[these are enveloping cloaks], black with black masks and white gloves, and reached the square about ten. I laughed so that I could scarcely go on and John, who was a grave as possible, did the thing capitally. We found quantities of masks in dominoes and fancy costumes of all kinds parading about and entering the Cafes to throw bonbons…”
Despite such moments of revelry, we know the five year marriage to Effie remained unconsummated. Effie had hoped that going to Venice in the second year of her marriage would in fact signal the beginning of the physical marriage, but it did not. However, one can easily see from reading Effie’s letters that the time she spent with John in Venice was much the happiest of their entire relationship – due not only to the charms of La Serenissima, but the fact that it was one of the few times when the elder Ruskins were not also with them.
One of Ruskin’s biographers, John Batchelor, actually posits, and I think with cause, that Ruskin’s displaced sexual drive found expression in his lust and love for Venice. Venice becomes a love object for him. Certainly both in The Stones of Venice and in letters to his father he uses deeply sensual language to describe his attraction and attachment to the city – he must eat it, devour it, stone by stone. And certainly no beloved ever caused its lover more pain than Venice caused Ruskin.
So. Let’s consider Ruskin’s Venice. As difficult as it is for us to imagine, Venice was not universally admired by the Victorian traveller; it was altogether too ornate, unexpected, and visually chaotic for many. And perhaps it also offended Victorian moral sensibilities; as historian J.G Links points out, “You might see it as a robber’s den, for everything in it was stolen.”
The fact was that Venice, although it had always attracted a certain number of pleasure-loving aristocrats, did not entice the upper-middle classes until The Stones of Venice spelled out her charms and drove home the necessity of experiencing this fabulous mishmash of architectural styles and moral lessons in person. And even then it took some time. Volume I of Stones came out in March 1851, and sold few copies. Volumes II and III came out two years later, in 1853, and then people began to take notice, and of course, On the Nature of Gothic was in volume II. A reviewer in The Daily News noted that no longer could Venice be looked at as an example of “barbarous” taste, with St Mark’s a mass of “ill shaped domes; its walls of brick incrusted with marble; its chaotic disregard of symmetry in the details; its confused hodge-podge of classic, Moresque, and Gothic.” Ruskin had proved that the architects and builders of the middle ages were “artists of profound and tender feelings.”
Ruskin called himself a “foster child of Venice”, and felt both responsible for and frustrated with it, much of the frustration due to the fact that the Republic had destroyed itself, and he could not save the remaining architectural fragments of its illustrious past.
By his late 50’s Ruskin was deeply troubled by the influx of tourists he thought himself accountable for; during his long over-wintering stay of 1876-77 he removed himself from the Grand Hotel to the modest Calcina on the Zattere to escape those hordes who only milled about San Marco and never penetrated into any of the fascinating calles and narrow, backwater canals. And in fact in his 1877 Guide to the Pictures in the Accademia he argues that people should actually be made to pay a fee to enter Venice.
When Ruskin returned to Venice to over-winter there from1876-77 it was after an absence of 16 years; he hadn’t been there since his last trip with Effie in 1852. Now, struggling with mental illness, he was preoccupied with two other young women: St Ursula, and Rose LaTouche. Ursula, the virgin martyr who is the subject of the series of beautiful paintings by Carpaccio in the Accademia, held Ruskin in thrall in his later years. In 1858 Ruskin had met ten year old Rose LaTouche, and over the years proceeded to fall violently in love with her, an obsession which caused both of them great pain. Rose died in May 1875, when she was 27, and the Virgin Rose and the Virgin Ursula became one love-object for him.
Venice, along with Turner, was truly a constant in Ruskin’s life, inspiring his greatest work, and haunting his dreams. He writes much about Venice in the Brantwood diary, the diary in which he documents his own psychotic break in 1878s, as he slipped into the abyss. Such is the abiding power of the Most Serene Republic.
Octavia Randolph’s most recent work is the biographical novel about John Ruskin, Light, Descending. She is also the author of the best-selling historical adventure Circle of Ceridwen Saga, set in 9th century England and Scandinavia, and the novellas Ride: The Story of Lady Godiva, and The Tale of Melkorka. Visit her at octavia.net.