Sunday, 11 March 2018

John Ruskin Returns to Venice

Self portrait with blue necktie by John Ruskin (1873) Morgan Library & Museum, NY
(Venice, Italy) John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the first foreigners who tried to "save Venice," a phenomenon that continues to this very day. An English art critic, writer, historian, artist and social reformer with a tormented personal life, Ruskin arrived in Venice with his wife, Effie, in the winter of November 1849 and stayed through March 1850, to research what would become his most famous work: The Stones of Venice.

Ruskin had been visiting Venice with his parents ever since he was a young man, which he described as "the paradise of cities," and would continue to do so throughout his life. At the time he arrived as a married man in 1849, the Venetians had just lost the Republic of San Marco, a revolutionary state that had lasted for 17 months (1848-1849) after Venice had declared her independence from the Habsburg Austrian Empire. On August 28, 1849, Austrian forces reconquered the city following a long siege. Ruskin was alarmed that Venice's fragile beauty would be lost forever, and worked diligently to document her monuments and stones.

"Venice is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak, so quiet, so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow. I would endeavour to trace the lines of this image before it be for ever lost, and to record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves that beat like passing bells against the Stones of Venice."

Ponte dei Pugni, Santa Fosca by John Ruskin (1849) - Ruskin Foundation
There are no works by John Ruskin in any Italian public collection, so everything in the excellent John Ruskin - The Stones of Venice exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale comes from major museums all over the world. The exhibition was conceived by Gabriella Bella, the Director of Venice's Civic Museums, and was curated by Anna Ottani Cavina with scenography by Pier Luigi Pizzi.

Divided into ten sections inside the Doge's apartment, the exhibition presents drawings, watercolors, writings and other marvels, including Ruskin's original manuscripts for The Stones of Venice never before exhibited and conserved at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York. The exhibition is the first major presentation in Italy of an artist who "crossed every border in the name of an interdisciplinary vision, which he practised even before the term itself was coined."

Venice, Punta della Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute by JMW Turner (1843) - National Gallery of Art, Washington
John Ruskin was the only child of two first cousins, born in London on February 8, 1819. His mother, Margaret, was four years older than his father, and gave birth to Ruskin at age 38. She was English, a fervent Evangelical Christian, and insisted that Ruskin read the King James Bible over and again. His father, James, was a wealthy Scottish wine importer with a passion for art and literature. The Ruskins traveled frequently, taking their young son with them, exposing him to privileged international travel, foreign landscapes and the beauty of nature. He was precocious, which his parents encouraged. Ruskin graduated with a double degree in Classical Literature and Mathematics from Christ Church College, Oxford. He then went to live with his parents in Denmark Hill, south of the Thames, where he remained until his mother's death in 1871 at age 90.

On his 13th birthday, he had received a copy of Samuel Roger's poem, Italy. The illustrations by J.M.W. Turner deeply affected him, beginning a life-long obsession with the artist's work. In fact, three magical paintings by Turner add zest to the exhibit: Venice and Venice: The Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute, both from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Venice, the Ceremony of the Doge Marrying the Sea from Tate Britain, London.

"He is the greatest artist who has embodied, in the sum of his work, the greatest number of the greatest ideas."

Portrait of Rose La Touche by John Ruskin (1860) - Ruskin Foundation
I didn't know much about Ruskin before I saw the exhibition, except for the scandal that continues to fascinate us 150 years later -- that he had never consummated his marriage, which was annulled after six years. We will never know exactly what went wrong, but the most persistent rumor is that he was so used to seeing the nude female figure depicted by smooth classical statues, that he was shocked to discover that Effie had pubic hair.

The exhibition kicks off with a room full of portraits, some of Ruskin himself, and others of important women in his life. In addition to his strange marriage, Ruskin had another bizarre relationship with the opposite sex: a student, Rose La Touche, whom he met when she was nine-years-old and he was was about to turn 39. He eventually fell in love with her, and asked her parents if he could marry her. Warned off by Effie, who, by that time, had married the artist John Everett Mallais, Rose's parents refused.

Ruskin proposed again when Rose turned 18 and could decide for herself, but she again refused. Rose died at the age of 27 in a Dublin nursing home, probably of anorexia, which caused Ruskin to go a bit mad. He convinced himself that Vittore Carpaccio had included portraits of Rose in his paintings of Saint Ursula, delved into spiritualism, and tried to contact her spirit beyond the grave.

