195: The Architect’s Gift


In 1858 and 1859, Ruskin, although (as per usual) in the midst of of a whirlwind of other projects–the most important being the finishing of the fifth and last volume of his Modern Painters books and ruminating deeply on what he would have to do if he was to effectively combat the ethical and economic corruptions of his time (cogitations that would culminate in 1860 in what he would always regard as his greatest work, Unto this Last), was invited to deliver a series of lectures at various venues. He did so, after which he collected them into a single volume which he entitled, The Two Paths. (I’d guess that few, today, have read these talks, but if any one reading this is willing to secure them–easy to do on the web–and accord them some hours, they would experience the pleasure of reading Ruskin working at the height of his literary powers and moral persuasiveness.)

The Two Paths--Title Page First Edition

Ruskin: The Two Paths: Being Lectures on Art, and its Application to Decoration and Manufacture, delivered in 1858-9. .

The metaphor he had chosen for his collection pointed to the central argument articulated in all the talks (a reproduction of the title page of a first edition is just to the right): Britain–indeed all of Western civilization–he said, was, like himself, at a crossroads. Two paths stretched before us: one, if it proved to be the favored, would lead us, as we traveled it, to delight and salubrious life for all; the other would lead us to….well…it would lead us to where we find ourselves today.

The fourth talk, “The Influence of Imagination in Architecture,” was delivered to members of the British Architectural Association in Lyon’s Inn Hall in central London. They had invited Ruskin because of the fame which had attached to him following the publication of The Seven Lamps of Architecture a decade before. In that still wonderful book, he had contended that architecture was, by a wide margin, the most important of the arts, but that, like the other fine arts–painting, sculpture, and literature–it only became great when it embodied and transmitted the best and noblest impulses of the architect’s imagination. If, for whatever reason, buildings were not embodiments of such elevated ideas, they would be pedestrian, functional perhaps, but exciting and inspiring never. In the passages below, we find him reiterating such thoughts as he brings his lecture to its conclusion.

Three comments before we read them. First, we should read these remarks as another iteration of the passages I recently reproduced in Post 192: The Living Surround wherein Ruskin stresses the absolute centrality of Nature as the source of inspiration of all great art. Art without nature as its prime stimulus, he tells us time and again, simply cannot be art (that he would have no truck with most of modern art should be obvious). Second, that, even though he is speaking to an audience of architects, it takes only a little imagination to see that we can apply all that he says perfectly to the work, whatever it may be, that each of us does in this world. All useful work, he says, all good work, either helps, glorifies, or both. And third, that we register what follows as yet another indicator of Ruskin’s stupendous gift: a brilliant arranging of words and sentences that movingly express truths we all know in our hearts, even if, before we read them here, we weren’t aware that we needed reminding of them. If someone in his audience was not inspired to have been selected to be an architect before attending this talk, it is hard to imagine that that person could have left the lecture hall without thinking that he had been blessed by the very gods themselves.

I suppose,” he began, “that you who are here tonight, our most accomplished architects,

will not wish me to spend any time in proving that imagination must be vigorous in proportion to the quantity of material it has to handle, and that, just as we increase the range of what we see, we increase the richness of what we can imagine. Granting this, consider what a field is opened to your fancy merely in the subject matter which architecture admits! Nearly every other art is severely limited in its subjects. The landscape painter, for instance, gets little help from the aspects of beautiful humanity. the historical painter, [even] less…from the accidents of wild nature, and the pure sculptor, still less from the minor details of common life.

But is there anything within range of sight, or conception, which may not be of use to you, or in which your interest may not be excited with advantage to your art? From visions of angels down to the least important gesture of a child at play, whatever may be conceived of Divine or beheld of Human may be dared or adopted by you! Throughout the kingdom of animal life, no creature is so vast, or so minute, that you cannot deal with it or bring it into service. The lion and the crocodile will crouch about your shafts; the moth and the bee will sun themselves upon your flowers. For you, the fawn will leap; for you, the snail be slow; for you, the dove smooth her bosom, and the hawk spread her wings toward the south. All the wide world of vegetation blooms and bends for you. The leaves tremble that you may bid them be still under [your] marble snow. The thorn and the thistle, which the earth casts forth as evil, are to you the kindliest servants. No dying petal, nor drooping tendril, is so feeble as to have no more help for you, no robed pride of blossom so kingly, but it will lay aside its purple to receive at your hands the pale immortality. Is there anything in common life too mean,…too trivial to be ennobled by your touch?

