John Ruskin claims that the decline of Venice as a world power can be exemplified through the "expression of Venetian character through Venetian art": the fall of Venice, Ruskin maintains, coincides with a loss of religion, which ultimately reveals itself within Venetian art and architecture. This argument hinges upon the power of architecture to influence and reflect the values of its people. Ruskin roots himself firmly in this position, juxtaposing the respective arts of painting and architecture to emphasize architecture's preeminence in the minds of a people.

I have not written in vain if I have heretofore done anything towards diminishing the reputation of the Renaissance landscape painting. But the harm which has been done by Claude and the Poussins is as nothing when compared to the mischief effected by Palladio, Scamozzi, and Sansovino. Claude and the Poussins were weak men, and have had no serious influence on the general mind. There is little harm in their works being purchased at high prices: their real influence is very slight, and they may be left without grave indignation to their poor mission of furnishing drawing-rooms and assisting stranded conversation. Not so the Renaissance architecture. Raised at once into all the magnificence of which it was capable by Michael Angelo, then taken up by men of real intellect and imagination, such as Scamozzi, Sansovino, Inigo Jones, and Wren, it is impossible to estimate the extent of its influence on the European mind; and that the more, because few persons are concerned with painting, and, of those few, the larger number regard it with slight attention; but all men are concerned with architecture, and have at some time of their lives serious business with it. It does not much matter that an individual loses two or three hundred pounds in buying a bad picture, but it is to be regretted that a nation should lose two or three hundred thousand in raising a ridiculous building. Nor is it merely wasted wealth or distempered conception which we have to regret in this Renaissance architecture: but we shall find in it partly the root, partly the expression, of certain dominant evils of modern times — over-sophistication and ignorant classicalism; the one destroying the healthfulness of general society, the other rendering our schools and universities useless to a large number of the men who pass through them.

Renaissance architecture, according to Ruskin, both expresses and reinforces values departed from a once sacred state. Venice finds herself most corrupt at the point of her highest fame, within the supposed glory and splendor of the Renaissance.

Now Venice, as she was once the most religious, was in her fall the most corrupt, of European states; and as she was in her strength the centre of the pure currents of Christian architecture, so she is in her decline the source of the Renaissance. It was the originality and splendor of the palaces of Vicenza and Venice which gave this school its eminence in the eyes of Europe; and the dying city, magnificent in her dissipation, and graceful in her follies, obtained wider worship in her decrepitude than in her youth, and sank from the midst of her admirers into the grave.

Venice, though a dead and dying city according to Ruskin, exists within a myth of vibrance and prosperity. Described by Ruskin as an artistic traitor, her true religion vanished, Venice's fame at the height of the Renaissance is a false, immoral one. It is as if the city, already "sunk from the midst of her admirers into the grave," speaks, unwittingly, from the dead.


1. Ruskin argues that architecture has a greater propensity to influence and reflect the minds of a society than other visual arts. What tactics does he use to argue this, and does he do so successfully?

2. The Quarry makes similar claims as Thomas Carlyle's Hudson's Statue: Ruskin argues the ability of architecture to reflect a nation's values, and Carlyle, the ability of the statue. In what ways do these arguments overlap/diverge? Is one more successful than the other?

3. Ruskin indicts the Renaissance for "over-sophistication and ignorant classicism," and goes into much detail later in the essay to illustrate these claims with specific examples. Today's reader, however, might yet be duped by the "current fables of [Venice's] mystery or magnificence," finding within Renaissance art and architecture a point of praise, not censure. Does Ruskin's passionate claim serve to sway the modern reader? Would it sway the contemporary reader?

4. A large portion of Ruskin's argument is based upon an intrinsic connection between art and religion. According to Ruskin, art has the capacity to both communicate and prescribe moral values, and art devoid of religious inspiration is useless and corrupt. Can the rest of Ruskin's work bear any credence without this argued foundation? Does Ruskin build this foundation successfully?

Victorian Overview John Ruskin Political History

Last modified 1 March 2011