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Introducing the section of the series on Purgatory, this triptych takes its concept from both the social theories of Oswald Spengler and the ancient legend of the sunken Celtic city of Ys. For Sveva, Purgatory represents the circumstances that are given and which we have no control over, more succinctly known as fate. Passage over a Foundering Landscape was informed by the theory, outlined in Spengler’s The Decline of the West, that cultures follow determinate, predictable life-cycles, allowing him to conclude that the life-span of Western culture was nearing the final stages of its decline. Sveva developed this idea visually with Italian architecture in mind, for, she believed, architecture is the first aspect of a civilization to show the symptoms of a decline, and she chose Italy for its role as a center of Western architecture. The buildings depicted in a cubist-inspired manner include St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City, Il Gesù in Rome, a modern skyscraper in Milan, and the remains of Roman aqueducts.
The Breton legend of the city of Ys tells a story of an Atlantean nature: a great city on the coast of Brittany that becomes entirely swallowed by the sea due to natural, divine, or human causes, depending on the variation. This legendary sunken city is enshrouded in prophecies that it will rise again, and moralism, for its fall was blamed in the Medieval period on the practice of pre-Christian religions. Claude Debussy’s musical prelude The Sunken Cathedral reimagines the local lore that the sounds of the city’s church may be heard, everlasting, rising from the sea on a calm day, and it is a sense of this lasting decaying beauty that Sveva lends to her interpretation of the decline of Western culture.