A fall, even as the result of stepping on a banana peel, always contains moral lesson. You know you deserved it. But I leave my reader to his introspective reasoning, for I am more curious about the gentleman in the picture: what might have been his infraction? What had he done to deserved this triple punishment — falling off some kind of an ancient temple and into a sarcophagus and then receiving a huge piece of loose masonry on top? Before we touch upon why, an astute observer can help me with how: we see how he got up there — there’s a long ladder leaning against the building. Devil made him do it, of course, but what else? The man grasps something in his right hand. We cannot make it out, since the detail is too small, but we can infer that it is the same object the fleeing woman holds in her hand, probably a small bouquet of flowers.
Obviously, the terrible punishment does not match the crime, if we can call crime what looks more like a safety or risk management issue. And there an onlooker is likely to remain as baffled as I was when trying to crack the code of this late XVIII painting. Is the puzzle even decipherable? It should be, given that the author of the rebus was a simple mortal, creating in a well-understood historical context. True enough, for a painter of ruins, all ruins offer ethic and aesthetic lessons. The first one is about vanity of our pursuits. The second is more subtle and is often due to a shere scale of the site, and as we try to surmise from the skill demonstrated in the execution of a fragment and complete through the work of imagination the rest, gradually arriving at the quality and size of the whole, which is quite comparable or sometimes superior to our present ability and skill, the artifacts dwarf and humble our unequal idea of the past, bringing our emotional reaction to the point of astonishment, or even consternation or someting close to sacred awe.
At that euphoric moment a moral flaw that deserves to be squashed without mercy is none other than callousness, insensitivity, and obtuseness shown in the presence of a ruin. And if we fail to appraoch the ruin with tripidation, a different type of horror, more trivial like a stupid accident will substitute itself for the sublime. To each according to his ability. The aesthetics is replacable by the sensational. Such intolerance to simple pleasures we would find intolerable. Actually, they did too. I don’t know about my reader, but myself when in the presence of Hubert Robert’s paintings, I am subject to hearing hallucinations. Whenever I put my ear close enough to a guilded frame, I hear a metallic noise: it sounds like a ghostly figure dressed in lace and silk stockings is sharpening a large rectangular blade to be fitted into a different, much cruder and much larger wooden framework.