Looking at Architecture with Ruskin
John Ruskin: The Argument of the Eye
The relation of a traveler to his guidebook is a sensitive one; an unsuitable choice can blight your expensive and brief visit to a distant city as surely as finding yourself there with an incompatible lover, or a fussy eater, or someone whose feet hurt. Anyone who has trudged across miles of strange streets to find himself looking at a dull municipal mural or museum that’s shut has some intimation of the delicacy of this relation; not only must your guidebook have its facts straight, it must understand what you have come there for.
For Venice, the Victorians had their reliable Baedekers and their abridged editions of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, from which they imbibed new ideas, for instance that St. Mark’s did not look, as Mark Twain had put the representative view, like a “vast and warty bug taking a meditative walk,” but was beautiful instead. Ruskin is still a marvelous guide, stimulating if crochety—a marvelous guide but an unsafe ruler, someone has said. But until now, seeing Venice with Ruskin meant lugging the heavy three volumes of Stones in your carry-on, or taking a Xerox of the appendix, “Venetian Index”; and you would find using it difficult because of the way everything has been moved and changed.
Ruskin brought to Venice not the dutiful receptiveness with which the authors of most modern guides smile, like the Last Duchess, on everything, but a historical thesis, a strong preference for Venetian Gothic, a passion for Tintoretto, and a dislike of Titian, Renaissance architecture, and much else. His dislikes are as invigorating as his passions: “it is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard,” he tells you of Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore, which you had been thinking looked quite nice. He forces you to cling to your regard for Palladian building or abandon it, but it is the dialectic that is energizing, and educates the eye. As Charlotte Brontë wrote of Modern Painters, “I feel now as if I had been walking blindfolded—this book seems to give me eyes,” so do you need your eyes and wits about you here, if only to argue with this opinionated companion.
In this morning’s San Francisco Chronicle (November 14, p. 5), Alan Temko, the architecture critic, praising an office building complex planned for Levi Strauss, strikes out with truly Ruskinian intemperance at “preservationist spooks” and “the creepy Landmarks Advisory Board, whose adoration of the past verges on necrophilia” (the board had wanted some arches on a façade). In Manhattan a high-rise develops a Mansard roof; housing projects everywhere, in sudden defiance of many tenets of the modern style, sport the shed roofs and redwood siding of the northern California vernacular style. It is in the context, perhaps, of the growing division between the mandarins of modern public architecture and buildings that people actually like that Ruskin begins to be truly intelligible, perhaps for the first time in the way he had intended. It takes a modern city to help you see what Ruskin meant about Venice then.
The interior of San Giorgio Maggiore “is like a large assembly room,” he says, and you have to admit it’s true. He slyly concedes that Longhena’s great Baroque church, Santa Maria della Salute, is graceful, explaining why (“the inequality of size in its cupolas, and pretty grouping of the two campaniles behind them”), and tells you interesting facts about Turner’s painting of the steps. He then comments on the hypocrisy of the buttresses, “for the cupola is stated by Lazari to be of timber, and therefore needs none.” As modern people, largely because of Ruskinian principles that we have assimilated from modern architecture, we join him in disapproving of sham. Little by little it begins to seem not only that whatever he says is of interest, but that it is often, even usually, right—so persuasive is he, and so indulgent too of the truths of our nature, for instance in the Doge’s Palace, where he recommends that “the multitude of works by various masters which cover the walls of this palace is so great that the traveler is in general merely wearied and confused by them. He had better refuse all attention” except to a few of the important ones, to which he directs us, among them the great Tintoretto Paradise, three Veroneses he admired, and a Titian, The Doge Grimani kneeling before Faith, notable “as one of the most striking examples of Titian’s want of feeling and coarseness of conception.” (The really conscientious traveler can top up with one of the better and more thorough modern guidebooks, like Hugh Honour’s Companion Guide to Venice in the Fodor series.)
