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.)