Ruskin in the context of The Stones of Venice

Ruskin made eleven visits to Venice firstly in 1835 at the age of sixteen; finally at the age of sixty-seven in 1888. The most productive visits were those of 1849-50 and 1851-52 during which he spent two long winters, collecting material for The Stones of Venice, a work which proved to be very influential within the development of Victorian architecture. Writing in the Preface to the first edition of volume 1 (1851) Ruskin observed:

I went to Venice finally in the autumn of 1849, not doubting but that the dates of the principal edifices of the ancient city were either ascertained, or ascertainable without extraordinary research. To my consternation, I found that the Venetian antiquaries were not agreed within a century as to the date of the building of the facade of the Ducal Palace . . . Every date in question was determinable only by internal evidence; and it became necessary for me to examine not only every one of the older palaces stone by stone, but every fragment throughout the city which afforded any clue to the formation of its styles. This I did as well as I could.(Works, 9.3-4)

Almost a year later, and back in Venice working on the second and third volumes, he informed his father:

Take all the time that I have had here-about 12 months in all- in which I have had to examine piece by piece-buildings covering five square miles of ground-to read-or glance at-some forty volumes of history and chronicles-to make elaborate drawings-as many as most artists would have made in the time-and to compose my own book -and you will not I think wonder that I grudge the losing of a single day (see Bradley (1955) p.140)

The first visit, a period during which he collected his major research material contained within the notebooks lasted from November 1849 to March 1850. According to E. T. Cook:

Ruskin said at a later time that he ‘gave three years’ close incessant labour to the examination of the chronology of the architecture of Venice,’ and spent ‘two long winters in the drawing of details on the spot.’ That this is no exaggeration, his diaries, note-books, sketches and other graphic memoranda abundantly testify. The labour was fourfold; he read, he observed, he noted and measured, and he drew. He had already gone through, as he elsewhere says, a ‘steady course of historical reading’ - in Sismondi, Alison, Daru, among other authors -- in preparation for The Stones of Venice. At Venice itself he delved, with guiding help from Rawdon Brown, into the archives of the city and into the works of sundry local writers on its art and topography. Such reading may have given him a ground plan, and furnished him with hypotheses pour servir, but the conflict of authorities on the chronology of the Ducal Palace, and the absence of trustworthy data or established conclusions in the case of other buildings, speedily threw him back on his own resources; he must take nothing, he perceived, for granted or at second-hand. During this winter of 1849-1850, therefore and similarly two years later, he devoted himself to close stay of all the remaining edifices of the city. The ‘Venetian Index’ covers a great deal of ground, and the book itself bears emphatic evidence to the minuteness of his study; but the results that he garnered for publication, the conclusions at which he ultimately arrived, convey but a faint idea of his preparatory studies. (Works, 9.xxiv)

Under the influence of Venetian resident and researcher Rawdon Brown, Ruskin began to take note of contemporary Venetian sources, believing that writers should: ‘spend [their] time only in the examination of the faithful documents which . . . have been left, either in the form of art or literature, portraying the scenes, or recording the events, which in those days were actually passing before the eyes of men;’(Works, 11.265) This also indicates perhaps some influence from the German historian Leopold von Ranke and his focus upon ‘eyewitness reports’ and ‘primary sources’ (see Evans (2000) pp.17-18) According to Ruskin, however, by February 1852, he had available to him: ‘a whole library of delicious Venetian books on [his] table’ but, because of the limitations of time had not been prepared to ‘chase a single doge through all the shelves of St Mark’s library’ (Bradley (1955) p.165). He was, however, as Jeanne Clegg has pointed out ‘prepared to chase a moulding or a set of measurements through most of the churches and palaces of Venice’ (Clegg (1981) p.76). Hence we return to the importance of the notebooks and sheets which have allowed us to follow in his footsteps.

It is largely because of this painstaking work, that architectural historical scholarship acknowledges Ruskin’s contribution to defining of the phases of Venetian Gothic, and also to recognising ‘in an informed and articulate way, that Venetian architecture was profoundly influenced by the Orient.’ (see Howard (2000) p.2) According to Deborah Howard, his ‘scheme is still valid’ and that:

It is to Ruskin’s sensitive writings and his delicate wash drawings skillfully engraved to serve as illustrations that we owe the nineteenth-century ‘rediscovery’ of Venetian Gothic architecture, undervalued since the onset of the Renaissance. (Howard (2002) p.90)

The Venice Notebooks and related material reveal that Ruskin undertook ‘original research’ on a scale and of a kind his predecessors had not contemplated.’ (Clegg (1981) p.106) But we also need to be aware that he was not a totally isolated researcher. As indicated earlier, he was assisted in aspects of historical scholarship by his friend and Venetian resident Rawdon Brown and through contact with other Venetian scholars and writers, - for example Selvatico. (Lutyens (1965) n2, p.142) Charles Newton had helped him ‘so infinitely with dates and in tracing styles’ (Works, 10.xxv) and Captain Paulizza of the Austrian army, according to Effie Ruskin was ‘very useful to John in getting him into Barracks & Guardrooms &c of Palaces which before were closed to him.’ (Lutyens (1965) p.105) John James Ruskin acted as literary critic, and ‘in effect his son’s agent, editor and general manager’ (Clegg (1981) p.99) also performed valuable duties as what we might now call a ‘research assistant’ finding answers to many aspects of interest to his son, although based in London. Ruskin also had in the day to day routine a small team of assistants - Beppo, his gondolier; ‘George’ Hobbs his servant for photography, transcription and the tracing of inscriptions; Dominico, his Italian manservant and as we have seen, his wife Effie who provided, some historical research, soothing reading and marked out some of the headings within his notebook pages with particular aspects of architecture which he intended to explore.

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