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Architecture & Infidelity

Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited

By Sarah Quill

Publisher: Ashgate

Pages: 206

Price: $49.95

Review Author: Elaine Hallett

Elaine Hallett is a freelance writer in New York City who is celebrating her 15th year as a book reviewer for the NOR.

Also Reviewed:

The Stones of Venice, Vol. 2: The Sea Stories. By John Ruskin. Classic Books (P.O. Box 130, Murrieta CA 92564). 470 pages. $98.

The Stones of Venice, Vol. 3: The Fall. By John Ruskin. Classic Books. 436 pages. $98.


Emily Dickinson reminds us that “there is no frigate like a book/to take us lands away.” The books listed above are more gondola than frigate: They take us through the canals of the Venice that John Ruskin called “the Paradise of cities.” How better to see Venice than as Ruskin did?

But why are these books about Venice relevant to a Catholic publication? Though Ruskin belonged to the Scottish rather than the Roman Church, he puts God right at the center of his thinking about art and artists, and everything is judged as to its relative truthfulness or falsity, its honesty or its hypocrisy, its divine beauty or its base grotesqueness. There is a whole theology of truth enunciated in Ruskin’s study of the Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance styles in Venice. He sees the Byzantine and the Gothic as expressions of God’s universe, and he offers a pointed criticism of the failures of the Renaissance revival of classicism to maintain this center of focus. The whole presentation seems to me extremely relevant to our own secularized age, which is the culmination of certain errors that Ruskin discerns in the humanistic attitudes that emanated from 15th-century Italy. This venerable study of Venice, because it has its roots deep in Christianity, inevitably illuminates not just one city but our whole civilization.

One hundred years after his death, John Ruskin must still be remembered as the “man of splendid genius” that Henry James deemed him, the man who “made Venice his own, and in doing so has made her the world’s.” Anyone who has not yet encountered Ruskin or his The Stones of Venice will surely find the acquaintance rewarding. Sarah Quill, in her elegant new book Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited, provides an opportune meeting ground. Her brief introductory sections contain excerpts from Ruskin’s letters, from his other books, and from books about Ruskin — nicely chosen selections in which we see Ruskin roaming through Venice and gain some idea of his daily routines. We find him at six o’clock on a sunny morning settled at a cafe table in the Piazza San Marco, breakfast beside him, ready to sketch the venerable basilica, or, in a colder season, returning home after enduring, for long hours, the “pain of frost-bitten finger and chilled throat” as he “examined or drew the window-sills in the wintry air.” He writes to friends, lamenting that the Venetian palaces “are mouldering down as if they were all leaves, and autumn had come suddenly,” yet wanting to protect these places from the worse ruin of attempted restoration. On another occasion he emerges, in a happier mood, “having been buying from a poor Frenchman here some most beautiful, though small, Daguerreotypes of the palaces I have been trying to draw…exquisitely bright small plates, which contained, under a lens, the Grand Canal or St. Mark’s Place, as if a magician had reduced the reality to be carried away into an enchanted land.”

For those who wish to know Ruskin better, this “documentary” overview of his life provides vivid glimpses of the man at work. Ruskin is celebrated for the intensity with which he looked at objects that were presented to his view; in fact, when an object he wanted to look at was not close enough to be adequately discerned, he would climb scaffolding or obtain ladders for nearer access, always accompanied with the instruments needed to take accurate measurements and the materials required to record on paper the details he observed. Quill sets at the head of her book the famous quotation from Ruskin’s Modern Painters: “The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion — all in one.”

Quill wants to show us what Ruskin saw. Through her photographs, she brings us closer to the buildings Ruskin examined. Not only has she matched photographs to Ruskin’s excellent drawings of tracery and moldings but, by photographing wider views than Ruskin was wont to include, she also enables us to visualize in their entirety the buildings from which these details were taken. With each photograph she includes a quotation in which Ruskin himself tells us in a plain and straightforward way what he saw and consequently what we ourselves are to look for. To have the Ruskin text and the Quill photographs side by side is a gift for which we cannot be too grateful.

Quill, who has worked in Venice as a photographer for 25 years, has accomplished a task that goes beyond giving pleasure to her public. By going to the very spots where Ruskin stood with his sketch books as well as to buildings he depicted but did not draw, and recording such places with her camera, she fulfills a request Ruskin made to readers of his earlier book, The Seven Lamps of Architecture: “The greatest service which can at present be rendered to architecture is the careful delineation of its details from the beginning of the twelfth to the close of the fourteenth century, by means of photography…. While a photograph of a landscape is merely an amusing toy, one of early architecture is a precious historical document;…[photographs of] this architecture should be taken, not merely when it presents itself under picturesque general forms, but stone by stone, and sculpture by sculpture; seizing every opportunity afforded by scaffolding to approach it closely, and putting the camera in any position that will command the sculpture…[so that] the details are completely obtained.”

