[This review orginally appeared in the April 1979 number of the Journal of English and Germanic Philology, pp. 264-65.]
The editor of Ruskin's correspondence faces problems not encountered by, say, the editor of Pater's comparatively few letters: unlike Pater, the author of Modern Painters and Fors Clavigera wrote so many letters to so many people that it does not seem practicable — at least in the foreseeable future — to undertake printing the complete letters. Therefore, the editor always finds himself with those problems that follow from presenting but a fragment of a much larger body of extant manuscripts. When publishing the correspondence of an entire lifetime, the limitations of space usually prevent one from providing extensive annotation or prefatory comment; but when one undertakes to present portions of a man's letters other requirements become important. To begin with, one must justify both the unity and the value of the letters chosen—one must demonstrate why these letters and only these. Second, one must make the materials as accessible as possible, providing necessary facts, clarifications, commentary, and missing links.
Shapiro has no difficulty with the first of these problems, since the 158 letters Ruskin wrote to his parents between April and November 1845 possess an obvious and important unity. As Shapiro himself points out, they "are, in a sense, his diary, and a fuller and more continuous one than his actual diaries for other years." In other words, these letters add up to a fascinating travel-book which records Ruskin's Italian journey in preparation for the writing of the second volume of Modern Painters. We observe Ruskin at a crucial stage in his career, embarking upon a voyage of discovery". It brings him to many beauties and at least a few horrors — the beauties of nature, Gothic architecture, and Italian religious painting, and the horrors of nineteenth-century destruction of paintings and buildings. His ideas widened and deepened, and he discovers that his political assumptions, like his artistic ones, have been reshaped by new experience.
Since I have not collated the edition with the Yale manuscripts, I cannot comment upon the accuracy of Shapiro's transcriptions other than to remark that "birth" in Letter 20 seems a misprint for "berth." In other respects, the editing is generally satisfactory, though it clearly does not reach the high standards set by the recent work of John L. Bradley and Van Akin Burd. I found it particularly annoying, however, that the edition departs from usual procedure and omits to list the letters or parts of letters published previously and the place of their initial appearance. Furthermore, the annotation, which provides an extremely important element in such an edition, often is either missing at crucial points or is simply not very helpful. Although Shapiro generally provides adequate information about persons and places mentioned, he does not always seem clear about the nature of his intended audience. For instance, to Ruskin's remark " I was looking at Vasari yesterday, & saw that Fra Bartolomeo died" of eating figs in the summer, we find the following note: "Giorgio Vasari, Le Vite dei piu eccellenti pittori, scultori e architectori. See the Life of Fra Bartolomeo." Now certainly no advanced student of Ruskin or even educated reader will have to be told that Vasari wrote the Lives, while the beginning student (who seems a rather unlikely hypothetical reader of this volume) will need to be told the English title, Vasari's dates, and something about the nature and importance of the work. In addition, the more advanced reader would also want to know what edition Ruskin used or is likely to have used. Similarly, when the editor identifies San Miniato the fourth time Ruskin mentions it, having passed it by the first three, one is not much helped to be told that the writer meant "San Miniato al Monte." Again, Shapiro seems unsure for whom he intends his edition, since some of the notes provide too much information for the scholar and not nearly enough for the more general reader.
Furthermore, other notes do not seem trustworthy. For example, when Ruskin mentions his father's "just criticisms on Fielding," it is quite possible that the note correctly asserts Copley Fielding, the painter, to be the subject of the elder Ruskin's comments. On the other hand, there is nothing which indicates that Henry Fielding could not have been the subject of this criticism. If Shapiro has other evidence he should present it to the reader; if not, he should mention the existence of alternate identifications.
More serious a fault with his presentation of materials is a frequent failure to provide necessary annotation. For instance, Letter 26 presents Ruskin's detailed impression of the tomb of Ilaria di Caretto, which became increas- ingly important in his life and writings. Since John D. Rosenberg and others have revealed the way this sculpture relates both to Ruskin's aesthetics and to his later obsession with Rose La Touche, I find it strange that Shapiro neither offers his own comment nor cites previous discussions. Similarly, a passage in Letter 42 about the earlier growth of his love of landscape demands a reference to Praeterita, and possibly a more elaborate comment, while the descriptions of St. Mark's in several letters require juxtaposition to relevant sections of The Stones of Venice. Even more important, since these 1845 letters bear so importantly upon the second and later volumes of Modern Painters, one expects the editor to point out the developments of Ruskin's reaction to Fra Angelico (Letter 50), his elaborate classification of painters (Letter 85), and his "conversion" to Tintoretto (Letters 131, 132). One school of editing prefers to avoid such annotation, placing the necessary critical guidance and interpretation in an introduction. Unfortunately, although Shapiro's well-written introductory section provides some useful comments, it is, as a whole, too sparse to be completely adequate.
Nonetheless, despite these flaws, Shapiro has provided a workmanlike, gen- erally adequate presentation of a very important group of Ruskin materials. Like Bradley's edition of the later Venetian letters, Shapiro's edition of the 1845 letters has made accessible letters which will fascinate and aid students of Ruskin.
Shapiro, Harold I., Ed. Ruskin in Italy: Letters to His Parents, 1845. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972. Pp. xxii+263.
Last modified 29 July 2012