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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1982

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.

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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 buildings, or decorations, Ruskin consistently uses words such as moral, immoral, virtuous, and corrupt, terms that normally are applied to people or actions. His descriptions are such that he makes buildings come alive, as indeed they were to him, visible manifestations of the souls of their builders. As a result he speaks of the three virtues required of a building as being: to act well, or do properly what was intended; to speak well, that is, record fact, feelings, and history; to look well, presenting a pleasing appearance. He feels that the second virtue is an individual matter, depending on the character of the observer and his or her mood, but that the first and third are matters that can be weighed and judged according to a known standard. People should admire in architectural construction an admirable human intelligence whose work may be imperfect, but whose feelings are deep and true and honest and show delight in God’s work.

Ruskin then describes brilliantly the construction of the parts of a building—foundation, wall veil, cornice, roof, and apertures—and explains with great clarity not only how a part is constructed but also, more important, why. The why involves not only logical, practical considerations, but geographical, moral, and spiritual ones as well; all these observations testify to the wide scope of Ruskin’s perception and historical sense. After describing the practical construction of a building, he considers the decoration. To judge decoration, one must determine the rightness of the material in terms of function and treatment and its placement with regard to the whole. Ornament should not take for its subject human work, such as figures taken from agriculture, sailing, or manufacture, for that is too self-centered. Ornament should express delight in God’s work; thus, architects may use the abstract lines in nature, moving from the lower to the higher through the whole range of systematized inorganic and organic forms: earth, water, fire, air, animal organisms, and humanity. An ornament should be so fitted to its place and service that if it were lifted out and placed elsewhere, it would not be satisfactory or complete. The architect must govern the ornament and design it so that workers can accomplish the architect’s intention. It is the architect’s duty not to try to improve upon nature but to explain it and express his or her own soul.

In the second volume, Sea-Stories, Ruskin describes the Byzantine period and the Gothic, and he concludes with a careful, elaborate detailing of the Ducal Palace. He describes three churches, Torcello, Murano, and St. Marks. Torcello lies to the northeast of Venice, in the marshes. It was an early church built by people fleeing their pillaged homeland. Thus it was built in haste but with effective simplicity, expressive, Ruskin feels, of the great faith they placed in God. It admits an unusual amount of sun and light for such a building, a psychological need, Ruskin points out, in a people fleeing the darkness of oppression. The pulpit is built with simplicity but is sturdy and functional, and Ruskin ponders the effect of the pulpit on congregations. Such a pulpit inspires confidence, whereas many modern pulpits distract the congregations by being too ornate or raising fears that the entire structure will soon collapse.

Murano, built in the tenth century, furnishes a particularly fine study in proportion and the use of color. The apse is heptagonal on the outside and constructed with mathematical precision. Inside, the placement of the shafts with respect to one another, to the nave and the aisles, reflects subtle, true harmony.

St. Marks was constructed in the Byzantine style during the eleventh century and underwent Gothic additions during the fourteenth century. Its peculiarity is adroit incrustation, brick covered with precious materials. This practice saved materials, expense, and weight, and it required that cutting must be shallow, so that the ornamentation had to be done with care and simplicity rather than with crude force. Also, shallow design permitted delicate shading of color. Beauty, Ruskin believes, is a legitimate offering to God, and the entirety of St. Marks, with its rich colors, mosaics, paintings, and inscriptions, is one great book of Common Prayer, a poor person’s Bible. Color is one of God’s most divine gifts and one that the most thoughtful value highly; thus, Venice was most colorful during the time of its early, earnest religion. Ruskin says that no style of architecture can be exclusively ecclesiastical. Wherever Christian church architecture has been good and lovely, it has been the perfect development of the common dwelling-house architecture of the period. A style fit for a church, he felt, is no less fit for a dwelling, and no form was ever brought to perfection where it was not used for both purposes. Once St. Marks has been judged as a work of art, it must be judged for its fitness as a place of worship. If a church is too beautiful, it will divert the attention of intelligent persons from religion to admiration. Thus, Ruskin believed that effective religious art lies between barbarous idol-fashioning on one side and magnificent craftsmanship on the other.

Ruskin lists six moral elements of the Gothic style: savageness or rudeness, love of nature, love of change, disturbed imagination, obstinacy, and generosity. Gothic is the most rational of forms in that it can fit itself to all services; it is also restless, unquiet, tender, and reverent. Its most striking outward feature is the pointed arch. The Ducal Palace, originally Byzantine, was superseded by Gothic, begun in 1301, and later united with Renaissance in 1423, the year in which Venice and its architecture began to decline.

In the third volume, The Fall, Ruskin discusses the moral nature of the central Renaissance, which is corrupt, its two main immoral elements being pride and infidelity. It is a cold, inhuman form. It is highly trained and erudite and meant only for the act of worship, not, as was the Gothic, for humanity or for the praise of God. Ruskin stresses again forcefully his belief that a fault in feeling induces a fault in style. It was a self-centered, pleasure-seeking, and hypocritical age in that it named one god but dreamed about pagan gods, meanwhile dreading none.

Ruskin deplored machinelike work. He thought one should never encourage the production of anything in which invention has no major share. Imitation or copying should be done only for the sake of preservation. He believed that a truly religious painter or architect would more often than not be rude and simple. The work of such an artist, Ruskin argues, should not be scorned for lack of perfection; the demand for perfection implies a complete misunderstanding of the ends of art. No one, says Ruskin, ever stops until one has reached a point of failure, and so imperfection is essential; it is a sign of life, of change and progress. One of the chief elements of power in all good architecture is the acceptance of rude and uncultivated energy in the workers. Ruskin believed that many people possess, even unsuspected by themselves, talent that is wasted from lack of use. Ruskin hoped, through the work of common people, for a rebirth of true and expressive art throughout Europe.

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