Such a record, Ruskin believed, would contribute toward the revival of fine architecture by inspiring artists of the future. In Quill’s photographs, each building displays those contrasts of light and shadow, those combinations of marble and brick and Istrian stone, those encrustations of shaft and plinth and cornice that ornament the stone, and those much-admired Venetian colors that delighted Ruskin’s eye. It was architecture of the kind that Quill has captured on film that Ruskin hoped would inspire new generations of artists and restore youth and vigor to a civilization deep in decline.

A short preface by Alan Windsor, former professor of art history at the University of Reading, supplies a more formal biography of Ruskin, along with abstract summaries of the three periods of Venetian architecture that Ruskin distinguishes.

My hope is that Quill’s Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited will whet your appetite for the original from which she has borrowed. Her own opinion, that The Stones of Venice is “far too long and discursive a work for anyone but the serious student to attempt to read in its entirety,” unfortunately makes the original sound daunting. But to my mind, the length is no formidable barrier. I began with Volume 2 (the Byzantine and Gothic styles) but went on to read Volume 3 (Renaissance) and then Volume 1 (Foundations). Start anywhere in any one of the volumes, and you will find the prose so enchanting, the organization so clear, the reasoning so orderly and the knowledge upon which it is based so complete, the truths elucidated so expressive of what seems “right and good,” that you will want to go on to read the whole, and the whole will seem far too short. I assume that if you are reading the NOR you probably have much of the “serious student” in you anyway. For that matter, who does not become a serious student when the subject turns so tantalizingly to life’s ultimate meaning.

It is Ruskin’s belief that the health of a society, its essence and its meaning, can be read in its architecture. For Ruskin, the stones and the mortar of a building reflect the minds and the hearts and the souls of the men who built it — thus, it is always what is in the heart of a man that The Stones of Venice is truly about.

This journey from the exterior landscape into the landscape of the soul is just what one does not find in abridgements. An inevitable drawback of all condensed editions is that what gets omitted are the “discursive” elements, the very segments in which the author probes his own mind most deeply and produces those insights that move beyond the immediate subject to peer into the eternal. Quill’s book is no exception. In Stones, Ruskin proposes not merely to examine the architectural beauties of that “city of marble,” that “golden city, paved with emerald,” where “every pinnacle and turret glanced or glowed,” which Quill focuses on. He writes of Venice because the truths which can be perceived in its stones, its history, its very life, apply to the England of his day, indeed, to Western civilization itself, and because the architectural principles which he discerned and elucidated have their basis in the most universal of all subjects, divine truth. Stones of Venice is a book in which a penetrating mind has seen through the external beauty of an inspiring creation to its essence and origins in the rules of the Creator. These fundamental premises are the elements that make Stones of Venice more than a mere travel guide. They are why one wants to get to know Ruskin better.

Probably the most interesting reason for reading Stones of Venice in its entirety is the clarity with which Ruskin traces the flowering and subsequent decline of Western civilization, and does so through the evolution of one art in one city, to which you can go and observe for yourself the truth of his conclusions. Not only does he demonstrate that a period or a style is conceived, develops, reaches its peak, and then, when pursued beyond what is perfect, degenerates into self-indulgence, as when the classic Gothic moves into its flamboyant stage, where the architect gets charmed by the effect of curvature in stone and carries it too far (as if, says Ruskin, stone can or should be bent), or when those persons who became fascinated by the columns, the pediments and architraves, the symmetry and pure surfaces of Greek and Roman architecture and created the classical Renaissance building became charmed as well by the pagan ornamentation and got sidetracked into glorifying the grotesque. Ruskin integrates all of this flux and flow into a narrative that defines those tendencies of the Western mind to focus less on the divine and ever more on the individual until, as William Butler Yeats says, “the center will not hold,” and Man displaces God.

Were the lovely palaces pictured in Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited to inspire you to open Volume 2 of the original Stones of Venice, you’d be taken almost immediately to the Basilica of San Marco. Standing in the Piazza outside of this magnificent apparition, overwhelmed by its size and complexity of detail, you’d be given an orientation to its Byzantine glory that no contemporary tour guide could equal. Moreover, with Ruskin you will be rewarded with a tour of the interior of the basilica, an aspect of Ruskin’s Venice that Quill’s understandable decision to confine her endeavors only to exteriors denies you. With Ruskin, you enter a different world, in two senses, not just literally by passing from the outside world of the bustling square into the sacred space of the church, but figuratively as well by moving from the appearances of stone and marble and mosaic to the higher realities they symbolize. Where we in the 20th century are used to browsing through glossy pages of mammoth art books looking at fine photographs, often reading only the captions, yet feeling quite satisfied, with Ruskin we penetrate beyond the surface; we enter for a time the transcendent space that represents “heav-en” on earth. Let me illustrate briefly how Ruskin makes you experience the coherence of the multiplicity that confronts you as you enter St. Mark’s Basilica by walking you through its symbolism.

