John Ruskin’s “The Quarry” traverses the framework of Venetian history, combining momentous historic events with influences of the city’s monumental architecture, and creating a narrative voice that mirrors the physical movement of travel — placing readers at Venice’s “far away edge of her own ocean, where the surf and the sand-bank are mingled with the sky.” Ruskin presents this journey across Venetian history in an authorial, didactic tone, revisiting Venetian forms of government beginning as “consular,” and ending in “the image of a king.” This exploration of Venice’s historical past indicates a sense of downfall, as the state moves from newborn growth to “expiration.”
The state of Venice existed Thirteen Hundred and Seventy-six years, from the first establishment of a consular government on the island of the Rialto, to the moment when the General-in-chief of the French army of Italy pronounced the Venetian republic a thing of the past. Of this period, Two Hundred and Seventy-six years were passed in a nominal subjection to the cities of old Venetia, especially to Padua, and in an agitated form of democracy, of which the executive appears to have been entrusted to tribunes, chosen, one by the inhabitants of each of the principal islands. For six hundred years, during which the power of Venice was continually on the increase, her government was an elective monarchy, her King or doge possessing, in early times at least, as much independent authority as any other European sovereign, but an authority gradually subjected to limitation, and shortened almost daily of its prerogatives, while it increased in a spectral and incapable magnificence. The final government of the nobles, under the image of a king, lasted for five hundred years, during which Venice reaped the fruits of her former energies, consumed them, — and expired.
The notion of Venice “reap[ing] the fruits of her former energies,” and falling into destruction, has biblical connotations. Ruskin suggests that a once pure and magnificent Venetian state has now become tainted by consumption. To emphasize this downfall, Ruskin divides Venetian history into two periods, the first a pure and powerful time; the latter, tainted with crime and conspiracy. Further, Ruskin creates a female character for Venice to emphasize a loss of morality.
This first period includes the rise of Venice, her noblest achievements, and the circumstances which determined her character and position among European powers; and within its range, as might have been anticipated, we find the names of all her hero princes, — of Pietro Urseolo, Ordalafo Falier, Domenico Michieli, Sebastiano Ziani, and Enrico Dandolo.
The second period opens with a hundred and twenty years, the most eventful in the career of Venice — the central struggle of her life — stained with her darkest crime, the murder of Carrara — disturbed by her most dangerous internal sedition, the conspiracy of Falier — oppressed by her most fatal war, the war of Chiozza — and distinguished by the glory of her two noblest citizens (for in this period the heroism of her citizens replaces that of her monarchs), Vittor Pisani and Carlo Zeno.
The ethical connotations of “her noblest achievements,” and “her darkest crime” allow Ruskin to take the impersonal, remote nature of historical events, and bring them into the realm of feeling and emotion. Therefore, by dividing Venetian history into two eras, and by creating a female persona for Venice, Ruskin suggests Venetian descent as a moral dilemma — one that hinges upon the character of Venice herself.
1. Ruskin never uses any actual dates when describing these historical accounts, merely stating “Venice existed Thirteen Hundred and Seventy-six years.” Does this detract from his historical credibility?
2. Why does Ruskin go into such depth about Venetian history before bringing up the architecture that commands most of the essay? Do these early paragraphs help persuade the reader of Ruskin’s later claims of Venetian art and architecture being corrupted?
3. Considering Ruskin’s different “styles,” how do his techniques in “The Quarry” differ from “The Lamp of Memory,” which also discusses architecture?
A later paragraph in the essay reads:
But now, reader, comes the very gist and point of the whole matter. This lying monument to a dishonored doge, this culminating pride of the Renaissance art of Venice, is at least veracious, if in nothing else, in its testimony to the character of its sculptor.
Is this similar to what Carlyle argues in “Hudson’s Statue?” How does this suggest Ruskin feels about Renaissance art?
Last modified 1 March 2011