(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Stones of Venice has been called not only a great work of scholarship but also a great work of art. It is not merely a catalog of architectural accomplishments; it is a work of cultural history and a commentary on human character. For John Ruskin, the relationship between a nation’s buildings and its morality were inseparable, and his three-volume treatise on the edifices of Venice, Italy, ranges widely to tell the story of the city he sees as the midpoint, both literally and figuratively, between the cultures of East and West. In The Stones of Venice, Ruskin praises the accomplishments not only of the great leaders of Venice, but also of the countless numbers of common workers who toiled with skill, patience, and reverence on the great Gothic structures of medieval Europe.

For Ruskin, the polish of the Renaissance was anathema. The exquisite finish of Renaissance architecture values perfection in a limited sphere, and slavish copying of idealized form counts more than attempts to re-create human emotions in art. By contrast, the workers who constructed Gothic buildings were given greater freedom to express themselves. Although their work may appear rougher, even unfinished, it is the consequence of each person’s struggle to make something unique; the value of the work lies in the effort of the worker, not in the perfection of the work itself. In Ruskin’s view, Renaissance artisans built to please others and to gain glory for themselves, but Gothic workers built to celebrate life and praise God. Small wonder that, for Ruskin, the persistence of Renaissance values indicated a decline in moral stature for humankind.

Ruskin stands with his contemporary, the architect A. W. Pugin, as one of the premier exponents of the Gothic movement of the time. His influence on Victorian sensibility should not be underestimated. In addition to supporting the movement that led to the construction of a number of nineteenth century buildings in the Gothic style, his writings on the Gothic, particularly his celebration of Gothic qualities in The Stones of Venice and his praise of painters and sculptors of the medieval and early Renaissance periods, had a significant impact on a younger generation of artists who eventually dubbed themselves Pre-Raphaelites. Poets and painters such as Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Holman Hunt, and William Morris found Ruskin’s works inspirational. Additionally, the tenets of architecture expressed so gracefully and in such detail in The Stones of Venice were among the first to make an impression on one of the most important architects of the twentieth century, Frank Lloyd Wright. The Stones of Venice was the first book on architecture that Wright read, and its influence can be seen not only in his designs but, more important, in his constant assertion of the value of architecture in reflecting the aspirations of a society.

In the three volumes of The Stones of Venice, Ruskin traces the development, apex, and decline of three architectural expressions: Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance. Ruskin relates their growth and deterioration to the rise and fall of the Venetian state. He shows that the virtue and piety that marked Venice at its flourishing found expression in Gothic architecture and that as this faith declined, Venice’s corruption was expressed in Renaissance architecture. The architecture expressed not only the morality of the state but also the morality of the individual architect and common workers who designed the buildings and did the labor. Ruskin believes that the artistic expression of any nation is clear and direct evidence of its moral and spiritual condition; thus, when Ruskin states that since the fading of the Gothic tradition there has been no architectural growth in all of Europe, he is also commenting on the spiritual poverty of his own time.

In the first volume, The Foundations, Ruskin traces the history of Venice. For nine hundred years the Venetians had struggled to bring power and order out of anarchy. They succeeded in doing so largely because they possessed a childlike religious spirit that dignified even their business transactions and brought them peace, energy, and, whenever necessary, heroes. The geographical location of the city and the nature of its maritime activities were crucial. In Venice, the three preeminent architectures of the world—Roman, Lombardic, and Arabian, each expressing a different religious view—flourished separately and blended into one another. For this reason, Ruskin calls the Ducal Palace the central building of the world.

According to Ruskin, to appreciate or judge any architecture, one must first establish canons of judgment. To do so, one must understand the basic requirements and structure of any building. When speaking of buildings, parts of...

(The entire section is 1982 words.)

The Stones of Venice Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Stones of Venice ranks with Modern Painters as Ruskin’s most important work. Of all of his extensive literary output, it was the most influential in his own time and upon the generation of artists immediately following his own. It was, however, in no way the most popular of his works. Its primary influence can be observed in Victorian architecture, where it led to the introduction and popularization of the Venetian Gothic in domestic building. In the realm of ideas, it inspired William Morris’s visionary social and economic theories of art and artisanship and had a direct impact upon the development of the Arts and Crafts movement and the historic preservation and wilderness movements in the United States.

This impact was one with which Ruskin himself was not particularly happy, as he saw the misinterpretation of his ideals leading to a proliferation of middle-class villas and public houses throughout the British Isles. Nevertheless, for the author, at any rate, Venetian Gothic represents the architectural ideal—satisfying all the necessary elements that he believed constitute the creation of art. His examination of architecture’s constituent elements in The Stones of Venice, both as a practical work and as a philosophical treatise on the spirit and the strength of the past, is without peer in the literature of Great Britain in the age of Queen Victoria.

For Ruskin, Venetian Gothic represents the architectural ideal because it was practical, outwardly pleasing, and harmonious and expressed nobly the emotions of its builders and the historical impact of their race. It is honestly constructed and embellished with all the grace and vitality of painting and sculpture in the most economical manner possible.

Ruskin contrasts the ideal manifestations of the Gothic with what he delineates as the decadence of the classic and Renaissance schools of architecture, which he saw as devoid of this vitality and spirit. The Renaissance is imitative and artificial in its architectural contrivances. The Gothic is natural and spontaneous in its honesty and ingenuity. It represents, as well, the product of a community of workers...

(The entire section is 892 words.)

The Stones of Venice Bibliography

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Cate, George Allan. John Ruskin: A Reference Guide—A Selective Guide to Significant and Representative Works About Him. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988. Surveys Ruskin’s literary career and responses to his work. The bibliography covers the years 1843 to 1987, with detailed annotations.

Connelly, Frances S. “The Stones of Venice: John Ruskin’s Grotesque History of Art.” In Modern Art and the Grotesque, edited by Frances S. Connelly. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Focuses on elements of the grotesque in Ruskin’s work; examines how concepts of the grotesque influenced the history, theory, and practice of nineteenth and twentieth century art by encouraging artists to push beyond established boundaries and challenge the status quo.

Conner, Patrick. Savage Ruskin. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1979. Examines Ruskin’s art criticism, its nature and significance, and its flaws and virtues. Analysis of The Stones of Venice concludes that the second volume of the work is Ruskin’s masterpiece. Includes a helpful bibliography listing pertinent texts from the eighteenth century to the 1970’s.

Kirchhoff, Frederick. John Ruskin. Boston: Twayne, 1984. Detailed analysis of The Stones of Venice. Includes a selected bibliography with brief annotations.

Read, Richard. Ruskin in...

(The entire section is 406 words.)