In the early 1850s, John Ruskin published The Stones of Venice, his most recent musings on architecture since his completion of The Seven Lamps of Architecture in 1848. The book’s title city — a once-powerful European Mecca for artisans of varying specialties — provided Ruskin with a contemporary case study of the relationship between architecture and society; architecture, the reader will note, needs to be perceived within the context of the contemporary social, political, and religious zeitgeist. In its first chapter, entitled “The Quarry,” Ruskin emphasizes the rigid dichotomy between the prevalence of individual and domestic religion in Venetian culture. The deeply-rooted religious zeal that marked individual’s private conduct ascribed a certain degree of dignity and “simplicity of faith” to their lives:

We find, on the one hand, a deep, and constant tone of individual religion characterizing the lives of the citizens of Venice in her greatness; we find this spirit influencing them in all the familiar and immediate concerns of life, giving a peculiar dignity to the conduct even of their commercial transactions, and confessed by them with a simplicity of faith that may well put to shame the hesitation with which a man of the world at present admits (even if it be so in reality) that religious feeling has any influence over the minor branches of his conduct. And we find as the natural consequence of all this, a healthy serenity of mind and energy of will expressed in all their actions, and a habit of heroism which never fails them, even when the immediate motive of action ceases to be praiseworthy. With the fullness of this spirit the prosperity of the state is exactly correspondent, and with its failure her decline

Ruskin’s glorification of Venetian culture in the preceding passage indicates to the reader that the author both endorses and encourages comparable lifestyles; his heavy-handed insinuation is that “a healthy serenity of mind and energy of will” cannot be attained unless one adheres to piety. One cannot, however, overlook the passage’s final sentiments and its unfavorable implications for the mighty Venice; ultimately, the severe lack of religious influence on the broader, domestic level precipitates the city’s decline.

Ruskin proceeds to attribute the sudden “stopping short of this religious faith” to those interests that truly captivated the city on the domestic level: commerce and politics. Despite the “constant tone of individual religion characterizing the lives of [her] citizens,” Venice as a whole placed a significantly greater value on material success and “the advancement of her own private interests” than on domestic spirituality.

Ruskin, who adamantly affirms the direct relationship between architecture and a society’s moral state, remarks on the inevitable decline of Venetian architecture. As a society’s morality wanes, the “truth and vitality” of its architecture invariably suffers.

Questions

1. In “The Lamp of Memory,” Ruskin asserts that the architecture of ecclesiastical and secular buildings (i.e., churches versus homes) should not be markedly different, because separating the two would enforce the idea that God resides only in the Church and not, as the author asserts, everywhere: “When men do not love their hearths, nor reverence their thresholds, it is a sign that they have dishonoured both, and that they have never acknowledged the true universality of that Christian worship which was indeed to supersede the idolatry, but not the piety, of the pagan. Our God is a household God, as well as a heavenly one; He has an altar in every man’s dwelling” How does this observation relate to the dichotomy Ruskin draws between the individual and domestic religious practices of Venetian citizens?

2. The decline of religion in Venice and the subsequent decline in the quality of architecture appeared all across Europe. The result, specifically of the diminishing religious fervor, was the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century, which embraced a new artistic tradition vastly different from traditional European practices.

This corruption of all architecture, especially ecclesiastical, corresponded with, and marked the state of religion over all Europe, — the peculiar degradation of the Romanist superstition, and of public morality in consequence, which brought about the Reformation.

Why would Ruskin have alluded to the sixteenth-century Reformation while writing his nineteenth-century work? What events occurred in Europe during or prior to his writing of The Stones of Venice that would have made this allusion all-the-more poignant to his audience?

3. Signs of Venetian spiritual decline appear in the city’s movement from Gothic to Renaissance architectural styles. How does Ruskin perceive Renaissance architecture, particularly with respect to the Gothic style? Relate this to the author’s opinions regarding the dehumanizing conditions of modern work.

4. At the close of “The Quarry” (section 49), Ruskin appeals to his audience to pass their own judgment regarding the art of architecture, believing them capable of such a responsibility: “I believe most readers will at once admit the value of a criterion of right and wrong in so practical and costly an art as architecture, and will be apt rather to doubt the possibility of its attainment than dispute its usefulness if attained.” Does Ruskin give his audience too much credit in trusting their opinions (especially considering that he is a notorious social critic)? or is this appeal simply a tactic to bolster his own credibility?


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Last modified 4 March 2011