‘Stones of Venice’ Reading 1

Information on the discussion group can be found here.

Vol. II. Chapter 1. The Throne

Leader: Samatha Briggs

Ruskin’s introduction to the second volume of The Stones of Venice outlines much of his argument about architecture in and travel to Venice. Ruskin approaches the city as a modern traveller offering a glimpse of what it may have been like to see it in its original splendour. Ruskin discusses the importance of memory, romance, and the imagination, the ideals we form about a place and the sense of reality experienced once we visit it.

A PDF copy of this reading can be downloaded here. Please try and use this copy so that we can make use of the page numbers and references.*

How it will work:

Each week a new extract will be uploaded to the site. We ask that you read the extract from that week and then highlight any points of interest, observations or questions you might have. Comments should be made in that week’s comment box. All comments will be released daily, unless deemed unsuitable. You can hashtag comments or reflection at #JVCruskin. Feel free to respond to each other but please be respectful of each other’s points of views. At the end of the week the leader will then provide a summary and concluding remarks of the discussion.

Samantha Briggs is a postgraduate student in English at the University of Exeter. Her thesis, “Architecture and Hardy,” examines Hardy’s response to the major ideas about architecture in the nineteenth century.

*If you are unable to access this PDF, a full version of volume three can be found via Project Gutenberg here.


  1. What I find intriguing here is Ruskin’s shifting and shifty perspectives. Firstly, he contrasts the traveller’s arrival by sea – which reveals a picturesque, Romantic Venice – with the more recent and mundane railway arrival – which does not allow for the graduated revelation of the city. The picturesque vision of the city is, however, a somewhat shaky one – the buildings turn out to be more recent or less Romantic than we thought, monuments of a later and less glorious period of its history. It is a stage set, not a reality

    Then he turns abruptly to the landward side and approaches the city via its geological and geographical position, and he shifts from the present and near past to an almost primordial period. Venice rises by the vision of God (rather than an enchanter’s rod) on an unlikely tidal swamp. But he is still uneasy: the grand palaces have still have slippery, seawardy steps, marking the instability of the city and its powerful elite. Its decline from its heroic medieval heyday to its Renaissance corruption is apparently a matter of destiny?

  2. In response to Rosemary’s comments, it does seem as though Ruskin views the decline of Venice as a matter of destiny. There is also an interesting dichotomy between science and God. Is decline, “the glorious aim which was then in the mind of Him in whose hands are in all the corners of the earth!” (11)? Or is it the result of nature, where nothing lasts forever and everything decays? Decay makes one wonder about the purpose of creation in the first place.

    Ruskin’s introduction to Volume II of The Stones of Venice describes Venice as a place where the past cannot be fully restored, even in the imagination of the Victorian traveller: “The important feelings of romance, so singularly characteristic of this century, may indeed gild, but never save the remains of those mightier ages” (4). And yet, it would appear that Ruskin relies on his imagination in order to salvage what has disappeared.

    Ruskin traces the history of Venice to its earliest geological origins and his depiction of nature is one that simultaneously creates and destroys this unique place. “And all that which in nature was wild or merciless,” he writes, “––Time and Decay, as well as the waves and tempests, had been won to adorn her instead of destroy” (4). However, the remains of Venice, the Venice that belonged to Henry Danaldo or Francis Foscari, Ruskin tells us, “lie hidden behind the cumbrous masses which were the delight of the nation in its dotage; hidden in many a grass-grown court, and silent pathway, and lightless canal, where the slow waves have sapped their foundation for five hundred years, and must soon prevail over them forever” (5). This ambiguous response is interesting and one worth thinking about in terms of architecture and the way that the built environment changes over the course of hundreds of years in the hands of nature and art. Do ruins offer glimpses of what is meant to disappear? Indeed, the history of Venice, Ruskin tells us, is written in its natural foundation, formed out of “the accumulation of the ruins of ages” (6). It will be interesting to see how this argument develops in “The Nature of Gothic.”

  3. I fear I’m already weeks late and I don’t know whether the blog practice will have closed this discussion but if it’s still open and there’s anyone out there I’d like to write a bit here and then … if you are there [!] just a short affirmation and I’ll write at greater length … again, if there’s interest!

    As we read on … I’m in the middle of “St. Marks” right now … some of Ruskin’s aims become clear. The reader and indeed the times need to learn lessons embedded in Venetian architecture and Ruskin – anticipating Freud and Conan Doyle – is going to find the hidden clues “hidden in many a grass-grown court, and silent pathway,” reveal and analyze them, and place them into the structure of a large scale analysis.

    The richness of the prose is meant to seduce us but I think carries complex meanings. The sustained description of the peculiar nature of the site – covered daily by water, then much revealed as the tide goes out – this is the paradoxical “Throne” upon which Venice sits – has a complex psychological character. The “dark plain of seaweed, of gloomy green…” cut through with “tortuous channels” often “choked with slime” makes for a scene which is “often profoundly oppressive” a place “pathless, comfortless, infirm, lost in dark languor and fearful silence…” is the nature of contemporary existence as Ruskin senses it within himself and the project is, I think, not only to rescue from its ruination the real Venice of the past but to rescue as well the reader – and himself – from this site of appalling nihilism.

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