John Ruskin’s celestial city

I’m glad that this weekend I at last caught the John Ruskin: Artist and Observer exhibition at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, which runs till 28 September.

It gathers a substantial collection of Ruskin’s pen, pencil and chalk sketches and watercolour paintings, demonstrating his exceptional capacity to observe both the works of nature and the human hand in forensic detail.

His reverence for the natural word and earnest belief that it should be depicted with utter truthfulness was grounded in faith that it was the work of God (though by the end of his life he was closer to a form of pantheism than traditional religious faith). The exhibition encompasses Ruskin’s intense interest in natural history, geology, meteorology and architecture. Everything is observed and rendered with acute clarity, the smallest detail warranting absolute attention: the stem of an apple, a tuft of moss on a stone, blades of grass peeking through a crack in a wall, lichen on a rock. Here, William Blake’s sentiment in Auguries of Innocence is made visible:

To see a world in a grain of sand
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.

The exhibition takes in epic panoramas as well as exquisite miniatures, including Ruskin’s impressions of the spectacular landscapes he encountered during his European journeys, from the glens of Scotland, across the German forests, to the Alpine glaciers.

I was delighted that it also featured many of his best studies of the architecture of Venice, including several prepared for his great work of architectural and social history The Stones of Venice, published in 1851. Through sketches, paintings and photographs taken using the emergent Daguerrotype process Ruskin explored the capitals, arches, columns, tracery and gargoyles of St Mark’s, the Case d’Oro, the Grand Canal, the Ducal Palace (for Ruskin ‘the central building of the world’) and many other Venetian landmarks.

Notebooks kept by his long suffering wife Effie record the obsessiveness with which Ruskin compiled his visual record of the city:

Nothing interrupts him and whether the Square is crowded or empty he is either seen with a black cloth over his head taking Daguerrotypes or climbing about the capitals covered with dust, or else with cobwebs exactly as if he had just arrived from taking a voyage with the old woman on her broomstick. Then when he comes down he stands very meekly to be brushed down by Domenico quite regardless of the scores of idlers who cannot understand him at all.

For Ruskin the story of Venice was an allegory of moral ruin, a celestial City of God corrupted by gradual moral decay. The Gothic architecture of medieval Venice exemplified his belief that the most beautiful art is guided by a purity of motive, as set out in his earlier work of 1849, The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Ruskin argued that the Gothic style was superior to the Classical because it sought to glorify nature, God’s work, rather than the capacities of human reason. Gothic was created in a spirit of humility, illuminated by the ‘lamps’ of Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory and Obedience. Whereas Classical architecture prioritised order, geometry and a perfect regularity of line, Gothic celebrated exuberance, allowing its designers and builders to express their wonder at creation through a riot of traceries, arches, lattice-work, angels, saints and gargoyles.

The architects of medieval Venice devoted their work to God’s honour, said Ruskin, and ‘were content to pass away in nameless multitudes, so only that the labour of their hands might fix in the sea wilderness a throne for their guardian angel’. The Nature of Gothic, perhaps the most famous chapter in The Stones of Venice, argued that Gothic workmanship engaged the worker’s head and hand:

You must either make a tool of the creature, or a man of him. You cannot make both. Men were not intended to work with the accuracy of tools, to be precise and perfect in all their actions. If you will have that precision out of them, and make their fingers measure degrees like cogwheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses, you must unhumanize them. All the energy of their spirits must be given to make cogs and compasses of themselves … On the other hand, if you will make a man of the working creature, you cannot make a tool. Let him but begin to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing; and the engine-turned precision is lost at once. Out come all his roughness; all his dullness, all his incapability; shame upon shame, failure upon failure, pause after pause: but out comes the whole majesty of him also, and we know the height of it only, when we see the clouds settling upon him.

The chapter’s powerful appeal for the dignity of work became a seminal text for the British labour movement, as influential as Marx and Engels’ observations in The Communist Manifesto, published shortly before The Stones of Venice in 1848, on the dehumanising nature of work in the Victorian factory:

We want one man to be always thinking, and another to be always working, and we call one a gentleman, and the other an operative; whereas the workman ought often to be thinking, and the thinker often to be working, and both should be gentlemen, in the best sense. As it is, we make both ungentle, the one envying, the other despising, his brother; and the mass of society is made up of morbid thinkers and miserable workers. Now it is only by labour that thought can be made healthy, and only by thought that labour can be made happy, and the two cannot be separated with impunity.

Ruskin believed Venice’s aesthetic and moral decline began with the Renaissance, when Gothic was superseded by the revival of a Classicism that sought to aggrandise those who commissioned it: the austere beauty of medieval Venice became polluted by a pagan architecture dedicated to the celebration of man rather than God, a new era that led Venice to ‘the forgetfulness of all things but self’. The city’s descent was a ‘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’, a warning that Ruskin sought to direct at his home city of London, which he feared had lost any moral compass, led astray by unrestrained commercialism.

The many histories of the city that have been written since The Stones of Venice show that, as he himself half knew, Ruskin’s idealised Venice was a myth. The Venice of the middle ages was, like the ages that preceded and followed it, a confusion of the good and bad. Even Ruskin admitted the beauty of many of the city’s Renaissance palaces and churches.

But rightly understood and accepted as myth, The Stones of Venice retains its power as a vision of the ideal city state, the Heavenly City of the Book of Revelation come down to Earth, a realm of beauty, justice and truth, where all have dignity.

It seems appropriate that so many of the Venetian works showcased in the exhibition are half-finished, Ruskin’s crystalline depictions of the capitals, arches and columns of his city of dreams shining forth from the white of the canvas, half-seen, perhaps, like the city itself when approached from the lagoon, its towers and turrets rising like a spectre through the sea mists.