Ruins and Temporality

Instructor: Prof. Nicholas Halmi

This seminar will consider literary and visual representations of ruins in the later 18th and early 19th centuries. Such representations, not only historical but also imaginary (including ruins projected into the future and fake ruins constructed in gardens), abound in the period and served both as aesthetic spectacles and as occasions for reflections on temporality, especially on the relationship of the past to the present and future. The seminar’s aim will be to explore the period’s historical consciousness and temporal anxieties through its intensive but highly varied engagement with ruins. 

The assigned reading will be selections from Constantin de Volney’s popular The Ruins, or A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires, first published in French in 1791 and translated into English almost immediately. Participants will also be asked to choose from the period 1760-1830 another literary or visual representation of a ruin or ruins and to introduce it briefly to the class.

Materials for the class are available here.

Required primary texts:

1) Constantin de Volney, The Ruins: or, A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires (English trans., 1795), Preface, Invocation, chaps. 1-3 and 10-13. (I have also included on the Dropbox site the original French edition (1791) for those who prefer to read it in the original.)

2) Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Memoirs of the Year Two Thousand Five Hundred (Eng. trans. 1772), chap. 14 (I have also included the original French edition, L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante (1771).)

3) Anna Letitia Barbauld, Eighteen Hundred Eleven, A Poem (1812), lines 157–214

Recommend secondary texts:

1) Nicholas Halmi, ‘Ruins without a Past’, Essays in Romanticism, 18 (2011), 7–27

2) François Hartog, Regimes of Historicity (Eng. trans. 2015; orig. 2003), from chap. 4

3) Andreas Huyssen, ‘Nostalgia for Ruins’, Grey Room, 23 (spring 2006), 6–21

4) Georg Simmel, ‘The Ruin’, The Hudson Review, 11 (1958), 379–85 (orig. 1908)

5) Jean Starobinski, ‘Melancholy among the Ruins’ in The Invention of Liberty 1700–1789 (Eng. trans. 1987; orig. 1964)


1) Andrea Mategna, St Sebastian (c. 1455–9)

2) Hermanus Posthumus, Tempus edax rerum (1536)

3) Detail of Posthumus

4) Ruinenberg, Postdam (1748)

5) Giovanni Paolo Panini, Caprice architectural avec prédicateur dans des ruines romaines (c. 1725–50)

6) Hubert Robert, La Grande Galerie du Louvre en ruines (1796)

6) Břeclav Castle (c. 1810)