Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 17, 2001
Sarah Quill Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited Aldershot: Ashgate, 2000. 206 pp.; 210 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth (1840146974)

One of the most beautiful books to appear in recent years, this visual feast that is Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited pairs quotations from the three volumes of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice (New York: Lovell, 1851-53) with Sarah Quill’s dazzling photographs of the monuments that Ruskin observed. Every detail is appealing, from the dust jacket—a deftly chosen detail of the marble encrustation on the Ca’ Dario that Ruskin would surely have favored—to the marble intarsia decoration on the end papers. The intended audiences of the book, one might speculate, are the modern-day travelers to Venice mentioned at the beginning of this book, Ruskin devotees (whose enthusiasm for that polymath aesthete of the Victorian era has inspired the flood of recent publications on Ruskin), and the various communities throughout the world for whom Venice remains the most enchanting and authentic of theme parks. More immediately, the book was presumably designed to capitalize on the centenary of Ruskin’s death in 1900 and the attendant exhibitions.

Quill’s book opens with a frontispiece illustration from Ruskin’s Stones: an array of windows from early Gothic palaces. Turning the page, the reader encounters the type of visual-verbal interaction that makes her book so successful. Printed over the glistening water of a Venetian canal, and below a two-page photograph of Gothic palaces, are the white letters of a passage from Ruskin’s Modern Painters: “A city of marble, did I say? nay, rather a golden city, paved with emerald. For truly, every pinnacle and turret glanced or glowed, overlaid with gold, or bossed with jasper. Beneath, the unsullied sea drew in deep breathing, to and from its eddies of green wave. Deep-hearted, majestic, terrible as the sea—the men of Venice moved in sway of power and war; pure as her pillars of alabaster, stood her mothers and maidens…A world from which all ignoble care and petty thoughts were banished, with all the common and poor elements of life…” Ruskin’s effusive prose works beautifully with Quill’s stunning photograph, taken when the late afternoon light on a near cloudless day rendered the façades radiant—as if gilded—and transformed a murky, polluted canal into an iridescent frame.

Quill’s preface develops the justification for the book. Because Stones is nearly 500,000 words long, she says it is “far too long and discursive a work for anyone but the serious student to attempt to read in its entirety, and, having been out of print for many years, is available only in libraries” (14). She is correct, of course, because only an abridgement of the book is now available, and no one has seen fit, probably for the reasons that Quill mentions, to reprint Stones. Internet-savvy readers, however, can easily find a moderately priced copy from an antiquarian book service, but Quill is correct in assuming that many readers today are unlikely to enter this daunting work without such a photographic invitation.

Next, Alan Windsor provides a general historical context for Ruskin and his analysis of Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance architecture in Venice. Windsor reproduces engravings from Ruskin’s volumes and adds a few others for explanatory purposes, but here the ensemble can mislead. For example, a perspectival section accompanies a discussion of Gothic palaces from Viollet-le-Duc’s Entretiens sur l’architecture (Paris: Q. Morel et cie, 1863). Not only is the engraving later than Stones, a fact not immediately apparent on this page, but it is also characteristic of an approach to Gothic architecture that Ruskin did not share, as Nikolaus Pevsner points out in Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc: Englishness and Frenchness in the Appreciation of Gothic Architecture (London: Thames & Hudson, 1969).

Following the introductions, we meet Ruskin directly. Selections from Ruskin’s letters, showing his early interest in Venice, lead to that famous beginning of Stones: “Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands: the thrones of Tyre, Venice, and England.” Quill arranges the photographs and quotations that follow in chronological order. Because the photographs are of such high quality and immediate interest—and since Quill has made a judicious selection of images and texts—the result provides an ideal means to compare the nature of an illustrated book in 1851 and 2000.

What Quill presents is familiar from countless modern photographic travel books—a genre that began shortly after the invention of the medium with the travel album, and reached a level of sustained popular interest later in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in magazines such as The Illustrated London News, Life Magazine, National Geographic, etc. Common to those productions is the fiction that through photographs one is immediately set in the exotic place, and becomes face-to-face with unusual butterflies, interesting architecture, or strangely costumed people. Ruskin wrote, however, within a different genre of travel writing, one meant to accompany the traveler and substitute for the Grand Tour (with its lengthy stays, accompanying servants, and educated guides). This mode of travel yields a leisurely style of writing that lingers over details of the journey itself, and thus favors process as well as product. For example, at the end volume 1, Ruskin takes the reader to Venice slowly, and by gondola—certainly not by the hated railroad. In the first chapter of his next volume, Ruskin establishes the physical geography of the Veneto. Quill’s narrative ignores all but the beginning of his volume 1, skips the hard-to-visualize first chapter of volume 2, and instead moves directly to the following accounts that he gives of Torcello and Murano. Thus, hers is a book for our world, not his.

For Murano, Quill usefully juxtaposes the present state of the decoration near the east end of the church of San Donato with what Ruskin published. She also adds something that Ruskin did not illustrate: general views of the church in the form of a photograph and a nineteenth-century engraving. In his account, Ruskin avoided general views; one does not, for example, find a panoramic illustration of San Marco, the church that he celebrated most of all. Quill presents this one next, first in sympathy with Ruskin’s approach, detailing a portion of the central bay pinnacle, but then showing the standard prospect of the whole façade. Only twenty years after Stones did Ruskin commission John Bunney to paint the full façade. The reason, I suspect, is that Ruskin was a man of visual detail—as befits his initial training in geology—with a persistent emphasis in Stones, as the very title suggests. His drawings gave the particulars; his evocative prose established the scene.

Here is where Quill’s book strives the most to capture an essential quality of Stones—its sophisticated rhetorical strategies of ekphrasis and antithesis, two methods of the ancient orator. Ruskin, for example, does not put the reader immediately before San Marco in volume 2. His chapter 4 begins with a flat, historical accounting of the cult of St. Mark’s and of prior churches dedicated to him in Venice. Next (sect. 10), Ruskin further postpones presenting the monument itself and instead offers a significant detour: “And now I wish that the reader, before I bring him into St. Mark’s Place, would imagine himself for a little time in a quiet English cathedral town, and walk with me to the west front of its cathedral.” The ekphrasis that follows makes the English Gothic church the foil for San Marco. To arrive at the latter, Ruskin accompanies the reader through the crowded, noisy streets of Venice and pauses at the Bocca di Piazza. There, before the church, he erupts with such a torrent of inspired, yet intricate, prose to frustrate the word limit and genre conventions of an electronic review. He even contrasts the birds at the two churches to the advantage of those at St. Mark’s. Instead of English crows (“hoarse-voiced…, drifting on the bleak upper air”), St. Mark’s porches “are full of doves, that nestle among the marble foliage, and mingle the soft iridescence of their living plumes, changing at every motion, with the tints [at the church], hardly less lovely, that have stood unchanged for seven hundred years.”

Thus, in the last analysis, Quill does not do justice to Ruskin—another way of saying that this is her book, not his. Her stunning photographs overwhelm the brief quotations from Stones, but this said, her book remains a great success. At the end, Virginia Woolf is quoted, as “marvelling at the words [of Ruskin], as if all the fountains of the English language had been set playing in the sunlight for our pleasure,” and Evelyn Waugh advises us to “read a page of Ruskin a day,” useful especially for Americans raised on Strunk and White (to our cultural and literary impoverishment). My concluding advice would be to enjoy the beauties of Quill’s photographs, but also to read the pages of the master in the original.

Robert S. Nelson
University of Chicago