Many writers, poets, and artists of the past centuries were enthralled by the beauty of Venice and depicted this unique city in their works. Probably none of them, however, dedicated more time and passion to describing the “Paradise of all cities” than John Ruskin.
Born in London in 1819, he first visited Venice at the age of 16, and returned another 10 times over the course of his life. His love for the city is recorded in one of his most famous works: “The Stones of Venice”, an essay on the history, art, and, especially, architecture of Venice.
During his visits he could see the invasive, sometimes destructive, restoration work taking place on many ancient Venetian buildings during that period.
His drawings were therefore an attempt to record the decaying beauty of the city before it was too late. So, what has happened to the “Stones of Venice” that Ruskin loved and portrayed in the 19th century?
A fascinating exhibition in the Doge’s Palace shows many of the drawings and watercolors made by Ruskin during his Venetian journeys, as well as other works of his.
Let’s compare some of them to the present buildings.
St. Mark’s Basilica
During Ruskin’s visit in 1876-77, the Basilica was threatened by thorough restoration work that was destroying much of its original decoration. Many of the mosaics decorating the interior of the southern side of the church were lost during the work; luckily, we can still see the fragments in the museum on the upper floor of the church.
Ruskin’s vision, according to which restoration was merely “a lie”, had a strong influence on the local intellectuals of the time and finally led to the salvation of the church from more destruction.
His watercolor depicting the northwest side of St. Mark’s Basilica is a clear attempt to record the beauty of the mosaic, the only one still in the facade today which dates back to the 13th century.
The Doge’s Palace
Ruskin described the Doge’s Palace as “the central building of the world”: reconciling Roman, Lombard, and Arab architectonic traditions.
He did not, however, admire the architecture of the entire palace. His praise of the Byzantine and Gothic styles, opposed to the “decay” represented by the Renaissance, made him favor the earlier 14th century southern facade of the building.
According to Ruskin, the eastern facade, built in the 15th century, shows signs of the “degradation of the Gothic” and the Porta della Carta, the main gate dating to 1438, is the point where “the vice reaches its climax”!
The only exception on the eastern facade was the last capital of the colonnade, engraved with the allegories of justice, or “the lawgivers”. The capital is described as “the most beautiful of the whole series … very noble; its groups of figures most carefully studied, very graceful, and much more pleasing than those of the earlier work, though with less real power in them” (Stones of Venice, Volume II, 1853).
Starting in 1875, several of the original capitals were removed and replaced with copies because of their fragility. The originals are now on display in the Museo dell’Opera.
When Ruskin visited Venice in the 1840s, this gothic palazzo was being “destroyed by restorations”. In a letter to his father, he laments the fact that he spent a day “vainly attempting to draw it while the workmen were hammering it down before my face” and lists the original features that went lost during the renovation process.
In 1846, in fact, the Ca’ d’Oro was bought by a Russian prince, Alessandro Trubetzkoi, who gifted it to Maria Taglioni, a famous dancer who liked collecting palaces along the Grand Canal of Venice (she already had another three). She commissioned the architect Giovan Battista Meduna to carry out the renovation work, and he threw away many of the original pieces and opened new windows on the facade.
Ruskin died in 1900; a few years after the Ca’ d’Oro was purchased by the Baron Giorgio Franchetti, who brought back its Gothic splendor.
Franchetti was able to purchase some of the original pieces of the house, such as the well, but he also added some “lies” to his restoration project. Above the windows of the inner courtyard he placed some patere (Byzantine style carved roundels) that had been removed from another building, Palazzo Grandiben in Castello.
Ruskin had taken a photo of that Palazzo, a daguerreotype which is now the only document showing the patere in their original location.
Built around 1487, this is actually a great example of Early Renaissance architecture attributed to Pietro Lombardo, not the style favored by Ruskin. Yet, the colored marbles in the facade, arranged in fancy roundels, are considered by Ruskin an example of “Renaissance engrafted on Byzantine”, and therefore praised and depicted in detail.
Ruskin was not the only one fascinated by Ca’ Dario. Monet painted it in 1908, and Henry James wrote that “it is made up of exquisite pieces — as if there had been only enough to make it small — so that it looks, in its extreme antiquity, a good deal like a house of cards that hold together by a tenure it would be fatal to touch”.
In 1838, the palazzo was the house of Rawdon Brown, a British historian and Venice expert who helped Ruskin in accessing the historical archives of the city and introduced him to local life. Brown financed the first restoration work of Ca’ Dario, but he had to give up and sold the property after only 2 years because of a lack of funds. It was only in 1904 that new work started to consolidate the fragile structure.
Restoration work on the facade of Ca’ Dario has been completed recently, and now its “exquisite pieces” are shining again above the Grand Canal.