Ruskin in Venice

The years that John Ruskin spent in Venice are no longer just an important biographical fact about an eminent art Victorian critic. They have become a narrative prism through which to assess architecture’s role in contemporary society. This month the British contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale is effectively an architectural and artistic exploration of Ruskin’s writings.  At the most important exhibiton of architectural ideas in the world,  Britain’s contribution, housed in a small neoclassical pavilion in the Giardini in Venice, explores Ruskin’s relationship with Venice in a questioning way. The exhibition poses some important questions about Ruskin’s relationship with architecture’s role in contemporary society, specifically around the way it is made. Liza Fior, the artistic director of the pavilion would have us believe that Ruskin was a radical.

This is the culmination of a general reappraisal of Ruskin’s attitude to Venice, the city which the English art critic assidiously catalogued. Ruskin’s paternalist approach to the place, his championing of particularly its Gothic architecture provides an insight into the way in which architectural theory develops and dissipates. The exhibiton at the Biennale features a small section curated by Robert Hewison author of the extensive biographical work Ruskin in Venice, which was published earlier this year. The book is a fascinating examination of the relationship between Ruskin and the city, a cataloguing of the mythlogical relationship Ruskin developed with the city and a brilliant deconstruction of it.

The relationship is based primarily on the Stones of Venice, Ruskin’s major work about the city which forms forms an immense contribution to the further establishing of architecture as an art. It is the product of detailed observation sustained at the highest level over a number of years, not to mention the fruit of a closed reading of its history. That is not though the main reason why it intrigues us today however. Nor is it because of his own rather sad personal life. For the more notorious sections you’d have to visit Kensington to the see house where his wife Effie went to live with John Everertt Millais or Coniston, in the Lake District where he passed his troubled later years. Venice instead is where Ruskin propounded his theories and in turn found them confounded.

In positing Venice as a text, which could be read, he in turn went on to decipher it. In doing so he extrapolated from his readings, an impassioned defence of the Gothic as the morally superior style of architecture in Europe. He traces its origins and finds Venice at the heart of its pre-eminence. His argument is that the Gothic is produced by master-builders, dedicated in their tasks to a collective sharing of their skill, often in the direct veneration of God, but not exclusively so, working in semi-autonomous units throughout Europe.

Up until the very end of his life there remained in this favouring of the Gothic; this transmission of God’s word through the tactile language of stone, a mistrust of the centralised authority of the papacy. Although Ruskin was raised as a Protestant by evangelising parents in the 19th century, he found the same sense of brotherhood in the work of masons in the late medieval period. To him, the Renaissance was not a period in which mankind evolved but, instead regressed morally In Venice he found the apogee; the proof of Gothic tradition’s moral superiority. The Ducal Palace of Venice was the central building of the world, he writes in The Stones of Venice, not it must be noted for its purity but because of its mixing of ‘the Roman, the Lombard and the Arab’.

Why should this talk of the Gothic and morality engage us in the present day? Because the focus of Ruskin’s argument, is not ultimately the evils of the Renaissance or even Catholicism, even though he rails at ‘the Papists temple… the danger and evil of their church decoration.’  The real enemies for Ruskin were democracy and industry. As Hewison makes clear in his excellent book Ruskin’s real intellectual master was Thomas Carlyle, who he considered a second father. Of particular import on Ruskin’s thinking was Carlyle’s comparison between Bury St. Edmunds in his day and in the 12th century. Through this juxtaposition, Carlyle extrapolates the need for an industrial aristocracy: a noble feudalism, which will protect the working man. Ruskin went along with this.

The Stones of Venice, published in the middle of the 19th century, is a late flowering of a benign feudalism. Is there any reason why it should capture something apposite about the early 21st century? Yes but in a very particular way.  One can see in Ruskin – poor, troubled, impotent Ruskin- the epitomy of our own quandaries in the face of industrial progress. Richard Sennett addresses The Stones of Venice in his book The Craftsman. He writes  ‘a “flamboyant” worker [the quoted adjective is Ruskin’s]; exuberant and excited is willing to risk losing control over his or her work: machines break down when they lose control, whereas people make discoveries, stumble on happy accidents.’

Sennett gets at the core of Ruskin’s preference for the Gothic tradition. It permits the stone-mason to dictate scale and structure rather than the neo-classicisal approach which lends itself to political grandstanding and overly ornate detailing. Ruskin’s relationship with Venice though goes beyond that. Although he evokes the texture of the city wonderfully, it really is hard to put aside the biographical fact of Ruskin’s own disgust at human sexuality once you have learned it. There is in his descriptive powers, which are tremendous, a real sensual enjoyment of evoking the city. He writes at his best a little like Gerard Manley Hopkins or – another Victorian ascetic – Emily Dickinson. (I actually blushed when I read him describe the shafts in the church in Torticello.)

