Why the beauty of Venice left Ruskin cold
e Britons have grown up with the Baroque all around us, and rarely feel uncomfortable with it. The Great Fire of London destroyed a stunning Gothic cathedral, Old St Paul’s, but it was replaced with Wren’s masterpiece, which retains the power (however often one sees it) to overawe and impress. Hawksmoor, Wren and others re-populated London with elegant and beautiful churches, most of which survived the Blitz, or were authentically rebuilt after it – think of St Bride’s, St Clement Danes, St George-in-the-East or Christ Church, Spitalfields. It was also an age of some of our finest country houses – Sir John Vanbrugh’s Blenheim, notably, and Castle Howard, which he built with Hawksmoor. The architectural and aesthetic legacy of the age is potent.
Yet one of our greatest architectural critics, John Ruskin, hated it. He felt the Baroque to be decadent: not just a repudiation of his beloved Gothic, but a repudiation rooted in mediocrity and, ultimately, godlessness. When someone clearly unfamiliar with his writings on architecture invited him to speak at the opening of Bradford Wool Exchange in the 1860s, he castigated the city fathers for allowing this fine building to be erected in the Italianate style that had become the Victorians’ take on the Baroque: “Do you mean to build as Christians or
Was infidels?” he asked, to their shock and embarrassment.
Ruskin had embraced the Gothic revival that dominated English building from the late 1820s – his own childhood, and thus an impressionable time for a sensitive soul – and was horrified to see it being superseded in the late 1850s. He believed that those buildings that mimicked the Italian renaissance were implicitly heathen, not least because of the non-Christian imagery to be found in the literature and art of the period, in both of which he was very well schooled. From this observation he made the leap – not entirely justified by evidence – that only a heathen would build in the style of that period. Although brilliant, Ruskin could be erratic and irrational, sometimes giving the impression of being only elevenpence ha’penny to the shilling. He routinely provoked arguments with friends, to whom he would not speak for months or years on end; his difficulties with the opposite sex are well-documented and verge on the tragic; and he spent the last 11 years of his life in a state we would now call certifiably insane.
Gothic-style church building in Britain would persist until the early 20th century; but as our wool and corn exchanges frequently show – not to mention the schools, warehouses, town halls and other grand buildings of the period – the Italianate found widespread favour. Almost the only places Ruskin didn’t mind the style was at railway stations, as he thought there was little point in expending aesthetic effort on such buildings: they were places where one was always “in a hurry, and therefore miserable”, as he wrote in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849), and so it hardly mattered what one’s surroundings were.
Ruskin disliked the Baroque from his earliest studies, but his loathing of it grew in his late twenties, on visiting Venice, a city where most people acquire a new and more rarefied appreciation of the style. For all its quirks and eccentricities his book The Stones of Venice, published between 1851 and 1853, remains the finest guidebook to the city, though readers should be prepared to exercise their judgment on some of his opinions. With justice, Ruskin berates the use of paint in churches to mimic wood or marble, so not all of his criticisms are unfair: but some are made pointedly to fit his underlying thesis of the decay of architecture, rather than based on objective consideration.
From my first visit there, nearly 40 years ago, I have always been transfixed by the spectacle of San Giorgio Maggiore sitting magnificently on its island across the lagoon, as seen from the Palazzo Ducale. The church, designed by Palladio and built between 1566 and 1610, is of undeniable beauty. Ruskin, who loathed Palladio, dismissed it as having been built to look good from a distance, and said: “It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard.” He compared the interior to “a large assembly room”, worthy of note only because it houses some fine Tintorettos.
Ruskin is a superb writer, and The Stones contains some of his most beautiful prose, but he allowed ideology – the ideology of a fanatic – to get in his way when ostensibly evaluating aesthetics. The result is remarkable, but it isn’t criticism.
Ruskin dismissed San Giorgio Maggiore as ‘gross’ and ‘childish’
Arch fiend: an engraving from Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (1851-53) showing a detail of the Doge’s Palace