«A SPECTRAL TURN AROUND VENICE By Luke Jones I spent several days, during a recent trip to Venice, in conversation with a ghost. The writer and critic ...»
A SPECTRAL TURN AROUND VENICE
By Luke Jones
I spent several days, during a recent trip to Venice, in conversation with a ghost. The writer and
critic John Ruskin became my spectral guide, and his commentary on the buildings that we
visited transformed my experience of those spaces. What follows is an account of my time with
This ‘conversation’, if it were a conceit on my part, had the aim of finding a productive way of addressing his difficult, extraordinary, vast Stones of Venice in light of the deeply, but incompletely, felt affection which many have for it. The book is a history of Venice as a sort of epic tragedy narrated by its buildings, and it is simultaneously a polemic against the previous three hundred years of European architecture, directed particularly against London, and proposing a revolution in architectural style. It is commonly viewed as a heroic, rousing failure.
Kenneth Clark said of it that ‘even now […], when the cause it advocates is dead, we cannot read it without a thrill, without a sudden resolution to reform the world’ (Clark 1964, 181), and Colin Amery reveals a typical ambivalence when he writes that ‘the trouble is that Ruskin was wrong […] [yet] we need a voice like his again’ (Amery 2001, viii-ix).
The effect of invoking Ruskin in the manner of a haunting is not simply to convey a measure of sympathy for him, as a figure, or his work. Rather, I am trying to approach, however obliquely, the subtle and intriguing way in which Ruskin’s rhetoric, which is concerned with portraying contemporary Venice as a ruin, also starts to reveal within itself the ruin of Ruskin’s ideals.
The idea of ‘ruin’, or ‘the ruinous’, is a construct which is historically specific, and capable of being superseded. Andreas Huyssen has revealingly described the way in which the ‘imaginary of ruins’ in Piranesi’s etchings is itself a kind of ruin because the notion of authenticity which it implies is discredited (Huyssen 2006, 9). I do not just want to contend that a similar circularity affects Ruskin, but to retrieve from Stones of Venice a critical understanding of ‘ruin’.
This is accomplished in three ways: first, in illuminating the means by which he narrates architectural spaces as ruins, to vindicate his belief in the potential of narrative as a means of transforming the experience of space; second, in documenting the ruinous quality of his project itself, to outline a sense in which even a text whose religiosity, tendentiousness and anachronism make it impossible for the reader to endorse can still be appreciated as a failure, like a ruin in that its decay only heightens its beauty; and third, though the essay may in essence do little more than trace the partiality of Ruskin’s success, it attempts, in doing so, to locate its own form of critically productive observation.
Venice from the sea In the event, I arrived on the ﬁrst budget ﬂight of the day from London, and consequently reached the city around midday in a state of exhaustion, curled up in the back of one of the highly polished water taxis which spend their time idling by the airport jetty; thus I remained for most of the day, shunting myself bad-temperedly between small coffee shops to stay out of the wind. Early the next day, at Ruskin’s insistence, I retraced my route from terra ﬁrma and back again, this time on the municipal vaporetto, or ferry-bus. The drama of arriving in Venice is undiminished either by repetition, or by the depredations which have fallen on the lagoon and the city in recent times. The ferry swept away from the airport and out along a wide channel, the stone-retaining walls of which fall gradually away beneath the surface of the milky lagoon. I stood on the deck as the ferry scudded along between the monumental wooden piles which direct the boats. We passed a series of tiny islands, each big enough only for a single building; an abandoned fort, greenish and dank; a single-storey palazzo whose small rose garden subsides without warning into the water; a tumbledown warehouse.
Venice was ahead, a tawny cloud on a horizon dotted with spires, when Ruskin began to speak: ‘It would be difficult to overrate the value of the lessons which might be derived from a faithful study of this strange and mighty city: a history which, in spite of the labour of countless chroniclers, remains in vague and disputable outline, barred with brightness and shade, like the far away edge of her own ocean’ (Ruskin 1873 I, 2).
