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( Originally Published Mid-1900's )
The decline of Venice began, so the historians say, with the discovery of the Cape route to India. "No," replies Ruskin, "Venice began to decline when Venice ceased to believe in God." In the art of Venice Ruskin believes that we can trace the reflection of that Venetian pride and Venetian infidelity which ruined the Republic of St Mark's.
The discerning reader, however much he may dislike Ruskin's moral fervour, and however little he may be disposed to accept his aesthetic standard, cannot deny his genius. Moreover, the devout disciple of the gospel of `art for art's sake' should be the first to appreciate the artistry of the prose in which Ruskin sets forth the gospel of 'art for God's sake.'
There is hardly a building or a picture in Venice which you will not examine with increased interest if you examine it with reference to Ruskin's thesis. Whether you agree or disagree with Ruskin is a matter of secondary importance. If you share his hearty dislike for the Renaissance read him to confirm your faith. If you reject his creed read him for the fun of trying to prove that he is wrong. You will find his defence of Gothic architecture and his attack on Renaissance architecture in the second and third volumes respectively of The Stones of Venice. An admirable and cheap pocket edition of this classic may be purchased at those excellent bookshops on the Piazza, Ongania or the Libreria Artistica.
Ruskin spent his first Venetian winter (1849-50) at Danieli's. He spent the greater portion of each day examining pictures and buildings, and filling his notebook with sketches and actual measurements.
In a letter to C. E. Norton (May 1859) he writes as follows:
I went through so much hard, dry, mechanical toil there, that I quite lost, before I left it, the charm of the place. Analysis is an abominable business. I am quite sure that people who work out subjects thoroughly are disagreeable wretches. One only feels as one should when one doesn't know much about the matter. If I could give you for a few minutes, as you are floating up the canal just now, the kind of feeling I had when I had just done my work, when Venice presented itself to me merely as so many " mouldings," and I had few associations with any building but those of more or less pain and puzzle and provocation ;-Pain of frost-bitten finger and chilled throat as I examined or drew the window-sills in the wintry air; Puzzlement from said window-sills which didn't agree with the doorsteps, or back of house which didn't agree with front; and Provocation from every sort of soul or thing in Venice at once,-from my gondoliers, who were always wanting to go home, and thought it stupid to be tied to a post in the Grand Canal all day long, and disagreeable to have to row to Lido afterward; from my cook, who was always trying to catch lobsters on the doorsteps, and never caught any; from my valet-de-place, who was always taking me to see nothing, and waiting by appointment at the wrong place . . . from a fisherman outside my window who used to pound his crabs alive for bait every morning, just when I wanted to study morning light on the Madonna della Salute ; from the sacristans of all the churches, who never used to be at home when I wanted them ; from the bells of all the churches, which used always to ring most when I was at work in the steeples ; from the tides, which were never up, or down, at the hour they ought to have been; from the wind, which used to blow my sketches into the canal, and one day blew my gondolier after them.
The first volume of The Stones of Venice was published in 1851, and was very well received. The Times, which had previously ignored Ruskin, devoted two long reviews to the second volume, but perhaps the shrewdest and most discerning compliment was the compliment paid by the reviewer of the Daily News. This critic wrote:
Mr Ruskin is the first really popular writer we have ever had upon architecture ; and, paradoxical as this may seem, it is because he is almost the first truly profound writer we have had on that subject.
To Ruskin the very imperfections of Gothic were a sign of grace, and the cold correctness of Renaissance architecture the reflection of a lost soul.
He tells us:
The Greek gave to the lower workman no subject which he could not perfectly execute. The Assyrian gave him subjects which he could only execute imperfectly, but fixed a legal standard for his imperfection. The workman was, in both systems, a slave.
But in the medieval, or especially Christian, system of ornament, this slavery is done away with altogether ; Christianity having recognized, in small things as well as great, the individual value of every soul. And it is, perhaps, the principal admirableness of the Gothic schools of architecture, that they thus receive the results of the labour of inferior minds ; and out of fragments full of imperfection, and betraying that imperfection in every touch, indulgently raise up a stately and unaccusable whole.
