98: On Entering Venice’s Piazza San Marco –with Ruskin

Good Folks,

As I finished our last (Post 97), I said that this next would continue our discussion of Ruskin’s thoughts about what constituted great architecture. As an instance of buildings fitting this description, I included in that offering an image of his drawing of the town square in Abbeville, France, as that enticing place looked in the middle of the nineteenth century. What made the buildings wonderful, he said, was the fact that the square was the collective creation of many people working on their homes and shops over a long period of time, which working had the effect of imbuing the square with all their spirits, giving it both a living and a lived in quality,. This made for a vibrancy that generated a daily sense of delight for the square’s users and visitors, a on-going, unforced pleasure almost entirely lacking in the majority of our modern buildings (our many shopping malls, say–also “featured” in that last post).

In a very important sense the Abbeville town square is the best example of living architecture one can imagine, for if there is one underlying principle in all Ruskin’s writings on the subject, it is that architecture arises from the creative building impulse each of us possesses, an impulse which, if we are given half a chance, simply “emerges.” In truly great architecture, he would say, there are no “schools,” no mandatory “styles,” no musts, no must nots, just a collection of the physical manifestations brought into being by people as they live their varied lives in buildings.

Still, and as we all know, there are some places where this creative spirit of building is present in abundance. Lacking inspiration in most of our own buildings, we moderns of sufficient funds vote with our credit cards and hie to Athens to see the Parthenon and its famed market place, the agora; then we go on to Rome to see the Colosseum and the Forum; and then we go to Venice to see…well, Venice!

To that wonderful still (if barely) floating city on the Adriatic, Ruskin went often, stayed long, studied much, and, then, having decided that, architecturally and, for a time culturally, this enclave of gondolas, canals, and gloriously arched windows was the greatest city the world had ever produced, wrote, in the early 1850s, his three-volume masterpiece, The Stones of Venice, his intent being to explain, and show, by means of his many marvelous drawings of streets, palazzos, and cornices, how this “paradise of cities” (his phrase) had come to be, and make it clear, as well, how it fell as the principles on which its great success had been achieved were forgotten as greed and egotism replaced its citizens’ earlier sense of living in a community where the common commitment was to pass their days in easy adherence to the sacred moral principles summarized in the Ten Commandments.

Ruskin wrote his book as a warning to his Britain, its industrializing and colonizing self then fairly racing down the path of moral decadence and cultural collapse which had been suffered by the Venetians centuries before. Perhaps not surprisingly, his contemporaries, liking money, material possessions, and personal aggrandizement more, were not eager recipients of his “sermon in stones,” as his mentor, the formidable Thomas Carlyle, called his book. But that lamentable refusal is not our subject this day. Today, all I’d like to do is reproduce just one of Ruskin’s transcendent passages from The Stones of Venice, a passage which, in its own way, is a reprise underscoring the importance–if one wants to create and live amidst enthralling buildings–of allowing (as happened in Abbeville) many, many spirits to be the authors of our edifices.

But if his fellows were not willing to accept his moral sermons, Ruskin’s readers delighted in his descriptions of this amazing city, a city which, at the time he wrote, almost none had visited nor seen anything but poor pictures of. No matter: his words carried them there in their imaginations. Said William Harcourt, a British MP, one-time Home Secretary and Chancellor of the Exchequer, in a letter to a friend: “Have you read the second volume of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice? If you have not, beg, borrow, or steal it! It is one of the finest things that ever was written, full of inspiring eloquence and genuine genius. It recreates Venice. And one felt, in reading it, not only as if one was there…[but] saw much more than is revealed to ordinary eyes. You will be in ecstasies at the gorgeous descriptions of St. Mark’s…” It is to that transcendent passage describing someone’s first sight of the Piazza San Marco that we turn now. (For those who may not know, the Basilica of St. Mark is one of the most sacred sites in Christendom, the church which, reputedly, houses and protects the remains of Jesus’ disciple.)

Originally I thought that, as I allowed Ruskin’s words to flow, I would intersperse them with lovely pictures of what he describes. But then I had a second thought, a better one: not to include any pictures at all, because, as noted, very few of his readers would have seen the Piazza San Marco at first hand when they read his words, and, as a result, would have no caches of memories to fall back on to “fill in the blanks.” They would have had to let their imaginations do the work, much as did William Harcourt. The imagining is much more fun.