First of all, Ruskin points out why only pre-Christian themes are used to decorate the portico of the basilica. Symbolically speaking, the portico, because it was outside of the church proper, was conceived of as a space “reserved for unbaptized persons.” How fitting, then, that the mosaics there tell the story of the Fall of Man and record the lives of the patriarchs up through Moses — the Old Testament history of the first covenants between God and man.

This “sojourn” in the time before Christ should increase the expectancy with which one enters into the main basilica, and Ruskin asks you to be aware of the difference. Inside, he notes, in what is symbolically the “realm of the baptized,” you are immediately confronted with a mosaic of Christ enthroned and the words “I am the door; by Me if any man enter in, he shall be saved.” Ruskin takes you further still, not just into the building but into the very heart of Christianity, by explaining that the dome of the first cupola, welcoming those who have accepted the Savior, tells the story of Pentecost, the moment at which the Holy Spirit entered into the souls of the members of the young Church. He calls attention to relationships between the symbolism of the mosaics and the liturgy itself. For example, “on the vaults, at the four angles which support the cupola, are pictured four angels, each bearing a tablet.” Ruskin reads out the words inscribed on these tablets — “Holy, holy, holy, Lord” — thereby identifying the hymn from the liturgy that we all sing at every Mass. The words tell us, he says, that “it is the holiness of God, manifested in the giving of His Spirit to sanctify those who had become His children, which the four angels celebrate in their ceaseless praise; and it is on account of this holiness that heaven and earth are said to be full of His glory.” And so Ruskin proceeds further and further into St. Mark’s, pointing with each step to the symbolism that makes the basilica “a scroll for the written word of God” and an image of the Church, His Bride. This is the kind of thing that Ruskin means when he says that “to see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion — all in one.” When we look at Venice through Ruskin’s discerning eye, the very stones come alive and speak to us of the men who built the edifice and of their faith.

When Ruskin turns to the Gothic era, his eye focuses on an entirely different area of contemplation. He looks at the mindset of the medieval Christian society which confessed the imperfection, even the unworthiness, of the human being while at the same time recognizing the unique value of every soul. Because he believes that “it is in obedience to the eternal laws of one’s being, to the laws of the Creator, that all things [and most of all every man and every woman] find their fulfillment,” Ruskin is ever conscious of the Gothic mind’s humility before God.

Ruskin is not just an eye, not a mere camera. His mind is constantly ranging back and forth between the visual and the symbolic, moving from the particulars he observes to generalized appraisals. Philosophic insights grow out of the visual evidence he has accumulated. Take, for example, what Ruskin makes of stylistic tendencies that his contemporaries stigmatized as the “rudeness” of the Gothic (and by Gothic they meant barbaric). Is this “primitive” style to be condemned? Far from it. Ruskin found in that “savage” quality of Gothicness “the very characteristic that deserves our profoundest reverence.” His reasoning was as follows. “Accurately speaking, no good work whatever can be perfect, and the demand for perfection is always a sign of a misunderstanding of the ends of art.” This is partly because, even in the greatest artists, the mind is always far in advance of the powers of execution. But it is also because “men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have precision out of them,” he prophesies, you must dehumanize them, for then “the soul’s force must fill all the invisible nerves that guide it, ten hours a day, that it may not err from its steely precision, and so soul and sight be worn away.” The alternative to steely, stultified exactitude was to grant the craftsman the license to “begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing,” without any other compulsion than to do it as well as he can. Though this must inevitably mean the loss of “the engine-turned precision,” the gain is that “out comes the whole majesty” of the man. Thus is the workman freed from a futile kind of slavery and enabled to give what is best in him. And that is what the masons, the carvers, the ordinary men who created the southern facade of Venice’s Ducal Palace did. They let their imaginations enliven whatever they were set to work on. What Ruskin admires in Gothic architecture is this quintessential humility, which, “out of fragments full of imperfections, [can produce] a stately and unaccusable whole.”

In Volume 2 of Stones of Venice, Ruskin shows us Christianity at its height. Though he shows us often enough that there is serious trouble, the chief loss he is pointing to is the physical decay of the buildings, which, even in his time, were neglected and wasting away. In Volume 3, however, the decay is a spiritual one. Architecture tells us about the health or sickness of a society, if we know how to read it. And Ruskin shows exactly what to look for — and at.

