Tuesday, July 01, 2008

The Stones of Venice--Part II

From Volume I, Chapter I, "The Quarry":

"Let the reader therefore conceive the existence of the Venetian state as broadly divided into two periods: the first of nine hundred, the second of five hundred years, the separation being marked by what was called the 'Serrar del Consiglio'; that is to say, the final and absolute distinction of the nobles from the commonalty, and the establishment of the government in their hands to the exclusion alike of the people on the one side, and the authority of the Doge on the other." A familiar pattern.

"To him no matter, or to her; the real question is, not so much what names they bore, or with what powers they were entrusted, as how they were trained; how they were made masters of themselves, servants of their country, patient of distress, impatient of dishonour; and what was the true reason of the change from the time when she could find sviours among those she had cast into prison, to that when the voices of her own children commanded her to sign covenant with Death."

"Venice (i.e. Venice circa 1200)is superficially and apparently commercial;--at heart passionately heroic and religious; precisely the reverse of modern England, who is superficially and apparently religious; and at heart, entirely infidel, cowardly, and dishonest."

"There had indeed come a change over Venetian architecture in the fifteenth century; and a change of some importance to us moderns; we English owe to it our St. Paul's Cathedral, and Europe in general owes to it the utter degradation or destruction of her schools of architecture, never since revived."

"This Roman Christian architecture is the exact expression of the Christianity of the time, very fervid and beautiful--but very imperfect; in many respects ignorant, and yet radiant with a strong, childish light of imagination, which flames up under Constantine, illumines all the shores of the Bosphorus and the Aegean and the Adriatic Sea, and then gradually, as the people give themselves up to idolatry, becomes corpse-light."

The physical strength or enervation of nations are often referred to, and how the rising strong absorb in some degree the culture of the lands they have usurped or inherited, which thenceforth live and mutate under the energy of the dominant nation. By physical strength Ruskin means an irresistible energy and will to live in and master the Earthly realm without, in the beginning at least, a blatant intellectual component. It is not the product of technological advantage, nor is it a capacity for mindless and undisciplined violence, but a sense of purpose disseminated through a vast swathe of the people. Though European intellectuals have a hard time comprehending the United States as a nation with any cultural continuity of substance across generations, the United States was practically the definition of a body politic propelled by physical strength leavened with absorbed and mutated culture for at least 300 years; most conservative consternation as regards matters of culture is a reaction to the sense of this physical strength being weakened and the people therefore degraded, and the more intellectual the critic is the more inclined he will be to add, and degraded before we have been able to properly marry the development of our intellects and our bodily vigor at the very highest levels.

"The Ducal Palace of Venice contains the three elements in exactly equal portions--the Roman, Lombard and Arab (see strength above: "...the fierce swords of the Lombard and Arab were shaken over its [the religion of the Roman Empire's] golden paralysis'"). It is the central building of the world." "...in his intense love of excitement (the Arab) points the arch and writhes it into extravagant foliations; he banishes the animal imagery, an invents an ornamentation of his own (called Arabesque) to replace it." I do not whether this development is related to the Arab's intense love of excitement or not, but I thought it was a nice observation on some basic, but still subtle differences between two schools of art.

"The noblest buildings of the world, the Pisan-Romanesque, Tuscan (Giottesque) Gothic, and Veronese Gothic, are those of the Lombard schools themselves, under its close and direct influence; the various Gothics of the North are the original forms of the architecture which the Lombards brought into Italy, changing under the less direct influence of the Arab." I suspect this is all somehow completely wrong, not that I have any idea what form the truth would take--a serious problem for me--but because all Victorian theories of history seem to be held to be wrong, or at least wildly inaccurate, now.

"I dated (Venice's) decline from the year 1418; Foscari became Doge five years later, and his reign the first marked signs appear in architecture of that mighty change...the change to which London owes St Paul's, Rome St Peter's, Venice and Vicenza the edifices commonly supposed to be their noblest, and Europe in general the degradation of every art she has since practised... This change appears first in a loss of truth and vitality in existing architecture all over the world."

"Gods without power, satyrs without rusticity, nymphs without innocence, men without humanity, gather into idiot groups upon the polluted canvas, and scenic affectations encumber the streets with preposterous marble." One could go on and on for some time with quotes in this vein.

"Claude and the Poussins were weak men, and have had no serious influence on the general mind...they may be left without grave indignation to their poor mission of furnishing drawing- rooms and assisting stranded conversation." I have expressed some affection for Nicolas Poussin elsewhere on this blog. I am not familiar with any of the work of the other painters, though I am sure I would like them too given this description of the sort of mind to which they appeal. Ruskin needless to say was a very unhappy person--life and art only kept getting more depraved and gruesome, to his mind (he lived until 1900), and I think his arguments, while interesting and perhaps containing a morsel of truth in them, are a little extreme. The strength/weakness critique when judging works of art and artists is a valid one, and I can see where Poussin could be said not to project a great deal of strength, in the sense of a true and vivid and undeniable representation of life, in his paintings; but I personally do not require this effect from art, indeed if anything I probably recoil from it and examine it as though it were a trifle, admiring the pretty parts.

"...dominant evils of modern times--over-sophistication and ignorant classicalism; the one destroying the healthfulness of general society, the other rendering our schools and universities useless to a large number of the men who pass through them." The very end result of such a system must be people like me, who imitate over-sophistication and ignorant classicalism more poorly than these other offenders imitated the genuine manifestations of those things.

"I must again refer to the importance which I have above attached to the death of Carlo Zeno and the Doge Tomaso Mocenigo." Who knew? By the way I looked for a picture of either of these gentlemen to put up in this place but I was unable to find any. So I put up Effie instead.

On the law of right: "...it must enable us to reject all foolish and base work, and to accept all noble and wise work, without reference to style or national feeling; that it must sanction the design of all truly great nations and times, Gothic or Greek or Arab; that it must cast off and reprobate the design of all foolish nations and times, Chinese or Mexican or Modern European; and that it must be easily applicable to all possible architectural inventions of human mind." Obviously I cannot reasonably claim to appreciate Ruskin and still link to Youtube clips of American movie stars and pop songs. The two states of activity are not reconcilable. I am not sure what Ruskin's reasons are for considering China and (presumably pre-Columbian) Mexico to be foolish nations. He probably thought they did not properly understand their gods, or otherwise were lacking in the physical strength that gives art the sort of power he liked.

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