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San Stae, a much-remodelled church from the twelfth century with a baroque façade, earns one of Ruskin’s tirades when he places it in a group of offensive buildings, such as La Chiesa di Ospedaletto, which he considers the “most monstrous example of the Grotesque Renaissance which there is in Venice; the sculptures on its façade representing masses of diseased figures and swollen fruit. It is almost worth devoting an hour to the successive examination of five buildings, as illustrative of the last degradation of the Renaissance. San Moisè is the most clumsy, Santa Maria Zobenigo the most impious, St. Eustachio the most ridiculous, the Ospedaletto the most monstrous, and the head at Santa Maria Formosa the most foul” (11.397; emphasis added).

His chapter entitled “The Grotesque Renaissance" in the third volume of The Stones of Venice makes clear the cause of Ruskin’s invective. He explains the vain, hypocritical, and irreligious nature of the “Church of Santa Maria Zobenigo[, which] is entirely dedicated to the Barbaro family; the only religious symbols with which it is invested being statues of angels blowing brazen trumpets, intended to express the spreading of the fame of the Barbaro family in heaven” (11.149). Next, Ruskin lists some of the details of the façade: “Justice holding a pair of grocer’s scales, of iron, swinging in the wind. There is a two-necked stone eagle (the Barbaro crest), with a copper crown, in the centre of the pediment. A huge statue of a Barbaro in armor, with a fantastic head-dress, over the central door; and four Barbaros in niches, two on each side of it, strutting statues, in the common stage postures of the period,—Jo. Maria Barbaro, sapiens ordinum; Marinus Barbaro, Senator (reading a speech in a Ciceronian attitude); Franc. Barbaro, legatus in classe (in armor, with high-heeled boots, and looking resolutely fierce); and Carolus Barbaro, sapiens ordinum: the decorations of the façade being completed by two trophies, consisting of drums, trumpets, flags and cannon; and six plans, sculptured in relief, of the towns of Zara, Candia, Padua, Rome, Corfu, and Spalatro” (11.150). He continues in the next paragraph: “When the traveller has sufficiently considered the meaning of this façade, he ought to visit the Church of St. Eustachio, remarkable for the dramatic effect of the group of sculpture on its façade.”

These examples lead us to Ruskin’s theories of the grotesque, which play a major part in his aesthetic and critical theories. “The grotesque,” he explains, “is, in almost all cases, composed of two elements, one ludicrous, the other fearful; that, as one or other of these elements prevails, the grotesque falls into two branches, sportive grotesque and terrible grotesque; but that we cannot legitimately consider it under these two aspects, because there are hardly any examples which do not in some degree combine both elements; there are few grotesques so utterly playful as to be overcast with no shade of fearfulness, and few so fearful as absolutely to exclude all ideas of jest” (11.151). The grotesque here described is important to Ruskin, because it lies at the heart of at least three things: (1) our ability to grasp new, complex truths, (2) symbolism in the arts, and (3) divine prophecy, such as one encounters in the Old Testament prophets. Ruskin attacks these churches that exemplify the Renaissance architectural grotesque because he believes they embody both a corruption of architecture and, far more important, our relation to morality and divine truth.

Left: The Baroque doorway and its lintel. Right: The roof, circular window, and statue on the roof peak.

The way the roof above the lintel above the door splits so that its peak exists separately from the wings below is precisely the playing with — and undermining — a building’s expression of architectural truth that Ruskin loathes. Some defenders of the Baroque take such modification of architectural forms either as an expression of fearful, unstable times or, to take the opposite view, as a confident, playful expression of virtuosic skill — in other words, a kind of seventeenth-century postmodernism.

More of Ruskin's Venice

Photographs 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.]


Ruskin, John. The Works. Ed. E. T. Cook and Alexander Wedderburn. “The Library Edition.” 39 vols. London: George Allen, 1903-1912.

Wurman, Richard Saul [and Patricia Schultz]. Florence Venice Milan Access. New York: HarperCollins, n.d.

Last Modified 28 March 2020