From a lecture on John Ruskin

I would like to touch on two aspects of Ruskin that I have always found particularly absorbing. One is the endearing spirit of humility that shines forth from his earlier paintings and the notes that he made on them, particularly in letters to his father, where he deplores his lack of technical ability to reveal his full understanding of what he observes. A striking quality of these works – ranging from misty alpine views to microscopic studies of leaves and carvings – is that they are not mere attempts at depiction. Instead, they seem to be investigative attempts to understand the fabric, texture and construction of both natural and man-made objects. This is worth bearing in mind when, later in life, he sets about the huge task of revealing the form and substance of Venice to the broader reading public.

Second, there is the extent to which he successfully took part-ownership of the ongoing attempts to restore and preserve Venice, working closely with Venetian groups who had the best of intentions but to whom restoration was little more than make-do-and-mend fabric repair, pastiche overpainting of damaged paintings, etc. In this area – echoing the “investigative” qualities and intentions that characterize his early work – he makes it very clear that successful conservation depends on a full and profound understanding of everything that comprises the work of art or building in question – the spirit of the age, the artisan techniques and all the rest. He was one of the first two Englishman to take ownership of the city heritage. The other was his and Effie’s friend, Rawdon Brown, who spent thirty years arranging, editing and translating the Annals of the Republic. Brown, it should be said, was a resolutely more Venetian Englishman than Ruskin could ever have been – sailing his boat around the lagoon and so on. You’d have never seen Ruskin sailing or rowing – though he did take his dog for walks on the beach.

Turning to his anti-Palladio diatribes, Ruskin firmly believed that Venice was a Gothic city in body and spirit, and that buildings like San Giorgio, Redentore and so on were impertinent interlopers that severely contaminated the integrity of the city. Gothic architecture was, for him, a form of collective worship, whereby everyone from the richest patron down to the jobbing stonemason worked together to create something that was both vivibile (liveable) and a standing celebration of man’s relationship with God. In his mind, the Gothic was essentially a continuation of the medieval way of thinking in which tradesmen and artisans could set up stall in the shadow of the cathedral or palace and feel that they were part of it. Classical architecture (also the Baroque and the Rococo) was more about power and social division. He famously said that if you were to strip away the picturesque components of boats, boatmen, water, etc, the Palladian buildings in Venice would seem little more than provincial, civic edifices, hastily put together from Vitruvian copybooks – superficial advertisements of wealth and patronage. Of course, he conveniently sidestepped the uncomfortable truth that Venetian Gothic came about largely as a result of the huge expendable income the ruling class had at its disposal following the unfortunate events of the Fourth Crusade. Challenged with that, Ruskin fans obviously point to the transformative powers of art, and how great art executed in the name of the Church and its wealthy secular supporters can counterbalance or even outweigh the underlying wickedness that made it all possible. But this is a pointless line of enquiry. The main thing to bear in mind is the liveability and functionality of the ideal Gothic city, the advantages it confers in terms of everything from aesthetics to the sense of social inclusion – and how there is something strikingly organic about the way a Gothic city grows. Layers of accretion build up; there is an idiosyncratic lack of symmetry and organisation; there is none of the copybook artifice of the Palladian school.

At the very least, Ruskin’s prejudice encourages one to look at the Venetian cityscape in a fresh way. One might form the uneasy conclusion that Palladian, neoclassical or classical schemes usually work best on a blank slate in the countryside, in rural schemes like Malcontenta (a brilliant example). In cities, this kind of building never really works unless it is part of a large and entirely homogenous scheme, like Regents Park and Belgravia in London. These were virgin sites, and therefore the final built scheme did not and does not interfere with anything around it. By contrast, in the countryside, the Palladian approach works brilliantly – you have an untouched Arcadian wilderness at the periphery of the estate; the landscape leading from that to the villa is progressively refined and tamed (lakes, carefully planted copses and avenues of trees, a Dutch-style formal garden, etc), finally culminating in the order and beauty of the house itself. It is an 18th century way of looking at things – balancing Nature and Art. It does not sit so well in an urban setting, where homogeneity, history, and slow, progressive (and uninterrupted) expansion produce the most pleasing results. It’s the age-old debate – the city as a living organism versus the city as a backdrop for further, immediate (and often discordant) emblems of change.

It is a pity that Ruskin did not live to see the full flowering of the Venetian neo-Gothic, a school of architecture far superior and more imaginative than its English counterpart. While English neo-Gothic had all of the copybook, “cut and paste” aspects that Ruskin hated about the Palladian school, the Venetians were a great deal cleverer and went way beyond imitation and pastiche. Venezianismo, which is the best blanket term for this school, sought to reincarnate the Gothic/transitional renaissance Venetian idiom in a modern context. Gothic motifs were given a new spin, and ornamentation was applied with a host of contemporary references. A good is example is the fish market at Rialto, completed by Giovanni Rupalo in 1910. It is completely congruent with the buildings around it – and the exterior ornamentation (including a wonderful lion of St Mark) has Symbolist iconography that gently but firmly replaces its Gothic antecedents. Ruskin would have approved.

And so finally, I suppose, Ruskin’s prejudices leave us with an unexpected way of looking at the city – as a self-contained Gothic masterpiece that became the victim of later and unwelcome interpolations. Only an Englishman could have proposed such an arrogant but ultimately unassailable statement. It took a Frenchman and a Russian to give us clearer verbal snapshots of what the city-as-organism really is: Proust, “a chain of marble cliffs…”; Brodsky, “innumerable strands of coral reefs…” I think if one can successfully invite people to make a comparison between the cliffs/reefs, and the organic development of the Gothic city, then one has done a reasonably good job.