Tag Archives: picturesque

Before the pot boils, it simmers. Between the conception and the creation falls the shadow. The cusp of something about to be born. A rough beast slouching toward Bethlehem. It is the ambiguous time between the discrete textbook ages of history that we name that is most interesting.

We generally name Romanticism in art as something that thrived in the first half of the 19th century. If it has a birth date, it is usually given as 1798, when William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge first published their Lyrical Ballads, a book of poems that seemed to be a clean break with the past.

Certainly there are other dates we could choose. In music, we often give 1805 and the first performance of Beethoven’s Eroica symphony. In politics, it might be 1789 and the fall of the Bastille in Paris. Or Goya’s Caprichos, published in 1799. Picking a single date is absurd, because Romanticism wasn’t born like Athena, burst instantly from the head of Zeus. It wasn’t born at all; rather, it accumulated. 

And in the 50 or so years before we gave the movement a name, it kept popping its head up above the surface in odd moments, letting us know it was coming. 

Before Beethoven, there were the Sturm und Drang symphonies of Joseph Haydn, beginning with his Symphony No. 39 in G-minor of 1765. There was Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther of 1774, that set all of Europe to sympathetic weeping and toward a penchant for suicide. In English, there was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, from 1764 that began a craze for Gothic novels, with their attendant gloom, rattling chains and ghosts in dungeons. There were the faux Celtic sagas that James McPherson published in 1765 as The Works of Ossian. All these, and many more came as a sort of antidote to the rationality of the Enlightenment. 

And, there are the prisons of Giovanni Battista Piranesi. These 16 etchings are sui generis in Piranesi’s vast output, and a fierce eruption rising to the surface of the simmering pot. 

Piranesi (1729-1778) was an architect, archeologist and printmaker who was fascinated by the ruins of Ancient Rome. While his architectural work consisted of a single building, and his archeology was more of a sideline, it is as an etcher and engraver that he became famous. One of the best printmakers of his time, his intricate detail and exacting craftsmanship were exceptional. 

Half his work functioned as a record of archeological evidence, cataloguing ancient architectural detail; the other half was as a profitable creator of souvenirs for European aristocracy, mainly British, who were taking the “Grand Tour” of Europe to flesh out their educations. 

These prints, known as Vedute, or “Views,” were in the Picturesque tradition — ruins covered in vines and under the arches of which lived peasants. It was a rich tradition in the second half of the 18th Century, and a bankable genre for artists wishing to make a good living. 

During this time, the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum prompted an interest in the past, including Ancient Greece, Egypt and the Gothic.  Johann Joachim Winckelmann was writing ecstatically about the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome. Piranesi rode this rising tide and published hundreds of vedute engravings. 

Many of these transcended the reality of the ruins left in Rome and the Campagna and were pure fantasies of what might have been. The more extravagant the fantasy, the better. 

In the midst of these popular prints, in the late 1740s, Piranesi began making a series of fantasy prints of imaginary prisons, or carceri, built of immense dank spaces and torture devices. Each of the original 14 prints was roughly the size of a 16-by-20 photograph, large by most etching standards. But they were an anomaly, and didn’t sell well. Surely, they came a decade too early.

For, in 1761, Piranesi reworked the original plates, adding two new ones, and republished them as Carceri d’invenzione, or “imaginary prisons.” According to Belgian writer, Marguerite Yourcenar, they represent “negation of time, incoherence of space, suggested levitation, intoxication of the impossible reconciled or transcended.” And can best be understood as externalizations of internal mental and emotional states. Nightmares, even.


Plate I Title; Plate II Man on the rack

Plate III The round tower; Plate IV The piazza

Plate V The lion bas-reliefs; Plate VI The smoking fire

Plate VII The drawbridge; Plate VIII The staircase with trophies


Plate IX The giant wheel


Plate X Prisoners on the projecting platform


Plate XI Arch with a shell ornament


Plate XII The sawhorse


Plate XIII The well


Plate XIV The Gothic arch

Plate XV Pier with a lamp


Plate XVI Pier with chains


Comparing the first and second states of the series, one sees them change from rather sketchy drawings to richly inked, dark and menacing spaces, with architecture and geometry that are often physically impossible — almost Escher like. 

