At some point in the future, this art review will have an accompanying book review of Edward Gibbons’ six volume “The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire” (which is the inspiration for this article). Considering an unabridged version of the series on Kindle clocks in at almost 5000 pages it may be a little while before the book review is in.
In the meanwhile…
Consider 2015: with new gadgets, technology, ideas, and icons appearing on a daily basis, it’s easy for the contemporary human to feel as if we’re at the top of the world — that what’s come behind us has been a course of evolution up to the present moment and perhaps the only type of change left to look forward to is “social” change. As exists the adage “that history repeats itself,” and the fact that most things in nature don’t evolve but go extinct, Hubert Robert’s “View of Ripetta” seems a reminder in an image, as well as an artwork that is both visually beautiful and philosophically complex.
Before we address the philosophical angle, let’s take stock of the visual components that represent past, present, and future… AND, how they’re presented.
Regarding the past, the characters in the composition inhabit a setting from the past. Consider that the artist portrays the intrusion of the past on the present by beginning with a background of swirling clouds. That something so ethereal as swirling clouds gives way to ancient, massive, and immobile concrete seems to announce the artist’s intention of a looming past.
The focal building, which is ancient, is also cloaked in shadow and seems the least populated portion of the painting. To the extent that the building in question is “inhabited” there seems to be some smoke rising from the righthand side of the building at the top of the stairs — but the smoke seems rather ghostly than lively. The author seems to be telling us that although there is something magnificent in history, there is something also terrifying about it.
Regarding the present, the characters are all dwarfed by the looming buildings of antiquity, and while the people are literally living in the shadows of these simultaneously monstrous and magnificent constructions, they also seem to be forging ahead, going about their daily lives. Drawing the comparison to society today, instead of one wondering of our future generations looking back on how “primitive” its antecedents were, it might be interesting to consider how “advanced.” Considering this was painted in 1766 (ten years before America signed the Declaration of Independence), one might assume the aforementioned perspective of an “advanced” past is the one held by the artist.
It is also worth pointing out that the ancient buildings in the painting not only literally dwarf the characters in terms of size and scale, but that they actually do have the “high ground” … that the ancient structures are as if a mountain, whereas the contemporary characters are in the valley.
As for the future, you have the most well lit characters in the painting near boats, at a dock — as if ready to set sail for new horizons. In fact, one of the characters is doing that exactly, pushing off from the dock (and the past) and into the future.
Regarding philosophical complexity, it would seem that is the sum of the painted parts. In other words, by examining each aspect of the painting, the time period which it represents, and how each aspect relates to one another — not just in terms of visual cues but in terms of “time” … you get an image that is not only aesthetically and compositionally complex, but one worthy of contemplation and perhaps introspection.
The painting seems to be warning society of a past set in stone, but also a past set in shadow — and as the present is what’s most lit — it is (perhaps obviously) what is under our control. But, as the past’s grandeur seems incongruous with the contemporary drudging characters, there is an implicit warning that the present won’t necessarily lead to something better — and, also that people/society should perhaps be cautious of grandiose visions that contain the seeds of destruction.
And yet, though the above warning seems to haunt the painting like a ghost — the painting as a painting is pleasing to look at, seemingly telling us that no matter how far a civilization may fall, life goes on independent and free of the past, with an ocean of new opportunities… so long as one is willing to sail forth in search of new horizons.