As there is nothing in life, so there is nothing in lifelessness which has not its lesson for you, or its gift. And when you are tired of watching the strength of the plume and the tenderness of the leaf, you may walk down to your rough river shore, or into the thickest markets of your thoroughfares, and there is not a piece of torn cable that will not twine into a perfect molding; there is not a fragment of cast-away matting, or shattered basket-work, that will not work [its way] into a… capital. Yes, and if you gather up the very sand, and break the stone on which you tread, among its fragments of all but invisible shells you will find forms that will take their place, and that proudly, among the starred traceries of your [building’s] vaulting. You, who can crown the mountain with its fortress, and the city with its towers, are thus able also to give beauty to ashes, and worthiness to dust.

Now, in that your art presents all this material to you, you have already much to rejoice in. But you have yet more to rejoice in, because all this is submitted to you not to be dissected or analyzed, but to be sympathized with, and to bring out, therefore, what may be accurately called the moral part of imagination… You must get the storm spirit into your eagles, and the lordliness into your lions, and the tripping fear into your fawns. And in order to do this you must be in continual sympathy with every fawn of them, and be hand-in-glove with all the lions, and hand-in-claw with all the hawks.

And don’t fancy that you will lower yourselves by sympathy with the lower creatures. You cannot sympathize rightly with the higher unless you do with those. But you have to sympathize with the higher too–with queens, and kings, and martyrs, and angels. Yes, and above all, and more than all, with simple humanity in all its needs and ways. For there is not one hurried face that passes you in the street that will not be impressive if you can only fathom it. All history is open to you, all high thoughts and dreams that the past fortunes of men can suggest. All fairy land is open to you! No vision that ever haunted forest, or gleamed over hill-side, but calls you to understand how it came into men’s hearts, and may still touch them. And all Paradise is open to you! Yes, and the work of Paradise. For in bringing all this in perpetual and attractive truth before the eyes of your fellow-men, you have to join in the employment of the angels, as well as to imagine their companies.

And observe, in this last respect, what a peculiar importance, and responsibility, are attached to your work when you consider its permanence, and the multitudes to whom it is addressed. [Unlike the transient words of any day,] none of your words will be heard by few, and none will be forgotten, [even]for five or six hundred years, if you build well. You will talk to all who pass by, and all those little sympathies, those freaks of fancy, those jests in stone, those workings-out of problems in caprice, will occupy mind after mind of utterly countless multitudes long after you are gone. You have not, like authors, to plead for a hearing, or…fear oblivion. Do but build large enough, and carve boldly enough, and all the world will hear you: they cannot choose but look.

[Let your work be] centered by one noble impulse, and let that be Love; triple love—for the art which you practice, the creation in which you move, and the creatures to whom you minister…

Chiefly, you must love the creatures to whom you minister, your fellow-men. For if you do not love them, not only will you be little interested in the passing events of life, but in all your gazing at humanity, you will be apt to be struck only by outside form and not by expression. It is only kindness and tenderness which will ever enable you to see what beauty there is in the dark eyes that are sunk with weeping and in the paleness of those fixed faces which the earth’s adversity has compassed about, till they shine in their patience like dying watch-fires through twilight. But it is not this only which makes it needful for you if you would be great, to be also kind…

So soon as you desire to build largely…you will find that your work must be associative. You cannot carve a whole cathedral yourself; you can carve but few and simple parts of it. Either your own work must be disgraced in the mass of the collateral inferiority or you must raise your fellow-designers to correspondence of power. If you have genius, you will yourselves take the lead in the building you design; you will carve its porch and direct its disposition. But, for all subsequent advancement of its detail, you must trust to the agency and the invention of others; and it rests with you either to repress what faculties your workmen have, into cunning subordination to your own, or to rejoice in discovering even the powers that may rival you, and leading forth mind after mind into fellowship with your fancy, and association with your fame.

I need not tell you that if you do the first—if you endeavor to depress or disguise the talents of your subordinates—you are lost. For nothing could imply more darkly and decisively than this, that your art and your work were not beloved by you–that it was your own prosperity that you were seeking, and your own skill only that you cared to contemplate. I do not say that you must not be jealous at all. It is rarely in human nature to be wholly without jealousy, and you may be forgiven for going some day sadly home, when you find some youth, unpracticed and unapproved, giving the life-stroke to his work which you, after years of training, perhaps, cannot reach. But your jealousy must not conquer. Your love of your building must conquer, helped by your kindness of heart.