Rocks in unrest by John Ruskin (1886) - Morgan Library & Museum, NY - Photo: Cat Bauer
"These great cathedrals of the earth, with their gates of rock, pavements of cloud, choirs of stream and stone, altars of snow, and vaults of purple traversed by the continual stars."

In contrast to his tumultuous relationships with human beings, when it came to nature, Ruskin was in perfect sync. He believed that nature was the handiwork of God, and that you could see the fingerprint of God in the rocks, in the trees and in the mountains themselves. In the summer of 1845 and then again in 1858 and 1869, Ruskin retraced the route through the Alps that Turner had taken before him.

When Ruskin returned to Venice in 1876, he was disturbed by the enormous amount of restoration the city was undergoing. He was particularly concerned about the fate of the mosaics in the Basilica of San Marco. Of the entire facade, only the mosaics on the Northwest entrance that dated from the 13th century had survived, and risked being destroyed. He thought St. Mark's was "a jewelled casket, every jewel of which was itself sacred." 

In a letter to Count Zorzi in 1877, he wrote, "I... being in truth a foster-child of Venice; she has taught me all that I have rightly learned of the arts which are my joy; and of all the happy and ardent days, which, in my earlier life, it was granted to me to spend in this holy land of Italy, none were so precious as those which I used to pass in the bright recess of your Piazzetta, by the pillars of Acre; looking sometimes to the glimmering mosaics in the vaults of the church; sometimes to the Square, thinking of its immortal memories; sometimes to the Palace and the Sea."

Basilica of San Marco by John Ruskin (1879) - The British Museum, London - Photo: Cat Bauer
The exhibition focuses on "the nature of Gothic," and its rediscovery and celebration. From Wikipedia:

For Ruskin, the Gothic style in architecture embodied the same moral truths he sought to promote in the visual arts. It expressed the 'meaning' of architecture—as a combination of the values of strength, solidity and aspiration—all written, as it were, in stone. For Ruskin, creating true Gothic architecture involved the whole community, and expressed the full range of human emotions, from the sublime effects of soaring spires to the comically ridiculous carved grotesques and gargoyles. Even its crude and "savage" aspects were proof of "the liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure."
Classical architecture, in contrast, expressed a morally vacuous and repressive standardisation. Ruskin associated Classical values with modern developments, in particular with the demoralising consequences of the industrial revolution, resulting in buildings such as the Crystal Palace, which he criticised.[196] Although Ruskin wrote about architecture in many works over the course of his career, his much-anthologised essay "The Nature of Gothic" from the second volume of The Stones of Venice (1853) is widely considered to be one of his most important and evocative discussions of his central argument.

In all, Ruskin visited Venice eleven times between 1835 and 1888, documenting her palaces, monuments and stones, and the exhibition does a terrific job in taking us on a journey through his life and works by use of drawings, paintings, photos and excerpts from personal correspondence with friends and relatives. Venice has bewitched many suitors throughout the centuries, and Ruskin was one of her most passionate. In June, 1852, he wrote to his father from Verona: "I should like to draw all St. Mark's, and all this Verona, stone by stone, to eat it all up into my mind, touch by touch."

In addition to art and architecture, Ruskin had very strong views about social reform and politics, attacking industrial capitalism and formulating what would constitute the ideal community. When his father died in 1864, he inherited a fortune, which allowed him to put his strong political and social theories into practice.

I spent a good two hours absorbing the exhibition, and could easily have spent more. Ruskin seemed to be a prolific, complicated genius, with a dark Victorian side. At the end of his life, he grew a long beard, and had frequent bouts of mental illness, haunted by the memory of Rose La Touche.

John Ruskin in 1892 - Photo by John McClelland - National Portrait Gallery, London
That is just the tip of what the exhibition has in store; there is much, much more. The thought-provoking John Ruskin - The Stones of Venice opened on March 10 and runs through June 10, 2018, and is a MUST SEE. Go to Palazzo Ducale for more information.

Ciao from Venezia,
Cat Bauer
Venetian Cat - The Venice Blog

1 comment:

  1. John Ruskin (1819-1900) was one of the first foreigners who tried to "save Venice," a phenomenon that continues to this very day. An English art critic, writer, historian, artist and social reformer with a tormented personal life, Ruskin arrived in Venice with his wife, Effie, in November 1849 to March 1850 to research what would become his most famous work: The Stones of Venice.