Below you’ll find another of those marvelous bits that, of a sudden, appears on the page when you read Ruskin, a short passage that fires your inner eye as it’s insight and beauty of expression take your breath away.
As I’ve often mentioned, The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) is one of his great masterpieces (cf. Post 99: The Little Man and the Dragon and 149: The Gift of Notre-Dame), its intent being to demonstrate the essential traits, which (in a lovely touch) he calls “lamps,” that all the world’s greatest buildings possess. On another level, however, the book is meant as a guide for architects, outlining what it is worth spending time on as well as that on which no concern should be visited when creating buildings (you won’t be surprised to learn that almost all the architects of his day didn’t like his recommendations for the very good reason that, as ever the case, they already knew everything they needed to know; the consequence–to Ruskin’s enduring frustration–being that poor and even worse architecture continued to rise everywhere).
At this moment, in the chapter entitled, “The Lamp of Beauty,” he is making it clear, in his always forthright way, what sorts of decorations enhance the beauty of a building and what sorts do not. Take for instance the temptation, indulged in by some architects, to place ribands (sculpted ribbon shapes) in or on their buildings. An example he has in mind are the ribands that are found in the center and either side of the great doors leading into the Baptistery of Florence, doors which Michelangelo, reverencing both the imagination and brilliant execution of their creator, called “The Gates of Paradise.” Designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti in the late 11th and early 12th centuries, Ruskin is fully aware that Ghiberti’s doors are world masterpieces, that their central panels, many of which are the work of Andrea Pisano, are beyond reproach, models of the form for all time. But those ribands–not so much!
In order to understand his unhappiness with these ribands, it’s important to remember that Ruskin always insisted that the greatest architecture (or the greatest art) is always grounded in an appreciation or celebration of something marvelous in nature. It was this referencing of some element in the natural world that lifted a created image from the realm of the merely decorative to that of the living, which elevated our attention from one of (at best), modest interest to one of riveted delight. Here is the bit on ribands:
Ribands occur frequently in [architecture]… [But is] there anything like ribands in nature? It might be thought that grass and seaweed afforded apologetic types. They do not. There is a wide difference between their structure and that of a riband.
[Next comes the short passage that arrested my attention. I had read it some time ago but had missed then its loveliness revelatory nature. Its another of those miraculous passages where our great Victorian shows you see what you had not seen before, and makes you think what you had not thought before…]
[Both grass and seaweed] have a skeleton, an anatomy, a central rib, or fiber, or framework, of some kind or another, which has a beginning and an end, a root and head, and whose make and strength affect every direction of their motion, and every line of their form. The loosest seaweed that drifts and waves under the heaving of the sea, or hangs heavily on the brown and slippery shore, has a marked strength, structure,, elasticity, gradation of substance. Its extremities are more finely fibered than its center, its center than its root. Every fork of its ramification is measured and proportioned, every wave of its languid lines is lovely. It has its allotted size, and place and function.
What is like this in a riband? It has no structure. It is a succession of cut threads all alike. It has no skeleton, no make, no form, no size, no will of its own. You will cut it and crush it into what you will. It has no strength, no languor. It cannot fall into a single graceful form. It cannot wave in the true sense…; it cannot bend in the true sense, but only turn and be wrinkled… It spoils all that is near its wretched film of an existence. Never use it.
At first blush, it may be that this last sentence reverberates in the ear as dictatorial (as Ruskin was sometimes accused of being); we are a little irked by the uncompromising quality of his words: “Who is he to lay down rules for building?” But, if we take just a small amount of time to dig a little deeper, we will see that he was quite right to be as directive as he was.
Below is a picture is of a bench that just happens (I’m sure that is the right phrase) to have been placed outside the shop where the lovely person who cuts my hair works (mostly, in my experience, it is used by the people working there taking smoking breaks). As motifs (bench marks?), and presumably in a attempt to attract a viewer’s or user’s attention (and, likely, increase the purchase price of the piece), the designers of the bench have, on the back frame, cast some ribands and flowers.
Looking at the riband images, we immediately feel that, unlike real grass or seaweed, they aren’t living–even in a sculpted sense–not just because they have been fashioned in metal (some forms of metal Ruskin thought could become art), but because their flow, as represented, doesn’t flow. Yes, they have a certain immediate prettiness and, because of that, they take our eye for a second, but, after that, why would we give them another glance? Benches that celebrate the possibility of Paradise they most certainly are not. In the books that will surely be written extolling the best bench designs of the 21st century, they are not likely to be pictured and take up pages of praise (and, if they are and do, woe to us all!).
In short, the ribands are, however unintentionally they may have achieved this sorry status, dead. Dead because they are notgrounded in or celebrating something that lives and breathes in nature (grass or seaweed, say); dead because whomever decided it would be a fine idea to put a riband image on a bench they had been asked to design, never had a thought of going to nature for inspiration. More than likely, the bench marker had seen something similar on the back of some other bench and, thinking that other rendering “good enough” for the purpose, cast these moribunds.
But such a “let’s go see how nature does it before we design our ribands” thought did occur to the sculptors who had been charged with designing a ball image with wine ribands for the central gate of the Basilica San Marco in Venice (cf. Post 98: On Entering Venice’s Piazza San Marco –with Ruskin), and a riband-like finial for a pediment which would be used at the Cathedral of St. Lo in Northern France (the illustrations are Ruskin’s from The Seven Lamps). The result is stunningly different–images which, even in stone, or, perhaps better said, miraculous, because they are in stone–are alive. (If we multiply such vibrant images by the hundreds we get something like the facade of San Marco–see, again, Post 98–and hundreds of years later, people will pay a great deal of money to come and have their picture taken in front of them.)
Now, we come to the saddest part of this story. For these seemingly innocuous bench ribands that sit outside my hair cutter’s shop in my small city–as Ruskin, if he saw them (God forbid!), would immediately tell us–are catastrophic in their (almost always overlooked) effect! Because, in the very quality of their deadness, they deaden us. Beyond that first momentary glance, our attention is not arrested by them, our appreciation of life is not increased, we don’t have a sudden and happy desire to go out and romp with the lovely tulips blooming in the field just down the road, our appreciation of architecture is decreased, indeed, debased; we forget (if ever we knew it, which, likely, we did not), as Ruskin defined it so brilliantly in The Seven Lamps, that
Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by human beings, for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them contributes to their mental health, power and pleasure.
When I had the thought that I’d like to share Ruskin’s lovely description of the beauties and significance of seaweed (primarily; we’ve delighted in his word poems of flowers in many other places) the rest of this post hadn’t occurred to me. But then, fors being fors, inexorably, it did and, as that happened, that rest seemed important to add. And so, as so often happens with our subject, the truth contained in a very small passage, given a very small bit of further thought, becomes an entree into a very serious consideration of a very important issue.
Until next time!
Be well out there.