Photographs by Landow July 1966 and October 2000; by Freidus February 2020. [You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. on images to enlarge them.]

In “St. Mark’s,” the fourth chapter in the second volume of The Stones of Venice, Ruskin employs his brilliant word-painting to provide his readers with the experience of first encountering what he later calls “the gorgeous building and wild blazonry of that shrine” (10.140). This technique, which Ruskin used to such effect in the first volume of Modern Painters, changes description into narrative. First, he tells us, entering St. Mark’s Square we catch sight of “the shadow of the pillars at the end of the “Bocca di Piazza,” and then we forget them all; for between those pillars there opens a great light, and, in the midst of it, as we advance slowly, the vast tower of St. Mark seems to lift itself visibly forth from the level field of chequered stones; and . . . there rises a vision out of the earth, and all the great square seems to have opened from it in a kind of awe, that we may see it far away;—a multitude of pillars and white domes, clustered into a long low pyramid of coloured light; a treasure-heap, it seems, partly of gold, and partly of opal and mother-of-pearl, hollowed beneath into five great vaulted porches, ceiled with fair mosaic, and beset with sculpture of alabaster, clear as amber and delicate as ivory,—sculpture fantastic and involved, of palm leaves and lilies, and grapes and pomegranates, and birds clinging and fluttering among the branches, all twined together into an endless network of buds and plumes; and in the midst of it, the solemn forms of angels, sceptred, and robed to the feet, and leaning to each other across the gates, their figures indistinct among the gleaming of the golden ground through” (10.83-84).

The cathedral in summer sunshine. “Now the first broad characteristic of the building, and the root nearly of every other important peculiarity in it, is its confessed incrustation. It is the purest example in Italy of the great school of architecture in which the ruling principle is the incrustation of brick with more precious materials” (10.93).

“Consider the natural circumstances which give rise to such a style. Suppose a nation of builders, placed far from any quarries of available stone, and having precarious access to the mainland where they exist; compelled therefore either to build entirely with brick, or to import whatever stone they use from great distances, in ships of small tonnage, and, for the most part, dependent for speed on the oar rather than the sail. The labour and cost of carriage are just as great, whether they import common or precious stone, and therefore the natural tendency would always be to make each shipload as valuable as possible. But in proportion to the preciousness of the stone, is the limitation of its possible supply; limitation not determined merely by cost, but by the physical conditions of the material, for of many marbles, pieces above a certain size are not to be had for money” (10.95).

“The shafts of all buildings of this kind are justly regarded as an expression of their wealth, and a form of treasure, just as much as the jewels or gold in the sacred vessels; they are, in fact, nothing else than large jewels, the block of precious serpentine or jasper being valued according to its size and brilliancy of colour, like a large emerald or ruby; only the bulk required to bestow value on the one is to be measured in feet and tons, and on the other in lines and carats. The shafts must therefore be, without exception, of one block in all buildings of this kind” (10.101).

“The application of the principles of jewellery to the smaller as well as the larger blocks, will suggest to us another reason for the method of incrustation adopted in the walls. It often happens that the beauty of the veining in some varieties of alabaster is so great, that it becomes desirable to exhibit it by dividing the stone, not merely to economise its substance, but to display the changes in the disposition of its fantastic lines. By reversing one of two thin plates successively taken from the stone, and placing their corresponding edges in contact, a perfectly symmetrical figure may be obtained, which will enable the eye to comprehend more thoroughly the position of the veins. And this is actually the method in which, for the most part, the alabasters of St. Mark are employed; thus accomplishing a double good,—directing the spectator, in the first place, to close observation of the nature of the stone employed, and in the second, giving him a farther proof of the honesty of intention in the builder: for wherever similar veining is discovered in two pieces, the fact is declared that they have been cut from the same stone” (10.104-05).

St. Mark’s in the Context of Information Technology

Ruskin points out that we have to understand “the whole church as a great Book of Common Prayer; the mosaics were its illuminations, and the common people of the time were taught their Scripture history by means of them, more impressively perhaps, though far less fully, than ours are now by Scripture reading.” He then explains, “They had no other Bible, and — Protestants do not often enough consider this — could have no other.” Printed books had not yet been invented! Reminding his readers that they depend on printed books, those machines that have a comparatively short history, he concludes, “We find it somewhat difficult to furnish our poor with printed Bibles; consider what the difficulty must have been when they could be given only in manuscript.” (10.129). Several nineteenth-century authors in France and England pointed out that gothic cathedrals served as Bibles for an often illiterate audience, but Ruskin goes farther, pointing to the connection between Protestantism and the printed book — and the isolated (or at least individualized) personal experience it provides.

More of Ruskin's Venice

Last Modified 3 April 2020