Like other enthusiasts, Ruskin assumes a certain irreverent familiarity with his subject and feels free to stigmatize faults in buildings and painters he loves, for instance Tintoretto’s Adoration of the Shepherds in the Scuola di San Rocco: “it is most curious that no part of the work seems to have been taken any pleasure in by the painter; it is all by his hand, but it looks as if he had been bent only on getting over the ground.” This somehow animates one’s idea of Tintoretto, drooping in ennui, hungover perhaps, painting in the background, and in turn gives the monumental accomplishment of the Scuola paintings some human scale. Thus does Ruskin animate all of Venice—its buildings, painters, the history of the place, the principles of its architecture. He explains, with diagrams, the orders of Venetian arches and how they developed, and Gothic capitals. He takes the viewer over the capitals of the Doge’s Palace one by one, and requires him to look at the least distinguished Venetian palazzo as well as its greatest buildings with the care he himself did. Having your visual consciousness raised by Ruskin can even be risky, as when he writes about Tintoretto’s St. Sebastian, which he admired because the arrows impale the saint so gruesomely. “In the common martyrdom of St. Sebastian they are stuck into him here and there like pins, as if they had been shot from a great distance and had come faltering down, …and rather bleeding the saint to death than mortally wounding him.” This does, you will find, permanently qualify your regard for other pinstuck St. Sebastians.
Arnold Whittick’s Ruskin’s Venice is an updated and augmented edition of the “Venetian Index,” improved with considerable knowledge and editorial tact, correcting errors in Ruskin, who had a weak head for dates and for Italian names, and adding material from Ruskin’s other works where the “Venetian Index” is cryptic; for example, when Ruskin passes over the great Tintoretto Crucifixion in the Scuola as being beyond analysis and above praise, Whittick provides Ruskin’s own long analysis and praise from the second volume of Modern Painters. He also adds helpful or interesting information about events since Ruskin’s day, takes note of things that have been moved, tells you about closing hours, and provides a map and many photographs as well as Ruskin’s own drawings.
Whittick is an architectural historian, and his remarks on restorations in Venice are particularly interesting. He is enabled by recent work to tell us things that Ruskin would perhaps have liked to know—for instance that some of Tintoretto’s skies have changed from midblue to reddish brown. One might complain that Whittick could have included even more material from St. Mark’s Rest, Mornings in Florence, and others of Ruskin’s works, and need not have abridged Ruskin’s account of St. Mark’s. He could perhaps have noted where Ruskin was later to change his mind, as he did about Titian, whose paintings at the time of Stones Ruskin found “as feeble as they are monstrous.” No doubt Whittick was dictated to by considerations of length, and as it is this is no pocket guide.
Only one serious complaint can be made; a reader unfamiliar with Ruskin’s general point of view about art and architecture might find some of his commentary bewilderingly eccentric, and could profit by a general prefatory discussion of Ruskin’s ideas and influence. Ruskin believed that there was a general relation of architecture to national character, and his purpose was to show that the architecture of twelfth-century Venice was superior to later Venetian architecture because it reflected the moral qualities of a “thoughtful Nation and a Pure Nation living up to its conscience.” Buildings are hard evidence, and the fall of Venice from purity and thoughtfulness is, in his view, apparent in her decline from Byzantine Gothic into the Renaissance style; and of course he intended an analogy with the ugly building of Victorian England.
Better known is Ruskin’s view that Gothic architecture was in general superior to other styles because it allowed freedom of expression to the workman. His ideas about the creative potential of each workman greatly influenced the arts and crafts movement, which in its turn influenced modern architecture but now seems to characterize the writings of an architectural counter-establishment, expressed in underground little books like Handmade Houses: A Guide to the Woodbutcher’s Art* and courses on how to build your own hut. His ideas on the ‘relation of building to public morality were taken up, in quite elaborate disguises, chiefly that of functionalism to begin with, but are even more evident now in the rhetoric of a new architecture that wants doors to “celebrate the entrance experience,” and so on.
