When I went to get my fix of Venice for this year, I didn’t take any Ruskin with me – because, sadly, lugging a volume or two of Ruskin would throw my packing skills, finely honed over the years to meet the exigent requirements of Ryanair, into complete disarray. (Why is it that I have a week’s worth of clothes, books etc. stuffed into the regulation ONE piece of cabin baggage no bigger that 55 cm x 40 cm x 20 cm, when all the other women on the flight are festooned with bags of all sizes and conditions, and swan onto the plane without any difficulty?)
Anyway, as I am still working my way through The Stones of Venice vol. 1, I thought I would read the shorter Venice pieces in vol. 24 – the guide to the Accademia, ‘St Mark’s Rest’ and ‘St Mark’s, Venice’ – before I went. One would have difficulty today actually finding one’s way around the Accademia with Ruskin as guide – Wedderburn had already had problems while preparing the Library Edition in reconciling Ruskin’s original work with the changes to the interior layout and hanging between 1877 and 1906 – but the vigour and enthusiasm of Ruskin’s descriptions are still as thought-provoking as ever, even if you have spent some time wandering around trying to find Carpaccio’s St Ursula sequence (now in Sala XX, not Sala XVI). And his obiter dicta – brooking no objection, however tentative, from the hapless tourist – are always good value:
‘ . . . broadly, all the painter’s art of Venice begins in the fifteenth [century]; and we may as well at once take note that it ends with the sixteenth.’ So much for Canaletto, Tiepolo and Guardi, then . . . And, ‘quite a proper arrangement that you should have to pay for [admission tickets] – if I were a Venetian prefect, you should pay a great deal more for leave to come to Venice at all, that I might be sure you cared to come’ . . . I wonder if the new Mayor of Venice has been reading Ruskin?
But I suspect that any community of thought on the topic of stemming the tourist floods would not survive the blast of Ruskinian scorn were his ghost to discover the advertising banners now gracing the sides of all the major reconstruction projects. A few years ago, the screen concealing the work would display an architectural outline of the building behind it; the clock tower in San Marco had a changing display of other famous towers of the world. Now, the Accademia has a young man, possibly promoting a power drink, or perhaps a brand of watch (nothing memorable, anyway); while the Doge’s Palace and the Bridge of Sighs have Julianne Moore wearing Bulgari accessories and not much more – though the lion-cubs-as-clothing which caused a certain amount of controversy a few months ago have been replaced by a rather knowing parrot.
The Mayor of course argues that the payments for these advertising opportunities go straight into the restoration funds – but how much more highly might we think of Bulgari if they used Carpaccio’s St Augustine and his little dog, with a discreet logo at the bottom? (Incidentally, Ruskin thought St Augustine (in the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni) was actually St Jerome – he interpreted the sequence by putting ‘St Jerome translating the Bible in his study’ after ‘the burial of St Jerome’, whereas today it is believed that St Augustine (and the little dog) are hearing St Jerome, in the light of glory which floods the window, saying that he has died and is now in heaven. Whatever, it must be one of the ten greatest paintings in the world.)
But there are some places which Ruskin could still (I hope) recognize: read the opening of the chapter on Torcello (vol. 10, pp. 17 ff.), and then walk past the cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta towards the creek (which sadly appears to be undergoing ‘improvement’ at the moment). The noise of people falls away, the colony of cats on the far side of the waterway are fighting over fish scraps or lounging in the sun, and you can still marvel, as Ruskin did, that this deserted and barren place was once a thriving city of 10,000 people, first founded by refugees from the mainland in the sixth century CE, after their bishop had been granted a heavenly vision of the islets of the lagoon as a haven of safety and peace.