His introduction had something irresistible about it, out on the lagoon. Surrounded by that expanse of ﬂat water, I felt equipped for the epic sweep of the history of an entire nation. That broad horizon, for Ruskin, seemed to encompass not only space, but history. It was an insight with which I would become familiar. As we
drew closer, he continued:
Ruin and poetry The initial attractiveness of the idea of Venice as a ruin is due to Ruskin’s gift for poetic language, which he uses to gild his assertions in a way that makes them fascinating. Stating his aims, he says: ‘If I should succeed, as I hope, in making the Stones of Venice touchstones, and detecting, by the mouldering of her marble, poison more subtle than ever was betrayed by the rending of her crystal; […] I believe the result of the enquiry may be serviceable for proof of a more vital truth than any at which I have hitherto hinted’ (Ruskin 1873 I, 33).
His ‘mouldering marble’ is engaging because of the beauty of the phrase itself. His writing has a kind of rhythm, created by long, elliptical chains of clauses broken by commas, which is allied to the aesthetic effect of phrases like ‘mouldering marble […] rending crystal’.
Ruins are known to provoke a particular sort of reﬂective mood: ‘immersion in ruins instills […] a lofty, even ecstatic, drowsiness’ (Woodward 2001, 4). Ruskin’s rich, unmeasured language and the rhythm of his meandering Miltonian sentences produce a similarly drowsy, beatiﬁc mood in the reader. There is a sense in which these poetic effects are analogous to some of the techniques by which he narrates spaces, such as the combination of winding narrative progressions, and framed, static moments of rapturous contemplation.
His poetic imagination is at work in the text which ended the previous section above, which is also the ﬁrst part of the book itself. In it, the two exemplary ruins of Tyre and Venice are described. Ruskin tells of Tyre’s ‘exaltation […], sin and […] punishment’, leaving a skeletal impression of ‘bleaching […] rocks, between the sunshine and the sea’, and then never refers to it again. Venice, by contrast, as we have heard, is ‘so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt […] which was the City and which the Shadow’ (Ruskin 1873 I, 1).
Between his descriptions of Venice and Tyre, there is a signiﬁcant change in tone. The hectoring religiosity of ‘warning’ becomes complicated by ‘doubt’, and the discriminating mind becomes clouded by a sort of aesthetic rapture. There is a quietude about his use of the word ‘loveliness’ which is difficult to reconcile with the oratorical posture immediately preceding it.
The first description conjures the spectre of Tyre with the glibness of a ﬁgure of speech, using it to signify ‘destruction’. It is a neat summation. By contrast, the latter description has Ruskin casting his gaze over the water: entranced, trapped, lost in the image.
Broadly, these two descriptions reﬂect, on the one hand, the rhetorical and critical abilities which allow Ruskin to marshal his arguments, and, on the other, the highly-developed aesthetic sensibility that produces the insights with which these arguments are populated. A tension exists between the two, between a ‘conception of beauty, so complicated, so subtle, so clouded with association and overtone’ (Clark 1964, 184), and his desire and need to systematize – ‘he loved […] disentangling […] [to] ﬁnd the order buried underneath’ (Harbison 1977, 56).
Kenneth Clark argued that Ruskin ‘never quite reconciled his principles and his sensibility’, and that he ‘ﬁrst felt an object to be beautiful, and then tried to ﬁt [it] into some theory’ (Clark 1964, 181-2).
Later, this creates some very awkward and reductive arguments. So, whereas his narration of the Basilica of St Mark as ‘a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of coloured light’ (Ruskin 1873 II, 66) seems as vivid as the original, his attempt to extrapolate general rules from it is ingenious but futile. The following are only four of at least ten rules based on St Mark’s: ‘All shafts are to be solid […] the shafts may sometimes be independent of construction […]. Shafts may be of variable size […]. All decoration must be shallow in cutting’ (Ruskin 1873 II, 80-6). Such rules might be produced indeﬁnitely, without ever deﬁning what it is about the building that fascinates and attracts the viewer. Ruskin himself admitted that his famous Seven Lamps of Architecture might have been eight, nine, or any number at all (Clark 1964, 182). The attempt to present exact rules in this case is obviously pointless: even as the rules unfold, it is obvious that Ruskin will fail. The poignancy of this situation, of failure foretold, gives his commentary on Venice an unintentionally tragic, ruinous air.
