“Among the many strange things that have befallen Venice, she has had the good fortune to become the object of a passion to a man of splendid genius, who has made her his own, and in doing so has made her the world’s.” – Henry James
This memorial plaque is on the Zattere on the front of Pensione La Calcina, where Ruskin stayed for four months in 1877 on one of his many extended trips to Venice. Here's the translation:
Lived in this house, 1877
High Priest of Art
In our Stones and in our San Marco
In almost every monument of Italy
He sought at one and the same time
The craftsman’s soul and the soul of the people
Every marble, every bronze, every canvas
Each of these things proclaimed to him
That beauty is religion
If the virtue of man inspire it
And the people’s reverence accept it.
The Council of Venice, In Gratitude
January 26, 1900
Once you start reading about Venice, you’re going to run into British writer and art historian John Ruskin along the way. It’s just inevitable. You don’t even have to read anything he actually wrote because virtually everyone who’s written about Venice in the past one hundred years mentions and/or quotes Ruskin.
A literature professor in college joked to our class, “Life is too short and Proust is too long” as the explanation for why we were only going to read two of the seven volumes of “Remembrance of Things Past” for her class that semester.
Well, I feel the same way about Ruskin and his “The Stones of Venice” which is half a million words long in three volumes. Life IS too short. Tackling that would be right up there with trying to read the Bible, another book I don’t plan to read in this lifetime except in excerpts. But the good news is that there are several books that allow us to take our Ruskin in smaller doses (and he is worth reading because he’s so fascinating and his opinions about Venice are just flat-out fun to read even if he is a bit long-winded).
The first book where I "met" Ruskin was JG Links' "Venice for Pleasure," a series of self-guided walking tours around the city and one of my favorite guidebooks. Mr. Links talks about “my hero” Ruskin throughout this book while at the same time, poking gentle fun at him, and parts of it are hilarious. Mr. Links also compiled an abridged version of “The Stones of Venice” that is quite manageable.
“The Lamp of Beauty: Writings on Art by John Ruskin” by Joan Evans is a good collection of essays from various Ruskin books (Modern Painters, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, etc).
Best of all is “Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited” by Sarah Quill. This one combines selected passages by Ruskin with photographs, and it’s really fun to read the famous Ruskin rants next to a photograph of the building that was sending him over the edge.
During the 19th century when Ruskin was studying Venice, the city was in a state of dire crumble, and Ruskin had this sense of urgency to document every column and capital and speck of marble. He did it with words (lots of words) but also with dauggerotypes (just invented) and by commissioning artists to draw and paint the city. Ruskin himself was a good artist, and this book includes some of his drawings and paintings too.
Ruskin pretty much hated everything in Venice that was built after about 1450 or so. He loved the Byzantine and Gothic (he considered the Doge Palace “the central building of the world”) and passionately hated the Renaissance and Baroque (which he called the Grotesque Renaissance). He especially hated Palladio’s churches. But it’s interesting that there were certain buildings in Venice that Ruskin couldn’t trash, even when it contradicted his theories not to….the Miracoli church, for example, and other Lombardi Renaissance buildings, and he even went a bit easy on Santa Maria della Salute. While his rants are hilarious to read, also fun is his quick rubber stamp “of no importance” on some of Venice’s most famous monuments. The Bridge of Sighs: “a work of no merit”, he wrote. :)
I tend to agree with him much of the time but while I prefer the older buildings too, especially the Veneto-Byzantine churches, I don’t hate the “newer” ones and I even love some of them. I'm not that crazy about Baroque architecture overall but it doesn't send me into a tailspin. And I don’t really buy Ruskin’s theories that some architectural styles are morally superior to others; I think it’s all just personal preference. But I haven't read his whole book so who knows, maybe I'd be convinced if I did (but I doubt it).
In terms of biographical Ruskin, I haven’t read much but I really like the chapter in John Julius Norwich’s Paradise of Cities which is honest and sympathetic about Ruskin’s mental state. Ruskin was a brilliant genius who struggled with mental illness that worsened as he aged. It’s a sad story in many ways especially when he couldn’t bear to be in Venice anymore. He definitely deserves a memorial in Venice – not only for his incredibly thorough documentation but also because in many ways, Ruskin planted the seeds for the much-needed restoration work that was done in the 20th century. I’m particularly grateful to him for helping to pull the plug on a poorly-planned late 19th century “restoration” of Basilica di San Marco that would have probably ruined that cathedral.
"Thank God I am here, it is a Paradise of Cities." – Ruskin wrote this in a letter during his second visit to Venice in 1841. I know the feeling!
A Ruskin watercolour of San Marco:
I had to smile when I saw this art award that my nephew brought home from school. Happy to see that they are quoting Ruskin in North Carolina kindergartens. :)