Ruskin's Venice

The Ruskin Library

The begining
Ruskin's first visit to Venice was in 1835 at the age of 16. The city was to have a lifelong influence on him, both emotionally and intellectually. He made eleven visits in all. Initially seduced by its romantic beauty, he later chose to undertake a far deeper study of its history, art and architecture than anyone had previously attempted, his three volume major work - 'The Stones of Venice'. Image - John Ruskin, Self Portrait, 1874.
1845 - 1846 
In 1845, having already published the first volume of Modern Painters, Ruskin travelled abroad alone for the first time with the intention of gathering material on 'Old Masters' for the second volume of Modern Painters. In the six months spent in Italy, he familiarised himself with the art of Florence and the architecture of Tuscany before moving on to Venice, where he spent much time in  the Scuola di San Rocco studying Tintoretto. He was horrified to find much restoration underway and he set about recording in detail many of the buildings including the Ca' d'Oro shown here.  “What an unhappy day I spent yesterday,” he wrote to his father on 23 September, “before the Casa d’Oro, vainly attempting to draw it while the workmen were hammering it down before my face.”  Image - John Ruskin, Ca' d'Oro, 1845.

Ruskin confessed to his father that “I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today, before Tintoret”. In the cycle of vast canvases depicting the Life of Christ, “he lashes out like a leviathan, and heaven and earth come together. M Angelo himself cannot hurl figures into space as he does.

John Ruskin, Study of the central portion of Tintoretto's 'Crucifixion', 1845.

No artist made a greater impression on the young Ruskin than Jacopo Robusti (1518-94), known as Tintoretto. Writing in Volume III of Modern Painters (1856), Ruskin drew attention to the figures of the Magi, depicted as “two of the noblest and most thoughtful of the Venetian senators in extreme old age.”

John Ruskin, Adoration of the Magi, after Tintoretto, 1845.

Possibly dating from the spring of 1846, this study shows the whole façade of a Palazzo Dario. Built in about 1487 for Giovanni Dario – secretary to the Venetian Republic in Constantinople – it exemplifies the style of “Renaissance engrafted on Byzantine”, with remarkable inlaid panels of marble.

John Ruskin, Palazza Dario, c.1846

The Stones of Venice
The winters of 1849-50 and 1851-2 were also spent in the city, with his wife Effie, gathering huge amounts of detailed information, especially on the great Gothic buildings of St Mark’s basilica, the Ducal Palace, and grand private houses such as the Ca’ d’Oro. Measurements, drawings and observations noted down in small notebooks and larger worksheets were cross referenced to make a comprehensive account of the architecture of Venice. In the fruit of this early study, the three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851-3), Ruskin also traced the city’s history in terms of his own aesthetic and spiritual view of civilisation, from its Byzantine origins (the ‘Foundations’ of volume I) to a ‘Fall’ (volume III) after the Renaissance. Unspoken contrasts were made between the heyday of Venice as a city state and its present forlorn position under Austrian rule. The chapter on ‘The Nature of Gothic’ at the heart of Volume II – one of his most celebrated pieces of writing – offered a convincing picture of an idealized society, with art and craftsmanship fostered by religious faith and benign government. This Architectural notebook is called 'Door book'. "This most curious gateway is across a passage leading out of the Listra Vecchia dei Barri near the church of the Tolentini".

"Rose tracery near Frari, Tracery of daguerred house with [?] in balcony: in Campo St Agostin near the Frari"

This architectural notebook, known as the ‘N Book,’ is the earliest in the series of ten which Ruskin used to record details and measurements of aspects of architectural features. He named notebooks according to content. Door book, House book, Gothic book, Palace book, Bit book, etc.

John Ruskin, Architectural Notebook 'N Book', 1849-1850.

"No 11. Details of bases of upper arcade, Doges palace / p. 34 M. Nov 14th. 1849."

This is an example of one of the vast number of studies made by Ruskin between 1849 and 1852 in preparation for The Stones of Venice (1851-53). Ruskin made a list of 206 numbered worksheets, of which 78 are in the Ruskin Library (whole or fragmentary): no.11 is described as ‘Ducal Palace Upper Arcade.’

John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice worksheet: Upper arcade of Doge’s Palace, November 1849.

This drawing was later Engraved by J.H. Le Keux as Plate VIII of Volume II of The Stones of Venice (1853).