Gaze upon the old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors : examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid ; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of the life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone ; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure ; but which it must be the first aim of all Europe at this day to regain for her children.
Gothic architecture was great because it was unrestrained by the pedantry of academic rule. Nothing is a great work of art, for the production of which either rules or models can be given. Exactly so far as architecture works on known rules, and from given models, it is not an art, but a manufacture ; and it is, of the two procedures, rather less rational (because more easy) to copy capitals or mouldings from Phidias, and call ourselves architects, than to copy heads and hands from Titian, and call ourselves painters.
The Gothic spirit not only dared, but delighted in, the infringement of every servile principle ; and invented a series of forms of which the merit was, not merely that they were new, but that they were capable of perpetual novelty. The pointed arch was not merely a bold variation from the round, but it admitted of millions of variations in itself; for the proportions of a pointed arch are changeable to infinity, while a circular arch is always the same.
For in one point of view Gothic is not only the best, but the only rational architecture, as being that which can fit itself most easily to all services, vulgar or noble. Undefined in its slope of roof, height of shaft, breadth of arch, or disposition of ground plan, it can shrink into a turret, expand into a hall, coil into a staircase, or spring into a spire, with undegraded grace and unexhausted energy; And it is one of the chief virtues of the Gothic builders, that they never suffered ideas of outside symmetries and consistencies to interfere with the real use and value of what they did. So that, in the best times of Gothic, a useless window would rather have been opened in an unexpected place for the sake of the surprise, than a useful one forbidden for the sake of symmetry. Every successive architect, employed upon a great work, built the pieces he added in his own way, utterly regardless of the style adopted by his predecessors.
Then came the Renaissance, with its unwholesome demand for perfection, at any cost. Men like Verrocchio and Ghiberti were not to be had every day, nor in every place ; and to require from the common workman execution or knowledge like theirs, was to require him to become their copyist."This," they cried, "we must have in all our work henceforward": and they were obeyed. The lower workman secured method and finish, and lost, in exchange for them, his soul.
In those meagre lines (of Renaissance architecture) there is indeed an expression of aristocracy in its worst characters; coldness, perfectness of training, incapability of emotion, want of sympathy with the weakness of lower men, blank, hopeless, haughty self-sufficiency . . . all other architectures have something in them that common men can enjoy; some concession to the simplicities of humanity, some daily bread for the hunger of the multitude. Quaint fancy, rich ornament, bright colour, something that shows a sympathy with men of ordinary minds and hearts ; and this wrought out, at least in the Gothic, with a rudeness showing that the workman did not mind exposing his own ignorance if he could please others. But the Renaissance is exactly the contrary of all this. It is rigid, cold, inhuman ; incapable of glowing, of stooping, of conceding for an instant. Whatever excellence it has is refined, high-trained, and deeply erudite ; a kind which the architect well knows no common mind can taste. He proclaims it to us aloud. " You cannot feel my work unless you study Vitruvius. I will give you no gay colour, no pleasant sculpture, nothing to make you happy; for I am a learned man. All the pleasure you can have in anything I do is in its proud breeding, its rigid formalism, its perfect finish, its cold tranquillity. I do not work for the vulgar, only for the men of the academy and the court."
And the instinct of the world felt this in a moment. In the new precision and accurate law of the classical forms they perceived something peculiarly adapted to the setting forth of state in an appalling manner : Princes delighted in it, and courtiers. The Gothic was good for God's worship, but this was good for man's worship. The Gothic had fellowship with all hearts, and was universal, like nature : it could frame a temple for the prayer of nations, or shrink into the poor man's winding stair. But here was an architecture that would not shrink, that had in it no submission, no mercy. The proud princes and lords rejoiced in it. It was full of insult to the poor in its every line. It would not be built of the materials at the poor man's hand ; it would not roof itself with thatch or shingle, and black oak beams ; it would not wall itself with rough stone or brick ; it would not pierce itself with small windows where they were needed ; it would not niche itself, wherever there was room for it, in the street corners. It would be of hewn stone ; it would have its windows and its doors, and its stairs and its pillars, in lordly order, and of stately size ; it would have its wings and its corridors, and its halls and its gardens, as if all the earth were its own. And the rugged cottages of the mountaineers, and the fantastic streets of the labouring burgher, were to be thrust out of its way, as of a lower species.