The 1761 version of the plates were enormously popular and were reprinted many times. They leave behind the comfort and orderliness of the 18th Century and look ahead to the Byronic, irrational and psychologically disturbing Zeitgeist of the early 19th Century. They are a harbinger, a precursor, a herald. 

They are a manifestation of the sublime — a concept fresh in the culture, with a translation, in French, by Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux of the Perihypsos (“On the Sublime”) of the Roman author Longinus, and a book-length essay on the subject by English writer and politician Edmund Burke. 

The sublime is the profound psychological awareness of the immensity of the cosmos and vastness of nature compared with the puny insignificance of humans, but seen not simply as depressing or frightening, but as unbearably beautiful. Joseph Addison called it “an agreeable kind of horror.” It is awe, in the sense the word had before it became cant among American teenagers for whom a peanut-butter sandwich might casually be called “awesome.” 

In Longinus, we read: “We are by nature led to marvel, not, indeed, at little streams, clear and useful though they be, but at the Nile, the Danube, of the Rhine, and still more at the Ocean. A little fire which we have lit may keep pits flame pure and constant, but it does not awe us more than the fires of heaven, through these may often be obscured; nor do we consider our little fire more worthy of admiration than the craters of Etna whose eruptions throw up rocks and mighty boulders or at times pour fourth rivers of lava from that single fire within the earth. We might say of all such matters that man can easily understand what is useful or necessary, but he admires what passes his understanding.”

And so, the Carceri cannot be made coherent and understandable. The prisons expand outward into unseen spaces that open again into other unseen spaces. There are stairs to nowhere, torture devices in the shadows, catwalks over bottomless pits, stones overgrown with moss — and many tiny, nearly unseeable figures, caught in this Kafka-esque labyrinth. 

—You can find a wonderful animated tour through Piranesi’s prison on YouTube (link here). 

And you can get some of the effect in reality in the actual Medieval prison, the Conciergerie, in Paris, where Marie Antoinette was held before her beheading.

Mt. St. Michel

Or the rambling stairs and arches of Mont St. Michel at the border of Normandy and Brittany.


The Carceri are not anomalous for their subject alone: Unlike Piranesi’s usual draftsmanlike exactitude in his drawings, the prisons are nearly scribbled onto the etching plate. They imply a kind of fury in their creation, as if Piranesi were trying to get his vision down into line before they evaporated from his boiling imagination. Shelley once described the moment of creation as an ember rapidly cooling that needs be indited before the glow darkens. You can see Piranesi frantic not to lose the hallucination. 

The change from Classicism to Romanticism — like the change from the Renaissance to the Baroque — is not simply one of rationalism curdled to emotionalism, but of clarity as a virtue lost into a fog of ambiguity and incoherence. It is Racine metamorphosed to Rousseau. 

Beethoven’s “Fidelio”

The subject matter had enormous influence as the 19th Century was born. It is the Venetian prison and escape described by Giocomo Casanova in his 1787 Story of My Flight and later in his memoirs. Prisons and dungeons are everywhere to be found in literature, art and music. It is the prison where Florestan is rescued by Leonora in Beethoven’s opera, Fidelio. It is the dungeon where François Bonivard meditated in Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon. It is the prison that Alexandre Dumas, père, put The Man in the Iron Mask. It is the torture site of the Inquisition in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Pit and the Pendulum. Not the least, it is, historically, the Bastille in Paris and its siege and fall that set off the French Revolution. 


It is a trope that continues into the 20th and 21st centuries. It is Carfax Abbey in Tod Browning’s 1931 film, Dracula. 

The very gantry ways and bridges make their way into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. 

Now, that same spacious gothic sublime turns up in fantasy films, such as Lord of the Rings, on TV in Game of Thrones and in nerd games, like Dungeons and Dragons. 

You can find its inception in 1761 with Piranesi. 