Modern architecture is both the heir and the reaction to nineteenth-century ideas about building. Nikolas Pevsner begins Pioneers of Modern Design by quoting a famous statement of Ruskin’s that “ornamentation is the principal part of architecture,” a statement which Pevsner takes as not peculiar to Ruskin but typical of the general attitude of his time. From the modern point of view, the Victorians liked their buildings as they liked their parlors, overdecorated. But in Ruskin’s case, the remark about ornament has cost him, perhaps only until now, a serious audience for his architectural criticism. It seems a hard fate for Ruskin, whose life was so tormented anyway, that posterity would judge his ideas by standards even more puritanical than those dictated by his own evangelical conscience; for it is surely lingering puritanism that explains the modern disapproval of decoration, of mere added ornament, explains our idea that a love of ornament is rather childish or primitive, borne in Ruskin’s case (it has been suggested) of sexual frustration or even of an ocular defect.
Besides a foolish love of ornament, Ruskin’s understanding of space has also been derided. Because he seldom discusses it, people have said he didn’t understand it, or even that he was unable to perceive three-dimensional space, an idea which any of his brilliant architectural drawings ought to dispel. Or they have thought, despite his strangely fascinating chapters on walls, cornices, capitals, and other structural details in Stones of Venice, that he had no understanding of structural matters at all.
John Unrau’s modestly contentious and convincing study of what Ruskin did really say about looking at buildings, his aesthetic principles quite apart from his ethical ones, suggests that Ruskin’s techniques of analysis were more shrewd and more theoretical than he has been given credit for. Unrau attacks these interpretations of Ruskin’s ideas by demonstrating abundant references in Ruskin’s writings to space and mass, and by showing that Ruskin uses the term ornament in a broader sense than is usually realized. It is we, not Ruskin, who are limited by our pre-occupation with the metaphorical significance of “façade.” Not only did he have a quite contemporary view of function, and disapproved of superfluous ornament, as in his strictures against the useless buttresses of the Salute, he also devised sound principles of analysis which modern architectural critics could use.
It is true that Ruskin believed that ornament, in a very broad sense, distinguishes architecture from mere building, just as Le Corbusier believed it, in Ruskin’s sense. Unrau says Ruskin means by ornament any major subdivision of a structure, depending on the distance from which it is to be viewed. At a distance the broad design of buttresses or towers in the landscape are ornamental, and their propriety is to be judged in that context. Up close, the details of a frieze are ornamental. Ornament is never something extra added to a building to beautify it, though Ruskin has been thought to believe that is exactly what it is. Instead, he is clear on insisting on subordination of detail to the visual whole. The criterion for judgment is always appropriateness; finely finished details would be weak and useless on upper stories where they cannot be seen. Unrau stresses how much of Ruskin’s considerable power of ridicule was directed at the architecture of his own day, which was loaded with mechanical, derivative, machine-made, “unfelt” ornament, a judgment with which posterity has tended to agree while unfairly blaming Ruskin, as an enthusiast of the Gothic, for its inspiration.
Another contribution of Ruskin’s is to attempt to bring color into the discussion of architecture, which is conventionally treated, now as in the nineteenth century, as if it occurred in black and white and at an unchanging time of day. His attempts to formulate aesthetic theories concerning color were original if not definitive. He found when he “entered on it [that] there were no existing data in the notebooks of painters from which any first principles could be deduced,” and Unrau points out that despite a century of experiment, visual psychologists still cannot explain why some arrangements of color are more pleasing than others. Nonetheless, Ruskin does advance some principles, the most startling of which, we might think, is that color should be “visibly independent of form,” as it is in the Doge’s Palace, where “wall surface is chequered with marble blocks of pale rose, the chequers being in no wise harmonized, or fitted to the forms of the windows; but looking as if the surface had been completed first, and the windows cut out of it.”