Ruskin was a rationalist in the proper sense of that much-abused word. His philosophy of art was based on reasoned inferences from the great premise that God exists. He was convinced that a civilization which is founded on truth will produce greater art than a civilization which is founded on a lie. From this it would seem to follow that if God exists the art which is inspired by the belief in God will be nobler and more significant than the art which is the product of the falsehood of infidelity.
Do not be misled by Ruskin's rhetoric into supposing that he meant to appeal to emotion rather than to reason. Nothing was further from his wishes than to carry the reader off his feet by sheer force of eloquence. He was anxious to convert the world not by the beauty of his prose, but by the irresistible logic of his argu ment. He put a vast amount of hard thinking into his aesthetic criticism, and his philosophy of art, as even those who reject it must admit, was coherent and consistent.
But the gospel of art for art's sake is a frank appeal to emotion rather than to reason. "What is art," as Samuel Butler once remarked, " that it should have a sake? "
Ruskin made a heroic attempt to discover objective standards of art criticism. Modern art criticism, on the other hand, is far too little concerned with first principles. Ruskin, like the medieval scholastics, never used a word until he was clear as to its meaning, and he never used a great windy phrase to save him self the trouble of exact thinking. Neither Aquinas nor Ruskin, for instance, would have used the phrase `significant form,' which is popular in modern art criticism, without stopping to ask, "Significant of what? "
" Ruskin," says Mr Horatio Brown, carried his theories further than history, faithfully studied, would warrant, but in most cases he had reason on his side. It may be doubted if the year 1418 and the death of Carlo Zeno mark categorically the point at which the history of Venice begins to decline and fall ; but, on the other hand, the transition from the Gothic style to that of the Renaissance undoubtedly coincides with a radical change in the character of the Venetian people and in the views and aspirations of the Republic.
Ruskin exaggerated the relation between art and faith, but it is significant that his most effective critic, the late Mr Geoffrey Scott, ranges himself with Ruskin against those who would seek a complete divorce between aesthetic and ethical standards. last resort," writes Mr Scott, For, in the great art will be distinguished from that which is merely aesthetically clever by a nobility that, in its final analysis, is moral ; or, rather, the nobility which in life we call ` moral ' is itself aesthetic. But since it interests us in life as well as in art, we cannot-or should notmeet it in art without a sense of its imaginative reaches into life. And to separate architecture, the imaginative reach of which has this vital scope-architecture that is profound-from architecture which, though equally accomplished, is nevertheless vitally trivial, is a necessary function even of aesthetic criticism.
There is, in fact, a true, not a false, analogy between ethical and aesthetic values : the correspondence between them may even amount to an identity. The ` dignity ' of architecture is the same ` dignity ' that we recognize in character.'
And since I am quoting Mr Scott, and propose to quote him again, I must add that architecture, which is the subject of many books, is seldom the theme of great literature, but the big word `genius' may certainly be applied without reserve not only to Ruskin's defence of Gothic architecture, but also to Mr Scott's more urbane, but no less effective, plea for the architecture of humanism.
Mr Scott has drawn our attention to the many aesthetic merits of Renaissance architecture which Ruskin was too prejudiced to admit, but, if I may venture a personal opinion, I was left, on finishing his book, with the feeling that Ruskin had the best of the argument. One need not necessarily believe that Christian humility was the distinguishing characteristic of the noblemen who lived in Gothic, and pagan pride that of those who inhabited Renaissance palaces, be cause one holds that the Renaissance architecture is more fitted to express the spirit of a Roman triumphal arch than of a Christian church. You have only to examine the clubs of Pall Mall and St James's to realize how admirably Roman architecture interprets the atmosphere of unimaginative exclusiveness. Indeed the new University Club, the only club built in the style of the Gothic revival, always seems as incongruous as St Pancras Church, that discordant plagiarism of the Erechtheum.