One of the most thrilling and well-cinched arguments is made in the form of a tour through one church — the Church of San Giovanni y Paolo. Come with me, says Ruskin, and look at its tombs. They are the tombs of Venice’s doges. In these monuments and sepulchres dating from the 11th to the 17th century, Ruskin finds vivid evidence of a profound shift in human sensibilities. Because Quill’s book confines itself to Venetian exteriors and eliminates the insides of buildings from its purview, one gets no sense of this development in her book. In Ruskin, however, one sees that the tombs, designed while the society is healthy, reflect a humility and reverence about death. Around 1250, the form of the tomb replicates an ordinary casket, hardly larger than is necessary to contain the body. The primary decorative element is the cross, though some decades later it becomes customary to carve Christ enthroned on the side of the sarcophagus and a representation of the Annunciation in the angles, Gabriel on the left and the Virgin Mary on the right, “the promise of the Birth of Christ being taken as at once the ground and the type of the promise of eternal life….” Still later, an effigy appears on top of the sarcophagus as a remembrance of the dead man in his prime — the equestrian statue of Can Grande in Verona (1335) is the example of this type that Ruskin finds most beautiful. But how these sepulchres grow! How, suddenly, the most evil of men commands that his tomb be covered with statues personifying the Virtues, often the very virtues he least practiced, until, around 1650, the monument loses all humility, soaring from the pavement of the nave or aisle to the very roof, and dispensing with all reverence but that which is directed toward the mortal who has attempted by these means to bestow immortality upon himself!

Both in her text and her photographs, Quill faithfully records many stylistic details of the Venetian Renaissance which Ruskin observed and drew. But one misses in the book Ruskin’s penetrating analysis of classicism, of the age’s sudden rediscovery of and fascination with Roman antiquity, the growing preference for pagan symbols and images over those of traditional Christianity. If you want to see where things began to go wrong, says Ruskin, look at what the Venetian architects of the 16th and 17th centuries did with stone. You will see that the true center of the universe is increasingly displaced and man himself moves in to fill the vacuum. Ruskin identifies and examines three basic errors that, in combination, contributed to the glorification of man and the consequent eclipse of God. All were reflected in and can be read back from the architecture: Ruskin presents them as three Prides — the Pride of Science, the Pride of State, and the Pride of System. What Ruskin has to say under these headings in that fascinating chapter of Stones of Venice called “The Roman Renaissance” is that such attitudes have shaped the society we live in and have affected the lives of every one of us. It behooves us to be aware of them. The warnings Ruskin issues are of as much importance to us individually and collectively as they were some 150 years ago when he was writing for people in Venice and London.

Ruskin defines Pride of Science as the introduction into art of “accurate” knowledge, with the conviction that scientific accuracy was necessary to the excellence of the work — thus, “perspective, linear and aerial, perfect drawing and accurate light and shade in painting, and true anatomy in all representations of the human form,” the exact representation of things as they are, came to be valued more highly than “things as they affect the human sense and human soul.” Truth of aspect is substituted for truth of essence.

Pride of State comes next. The problem here is that humble forms are no longer considered proper to art; there was a constant expression of individual vanity and pride, which demanded grandeur. Windows, doors, stairs, pillars must all be “in lordly order and of stately size.” There must be wings and corridors, halls and gardens. Luxury, above all luxury of the body, was prized. All these elements widened the breech between the aristocratic class for whom the buildings were constructed and the lowly who were shut out from them.

The third kind of pride Ruskin called Pride of System; it grew out of the tendency to formalization and the sense that art must conform to rigid laws. The effect was to increase the restraints imposed upon artists and to force the workman to copy and polish rather than create. All law derives from above and is “written upon the heart.” But small minds will attempt to make it all-encompassing — to codify and systematize ad infinitum, until law becomes so rigid and confining as to be stifling. An excess of systemization is for Ruskin another aspect of Renaissance pride.

In all of these errors, because the aim was grandeur rather than humility, there was the danger of self-adulation. Ruskin shows us three different ways in which pride was manifested and then demonstrates how all culminate in a fourth error — Infidelity. The more learning man absorbed, writes Ruskin, the more his consciousness of God was crowded out, and pride in his own achievements “led gradually to the forgetfulness of all things but self, and to an infidelity only the more fatal because it still retained the form and language of faith.” If Ruskin’s Byzantine and Gothic explorations in Volume 2 are illuminating because in those styles Ruskin discerns the noble characteristics of the human mind, his Renaissance chapters in Volume 3 take us through the darker side of our nature, through the errors that come to the surface when the natural order is overturned and man assumes the place of God.

Writing of the artist’s duty “to stir the whole of the beholding spirit,” Ruskin asserts in his concluding chapter that “one of the main functions of art, in its service to man, is to rouse the imagination from its palsy, like the angel troubling the Bethesda pool; and the art which does not do this is false to its duty, and degraded in its nature.” There must, he says, “be a summons in the work of art, which it shall be our own fault if we do not obey.” The Stones of Venice is a book that intentionally “cries out to your noblest faculties.” I say again, the problem is not that The Stones of Venice is too long. For me, there is not enough of it.

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