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«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 ...»

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John Ruskin’s ghost is inextricably bound to Venice. Even before I arrived, my guidebook had intimated as much, directing visitors to ‘the Piazzetta, […to] find Ruskin busy with his watercolours, sketching the capitals of the façade’ (Honour 1977, 18). He is in a sense Venice’s pre-eminent ghost, and ghostliness and ruin are his fate in an era which is unable to take him seriously. Yet it is precisely this ghostly quality which creates a model for a sort of rehabilitation.

As spectral narrator, the way in which he alters the experience of space, both intentionally and unwittingly, destabilises the idea of fixed meanings within spaces. His tendentiousness, religiosity and anachronism not only constitute a fascinating, ruined ideology but also, when considered critically in the way in which they have been undone by history, garner a different capability for opposing norms of linear progress. This simultaneous drift through a ruined city and a ruined ideology contrives to excavate from within Venice a set of tools with which to critique the modern world. The lesson, above all others, which I derive from my time with Ruskin is that it is possible for a critique like his to be rescued by its very abjection. Venice’s abjection produces his argument, and, in the same way, his project can be productive in its decrepitude: ‘an efflorescence of decay’ (Ruskin 1873, 4). The Stones of Venice is, in the first instance, a narrative on the ruin of Venice, but what is really written is the ruin of the text itself.

A particular critical understanding of ruin can be elucidated by examining the succession of different, but related, ways in which it appears in the work of John Ruskin. ‘Ruin’ is created as a deliberate function of the argument in three ways: first, as a poetic impression, and then made apparent as a corollary of the cognizance of history, which is freighted with the inevitability of time’s passing. Last, ‘ruin’ is produced by the narration of spaces, by fragmentation, by repetition, and by a kind of picturesque theatricality. The recursive fact that this book on ruin should be a ruin itself is a reminder that a ruin always lingers, and is apparent in the intellectual monuments of past ages just as in the decrepitude of their built works.

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References Amery, Colin. ‘Preface’, The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin. London: Pallas Athene, 2001.

Clark, Kenneth. The Gothic Revival. London: Pelican, 1964.

Harbison, Robert. Eccentric Spaces. New York: Alfred Knopf, 1977.

Honour, Hugh. The Companion Guide to Venice. London: Collins, 1977.

Huyssen, Andreas. ‘Nostalgia for Ruins’, Grey Room, 23, (Spring 2006): 6-21.

Jordan, Robert Furneaux. Victorian Architecture. London: Pelican, 1966.

Rendell, Jane. Art and Architecture: A Place Between. London: Tauris, 2006.

Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1873.

Pertot, Gianfranco. Venice: Extraordinary Maintenance. London: Paul Holberton, 2004.

Picon, Antoine. ‘Anxious Landscapes: From Ruin To Rust’, Grey Room, 1, (Fall 2000): 64-83.

Pinder, David. Visions of the city: utopianism, power and politics in 20th century urbanism. New York:

Routledge, 2005.

Woodward, Christopher. In Ruins. London: Chatto and Windus, 2001.



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