That said, we begin our walk with Ruskin, comparing as we go the great edifice which is at the heart of these sentences, and those other, more commonplace buildings which create the town square in Abbeville, along with our subject’s contention that the abiding greatness of any building only occurs when it has been raised in the spirit of the eternal principle of architecture, the transference into stone (or wood) of the living spirit that is embodied in living hands:

[As we leave our gondola at the extremity of Calle Lunga San Moise, about a quarter of a mile from our destination, we] find ourselves in a paved alley some seven or eight feet wide where it is widest, full of people, and resonant with cries of itinerant salesmen…[Glancing up as we walk, we note] an inextricable confusion of rugged shutters and iron balconies and chimney flues (pushed out on brackets to save room) and arched windows with projecting sills of Istrian stone, and gleams of green leaves here and there where a fig-tree branch escapes over a lower wall from some inner cortile, leading the eye up to the narrow stream of blue sky high over all. On each side, a row of shops, as densely set as may be, occupying, in fact, intervals between the square stone shafts, about eight feet high, which carry the first floors: intervals of which one is narrow and serves as a door, [while] the other is, in the more respectable shops, wainscoted to the height of the counter and glazed above…

[Soon, we] emerge on the bridge and Campo San Moisè, whence [we proceed] to the entrance into St. Mark’s Place, called the “Bocca di Piazza” (mouth of the square).  The [true and original] Venetian character [of this area] is nearly destroyed, first by the frightful façade of San Moisè…and then by the modernizing of the shops as they near the piazza… We will push fast through them into the shadow of the pillars at the end of the Bocca di Piazza…

[A]nd then we forget them all; for between those pillars there opens a great light, and, in the midst of it, as we advance slowly, the vast tower of St. Mark seems to lift itself visibly forth from the level field of checkered stones; and, on each side, the countless arches [of the colonnade of the Procuratie Vecchie] prolong themselves into ranged symmetry, as if the rugged and irregular houses that pressed together above us in the dark alley had been struck back into sudden obedience and lovely order, and all their rude casements and broken walls had been transformed into arches charged with goodly sculpture, and fluted shafts of delicate stone.

And well may they fall back, for beyond those troops of ordered arches there rises a vision out of the earth, and all the great square seems to have opened from it in a kind of awe that we may see it far away: A multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of colored light; a treasure-heap, it seems, partly of gold, and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory—sculpture fantastic and involved, of palm leaves and lilies, and grapes and pomegranates, and birds clinging and fluttering among the branches, all twined together into an endless network of buds and plumes.

[A}nd in the midst of it, the solemn forms of angels, sceptred, and robed to the feet, and leaning to each other across the gates, their figures indistinct among the gleaming of the golden ground through the leaves beside them, interrupted and dim, like the morning light as it faded back among the branches of Eden, when first its gates were angel-guarded long ago.  And round the walls of the porches there are set pillars of variegated stones, jasper and porphyry, and deep-green serpentine spotted with flakes of snow, and marbles, that half refuse and half yield to the sunshine, Cleopatra-like, “their bluest veins to kiss”—the shadow, as it steals back from them, revealing line after line of azure undulation, as a receding tide leaves the waved sand; their capitals rich with interwoven tracery, rooted knots of herbage, and drifting leaves of acanthus and vine, and mystical signs, all beginning and ending in the Cross.

[A]nd above them, in the broad archivolts, a continuous chain of language and of life: angels, and the signs of heaven, and the labors of men, each in its appointed season upon the earth. [A]nd above these, another range of glittering pinnacles, mixed with white arches edged with scarlet flowers—a confusion of delight, amidst which the breasts of the Greek horses are seen blazing in their breadth of golden strength, and the St. Mark’s lion, lifted on a blue field covered with stars, until at last, as if in ecstasy, the crests of the arches break into a marble foam, and toss themselves far into the blue sky in flashes and wreaths of sculptured spray, as if the breakers on the Lido shore had been frost-bound before they fell, and the sea-nymphs had inlaid them with coral and amethyst.

Which, certainly, is enough to imagine about today!

Be well out there as you spend your day in and around all those buildings.

More on Mr. Ruskin on architecture in the next post.




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1 Response to 98: On Entering Venice’s Piazza San Marco –with Ruskin

  1. Cynthia Gamble says:

    Dear Jim, What an inspiration passage to read this Sunday morning. Thank you for drawing attention to it. We do not need an image as you so rightly say. It is an amazing piece of writing and Ruskin at his best. Teaching us to see… Best wishes, Cynthia

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