Nor need one deny that some of the Renaissance buildings were beautiful, because one holds that European cities were far lovelier in the Gothic age. One need only wander through Vicenza and contrast the beauty of the Gothic palaces with the arid monotony of Palladio's work. Nothing, again, could be drearier than the Renaissance in its decline. Whatever may be said for Palladio there is nothing to be said for Gower Street or the Euston Road.
As against this we must admit that the Renaissance provided both variety and contrast. The Grand Canal was lovelier in the fourteenth century, but less inter esting. If we could be transported back to Gothic Venice we should miss the Grimani and the Vendramin, and we should certainly mourn the Salute. Renaissance interiors may be dull and cold; I look in vain for that beauty which others have found in the interiors of the Salute and St Paul's, but Venice would not be Venice without the Salute, and London would not be London without the magnificent silhouette of our cathedral church. The great Renaissance domes, a vast improvement on the shallow domes of Byzantine churches, are, as we shall see, the greatest contribution of the Renaissance to architecture.
I am, however, not concerned to convert the reader to Ruskin's views, but merely to encourage him, if he has not yet done so, to read Ruskin. Ruskin, whether right or wrong, was at least tremendously important. " For two generations past," says Mr Cook,
Venice has been seen through Ruskin's eyes ; it is forgotten that his vision was individual and original. . . . When we now read in The Seven Lamps of Architecture that the Ducal Palace is " a model of all perfection," we may or may not entirely agree, but the judgment does not surprise us as a paradox. And when we are told that the facade of St Mark's is " a lovely dream," we are most of us inclined to acquiesce, and few, if any, are startled into indignation. But when Ruskin wrote, the architects of the time regarded such opinions as indicating the wildest caprice, if not as evidence of insanity. Professional opinion was that St Mark's and the Ducal Palace were as ugly and repulsive as they were contrary to rule and order.
Gibbon's views on Venice are worth quoting as an example of cultured opinion in the eighteenth century. " Of all the towns in Italy," he writes to his stepmother on April 22, 1765, I am the least satisfied with Venice. Objects which are only singular without being pleasing produce a momentary surprise which soon gives way to satiety and disgust. Old, and in general, ill-built houses, ruined pictures, and stinking ditches, dignified with the pompous denomination of canals, a fine bridge spoilt by two rows of houses upon it, and a large square decorated with the worst architecture I ever saw.
The large square is, of course, the Piazza, and St Mark's is Gibbon's conception of "the worst architecture I ever saw."
Even when Ruskin wrote his defence of Gothic and Byzantine architecture impressed his contemporaries as daringly original. "The architecture of St Mark's at Venice," wrote the Daily News reviewer, has, from of old, been the butt for students . . . to aim their wit at. Its ill-shaped domes ; its walls of brick incrusted with marble ; . . . were strong points in the indictment. But Mr Ruskin comes and assures us, etc., etc.
Ruskin, as Mr Geoffrey Scott points out, raised the dignity of architecture. He succeeded, as no other critic had done, in making architecture seem important.
Probably he took too slight account of the love of beauty as an emotion independent of our other desires. But still in some sense, however illusory, and by some semblance of method, however capricious, the principle was maintained : that the arts must be justified by the way they make men feel ; and that, apart from this, no canon of forms, academic, archeological or scientific, could claim any authority whatsoever over taste.
Moral fervour is a little out of fashion today, but the intelligent critic who is uninfluenced by the mode of the moment will not be prejudiced against Ruskin on that account. Nobody would accuse that most urbane essayist Mr Max Beerbohm of moral fervour, but Mr Beerbohm is generous enough to admit that it was this moral fervour in Ruskin that gave such intensity to his noble style. By reason of it he is, just as a writer, worth a hundred or so of merely philosophic gentlemen like you and me. It narrowed him, as a thinker, and put him again and again in the wrong. But how gloriously wrong and narrow was he ! And, when he was right, how divinely ! I wish we were a little like him.