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  • Teaching Ruskin in Venice
  • Emma Sdegno (bio)

To teach Ruskin in Venice is to teach a subject that does not evoke displacement. The topic, rather, implies a positioning of the writer within his own setting, fitting within the model of the city “discovered” and made aware of [End Page 25] itself by the foreign glance. It means to make students aware of the relevance of the city to Ruskin and of Ruskin to the city and to account for the vast amount of critical literature that has accumulated on the subject.

In recent years, the topic of Ruskin and Venice has been tackled by a series of digital and print publications, including Paul Tucker’s edition of Ruskin’s Resumé (2004), Robert Hewison’s Ruskin on Venice: The Paradise of Cities (2009), and Stephen Kite’s Building Ruskin’s Italy: Watching Architecture (2012), as well as Lancaster University’s digital version of Ruskin’s 1849–1850 Venetian Notebooks (2008). These studies comprise large-scale narratives on Ruskin’s travels, stays, and activities in the lagoon, often based on manuscript material. They bring to the fore a discourse on the relationship between the city and the critic established in the 1980s by groundbreaking publications such as John Unrau’s Looking at Architecture with Ruskin (1978) and Ruskin at St. Mark’s (1984), Jeanne Clegg’s Ruskin in Venice (1981), and Anna Laura Lepschy’s Tintoretto Observed (1983). A conference titled “Ruskin, Venice and 19th Century Cultural Travel” and held in 2008 in Venice offered global perspectives on the topic, both by providing readings on Ruskin’s reception of Venice by scholars from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Iran, Japan, Macedonia, New Zealand, Turkey, and the U.S. and by dealing with the impact of Ruskin’s Venice on global nineteenth-century writers.1 These readings on Ruskin’s Venices open up varied scenarios on both Ruskin and Venice as cultural constructs.

As part of an academic postgraduate course held at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, I delivered a course of lectures on Ruskin’s three decades of work on Venice, from Seven Lamps of Architecture (1848) and The Stones of Venice (1851–53) to St. Mark’s Rest (1877–84). We read Romantic primary source material, and students were impressed by the fact that the death-beauty association was already articulated in early nineteenth-century poems. Some of them were familiar with Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice or with Luchino Visconti’s film version of it and thought the association was a twentieth-century product or linked to an author’s poetic; others mentioned vampire stories and found that the city was an appropriate setting for them. Interestingly, it was noticed that the death-beauty association could be a foreigner’s perception of the city that students born and living in Venice did not share. This prompted a discussion of the constructed nature of places and the relevance of cultural tradition.

Students noticed, for example, that there is a Venice of the British unlike the one of the Venetians, and that this “foreign glance” made the Venetians aware of aspects that had gone unnoticed. Foreign authors’ writings on Venice worked as lenses through which readers could become aware of the city. Close textual reading of passages from Ruskin’s 1850s works were put to the test by in situ visits to places that Ruskin largely discovered. Students were impressed by his way of looking at apparently minor details and building his interpretations from them. They also noticed that his approach was to start by presenting to the reader a disturbing and strange aspect of the object and then to gradually show some “hidden” and yet familiar aspects of it (Pemble 120–21). [End Page 26]

A telling example was provided by Ruskin’s reading of Tintoretto’s Baptism of St. John in front of the picture at the Scuola di San Rocco. Some of my lectures were devoted to the construens part that Ruskin’s writings played up to the 1850s. Students were particularly interested in Ruskin’s strategies of gradual aesthetic familiarization in The Stones of Venice and his mode of raising and voicing the visitor’s initial astonishment. They...


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