- Ruskin on Venice: ‘The Paradise of Cities,’
“That you do not care for dead Venice, is the sign of your own ruin” (qtd. in Hewison, title page). So wrote John Ruskin in 1874, in a line that opens Robert Hewison’s beautiful, lavishly illustrated, valuable, and also frustrating new book, Ruskin on Venice. The quote conjures up an elegiac mood for a decaying city, a mood that also seems apt for a biographical study of a submerged, once-dominant author. Venice and Ruskin have much in common: both are so infinitely analyzed, so laden with myths, labyrinths, madness, and perverse eroticism, that it feels impossible to say what their reality might be. “Ruskin” and “Venice” are indeed well matched. Hewison’s book lays out Ruskin’s fascination with the Italian city in impressively researched detail, showing a scrupulous attention to the subject that equals Ruskin’s own fanatical zeal.
The book’s biographical approach feels familiar. Biography has been the major method in Ruskin studies since the 1930s, perhaps owing to the vast corpus of Ruskin’s collected works whose diverse subjects offer no clear ordering principle. Ruskin on Venice divides Ruskin’s attention to Venice into three chronological parts, moving from youth to maturity to older age. The first part traces Ruskin’s youthful attraction to the city, as mediated by the Romantic eyes of Lord Byron and J. W. M. Turner. Byron, in particular, single-handedly cast a British glamour over the city, portraying a waning Venetian culture that offered the visitor a sense of pleasurable melancholy, along with glimpses into a sordid past. Hewison deftly punctures the leggenda nera, or black myth, that ascribed Venice’s decline to a secretive, oppressive, and libertine oligarchy. (As it turns out, this legend was crafted by French historians under Napoleon to justify the French invasion of the city.) While accounts of Byron’s escapades in a palazzo on the Grand Canal seem overfamiliar, their very over-familiarity becomes part of the story in the making of a Venetian sexual cliché that Ruskin inherited.
The book’s second part is its most original. Here Hewison delves deeply into the making of The Stones of Venice (1851–53), Ruskin’s three-volume fantasia, whose argument for Gothic style was to become so influential in reshaping skylines across Europe and America. Hewison has closely examined Ruskin’s notebooks and manuscripts from Venice. His detective work reveals how Ruskin struggled to reconcile contradictory aspects of the book, constantly revising and reordering to resolve the work’s “formal, chronological, and morally instructive” approaches to Gothic architecture (186). Here, too, Hewison amplifies his strongest argumentative claim, demonstrating how Ruskin neutralized the dangerous, sensual visual beauty of Catholic architecture into a safe space for admirable Protestant enjoyment. For Hewison, this transformation is one in which “the Catholic space of the image becomes the Protestant space of the word” (220). When Ruskin makes Saint Marks cathedral into a glorious text that can be read, he uses the evangelical tradition of critical reading to make the building “undergo a discreet conversion” away from Catholicism and into a “book-temple” (220). Hewison’s keen analyses of Ruskin’s involvement with British Catholic controversies—from Tractarianism to the so-called Papal Aggression—make up some of the most incisive, informative, and rewarding parts of Ruskin on Venice. [End Page 159]
In the book’s final section, Hewison explores how Ruskin threw himself into local Venetian politics in the 1870s in an attempt to save Saint Marks from disfiguring restorations. Ruskin inspired William Morris to form the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings—or Anti-Scrape, as Morris affectionately dubbed it—and the group successfully agitated for the cathedral’s preservation. Yet the book’s final section is ultimately devoted to a more personal narrative, as, for Hewison, Ruskin’s late obsession with the young girl Rose La Touche “dominated his life, his thought and his writings. Venice supplied both the imagery and the circumstances through which much of this tragedy...