Click on any image to enlarge

Miami, Arizona

Miami, Arizona

Many decades ago, when I first came through Arizona, I passed through a landscape so surreal that after I got home, I could not be sure, when I went back to my job in Virginia, that I had actually seen what I had seen: mountains and mountains of grayish-tan gravel, in a town so beaten down, so weathered, so spavined and dried out, that could not be sure that I had not dreamed the whole thing during a nap after an ill-advised meal of rarebit.

When we finally moved to Arizona, I rediscovered Miami-Claypool and it lost nothing of its Twilight Zone weirdness. To those of us not familiar with copper mining, the thought that humans could build cordilleras of utter waste — post-apocalyptic poetry — was hard to credit. Part of me wanted to live there. Nothing could possibly feel day-to-day, ordinary, or boring in such a nerve-frayed landscape.



If you drive east from Phoenix, out past Mesa, past Apache Junction, into the desert past Florence Junction and climb up into the hills, you will find a string of mining towns, mostly abandoned or dying, or hanging on by their fingernails, beginning with Superior. It was one of the locations for the 1997 Oliver Stone film, U Turn, and it feels like it could have been dreamed up by a Hollywood set designer. In 2005, a sci-fi film called Alien Invasion Arizona was filmed there. It isn’t quite a ghost town, but you could easily place a season of The Walking Dead there.

Superior Kellner Ave

Superior’s biography is like so many copper towns in Arizona part of a history that almost no one thinks about. It is an industrial history, full of smokestacks and labor disputes, and fills in the space between the six-gun Old West of popular mythology and the modern and often banal state of tourism and retirees.

Superior AZ Mission Cola

Unfortunately, it is an industry that cycles with the international market price of copper: The price plummets and Arizona mines lay off workers and shut down. If the price recovers sufficiently, the mines start up once more. Mine-worker families face an uncertain life.

Superior cliffs

Superior cliffs

The history of Arizona’s mining towns is generic. Whether it is Bisbee or Bagdad, Morenci or Globe, there is a familiar tale, altered only with variations on the tune.

For each, it begins in the 1860s or ’70s, when an army officer or a prospector picks up a rock and smiles, recognizing it as ore. Usually, they were looking for gold. Often what they got was copper. Then there is a period of individual prospecting, usually ending in bankruptcy all around. Then, financiers from New York or San Francisco add capital and mining picks up on an industrial basis. Towns spring up, usually shanty towns precariously perched on gravelly hillsides near the mines. During boom years, the towns grow. Wood is replaced by brick; large hotels are built and streets are paved.

One company buys out another until huge corporations are formed with names like Phelps Dodge  and Magma.  Ultimately they become multinationals with many interests beyond copper.

Between the wars, the underground mines are largely replaced by the great pit mines, man-made miniature Grand Canyons of ore-dig.



But then, after boom years and some bust years, the mines play out or are flooded or copper prices fall and the towns surrounding the mines die out.

Or, in a few cases, they persist, either as mining persists, as at Morenci, or as the towns find new purpose as tourist destinations, such as Bisbee, or county seats such as Globe.

But the past also persists, and those interested in this forgotten past of Arizona can still visit many of the best locations.

Mining hit Superior in 1870  when silver was discovered and the Silver King Mine  became one of the richest silver mines in Arizona history. But in 1912,  Boyce Thompson  bought the mine, formed Magma Copper and the area became one of the great copper mines. The smelter closed in 1971;  the mine remained in operation until 1982.  The mine has sporadically been worked since, depending on copper prices. But Superior, taking a cue from Bisbee and Jerome has tried to position itself as a tourist location. The wooing of Hollywood has been part of that resuscitation and the town has its own film board.



South of Superior, are mines at Mammoth and Kearny and Hayden, home to the ASARCO  smelter complex, which services several of that company’s state mines. It is rich in mining history, and union grumbling is still part of the town: One abandoned building has “Union Yes! Forever” painted on it, with one of the “Ns” in “Union” painted backward. The first parts of the plant were opened in 1912,  and now it covers 200 acres  with a smelter smokestack 1,000 feet  tall. Nearby Winkelman  and Kearny  are worth seeing, also, and the now-closed San Manuel  mine is several miles south near Mammoth.  The tell-tale tailings ridges run for miles.

