This remarkable drawing was made by Ruskin in Venice in 1845 at a crucial moment of his engagement with both the city of Venice and his approach to drawing in response to technical innovations, specifically his discovery of the daguerreotype process. Ruskin undertook his regular trips to Venice during the 1840s in part to collect material for The Stones of Venice, the first volume of which appeared in print in 1851.
This bold drawing shows Ruskin’s engagement with Venetian architecture demonstrating his enjoyment of its picturesque decay – indicated by the plants growing from the masonry - whilst signalling his increasingly serious study of its history and pointing to the development of the principles governing the moral and social purpose of architecture. Ruskin’s discussion of the Fondaco dei Turchi appears in a section on Byzantine palaces in the second volume of The Stones of Venice, the volume that also included Ruskin’s great essay The Nature of Gothic described by William Morris as: ‘one of the most important things written by the author, and in future days will be considered as one of the very few necessary and inevitable utterances of the century. To some of us when we first read it… it seemed to point out a new road on which the world should travel.’ Preserved in spectacular condition, this carefully observed sheet offers a profound essay by Ruskin on the careful ornamentation, organic decoration and profound beauty of the pre-Gothic architecture he encountered in Venice, precisely the intellectually and artistic fertile world that informed his championing of the Gothic Revival in the 1850s.
When Ruskin arrived in Venice on 9 September 1845 he was shocked by the changes to the cityscape that were being introduced by the Austrian authorities. He wrote to his father on 11 September ‘of all the fearful changes I ever saw wrought in a given time, that on Venice since I was last here beats’: a railway bridge has been thrown across the lagoon, and a church demolished to make way for a railway station. Gas lighting has been installed, and many of the palaces on the Grand Canal were under repair – ‘we know what that means’ was Ruskin’s comment, fearing the worse.
The Fondaco dei Turchi was a spectacular Veneto-Byzantine palace on the Grand Canal constructed in the first half of the thirteenth century and situated in Santa Croce. From the seventeenth century it served as the secure warehouse for Ottoman merchants in the city, despite the fall of the Venetian Republic in 1797 it continued to be occupied until the 1830s. By the time Ruskin made this careful observation of its façade in 1845 it had fallen into decay.
Ruskin made several of these intensely worked, highly controlled watercolours exploring sections of architecture in 1845. A famous watercolour of the façade of Ca’ Loredan which he later donated to the Ruskin School of Drawing at Oxford was the subject of a sustained commentary by Ruskin himself which gives an instructive idea of the way he regarded such sheets.
‘The building is of three dates: its capitals, and the arches they bear, are Byzantine; the shields and casque, inlaid with modifications of the earlier work, presumably in the fifteenth century; the balustrade above, barbarous seventeenth. But nothing could surpass the beauty of the whole when I made this sketch in 1845; the lovely wide weeds being allowed to root themselves in the sculptures. Although I did not in 1845 know how to paint, the extreme fault of this and other drawings of mine at the time are owing to the fact that I was always working, not for the sake of drawing, but to get accurate knowledge of some point in the building… If you will look with a magnifying-glass at the bit of foliage in the front of the casque and at the door and window of the casque and at the door and window of the castle that surmounts it, you will see that the accuracy with which these are drawn was wholly incompatible with picturesque effect unless I had been John Lewis instead of John Ruskin, and given my life to such work.’
This drawing shows a similar tension between Ruskin’s desire for architectural verisimilitude and his interested in the romantic – and picturesque – incursion of vegetation. It was a tension between the particular and the sweep of his argument that characterises Ruskin’s writing on Venice. This limpid, loosely handled view of the façade of the Fondaco dei Turchi directly informed his discussion of the building in The Stones of Venice:
‘It is a ghastly ruin; whatever is venerable or sad in its wreck being disguised by attempts to put it to present uses of the basest kind. It has been composed of arcades borne by marble shafts, and walls of brick faced with marble: but the covering stones have been torn away from it like the shroud from a corpse and its walls, rent into a thousand chasms, are filled and refilled with fresh brickwork, and the seams and hollows are choked with clay and whitewash, oozing and trickling over the marble, - itself blanched into dusty decay by the frosts of centuries. Soft grass wandering leafage have rooted themselves in the rents, but they are not suffered to grow in their own wild and gentle way, for the place is in a sort inhabited; rotten partitions are nailed across its corridors, and miserable rooms contrived in its western wing; and here and there the weeds indolently torn down, leaving their haggard fibres to struggle again into unwholesome growth when the spring next stirs them: and thus, in contest between death and life, the unsightly heap is festering to its fall.’
This complex sheet displays both Ruskin’s curiosity about the buildings construction – the ‘brick faced with marble’ – as well as his poetic fascination with the ‘soft grass wandering leafage’ which has established itself in cracks in the masonry. Ultimately the watercolour is a complex celebration of the layered history of the building, rendered in sophisticated washes Ruskin transforms the archaeological to something more painterly. As with the more famous watercolour of the façade of Ca’ Loredan, Ruskin has focused on an ugly intervention – the iron balcony, with its clumsy stone supports and the simple opening with its exposed stone surround, having been punched through the sophisticated arcade of Byzantine arches. The remaining elements of early decoration, the carved, marble ornamentation and the polychrome inlay of the arches themselves are spectacularly captured with watercolour washes. But even more lushly worked are the passages of decay. The rust red of the brick dust in the top right-hand corner and he discoloured section of plaster about the simple balcony opening, captured by Ruskin simply suspending spots of pure ochre pigment in a passage of saturated grey wash.
This technical virtuosity is matched by a compositional innovation. The view is a frontal detail of the façade, a truncated section of the architecture treated with great intensity. This limited viewpoint immediately recalls the cropping of a photographic lens. Ruskin first heard of the recently invented daguerreotype at Oxford in 1842 and owned some plates by 1844. He appears to have commissioned daguerreotypes in 1846, before acquiring his own equipment. Ruskin immediately realised the power of the new process to render accurate architectural views, making a sequence of drawings based upon plates that he had himself commissioned. Whilst the present drawing is not related to a daguerreotype, its format and treatment suggest that Ruskin was thinking about the new processes as he worked.
Ruskin returned to this watercolour as he was preparing the second volume of The Stones of Venice in 1853, making a smaller (7 x 9 ¾ inches), tightly worked copy, now in the Ruskin Museum, Coniston. This copy-drawing Ruskin had chromolithographed by McLagan and Cumming to form the frontispiece of the volume. This watercolour therefore offers a powerful distillation of Ruskin’s approach to Venetian architecture, as well as providing evidence for his appreciation of the role building design could play in the modern world.
- ‘The frontispiece is a drawing of a portion of the Fondaco de’ Turchi (see ch. v.) as it stood at the time when The Stones of Venice was written. The drawing, which is in water-colour (13¼x18½), is in the collection of Mrs. Cunliffe, The Croft, Ambleside.’ [Cook & Wedderburn, vol 38 (op. cit.), introduction p. lxiii]
- Quoted in Robert Hewison, Ruskin, Turner and the Pre-Raphaelites, exh. cat., London (Tate Gallery), 2000, p.87.
- Christopher Newall, John Ruskin: Artist and Observer, Exh. cat., Ottawa (National Gallery of Canada), 2014, pp.80-81.
- John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, London, 1853, vol.II, p.119.