Alain Schnapp will give a Brown Bag Lunch Presentation on Wednesday, November 7, from 12:15 to 1:15 pm. His talk is entitled “What is a ruin?”

The distinguishing feature of ruins is to remain as such. Every attempt to give them their ancient brightness back represents a supplementary violence. Recall that before the decisive battle against the Persians at Platea, the Greeks took a solemn oath not to rebuild the burnt temples, in order to keep evidence of their enemies’ impiety forever. Between humans and ruins exists a kind of complicity, as old as humanity itself. The words ruina in Latin, ereipion in Greek have the same meaning, that of stressing the mark of time on things. Ruins are a universal concept, even for societies without monuments, without a sedentary way of life; they all possess places of remembrance and preserve jealously some objects from their past (real or imaginary). However, this form of piety can also be inverted: the damnatio memoriae, the destruction of all remains of the past is inherent in the idea of the transcendence of ruins. All societies that have built monuments have found themselves confronted to voluntary destructions, be it from internal or external causes. Ruins are the result of a balance between past and present, a “deal,” as it were, made with those who have preceded us. Deep in the desert, the pre-Islamic poets already knew how to observe the fragile remains of their modest camps: on this basis, they created a captivating and original poetic style, the qasida. Such a balance is the product of a negotiation between the living and the dead. Some people, as the Egyptians, favor the “monuments of eternity” made of stone. Others, such as the Mesopotamians, know that their earth-built monuments have a short longevity. They therefore entrusted inscribed bricks, buried in the foundations, to pass on their message to future generations. Eventually some others, as the Japanese, take down their temples made of wood and straw every twenty years to rebuild them anew, identical (or as near as), creating an infinite cycle of construction and deconstruction. This talk aims to explore the modes and forms of ruins in ancient and modern societies.


Alain Schnapp is Emeritus Professor of Classical Archaeology at the University Paris I (Panthéon-Sorbonne). His main interests are Greek iconography and cultural history of Antiquity. He has been Visiting Scholar or Visiting Professor in various universities and research institutes (Princeton University; Stanford University; Getty research Institute; Churchill College, Cambridge; Universität Heidelberg; Universität Basel; Wissenschaftskolleg Berlin; Morphomata Köln; Istituto Orientale Napoli; Universita di Perugia; Collegium Budapest; University of Aarhus). His publications include Ruines: Essai de perspective compare (Les presses du Réel, 2015), Was ist eine Ruine? Entwurf einer vergleichenden Perspektive (Wallstein, 2014), World Antiquarianism: Comparative Perspectives (ed. with L. von Falkenhausen, P. Miller, and T. Murray, Getty Research Institute, 2013), Le chasseur et la cité, chasse et érotique dans la Grèce ancienne (Albin Michel, 1997), The Discovery of the Past (British Museum Press, 1996), and The French Student Uprising (with P. Vidal-Naquet, Beacon Press, 1971).