See: I set no high or difficult standard before you: I do not say that you are to surrender your pre-eminence in mere unselfish generosity. But I do say that you must surrender your pre-eminence in your love of your building–helped by your kindness–and that whomsoever you find better able to do what will adorn it than you, that person you are to give place to. And to console yourselves for the humiliation, first, by your joy in seeing the edifice grow more beautiful under his chisel, and secondly, by your sense of having done kindly and justly.

But if you are morally strong enough to make the kindness and justice the first motive, it will be better; best of all, if you do not consider it as kindness at all, but bare and stern justice. For, truly, such help as we can give each other in this world is a debt to each other–and the man who perceives a superiority or a capacity in a subordinate, and neither confesses, nor assists it, is not merely the withholder of kindness, but the committer of injury. But be the motive what you will, only see that you do the thing, and take the joy of the consciousness that, as your art embraces a wider field than all others—and addresses a vaster multitude than all others—and is surer of audience than all others—so it is profounder and holier in Fellowship than all others.

The artist, when his pupil is perfect, must see him leave his side that he may declare his distinct, perhaps opponent, skill. Man of science wrestles with man of science for priority of discovery, and pursues in pangs of jealous haste his solitary inquiry. You alone are called by kindness— by necessity—by equity, to fraternity of toil. And thus, in those misty and massive piles which rise above the domestic roofs of our ancient cities, there was—there may be again!—a meaning more profound and true than any that fancy so commonly has attached to them. Men say their pinnacles point to heaven. Why so does every tree that buds, and every bird that rises as it sings. Men say their aisles are good for worship. Why so is every mountain glen, and rough sea-shore. But this they have of distinct and indisputable glory: that their mighty walls were never raised, and never shall be, but by men who love and aid each other in their weakness; that all their interlacing strength of vaulted stone has its foundation upon the stronger arches of manly fellowship, and all their changing grace of depressed or lifted pinnacle owes its cadence and completeness to sweeter symmetries of human soul.

As cases useful in illustrating the two paths about which our subject has spoken with such eloquence, I offer two images below. The first is of the façade of the Basilica San Marco in Venice. The painting is by John Wharton Bunney, who, while traveling with Ruskin during one of his Continental trips, was asked by the master to do an accurate rendering of the great cathedral front while it was still in its shimmering medieval glory before that sorry moment came when modern restorers, having gained the upper hand at last, ruined that glory in their efforts to “make it better.” (Bunney’s original still lights up the entirety of the largest room at The Ruskin Gallery in Sheffield in the UK.) Built by thousands of imaginations and twice that number of hands over hundreds of years, Ruskin,, in The Stones of Venice called St. Mark’s, along with the nearby Doge’s Palace, “the central buildings of the world.” (If you’d like to read his praises of San Marco’s façade–just a few of them, actually–you could revisit Post 98: On Entering Venice’s Piazza San Marco–with Ruskin.)

Bunney 00780

The second image is of another church’s façade. It is always there for visitors to Venice on the southern horizon, only about a mile and a half away, across the lagoon: the façade of San Georgio Maggiore, built by one of the Renaissance’s most renowned architects, Andrea Palladio. For Ruskin, it was always representative of the second of the two paths, the path which, unfortunately, has become the one chosen by most moderns architects, the path which acknowledged the master architect not as a general overseer of a communal effort to erect a great, honorific building but as the sole director of a work which would raise, to his own glory, his singular vision.

Facade of the church of San Giorgio Maggiore

Until next time, please do continue to be well out there!


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4 Responses to 195: The Architect’s Gift

  1. Michelle Lovric says:

    As you say, Jim, it is following the wrong path that has got us where we are today, with so many cities blighted by the crude and arrogant geometry of which I’d say “postmodern” is the worst manifestation of ‘spoilt child’.

  2. Arjun Jain says:

    Thank you, Jim! Thank you a thousand times, for today’s selection! What an absolutely glorious few paragraphs! Ruskin’s clarity brings tears to one’s eyes.

    • jimspates says:

      An entirely apt response, Arjun (often mine as well). So, too, was Michelle’s earlier reply. The great contribution of Ruskin, other than the brilliance and mesmerizing quality of his words, and the expanse and correctness of his vision, is his UNPARALLELED ability to write from and to the heart. The heart, when allowed its natural reign, always and immediately KNOWS the truth of all things.

  3. Jan Bentley says:

    Thank you for this, it’s my first time to read Ruskin & marvelous! Jan


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