121: The Old Road

John Ruskin first saw the Alps in 1833. He was 14. He had implored his parents, John James and Margaret, to take him to the Continent so that he might see what his new hero, the painter, J. M. W. Turner, had seen and painted. Loving their child to distraction as the two did, with little reservation, they had agreed. Already, their departure from London was already weeks in the past. They crossed from Dover to Calais and then, at leisurely pace, had made their way through France and Germany to the City of Schaffhausen on the Swiss-German border so that they might see its world-famed falls (Post 21).

A half century later, writing the sixth chapter of the first volume of his autobiography, Praeterita (a memoir celebrating the lovely experiences and people in his life), Ruskin recalled his first sight of the mountains which would transform his life, their beauty becoming a spiritual and emotional beacon for the rest of his days. On this life-altering evening, he wrote, the threesome had climbed up to an elevated garden above Schaffhausen. Far below them, the hurrying Rhine was plunging over its falls. Their vantage was sufficient to afford a fine view to the south and west, when…


There was no thought in any of us for a moment of their being clouds! They were as clear as crystal, sharp on the pure horizon, and already tinged with rose by the sinking sun. Infinitely beyond what we had ever thought or dreamed. The walls of lost Eden could not have been more beautiful to us…

I went down that evening from the garden-terrace with my destiny fixed in all of it that was to be sacred and useful… [For] the Alps and their people were [always to me after that] alike beautiful in their snow and their humanity. I wanted neither for them nor myself sight of any thrones in Heaven, but these rocks, nor any spirits in Heaven but these clouds.

The unexpected trip—which would last nearly six months, John James’ sherry business being as prosperous as it was—had been the outgrowth of a birthday present the year before, when a copy of Samuel Rogers’ book of poems, Italy, had been given by a friend to the younger Ruskin. The poems were fine enough, he thought, but it was the illustrations, the vignettes, that riveted his attention. Many had been painted by Turner. Ruskin had never seen anything so beautifully evocative of nature, had never encountered anything that so closely mirrored his own perception of the glorious sights of this world which were always there to be seen by anyone who took the time to look. Immediately, the before mentioned noted importunings began. And now, they having had their desired effect, here they were; and there, in the far distance, was glory, the Alps, shimmering in the night. “We did not travel for adventure,” Ruskin wrote, concluding his chapter, nor for company, but to see with our own eyes, and measure with our own hearts.”

And so began what would become, by the time his last excursion on it ended in mental collapse in late 1888, a series of trips over what Ruskin would come to call his “Old Road,” trips of varying length and, to some degree, varying itinerary, but which always lead through France and Switzerland before crossing over one of the great Alpine passes before descending into Italy. The excursions would become the fuel that ignited the majority of Ruskin’s work on art and nature (as many earlier posts in this series have shown). Below is a map detailing their general course, a map designed by Keith Hanley and Rachel Dickinson for their book, Journeys of a Lifetime: Ruskin’s Continental Tours, and used here with permission.)

Ruskin's Old Road Map (Hanley and Dickinson)

One can’t really understand the breadth that is Ruskin without having some grasp of where his Old Road was, of how it stimulated so much of his work, and of what it meant to him personally. I introduce it here because, for the next three weeks, I’ll be–with my lovely wife, Jenn, and some dear friends–traveling on it, the Northern Italian part of it at all events, and it is in my mind to send out some posts as we go along.

What’s above was written while we were still in Porto, Portugal (where, by the way, the wine that takes its name from the city is as spectacular as one might hope!). The next morning we flew to Milan. About a half hour from landing, Portugal, Spain, and Southern France now behind, one of us chanced to glance out the window, where…


“There was no thought in any of us of their being clouds…”

Alps 2018 from air

Alps 2018 from air 2

… the same breath-taking Alps that Ruskin and his parents had seen from another, considerably lower vantage, a hundred and eighty-five years earlier, still possessing, despite having a great deal less snow on them, their ability to astound. No wonder that the reverence which his sighting inspired altered his life.

Above I said that it was Turner’s vignettes in Rogers’ book of poems that had fired Ruskin’s imagination so intently that it became impossible for him to rest until he had had a chance to visit for himself the places where the painter had worked. To get some sense of why he might have been so enthused, of why he was pulled as if by an insistent, unbreakable cord to see such sights, it is not a bad idea, in closing, to give one or two examples of the pictures Turner created as illustrations for Rogers’ verses:

This first, he called, “The Alps at Daylight”:

The Alps (The Alps at Daybreak), for Rogers's 'Poems' circa 1832 by Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851

The second was of the Rialto Bridge in Venice:

Tuner--The Rialto--for Rogers's Poems 1832.jpg

Until next time!

Be well out there!


This entry was posted in Art, Nature, Ruskin's Life, Ruskin's Old Road and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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