The Stones of Venice has been called not only a great work of scholarship but also a great work of art. It is not merely a catalog of architectural accomplishments; it is a work of cultural history and a commentary on human character. For John Ruskin, the relationship between a nation’s buildings and its morality were inseparable, and his three-volume treatise on the edifices of Venice, Italy, ranges widely to tell the story of the city he sees as the midpoint, both literally and figuratively, between the cultures of East and West. In The Stones of Venice, Ruskin praises the accomplishments not only of the great leaders of Venice, but also of the countless numbers of common workers who toiled with skill, patience, and reverence on the great Gothic structures of medieval Europe.
For Ruskin, the polish of the Renaissance was anathema. The exquisite finish of Renaissance architecture values perfection in a limited sphere, and slavish copying of idealized form counts more than attempts to re-create human emotions in art. By contrast, the workers who constructed Gothic buildings were given greater freedom to express themselves. Although their work may appear rougher, even unfinished, it is the consequence of each person’s struggle to make something unique; the value of the work lies in the effort of the worker, not in the perfection of the work itself. In Ruskin’s view, Renaissance artisans built to please others and to gain glory for themselves, but Gothic workers built to celebrate life and praise God. Small wonder that, for Ruskin, the persistence of Renaissance values indicated a decline in moral stature for humankind.
Ruskin stands with his contemporary, the architect A. W. Pugin, as one of the premier exponents of the Gothic movement of the time. His influence on Victorian sensibility should not be underestimated. In addition to supporting the movement that led to the construction of a number of nineteenth century buildings in the Gothic style, his writings on the Gothic, particularly his celebration of Gothic qualities in The Stones of Venice and his praise of painters and sculptors of the medieval and early Renaissance periods, had a significant impact on a younger generation of artists who eventually dubbed themselves Pre-Raphaelites. Poets and painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and William Morris found Ruskin’s works inspirational. Additionally, the tenets of architecture expressed so gracefully and in such detail in The Stones of Venice were among the first to make an impression on one of the most important architects of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright. The Stones of Venice was the first book on architecture that Wright read, and its influence can be seen not only in his designs but, more important, in his constant assertion of the value of architecture in reflecting the aspirations of a society.
In the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, Ruskin traces the development, apex, and decline of three architectural expressions: Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance. Ruskin relates their growth and deterioration to the rise and fall of the Venetian state. He shows that the virtue and piety that marked Venice at its flourishing found expression in Gothic architecture and that as this faith declined, Venice’s corruption was expressed in Renaissance architecture. The architecture expressed not only the morality of the state but also the morality of the individual architect and common workers who designed the buildings and did the labor. Ruskin believes that the artistic expression of any nation is clear and direct evidence of its moral and spiritual condition; thus, when Ruskin states that since the fading of the Gothic tradition there has been no architectural growth in all of Europe, he is also commenting on the spiritual poverty of his own time.
In the first volume, The Foundations, Ruskin traces the history of Venice. For nine hundred years the Venetians had struggled to bring power and order out of anarchy. They succeeded in doing so largely because they possessed a childlike religious spirit that dignified even their business transactions and brought them peace, energy, and, whenever necessary, heroes. The geographical location of the city and the nature of its maritime activities were crucial. In Venice, the three preeminent architectures of the world—Roman, Lombardic, and Arabian, each expressing a different religious view—flourished separately and blended into one another. For this reason, Ruskin calls the Ducal Palace the central building of the world.
According to Ruskin, to appreciate or judge any architecture, one must first establish canons of judgment. To do so, one must understand the basic requirements and structure of any building. When speaking of buildings, parts of...
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