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John Ruskin’s visions of Venice

11 May 2018

‘What would be the myth of Venice without the voice of John Ruskin?’ asks Gabriella Belli, in the catalogue introduction to the first ever monographic exhibition in Venice devoted to the man who owed as much to the city as the city owes to him. Belli is director of the reformed foundation for Venice’s civic museums, and she challenged the distinguished scholar Anna Ottani Cavina to make sense of Ruskin’s lifelong engagement with the place that he loved, but of which he also despaired.

Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (1851–53) has done much to shape the way the city is perceived, but the drawings that were such an essential part of his research have an immediacy today that the biblical cadences of his Victorian prose do not. The direct, physical encounter between Ruskin and the viewer is even more powerful when the objects of his study are all around you and you are inside what he called ‘the central building of the world, the Ducal Palace’.

Southern front of the Basilica di San Marco, from the loggia of the Palazzo Ducale (1851), John Ruskin. Private collection

Southern front of the Basilica di San Marco, from the loggia of the Palazzo Ducale (1851), John Ruskin. Private collection. Courtesy of the Trustees of the British Museum

This is brought powerfully home in a prelude to the main show, where, on the ground floor, the original capitals and other fragments of sculpture from the palace have been turned into an atmospheric display, literally, of the stones of Venice. It is also an inadvertent reminder of how much restoration and substitution has happened since Ruskin’s day.

For the main exhibition, it is necessary to cross the internal courtyard and climb up to the Doge’s apartments, where a sequence of rooms offers a spacious yet intimate setting. Ruskin rarely drew on a grand scale, but this problem has been solved by encasing each framed image within a larger surround that creates the effect of looking into a jeweller’s window. The watercolours are beautifully lit, without threatening their conservation, but by contrast the intelligently written labels, in Italian and English, are lost in gloom.

Although the show is about Venice, we are asked to make a mental and physical journey to get there. Having been introduced to Ruskin through portraits that present him more as a sage than as the young man who fell in love with Venice at the age of 16, we, like Ruskin, must first pass through the Alps, a reminder that a knowledge of geology preceded his architectural analysis. Turner’s influence on Ruskin’s dream of Venice is acknowledged, but a desire to show that both Turner and Ruskin anticipated modernism means that only one of the three canvases on display, Venice: The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute (1843), from the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., would have met with Ruskin’s approval, so abstract are the other two.

Arrival in Venice is again postponed, for we must first appreciate how Ruskin’s studies of foliage, shells and clouds also informed his aesthetic. The point is brilliantly made by the juxtaposition of an 1882 study of a spiral relief on the north door of Rouen Cathedral and an undated sketch of a spiral shell. Cavani argues in the catalogue that Ruskin’s visual motives ‘were not historical’, and she has taken this as a licence to mix drawings from very different periods of Ruskin’s life, despite their distinctive styles. This is especially true in the following room, where images of Naples in 1841 mix with those of Lucca in 1874, to remind us, quite rightly, that Ruskin loved the rest of Italy as well.

Ca d’oro (1845), John Ruskin. Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster.

Ca d’oro (1845), John Ruskin. Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster. Photo: © Ruskin Foundation, Lancaster

At last we reach Venice, and a sequence of rooms follows Ruskin’s focus on key sites and buildings. The room devoted to St Mark’s and the Ducal Palace is the most impressive. The problem of displaying tiny reflective daguerreotypes has been solved by photographing and enlarging them so that, for instance, you can make out the occupying Austrian troops of 1849 guarding their cannon beneath the Palace’s arcade. In her catalogue essay the photographer Sarah Quill writes that such plein air photography was a rarity. The more than 100 daguerreotypes that Ruskin bought or made in Venice were a key part of his research, as were the 200 worksheets of details and measurements, and a half-dozen related notebooks used to construct his architectural chronology. As Stephen Wildman, the recently retired director of the Ruskin Library at Lancaster University, points out, no other writer or artist has done anything comparable, not even Turner in his sketchbooks.

St Jean d’Acre pillar on the southern side of the Basilica di San Marco (1879), John Ruskin. British Museum, London.

St Jean d’Acre pillar on the southern side of the Basilica di San Marco (1879), John Ruskin. British Museum, London.

Although Ruskin’s regular copyist, John Bunney, is represented by some substantial works that provide a change of scale, it is unfortunate, though understandable, that his 1.5-metre-long masterpiece, The West Front of St Mark’s (1877–82), is not in Venice. Every exhibition needs a high point, and this would have been it, especially because the tell-tale grey marble that is shown creeping along the right-hand side of the façade records the planned restoration that Ruskin and his Venetian ally Alvise Zorzi were able to stop even before William Morris’s better known protest. Surprisingly, the exhibition underestimates Ruskin’s contribution to saving Venice from such brutal restorations. That said, this is a beautiful and thoughtful exhibition. It is not only a splendid prelude to the celebrations of the Ruskin bicentenary in 2019, but also to this year’s quincentenary of the birth of Tintoretto. Ruskin’s encounter with the Venetian painter in 1845 was a turning point, and both Tintoretto and Carpaccio are celebrated through Ruskin’s studies in a visually pleasurable coda.

In one part of the show, the verbal and visual sides of Ruskin’s imagination are brought together by the display of a letter that is two-thirds words, and one-third an image of Vesuvius in eruption. There we read: ‘the slightest sketch will be better than a volume of words’. So it is at the Ducal Palace.

‘John Ruskin: Le Pietre di Venezia’ is at the Palazzo Ducale, Venice, until 10 June.

From the May issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here.