Almost better than the real thing? Some thoughts on ‘fake ruins’ from the 18th century to the modern day

On a recent trip to Vienna, I came across these ‘Roman Ruins’ in the gardens of the Schloss Schönbrunn (free to visit) that were designed by Johann Ferdinand Hetzendorf von Hohenberg and erected in 1778 (and are now part of the UNESCO World Heritage site). Immediately, my mind turned to the replica Palmyra Arch that has now been on display in several locations (London, New York, Florence, Arona and Dubai). So, in this blog, I’d like to reflect on the extent to which we have moved on in our approaches to reconstructed ruins and whether these changes have been positive.

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The ‘Roman Ruins’ in the gardens of Schloss Schönbrunn, Vienna.

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The replica Palmyra arch in Trafalgar Square in April 2016.

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The real triumphal arch in Palmyra, photographed in 2004.

Aesthetically, I like neither. The ruins at the Schloss Schönbrunn are a bizarre mishmash of architectural elements. But there seems to be a certain kind of honesty or transparency here that is missing in That Arch. The Schloss Schönbrunn ruins are not trying to be something they’re not as (to the best of my knowledge) there is no clear template on which they are based. That Arch, however, is trying very hard to be real and to be a specific monument – and failing (see Factum Arte for a critique of the accuracy of That Arch). Furthermore, the useful information panel that accompanies the Schloss Schönbrunn ruins makes it very clear to any visitor that these are not real – of course, this information is unlikely to have been present in the 18th century, but the game was probably implicitly understood.

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The information panel at the ‘Roman ruins’ (in German and English) – both sign and signpost, also showing how the ‘Roman ruins’ sit between the Obelisk and Neptune fountains.

This is a stark contrast to the installation of That Arch in Trafalgar Square where information was palpably absent and visitors were certainly confused.Scan 2

Example of a response from ‘Postcard to Palmyra’ showing frustration about the lack of information made available during the event in Trafalgar Square (card 0231/68127).

One of the failures of That Arch seems to be in how new it looks, which was commented upon by several people in ‘Postcard to Palmyra’ (a public engagement project that ran alongside the installation in Trafalgar Square asking visitors to share their thoughts – for more info, click here). It has no sense of “pastness” (in the sense used by Cornelius Holtorf); it doesn’t look old and it doesn’t feel old.

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Example of a response from ‘Postcard to Palmyra’ commenting on the aesthetics of the arch and its lack of ‘pastness’ (card 0065/61933).

Conversely, the designer of the Schloss Schönbrunn ruins seems to have gone to considerable lengths to imbue the ruins with a sense of pastness, right down to including fake foliage ‘growing’ through the cracks. Yet an easy walk behind the fake ruins, now, immediately reveals what they are (as well as an additional layer to their biography where they have been recently restored). There is, then, a tension in the Schloss Schönbrunn ruins between honesty and pastness. It may be true that the 18th-century designers have not presented us with the most elegant or helpful model to work from, but it seems to me that That Arch does not present a better solution, and arguably a worse one, especially when you consider the worrying rhetoric surrounding That Arch, which is dominated by the language of ‘rebirth’, ‘resurrection’ and ‘bringing back to life’ (both in the postcards and in the media), as if it can take the place of the original in a fully satisfying manner.

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Examples (above and below) of fake foliage ‘growing’ on the ‘Roman ruins’. Also, the capitals and other elements on the ruins seem to have been painted green to suggest they are made of bronze.

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The back of the ‘Roman ruins’ showing clear signs of modern restoration.

My final thoughts relate to placement. Both seem rather incongruous – That Arch in Trafalgar Square, in a New York park etc; the Schloss Schönbrunn ruins in heavily-landscaped and strictly-designed gardens. Again, though, the Schloss Schönbrunn ruins seem to be very aware of their surroundings and are not quite as randomly placed as they first appear being positioned between a pair of equally fantastic, and classically-inspired fountains – the Obelisk Fountain and the Neptune Fountain. This doesn’t necessarily serve to make the ruins or the fountains seem any less bizarre (to my modern mind), but does suggest that some thought went into placement. The locations chosen for That Arch seem to be more problematic – certainly, the choice of Trafalgar Square (a monument to empire) needed more justification. I am left wondering whether That Arch would feel any more at home in Palmyra, but that needs more thought beyond this particular blog post.

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The ‘Obelisk Fountain’ in the gardens at Schloss Schönbrunn.

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The ‘Neptune Fountain’ in the gardens at Schloss Schönbrunn.

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Example of a response from ‘Postcard to Palmyra’ lamenting the choice of location for displaying That Arch.

So, how far have we moved on from the 18th century? It seems that although the technologies may have changed, not much else has. What does seem to have changed is our attitude to these reconstructions: from self-conscious follies to objects with an identity crisis, wanting and claiming to be something they’re not and can never be. As sadly seems so often the case, lessons from the past do not seem to have been as clearly learnt as they might be. One potential way forward might be to look to art and creative practice for more inspirational approaches – blogs to come on this!

References:

Holtorf, C. 2013. On pastness: a reconsideration of materiality in archaeological object authenticity. Anthropological Quarterly 86.2: 427-443.

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