It is well known that for nearly every opinion Ruskin expresses, it is possible to find in his works a contradictory view; and it is a common pitfall in studying Ruskin, as a way of getting over his inconsistencies, to relate whatever he said to his state of mind at the time, a procedure which results in most interesting studies of Ruskin himself but fails, usually, to elucidate the fundamentals of his ideas with the clarity with which Unrau has done here. By strictly limiting his focus, Unrau is enabled to conclude that Ruskin had several really very original contributions to make to the study of architecture: “his constant watchfulness for the modifying effect that small details can have on the eye’s grasp of the overall composition would, if emulated, do much to increase the sophistication of contemporary analysis.” And his understanding of the role of light, shadow, and color in modifying our perception of form should enter into a modern architectural criticism which largely ignores these elements and instead treats mass and surface as if they were abiding instead of different from one minute to the next. Finally, not the least of his accomplishments, Ruskin was a brilliant architectural draftsman.
Robert Hewison’s survey of Ruskin’s life and ideas, The Argument of the Eye, succeeds gracefully in treating Ruskin’s ideas and life both, and managing the contradictions, by holding (to summarize his view) that Ruskin’s ideas seem to lack ordinary coherence because we approach them in the wrong way. Ruskin was not a logical thinker, and his habit of mind can be more easily understood in terms of a distinction elaborated by the visual psychologist Rudolf Arnheim between the scientific and the aesthetic observer, of which Ruskin was, obviously, the latter. The aesthetic observer does not systematize on the basis of abstracting constant qualities from perceived objects but is instead involved in their changing relation to a visual context. Ruskin was a looker of this kind, and then proceeded in a Hegelian manner to define things as a series of polarities, whose oppositions and contradictions would lead him closer and closer to Truth.
Viewing Ruskin in this way, his critics are at least relieved of a tendency to feel embarrassed at his changes of mind, though why changes of mind in seers and sages are found so distressing is a great question. Hewison’s is a readable, unaffected book, very helpfully explicating the cultural and social influences on Ruskin’s thought, in particular, at first, Wordsworth and evangelical religion, but also minor works on minerology and geology and romantic travel literature like Samuel Prout’s Picturesque Sketches and H.B de Saussure’s Voyages dans les Alpes. He presents a clear discussion of his thought in the context of his biography; whatever the reasons, intellectual or emotional, Ruskin continued to read, grow, and change his mind throughout his life. As late as 1877, in Venice, he was studying Carpaccio. Hewison avoids what he, like many English critics, feels to be excessive psychologizing: “it does not seem to help very much to say that ‘Ruskin associated Gothic architecture with sexual potency, and came to admire Gothic largely because it represented this quality,’ ” a judgment with which most of us would agree. “It is as works of mind, comprehending all the cultural and social influences at work as well as the psychological stresses, that Ruskin’s writings must be treated,” and so he has done.
Quentin Bell’s 1963 short critical biography, recently reissued, has the same intention and is a helpful introductory or summary presentation of Ruskin’s life and work. The new edition differs very little from the original, a fact the jacket copy does not indicate. The new bibliography contains some recent references, and the op. cit.’s have been changed to ibid. Like Hewison, Bell is tactful and judicious. It would be interesting to know to what extent Ruskin’s influence has been modified by our knowledge of his sexual situation (impotency and nympholepsy), a variation of the old critical question about whether a bad man can write a good book. Certainly this aspect of his biography has drawn from posterity a debate more vigorous than has, say, the alleged character flaws of Milton, engaging indignant defenders of his virility, angry descendants of Effie Ruskin Millais, even partisans of Rose La Touche; and Mr. Bell is not unaffected by a sense of battle, as the terms of his discussion suggest: “Without an understanding [of Ruskin’s sex life] we cannot assess the really serious charges that have been brought against him by Admiral James. No one will be so foolish as to blame him for being impotent, but he may more justly be accused of making his wife unnecessarily unhappy.” Charge, blame, accusation. Mr. Bell’s judicious formulation of this, as of the question of Ruskin’s influence, makes this continue to be a valuable and basic work. It is possible, however, that it does not fully forecast the extent to which critics such as Unrau and Hewison will revive Ruskinian aesthetics in a newly receptive intellectual climate.
By Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro (Scrimshaw Press, 1973).↩
Ruskin’s Originality June 14, 1979
By Art Boericke and Barry Shapiro (Scrimshaw Press, 1973).↩