The Doge’s Palace
Prompted by Ruskin, as we reached the vaporetto stop at San Zaccaria, I rose and, stumbling off amid the throng of passengers, disentangled myself slowly from the crowd disembarking. Moving a little way up the quayside, I found myself all at once, and almost inadvertently, in the imperial heart of Venice, on the Piazzetta San Marco, a long, wide strip paved with large ﬂagstones stretching down to the water’s edge. A number of columns, some bearing statues, stood arrayed on it, but were overshadowed by a vast, solitary building faced in white and pink stone, which, Ruskin informed me, was the Ducal (or Doge’s) Palace.
The building roused him to the highest degree of excitement, and he explained hurriedly about ‘the three preeminent architectures of the world’, eventually concluding that
There is a peculiar sadness implicit in this last sentence, as we witness the slow transformation of the central building of the world into an empty vessel, a vestige of empire now reduced to a tourist attraction, for Venice is now a wholly peripheral sort of place. I could not help noticing that Ruskin appeared to feel something more profound, and I noted again his apparent hyper-awareness of history, his ability to project onto the extant all of its vanished predecessors, the buildings which previously occupied the site, the different stages of their construction. He recited these ghostly monuments as we moved around the long facades where the Palace faces onto the causeway and the Piazzetta, and the vanished Byzantine palace built by Sebastian Ziani in the late twelfth century, the Great Saloon built by Doge Gradenigo in 1309, and the Paradise of Guariento, burnt in the ﬁre of 1574 (Ruskin 1873 II, 289-303). They seemed for him somehow just as present, perhaps ﬂickering in the gaps between the stones.
Ruin and the presence of history
History is present in Ruskin’s narration of the Ducal Palace as nostalgia. When he talks about the Palace, it is emblematic of a sort of vanished Gothic splendour; it ‘at once consummates and embodies the entire system of the Gothic Architecture of Venice […] the principal effort of [Venice’s] imagination in this period’, and lingers on as ‘the last representation of her power’ (Ruskin 1873 II, 280-7). It is a reminder of Venice’s decline, and this metaphor of embodiment is nostalgic in the sense that it makes visible a disappearance – a reminder of the irreversibility of time (Huyssen 2006, 7). Although the building is intact, it functions as a ruin like a very large architectural fragment, a remaining trace of a mostly vanished Venice, which conveys a sense of ruination towards the scale of the city.
At the same time, the Palace is conceived of as a ruin in and of itself. Ruskin narrates the series of demolitions, rebuildings and accretions which pattern the history of the site, and undermines the visible wholeness and ﬁxity which he had earlier stressed (Ruskin 1873 II, 287).
The ghosts which he projects on to the now uncertain hulk of the Palace feel present, because their former positions are determined and explained with great care, and have a sort of symbolic, even occult, signiﬁcance; the destruction of the Ziani Palace, for example, is taken to preﬁgure Venice’s slide into decadence (Ruskin 1873 II, 301). The existing and vanished parts of the Palace are considered together, in the way in which Ruskin presents it, as a narration of Venice’s glorious history. This understanding permits a ﬁnal transformation, in which ‘the new [postByzantine] buildings consume the palace […] destroying or hiding their own commencement, as the serpent, which is the type of eternity, conceals its tail in its jaws’ (Ruskin 1873 II 291-2). This metaphor reveals the building, for an instant, fully temporalised, mutable, seemingly in motion.
The past, then, however irrevocably behind us, is still, in a sense, present. Mindfulness of time’s irreversibility, or nostalgia, is produced, paradoxically, by the fact that the past lingers. In tandem with this consideration of the building entire, Ruskin presents a bewilderingly detailed
account of the forty-seven principal capitals of the Palace:
This string of fragments has a poignancy which comes from their weirdness and the way that they seem like ill-ﬁtting parts of a story whose full import cannot be explained. This sequential view of fragments can be described as the allegorical mode (Rendell 2006, 85-7). Here, our melancholic drift through, and focus on, these pieces of the building allow us to imagine it as a ruin before our eyes; all we see are the marks of its creators and the indissoluble gulf between now and then.