in urban cities. I do not make ruin porn; I take pictures that tell stories, pictures that show what has been and what could be, and what inspires me and what could inspire our future architects and urban planners. My generation is hardly the first to be obsessed and intrigued with documenting ruins and the lessons they can teach us. The founders of the Italian Renaissance, Filippo Brunelleschi and Leon Battista Alberti, loved Roman ruins, studied them voraciously, and when the time was right, used those lessons to create some of the most beautiful buildings of the Renaissance. Raphael himself was lowered down into the newly discovered Golden House of Nero, found after a boy fell through its long-buried roof; the Loggetta in the Vatican is the product of his careful study of the ancient Roman painting he saw in those so-called “grottoes.” Michelangelo advised his wealthy patrons, the Farnese, to buy the choicest collection of ancient sculpture in Rome, harvested from none other than the Baths of Caracalla. Several generations later, Giovanni Battista Piranesi engraved his way around Italy, documenting the ancient wonders of the Greeks and Romans, such as his print of the temples of Paestum.
Three centuries later, I took the same trip, for largely the same reason: to see something more stunning than I could have envisioned by myself:
I realized this after six years: the point of this website is not to mourn architectural losses or dwell on what could be considered better days in St. Louis history. Rather, just like Brunelleschi, Alberti, Michelangelo, Raphael and Piranesi had discovered hundreds of years ago before, I realized the past—locked up in brick, stone and terracotta—is here to inspire me.