Yet whilst he loved the place for itself, it was to him the paradigm of an earthly empire. Venice wasn’t simply Venice. Nor was it simply the crucible for its ideas but an active barometer for the British Empire. ‘Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones of mark beyond all others, have been set up on its sands, the thrones of Tyre, Venice and England. Of the First of these great powers only the memory remains; of the Second the ruin; the Third which inherits their greatness if it forget their example may be led through prouder eminence to destruction.’ If the British Empire fails to learn from this book, well don’t go blaming me, Ruskin suggests.

It’s certainly an impressive opening gambit for a book.  Whilst it would be amusing for a while to consider the idea that the British Empire did indeed collapse because not enough people built Gothic arches in small groups of dedicated disciple-masons, this is not the time. What is worthwhile noting is that the measure of Venice becomes in Ruskin’s rhetoric a measure of the British Empire. In later life, he would posit that the lack of regard for England’s demise amongst Americans was just deserts for their disregard of Venice.

And yet within this first statement in The Stones of Venice there is an assertion that the British should care for the Italian city. In his writings and his later insistence on the right method for restoring St. Mark’s there is more than a faint whiff of Elginism. A book produced by the artist Wolfgang Scheppe is being published by the British Council compares the notebooks of Ruskin with the work of Alvio Gavagnin – a working class photographer from Venice who worked on the Vaporetti. For 20  years he and his wife, Gabriella made systematic archive of Venice, which Scheppe now has compared to Ruskin’s. The appropriating of Venice as a work of art has become Venetian. It is a bold assertion to host within the Biennale.

Because Ruskin also helped create the Gothic revival in British architecture at the end of the nineteenth century and effectively created his own demise: the radical anger to his nostalgia was unable to sustain itself in the transmission. In 1872, he left London for the Lake District. The letter he wrote at the time sums his predicament up:  ‘I have had indirect influence on nearly every cheap villa-builder between this and Bromley; and there is scarcely a public-house near the Crystal Palace but sells its gin and bitters under pseudo-Venetian capitals copied from the Church of Madonna of Health or of Miracles. And one of my principal notions for leaving my present home is that it is surrounded everywhere by the accursed Frankenstein monsters of, indirectly, my own making.’

Liza Fior, director of the art and architecture practice muf  have chosen the title Villa Frankenstein for their pavilion at the Venice Biennale. What Fior has done though is acknowledge the archetype in this relationship. To anyone who has reccommended a specific beach in Cornwall to a limited group of friends only to return to find a guest house with a facade they don’t approve of standing above the cove, to anyone who has recommended a campsite and then found it swamped two years later and felt that the world has somehow accelerated in an inconvenient way: Ruskin is your man.

Ruskin it must be remembered contributed to guidebooks, and although Stones of Venice is a serious tract on the moral purpose of great architecture, it was also published in several Traveller’s Editions within his lifetime. His book St. Mark’s Rest intended as a sequel to Stones of Venice is a guidebook itself and, although there may be some sarcasm in the subtitle ‘written for the help of the few travelers who still care for her monuments,’ there is also some truth.  As Hewison writes “Having declared the death of Venetian architecture and the absolute impossibility of restoring a building without destroying it, it was he who helped to save the west front of St. Mark’s for posterity and the crowds to come.’ Even though he by his own argument the building would cease to have vitality and be beautiful.

We can clearly sympathise with this predicament, even if we must acknowledge that it is the inevitable concomitant of social progress. We should be careful though of taking too much of Ruskin’s theories to heart.  Ruskin rebelled against the Enlightment view of the builder craftsman as master of technology. For him the craftsman was a Romantic archetype. He believe that craftsmen should demand what Richard Sennett has called  ‘a lost space of freedom’ in which they could experiment. He saw that the rigours of the industrial age, as they operated, worked against free expression and was a stern and able critic of these forces. But this does not make him a radical or indeed a pioneer.

Ruskin ultimately becomes a tragic figure because he failed to acknowledge that the very process of industralisation which he so abhorred was improving the lives of so many; that by making their own associations through their shared role in industrial production, the individuals themselves would in turn benefit.

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About cosmopolitanscum

Journalist, writer, commentator, blogging about architecture, urbanism and design from a humanist perspective.
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