Decay and Afterlife: Form, Time, and the Textuality of Ruins, 1100 to 1900

Aleksandra Prica


University of Chicago Press

Western ruins have long been understood as objects riddled with temporal contradictions, whether they appear in baroque poetry and drama, Romanticism’s nostalgic view of history, eighteenth-century paintings of classical subjects, or even recent photographic histories of the ruins of postindustrial Detroit. Decay and Afterlife pivots away from our immediate, visual fascination with ruins, focusing instead on the textuality of ruins in works about disintegration and survival. Combining an impressive array of literary, philosophical, and historiographical works both canonical and neglected, and encompassing Latin, Italian, French, German, and English sources, Aleksandra Prica addresses ruins as textual forms, examining them in their extraordinary geographical and temporal breadth, highlighting their variability and reflexivity, and uncovering new lines of aesthetic and intellectual affinity. Through close readings, she traverses eight hundred years of intellectual and literary history, from Seneca and Petrarch to Hegel, Goethe, and Georg Simmel. She tracks European discourses on ruins as they metamorphose over time, identifying surprising resemblances and resonances, ignored contrasts and tensions, as well as the shared apprehensions and ideas that come to light in the excavation of these discourses.