John Ruskin, Venice, Byzantine Capitals, Concave Group, 1851-1852

In contrast with the medieval sculpted capitals on the Ducal Palace, Ruskin thought the later Renaissance carvings “base.” He made an exception for the 36th and final capital, “the most beautiful of the whole series … very noble; its groups of figures most carefully studied, very graceful, and much more pleasing than those of the earlier work, though with less real power in them.” (Stones of Venice, Volume II, 1853)

John Ruskin, Doge's Palace, Venice: 36th Capital, 1849-1852.

1876 - 1877
Ruskin's visit to Venice in winter of 1876/77 was to be his last productive trip.  In addition to large detailed studies he made many small pencil sketches, showing a range of style, technique and subject matter. The basilica of St Mark provided the subject for dozens of drawings in connection with The Stones of Venice, including two large studies of the very differently detailed north-west and south-west angles, facing the piazza. Since regularised by later generations, the extraordinary façade fascinated Ruskin, as epitomising “the most perfect Byzantine Romanesque,” and he was appalled to find work of wholesale ‘restoration’ well advanced in 1876. He was particularly distressed that the last of the thirteenth-century mosaics, in the roof of the fifth bay of the portico, was under threat of destruction, and this precise but also beautiful watercolour is to a large extent a labour of love in recording the decoration of this porch. The Byzantine carving of stylised peacocks, at the top left, also meant much to him, as the motif used to embellish the covers of The Stones of Venice. In this visit of 1876/77 Ruskin did make a few spectacular architectural drawings, but in a letter to Joan Severn of 20 May 1877, written shortly before leaving, he confessed: “I came to Venice meaning to do nothing but finished work! and the lot of scrawls and rags I’ve done!! worse than ever” Image - John Ruskin, North West Porch of St Mark's, Venice, 1877.

Ruskin’s decision to return to Venice for the winter of 1876-7 was partly motivated by a plan to revise The Stones of Venice, ‘gathering bits up’ again of his beloved city. In a letter to Charles Eliot Norton he said his intention was to make “pencil outline drawings from general scenes”, to round out the original text and thereby perhaps make it more appealing to the general reader.

John Ruskin, View on the upper reach of the Grand Canal, Venice, with the Palazi Tron and Duodo, 1876.

Friends and helpers
The destruction of Venice through 'restoration' which Ruskin had first noticed in his visits of 1845 and 1846 carried on through the 1850s and 1860s. Ruskin commissioned various artists in the recording of details of Venice before they vanished forever. Artists such as T.M. Rooke, J.W. Bunney, Angelo Alessandri and Raffaele Carloforti were commissioned to make record drawings and paintings for Ruskin himself and also for his Guild of St George Museum. Charles Herbert Moore, an American artist spent time with Ruskin in Venice in 1876/77. He was a member of the Association for the Advancement of Truth in Art, founded in 1863 and very much inspired by Ruskin’s writings. San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice was painted at this time. 

According to Bunney’s records, this watercolour was not a commission, but was seen by Ruskin in the artist’s studio and bought for £40 on 25 June 1872. It is shown here in its original frame.

John Wharlton Bunney, North West Door in the Porch of St Mark's, Venice, 1871.

Ruskin commissioned three copies of this damaged mosaic after 1877, from Charles Fairfax Murray and T.M. Rooke (both now in the Guild of St George collection at Sheffield), and this one from the young Italian artist Angelo Alessandri. One of the minor subjects in the chancel, this was one of Ruskin’s favourites among the mosaics of St Mark’s.

Angelo Alessandri, Mosaic, St Mark's, Venice: The Doge, Clergy, and People of Venice, 1883.

This meticulous copy is said to be by Ruskin himself, but more likely to be by Angelo Alessandri. Ruskin thought the mosaics of St. Mark’s “the bible of old Venice”, and determined to have records made of them when they were under threat of wholesale replacement in the late 1870s: this desecration was later halted.

John Ruskin, The 'Inventio' Mosaic (Finding the Body of St. Mark)

Ruskin presumably directed Carloforti towards this sculpture, which he thought was inspired by the figure of St Simeon in the Church of San Simeon Grande: “The head of Noah has the same profusion of flowing hair and beard, but wrought in smaller and harder curls.” (Stones of Venice, Volume II)

Raffaele Carloforti, Head of Noah, from the Vine Angle, 1876.

Arthur Severn married Ruskin’s cousin Joan Agnew in 1871, and in the following year they accompanied Ruskin to Venice with Albert Goodwin. He painted Venice on many subsequent occasions.

Joseph Arthur Palliser Severn, The Salute, Venice, showery weather.

Credits: Story

Exhibit prepared by Rebecca Patterson
Text (c) Ruskin Library
Images (c) Ruskin Foundation (Ruskin Library, Lancaster University)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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