Why the beauty of Venice left Ruskin cold

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - Photography - Simon Hef­fer

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

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