Sorry for the slowdown; the start of term and illness this week put me behind. As I don’t have time to write new posts at the moment, I thought I’d share with you abridged versions of my current lecture notes which might interest some; these are for a course on the influence of the renaissance on 19th century art. This one- and the next- deal with John Ruskin’s fascination with Venice.
Ruskin’s initial interest in Venice was sparked by reading the poet and art collector Samuel Rogers’s Italy, which included engravings of Venice by the artists J.M. W. Turner, Thomas Stothard and Samuel Prout. Turner is familiar to millions, but Stothard and Prout have been relegated to the margins of English painting. Stothard belongs to an earlier, forgotten era, but Prout was part of the Ruskins’ aesthetic education. As noted by Julian Treuherz in his Victorian Painting, Ruskin’s parents were inspired to visit the continent after looking at a book of Prout’s sketches, their interest in continental views having links with the rise of tourism in Victorian England..
Prout was much admired by Ruskin who would eulogize the water-colourist in a memoir published in the Art Journal in 1849, saying that if he tired of Turner, he never tired of Prout. Ruskin admired Prout because his brand of the picturesque was not “vulgar” or contrived; but instead conveyed feelings of age and decay deeply felt. Like Prout, Turner fell into the category of the non-vulgar, the only difference being the latter concentrated on the infinite variety of nature while the former preferred to depict the cityscape.
Rogers had these artists engrave their designs on steel in a sumptuous edition of 1830, which not only introduced John Ruskin to Venice through travel literature, but acquainted him with Turner also. Ruskin later said that Roger’s Italy “determined the main tenor” of his life.
“At the time I had never heard of Turner, except in the well-remembered saying of Mr Runciman’s that ‘the world had lately been much dazzled and led away by some splendid ideas thrown out by Turner.’ But I had no sooner cast eyes on the Rogers vignettes that I took them for my only masters, and set myself to imitate them as far as I possibly could by fine pen shading.”
Ruskin next encountered Turner in 1836 when he launched a juvenile defence of Turner’s treatment of Shakespearean subjects in, amongst others works, Juliet and her Nurse (Private Collection, Argentina); this drew an embarrassed acknowledgement from Turner who would eventually meet his young admirer in person, in 1840. Why has Turner transposed Romeo and Juliet to Venice?
“I have found nothing in Italy comparable to Venice…Thank God I am here! It is the Paradise of cities.”
Ruskin made his first visit to Venice in 1834, though he had stepped on Italian soil a year after receiving Roger’s illustrated album of poems. In 1845, he was allowed to travel to Venice without his parents, to start preliminary research for his magnum opus, The Stones of Venice. At that time, Ruskin was not focussed on this project, as he was concentrating on Turner the artistic hero of Modern Painters, whose first volumes were soon to appear. The first volume of The Stones of Venice would have to wait until 1851, and the other two volumes in the autumn of 1853. The first instalment presents the most difficulties to the modern reader. Presented in an oracular style, Ruskin hands down architectural history like an Old Testament prophet intoning divine truths, which takes some getting use to. As John Batchelor notes in his very readable biography of the man, Ruskin “created a vogue for Venetian Gothic as an architectural style” in the first book, which despite its dry style, was a revolutionary study.
What was also innovative was Ruskin’s method: the books were the result of microscopic research and physical labour examining the buildings and monuments of Venice in situ. As with any project he embarked upon, Ruskin went back to basics, quarrying the material of raw data, and eventually processing his findings through rigorous analysis. He made extensive drawings of architectural features such as capitols, griffons, lintels, which bring the reader back to first principles.
This time-consuming endeavour left little time for his young, beautiful bride Euphemia (Effie) Gray whom Ruskin had married on 10th April, 1848. Ruskin shunned the social life and worked solidly on The Stones of Venice all the time he was there, leaving his wife to while away her time in lonely palaces and crowded balls. Ruskin was far too preoccupied with the architectural story of Venice to be distracted by his marriage. This would have tragic consequences for him in a few years time. Sorry Effie, you had no chance against Venice!
Next time, I’ll say something about Ruskin’s views of Titian and Tintoretto.