ASARCO’s big open pit Ray Mine is 22 miles  south of Superior on Arizona 177.  The Ray Complex  covers 53,000 acres  and is the second largest copper mine in Arizona. There is an overlook off the highway that affords an unofficial peek at the mine.

But this is a detour. Back to Superior, and driving east up into Queen Creek Canyon and beyond to Miami-Claypool and its veritable Himalayas of detritus, where you will see what will be, depending on your esthetic sensibility, either a great warning of industrial environmental depredation, or an awesome visual wonderland, an eruption of surrealism in the middle of the quotidian.



The town looks like it was dropped as litter from some passing god’s chariot, scattered on the hillsides to either side of U.S. 60.  The smelter smokestack rises to the north, over the black drapings of slag across one tan tailings hill.

Bloody Tank Wash, Miami

Bloody Tank Wash, Miami

The town is younger than most of the mining towns in the state. In 1909  the Miami Copper Company  began operations on the hills beside Bloody Tanks Wash.  For a while, it was a rival to Globe, where the Old Dominion Mine  was one of the biggest producers. But Globe ceased being a mining power in 1931  when the mine flooded, and Miami became the center, not just of mining – several mines are nearby, including the Pinto Creek open pit – but the major smelting location for Phelps Dodge.

Now, the townsite, with its bridges over the wash looking like Venetian canal bridges gone terribly wrong, is home to many antiques stores. Unlike many old mining towns, the industry is in full swing, and the mines and processing plant prosper and wane with the price of copper.

San Carlos Lake

San Carlos Lake

Past Globe you enter the San Carlos Indian Reservation. Take a right down to Coolidge Dam and San Carlos Lake. Monuments to civilization are always so much more compelling when they are stuck in the middle of nowhere, like Shelley’s Ozymandias or Catherwood’s Palenque.

At least, that’s what comes to mind when you finally come upon Coolidge Dam, standing like a sentinel in the grass and hills of the Apache reservation.

Gila River from Coolidge Dam

Gila River from Coolidge Dam

Built in the late 1920s, it comes from that great era of dam building and dam architecture. Although it is much smaller than Hoover Dam on the Colorado, it shares an obvious family relationship, with its Art Deco details and horseshoe curvature. It looks like one of the great, archetypal dams.

It reaches a climax in two giant Deco eagle heads near its lip that watch over the downstream Gila River as it enters the Needles Eye Wilderness. They are eagles that pronounce the word “federal” with authority.

It was the Bureau of Indian Affairs that built the dam, to allow the San Carlos tribe to make use of the fluctuating water supply of the Gila. In 1994, the dam overflowed, with water released in such quantities through its spillways, that they had to be repaired. On the other hand, the lake has shrunk to practically nothing at least 20 times in its four-score years of life. In 1977, the lake got so low, there was a major fish kill, with an estimated 5 million fish going belly up. It took five years for the lake to recover.

At low water, the lake must look the way it did when the dam was dedicated in 1930, when humorist Will Rogers looked out at it during the ceremony and joked that, “If this were my lake, I’d mow it.”

By 2015, it could have used another good mowing, because the lake was down to about 5 percent of capacity, leaving most of the dam high and dry, exposing what is supposed to be under water. The current El Niño has raised the level once more.

Coolidge Dam

Coolidge Dam

Three great bulbous rounds of concrete make up the upstream part of the dam, and they are exfoliating sheets of concrete as they age, and looking more and more like a ruins in the making.

If you take the pilgrimage to see the dam, you might as well continue along Reservation Route 500 for 30 miles until it reunites with U.S. 70 at Bylas. Few drives in Arizona are as peaceful and solitary. Just watch out for the potholes.

