Ruskin’s lament – from ‘The Stones of Venice’

On 12th May, 1797, a year before Casanova died (4th June, 1798), the ancient Republic of Venice capitulated to Napoleon.  Immediately he set about sacking the city of as many of its splendours as he could cart back to Paris before handing it over to Austria.   By the mid-nineteenth century, although the grand old city still had the power to spellbind its visitors, there was evidence of serious neglect and decay.  In his conclusion to Volume II of ‘The Stones of Venice’ (published 1853), John Ruskin draws attention to the abysmal condition of some of the city’s great works of art.

CXXXV.The reader will forgive my quitting our more immediate subject, in order briefly to explain the causes and the nature of this destruction; for the matter is simply the most important of all that can be brought under our present consideration respecting the state of art in Europe.

The fact is, that the greater number of persons or societies throughout Europe, whom wealth, or chance, or inheritance has put in possession of valuable pictures, do not know a good picture from a bad one, and have no idea in what the value of a picture really consists. The reputation of certain works is raised, partly by accident, partly by the just testimony of artists, partly by the various and generally bad taste of the public (no picture, that I know of, has ever, in modern times, attained popularity, in the full sense of the term, without having some exceedingly bad qualities mingled with its good ones), and when this reputation has once been completely established, it little matters to what state the picture may be reduced: few minds are so completely devoid of imagination as to be unable to invest it with the beauties which they have heard attributed to it.

CXXXVI.This being so, the pictures that are most valued are for the most part those by masters of established renown, which are highly or neatly finished, and of a size small enough to admit of their being placed in galleries or saloons, so as to be made subjects of ostentation, and to be easily seen by a crowd. For the support of the fame and value of such pictures, little more is necessary than that they should be kept bright, partly by cleaning, which is incipient destruction, and partly by what is called “restoring,” that is, painting over, which is of course total destruction. Nearly all the gallery pictures in modern Europe have been more or less destroyed by one or other of these operations, generally exactly in proportion to the estimation in which they are held; and as, originally, the smaller and more highly finished works of any great master are usually his worst, the contents of many of our most celebrated galleries are by this time, in reality, of very small value indeed.

CXXXVII.On the other hand, the most precious works of any noble painter are usually those which have been done quickly, and in the heat of the first thought, on a large scale, for places where there was little likelihood of their being well seen, or for patrons from whom there was little prospect of rich remuneration. In general, the best things are done in this way, or else in the enthusiasm and pride of accomplishing some great purpose, such as painting a cathedral or a camposanto from one end to the other, especially when the time has been short, and circumstances disadvantageous.

CXXXVIII.Works thus executed are of course despised, on account of their quantity, as well as their frequent slightness, in the places where they exist; and they are too large to be portable, and too vast and comprehensive to be read on the spot, in the hasty temper of the present age. They are, therefore, almost universally neglected, whitewashed by custodes, shot at by soldiers, suffered to drop from the walls piecemeal in powder and rags by society in general; but, which is an advantage more than counterbalancing all this evil, they are not often “restored.” What is left of them, however fragmentary, however ruinous, however obscured and defiled, is almost always the real thing; there are no fresh readings: and therefore the greatest treasures of art which Europe at this moment possesses are pieces of old plaster on ruinous brick walls, where the lizards burrow and bask, and which few other living creatures ever approach; and torn sheets of dim canvas, in waste corners of churches; and mildewed stains, in the shape of human figures, on the walls of dark chambers, which now and then an exploring traveller causes to be unlocked by their tottering custode, looks hastily round, and retreats from in a weary satisfaction at his accomplished duty.

CXXXIX.Many of the pictures on the ceilings and walls of the Ducal Palace, by Paul Veronese and Tintoret, have been more or less reduced, by neglect, to this condition. Unfortunately, they are not altogether without reputation, and their state has drawn the attention of the Venetian authorities and academicians. It constantly happens, that public bodies who will not pay five pounds to preserve a picture, will pay fifty to repaint it: and when I was at Venice in 1846, there were two remedial operations carrying on, at one and the same time, in the two buildings which contain the pictures of greatest value in the city (as pieces of color, of greatest value in the world), curiously illustrative of this peculiarity in human nature. Buckets were set on the floor of the Scuola di San Rocco, in every shower, to catch the rain which came through the pictures of Tintoret on the ceiling; while in the Ducal Palace, those of Paul Veronese were themselves laid on the floor to be repainted; and I was myself present at the re-illumination of the breast of a white horse, with a brush, at the end of a stick five feet long, luxuriously dipped in a common house-painter’s vessel of paint.

This was, of course, a large picture. The process has already been continued in an equally destructive, though somewhat more delicate manner, over the whole of the humbler canvases on the ceiling of the Sala del Gran Consiglio; and I heard it threatened when I was last in Venice (1851-2) to the “Paradise” at its extremity, which is yet in tolerable condition,—the largest work of Tintoret, and the most wonderful piece of pure, manly, and masterly oil-painting in the world.

CXL.I leave these facts to the consideration of the European patrons of art. Twenty years hence they will be acknowledged and regretted; at present, I am well aware, that it is of little use to bring them forward, except only to explain the present impossibility of stating what pictures are, and what were, in the interior of the Ducal Palace. I can only say, that in the winter of 1851, the “Paradise” of Tintoret was still comparatively uninjured, and that the Camera di Collegio, and its antechamber, and the Sala de’ Pregadi were full of pictures by Veronese and Tintoret, that made their walls as precious as so many kingdoms; so precious indeed, and so full of majesty, that sometimes when walking at evening on the Lido, whence the great chain of the Alps, crested with silver clouds, might be seen rising above the front of the Ducal Palace, I used to feel as much awe in gazing on the building as on the hills, and could believe that God had done a greater work in breathing into the narrowness of dust the mighty spirits by whom its haughty walls had been raised, and its burning legends written, than in lifting the rocks of granite higher than the clouds of heaven, and veiling them with their various mantle of purple flower and shadowy pine.
(John Ruskin, Volume Two, ‘The Stones of Venice’, 1853)


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