10 March- 10 June 2018
Curated by Anna Ottani Cavina
John Ruskin “returns” to Venice in a major exhibition. For the first time in Italy, an international event focuses on Ruskin the artist and on his relationship with the lagoon city.
What would the myth of Venice be without John Ruskin, the bard of the city’s eternal beauty, which is all the more fascinating and evocative for its being recorded during its decline?
A central figure in the nineteenth-century international art scene, a writer, painter and art critic, John Ruskin (1819-1900) had a very strong bond with Venice, to which he dedicated his most famous literary work, “The stones of Venice”: a study of Venice’s architecture, examined and described in the most minute detail, and a paean to the beauty, uniqueness but also fragility of this city.
Admired by Tolstoy and Proust, and capable of strongly influencing the aesthetics of his time with his interpretation of art and architecture, Ruskin now returns to Venice and to one of the sites that inspired him: the Doge’s Palace, that emblematic building he explored in depth from different angles in sketchbooks, watercolours, architectural studies, plaster casts, albumen and platinum prints.
The exhibition is hosted in the sequence of rooms and halls he depicted so many times in his own work, where the backdrop by Pier Luigi Pizzi emphasises the architectural and sculptural features of Gothic and Byzantine, medieval and anti-classical Venice that he so loved and wished to preserve from oblivion.
“[Venice]… is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak—so quiet,—so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow.
I would endeavour to trace the lines of this image before it be for ever lost, and to record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat, like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice.” John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, vol. I, ch. I, § 1
Realised at the behest of Gabriella Belli as a tribute to the knowledge and myth of Venice, the exhibition is curated by Anna Ottani Cavina: it offers the first fully comprehensive presentation in Italy of the work of an artist who “crossed every border in the name of an interdisciplinary vision, practised when the term did not yet exist”.
Pervaded by a religious spirit matured in Victorian England, animated by an ethical vision that impelled him to intervene on a social and political level with the utopian goal of an organic and happy society for all (impressing even Gandhi with his vision), Ruskin was a strenuous opponent of the expanding mechanisation and materialism, and during the course of his life worked on and discussed social issues, art, landscape and nature; he wrote about mineralogy and botany, as well as economics, architecture and restoration, worried that the techniques then in use would eventually cause the destruction of medieval buildings.
The exhibition has had to make a choice and, being unable to explore all the complexity of Ruskin and his versatile genius in so many different fields, it focuses on him as artist, based on a hundred of his works that document his vocation for translating reality into images, recording his “tireless striving to understand the world” on thousands of sheets in pen and watercolour. Exceptionally, all the works on display are international loans—a major merit of the exhibition—given that Italian museums do not have any of his works.
“The colourful approach of Ruskin”, writes Ottani Cavina, “will be a revelation for the Italian public, since he is the greatest of the Victorian watercolourists”. A warning for the salvation of Venice, the exhibition therefore aims to be also a challenge to celebrate John Ruskin as a great and unusual painter, leaving aside his eclecticism and his own determination to privilege the written word.
The city, the architecture, the great Venetian masters whose works he reproduced, reinterpreting them, the drive to explore nature, in a mix of curiosity and imagination, are the leitmotif of this encounter with the works of Ruskin, who as a critic strove on behalf of modernity, recognising, in particular, the revolutionary power of Turner’s painting, which he defended against detractors in various writings and in the multi-volume work “Modern Painters”.
The encounter with a mature Turner when he was young was fundamental for Ruskin who declared that “nature has given a special eye and a savagely beautiful imagination” to the artist. And to stress the point, some extraordinary views of Venice by the “painter of light” will be on show, such as “Venice, Punta della Dogana and Santa Maria della Salute” lent by the National Gallery of Washington and “Venice, Ceremony of the Marriage of the Sea” from the Tate in London.
Ruskin’s painting did not in reality aim at the sublime as did Turner, nor to an abstraction that was all colour and light: his painting is descriptive, analytical and sought to immortalise reality; and yet in the study of natural features or in the obsessive rendering of architectural details there is a true sense of vision, as he was convinced—by none other than the paintings of “his” Turner—that the true artist is a seer, a prophet or even a “scribe of God”; capable, that is, of grasping and depicting the divine truth contained in nature.
In addition to the journey to Italy and a fascination for nature—illustrated with a series of watercolours that focus on the theme of mountains and the landscapes of the peninsula—the heart of the exhibition will nevertheless focus on the relationship between the artist and Venice.
This bond, cultivated during the span of a lifetime, started in his first encounter at the age of sixteen and was nourished by eleven journeys undertaken between 1835 and 1888. It is made evident from different points of view—Studies of clouds, Sunsets, Full moons, Views of the lagoon, Studies after the great Venetian painters: Carpaccio, Veronese, Tintoretto—but essentially focuses on the crucial theme of the “nature of gothic art”, with its rediscovery and celebration: the highest moment of art and architecture not only from an aesthetic but also a moral point of view.
Ruskin’s most important work in this regard is the magnificent “The Stones of Venice” (1851-1853, 3 volumes), plus the splendid in folio prints of the “Examples of the Architecture of Venice”, published in the same period, and “St. Mark’s Rest”, published as a revision of The Stones of Venice, after he had witnessed the demolition of important parts of the Basilica of St Mark’s, and which became a guide to the city “for the few travellers who still care about its monuments”.
Finally, to accompany this fascinating voyage, there are also a selection of the “Venetian Notebooks” (sketchbooks, measurements, plans, cross-sections and many notes), Ruskin’s manuscripts for The Stones of Venice (fragments of blue paper never before exhibited and conserved at the Morgan Library in New York), some early editions, daguerreotypes, historical photographs and emblematic paintings by the great Venetian painters of the sixteenth century to compare with the studies that the English critic had made of them.
Ruskin’s Venice is a paradigm, a discovery, an obsession; a city that he considered worth loving for its absolute beauty and hating for its decay, in a close relationship between architecture and civil society; Venice to praise and to save: Ruskin, the “Director of consciences”, as Proust defined him in the obituary published a few days after his death (on 27 January 1900), launched a warning that is still topical today.