This month I am pleased to welcome my fellow author, medievalist, and Venetophile friend Octavia Randolph. Octavia has written a fantastic series of historical novels set in 9th-century England and Scandinavia, the Circle of Ceridwen Saga. Most recently, her historical novel, Light, Descending, draws us into the mind of one of the most fascinating figures of the nineteenth century: the artist and art critic John Ruskin. Ruskin, a passionate lover of Venice, captured the city in a series of lovely watercolors. But it is Ruskin’s obsessive and flawed character that holds us captive in Octavia’s beautiful new book. Here, in a piece for lovers of Venice, Octavia explains Ruskin’s fascination and devotion to this majestic, atmospheric, yet crumbling city:
John Ruskin was one of the great figures of the 19th century, one of the truly seminal thinkers on art, architecture, and social justice. I’d like to share with you some thoughts on his relationship with Venice, which he believed was the world’s supreme architectural and cultural expression, or as he said, Venice was “the history of all men, not in a nutshell, but in a nautilus shell.”
The life of John Ruskin exactly mirrored that of Queen Victoria. They were both born in 1819, and died a year apart, he in 1900 and she in 1901. Ruskin had a decidedly bifurcated career; the first half of which was largely devoted to thinking and writing and lecturing about art and architecture, of which his greatest and most lasting contribution was The Stones of Venice, a magisterial work on the history of La Serenissima, told through its architecture.
Much of the second half of his career was devoted to issues of social and economic justice. In 1906, six years after Ruskin’s death, the incoming Labour Members of Parliament were polled as to whose books were most influential in their personal development, and Ruskin’s books ranked first, besting those of the Bible, Shakespeare, Dickens, Carlyle and many others. In other words, he left a profound impact on society a century ago.
Ruskin spent about 18 months of his life living in Venice. From boyhood on he travelled every Summer on the Continent with his parents, and the first time he saw Venice he was 16; they stayed there a week.
As a 22 year old Ruskin returned to Venice. After furiously drawing all he could see, he felt overwhelmed at his inability to capture the city. He wrote to an Oxford friend, “I have put up my pencils, rather sulkily, by the bye: for this place is quite beyond everybody but Turner.” The great JMW Turner, was of course, Ruskin’s life-long hero, whose cause Ruskin championed for his entire life.
He returned in a later drawing trip, spending September and October 1845 there, a trip on which he made many of his most beautiful and expressive record drawings. Venice was very much under assault, in Ruskin’s view, by this time. The occupying Austrians (Napoleon had seized it and looted it in 1797, and then handed it over to the Austrians) had nearly completed the causeway from the mainland, put in gas lighting, and as he wrote in despair to his father, “After whitewashing the Doge’s palace…they are scraping St Mark’s clean. Off go all the glorious old weather stains, the rich hues of the marble which nature, mighty as she is, has taken ten centuries to bestow.” And, “It is misery for me to stop here, but every hour is destructive of what I most value, and I must do what I can to save a little.” He was saving it of course, by drawing it, recording it.
Of the Casa Loredan, also called Palazzo Corner-Loredan, Ruskin said “which will, I believe, be felt at last, by all who examine it carefully, to be the most beautiful palace in the whole extent of the Grand Canal.” This was what Ruskin saw and recorded in 1845; by 1867 the building became a municipal office, and was stripped of the colour and detail that Ruskin had cherished.
Marie Taglioni owned the Ca’ d’Oro when Ruskin witnessed it, during that 1845 visit, being set upon by “restorers” chiselling off the very cabled ornament he was furiously attempting to draw; the prima ballerina was modernizing the house and sold off bits and pieces of Ca’ d’Oro, including the huge interior marble stair, said to have been the most exquisite in Venice.
But the trip that mattered most, the trip that he had a true mission for, was in fact his delayed wedding trip to Venice, with his young Scottish wife Effie Gray. They spent two winters there. The first four months they lived there, beginning in October 1849 were truly revelatory to Ruskin.
What was he doing in Venice? – he wished to document its monuments for what would eventually become the three volume Stones of Venice – going to this den of inequity – Venice – much against his father’s wishes (and his father underwrote everything Ruskin ever did, every trip he took, every painting he ever bought, and it was terrifically hard for John to defy him as he was so dependent on him.)
There are two important quotes about The Stones of Venice which bear both repeating and reflection. William Morris called On the Nature of Gothic, the piece nestled in the heart of Volume II…“one of the most important things written by the author, and in future days will be considered as one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century.” Henry James said of The Stones of Venice, “Ruskin has made Venice his own, and in doing so, has made her the wor