Black Hills Back Country Byway

Black Hills Back Country Byway

Continue down U.S. 70 along the Gila River and farmland to Mt. Graham and Safford. From there you head toward Clifton and Morenci, up in the hills. There is a “short cut” — the 21-mile Black Hills Back Country Byway, which takes you through wilderness on a gravel road. This is what Arizona looked like when Geronimo hid in these canyons and arroyos. After you cross the Gila River on its Depression-era concrete bridge, you can see a parody “shining city on the hill,” Clifton, like a mirage.

"Shining city on the hill"

“Shining city on the hill”

If you really want to see the industrial power of Arizona, you can do no better than to visit Clifton-Morenci in Greenlee County.  The largest open pit copper mine in the nation has spread so many miles across, it actually ate up the original town of Morenci.

The Phelps Dodge mine can be viewed from an overlook on U.S. 191,  11 miles north of Clifton. It is a humbling experience: like looking at a manmade Grand Canyon, covered with trucks the size of five-story buildings busting dust up along the miles and miles of mine roads in the pit.

Morenci pit and road

One truck can haul 270 tons  of ore on tires 12 feet in diameter.  The biggest trucks carry 320 tons.

Morenci mine truck

Morenci is still a company town, the last in the state, where all the housing is company owned, and all the workers and families shop at the company store.

The mining potential of the area was discovered in 1865  by passing soldiers. The first mine opened in 1872,  but things took off when Phelps Dodge entered the picture in 1881.  The open pit was begun in 1937,  since then, 4.1 billion tons  of ore and rock have been dug out, leaving behind a hole big enough to see from outer space.

Morenci S-curve

The industrial complex is impressive. Miles of corrugated-metal processing plants and piles and piles of tailings and slag.

Morenci mine industry

Clifton, a few miles south, is practically a ghost town, but filled with the same kind of buildings that give Bisbee its period charm. Only in Clifton, they are rather more like Roman ruins.



Seeing these old mining towns, like Clifton, Miami or Winkelman, can leave you feeling quite conflicted. They are clearly evidence of monumental environmental destruction. Poison waters run off the tailings piles and nowadays have to be captured and treated, but in the past, just filtered down to the streams and water table. Whole mountains have been turned into holes in the ground. Ash heaps make new mountains. Lives are burned up, too. Miners attempting to find better conditions could find themselves dumped off a train in the emptiness of New Mexico and told not to return. Huge corporations buy up the hard work of the original prospectors and squeeze the profits out of the land, like water from a dishcloth. The land has been turned gray and dusty, and tire tracks the size of riverbeds gouge out the roadways. The air is heavy with dust and fumes, and men swarm over the desiccated heaps like ants on an ant hill.





Yet, it is hard not to be awed by the sublimity of such hugeness, vastness, even if vast destruction. One is left with two hearts.

In the 18th century, there was a fad for paintings of Classical ruins. Such paintings were called “picturesque,” and they depicted not merely the architecture of Rome and Greece, but the vines growing up the stones, and the peasants building cooking fires below the aqueducts. The cracked masonry, fallen blocks, glowing in a beautiful sunset, set 18th century sensibilities into a dither, fanning themselves in admiration of the beauty — a beauty that told of death and decay, of the falling of empires, and the persistence of life below the arches and gables. There is a sense of grandeur, even if we only live in reflection of it.

Clifton AZ bathtub

And while I cannot avoid seeing the landscape as some sort of movie set for a new Mad Max film, neither can I deny the grandeur of the landscape, the sense of loss that fuels the emotions, the sense of something larger, older, and more significant than myself alone.



Much of the mythology of Arizona revolves around cowboys and Indians, some fantasy version of the “Old West.” (Somehow, Scottsdale gets to call itself “the West’s most Western town,” while in reality being a commercial real-estate empire filled with shopping malls and freeways). The mythology is a commodity. Yet, there is real myth — the feeling in your psyche of the expansiveness of history and the world — in the union battles, corporate dealings, dying towns and Dante-esque pits into the earth.

Route 191 north of Morenci

Route 191 north of Morenci

As you head north out of Morenci, you enter the mountains and head to a completely different Arizona.