Ruins and Museums

  • Gillen D’Arcy Wood


It is the fate of our modern sensibility, argued Friedrich Schiller, to be alienated from nature. In his 1795 essay, Über naive und sentimentalische Dichtung, Schiller describes how the modern poet “seeks nature, but as an ideal and in a perfection in which she has never existed, when he bemourns her at once as something having existed and now lost” (my emphasis).1 Nature, for Schiller, is synonymous with classical art, called “naïve.” Consequently, we experience our difference from antiquity as we do our estrangement from nature, in the form of personal loss: the ancients “are what we were.” The psychological consequence of modernity as difference—as the alienation of modern European sensibility from its natural origins in antiquity—Schiller calls die Sentimentalität, “sentimentality.” The affective symptom of sentimentality is die Wehmut, “melancholy,” a particular affliction of eighteenth-century Grand Tourists. “Lingering] before the monuments of ancient times,” according to Schiller, rendered one particularly vulnerable to sentimental symptoms. A generation after Schiller, William Hazlitt offered a vivid account of antiquarian melancholia. He observed that English students in Rome, confronted by “ancient greatness,” experienced their “sinews of desire relax and moulder away, and the fever of youthful ambition [turn] into a cold ague-fit. There is a languor in the air, and the contagion of listless apathy infects the hopes that are yet unborn.”2


British Museum Select Committee Imperial Power Public Museum Greek Antiquity 
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© Gillen D’Arcy Wood 2001

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