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Conservation vs. Modernism: The Venetian Vexation

Venice – a city which is inescapably connected to the modern world, but could never truly belong. During the nineteenth century, Venice’s narrow streets, intertwining canals and art-historical monuments became threatened by Modernism. Numerous individuals aimed to gradually replace Venice’s stunning architecture with industrial structures to create a futuristic city. John Ruskin emphasized the importance of conserving the city’s architecture and protecting the landscape from industrialisation in The Stones of Venice (1853). Ruskin argued that Venice was the greatest architectural creation on Earth, as it represented the connection between morality, art and political triumph. Yet, once these ideals were abandoned, the city declined into a state of humiliation in which Venice became affected by the increasing influence of Modernism. During Ruskin’s visit in 1849, he was horrified to witness the deterioration of the city and sought to protect Venice by emphasizing the significance of its Gothic architecture – a style believed to represent Venice’s greatness, supremacy and success.

John Ruskin, The Ducal Palace, Renaissance Capitals of the Loggia, 1849-50, Watercolour over graphite, 46 x 29 cm (Image: The Stones of Venice, 1853)

Ruskin’s passion for Gothic architecture was challenged by Modernists, such as Alfred Neville, who intended to replace Venice’s stone bridges with cast iron structures. Considering that Ruskin objected to street lighting in Venice, even, this was an incredibly shocking sign of change. Neville confronted the very heart of antique Venice by constructing the Accademia Bridge in 1854 – the most uncompromising structure the city had ever seen. However, the forces of conservation were triumphant, and Neville’s bridge was replaced by a temporary wooden structure which remains to this day. The feud between conservationists and Modernists was particularly evident in 1902 when the Campanile di San Marco collapsed – Venice’s most important symbol, one seen from the Grand Canal and featured in illustrations by prominent artists, including J. M. W. Turner (whose landscapes penetrate to the very meaning of ‘truth to nature’ – a notion which Ruskin constantly reinforced). Architects, such as Otto Wagner, were keen to design a modern structure to represent Venice embracing the new century. However, these designs met a stronger resistance from those who wanted to preserve Venice’s original appearance. Accordingly, the slogan ‘dove era, come era’ (where it was, as it was) was developed in opposition to Modernism. The Stones of Venice, which is enriched by Ruskin’s love of analogy and synthesis, demonstrates that the best of architecture depends upon the creative participation of ordinary people in its construction. Therefore, Venice’s original structures display the intelligence, skill and devotion belonging to both architects and workmen who sought to represent divine expression.

J. M. W. Turner, Venice: The Campanile of San Marco and the Palazzo Ducale, 1819, Watercolour over graphite on paper, 22.4 x 28.9 cm (Image: Tate Britain, London)

During the twentieth century a new artistic and social movement entitled ‘Futurism’ aimed to accentuate modern technology and the industrial city. Simultaneously, Mussolini threatened the birth of an industrial Venice by planning to build a bridge for motorcars which would stretch from mainland Italy to Venice. Even though both Modernism and Futurism became increasingly powerful in Venice, the city survived the changing taste that was brought to bear upon it. As a result, the art history contained within this city continues to inspire generations, as Ruskin would have wished. Overall, these examples demonstrate the simple but incontrovertible fact that the fabric of Venice cannot stand the pace of modern life. Instead, the Gothic style remains prominent throughout Venice – full of irregularities, repetitive motifs and, most importantly, derived directly from nature. Similarly, The Stones of Venice itself is whimsical and full of deductions drawn from nature. It contains numerous examples of Ruskin’s manual labour – not only literary remains of his arduous exploration of monuments, but also his drawings which he executed so diligently throughout his visits to Venice. Ruskin is linked indissolubly with the city that had proved so marvellous a quarry for his mind. One can easily imagine him measuring, drawing and expostulating whilst wandering through the city.

John Ruskin, Study of the Marble Inlaying on the Front of the Casa Loredan, 1845, Pencil and watercolour, 32 x 26.7 cm (Image: The Stones of Venice, 1853)

Although Ruskin was a character of fluctuating extremes and contradictions, he was a writer of magnificent productions. He was also a fine draughtsman and an intense thinker. There is no denying that The Stones of Venice is a demanding read. It requires not only an interest and diligence but a willingness to listen to Ruskin’s ideas. The reader must be prepared to enter Ruskin’s experience and become captivated by his extraordinary elaboration of thought and emotion which is so strongly embedded in both his words and watercolours. Today, many of the themes which Ruskin developed seem as relevant as ever. Ideas within the publication continuously contribute to the growing awareness of the significance of art history. In particular, it is understandable why Ruskin felt so strongly about Venice’s Gothic architecture and why it must be conserved. Undoubtedly, those who value and appreciate art history cannot avoid being emotionally attached or affected by Venice in one way or another. Perhaps, modern-day art historians will agree that of all the cities in the world, Venice remains the most essentially organic, in terms of remaining ‘true to nature’. Eventually, should its most obvious destiny overcome it, could any fate be truer to nature than to be swallowed beneath the waters of its own sea? To end, with the words of Byron, who toyed with the tragic fantasy of Venice’s last physical extinction sinking slowly beneath the waters that gave her birth:

A cry of nations o’er thy sunken halls,

A loud lament along the sweeping sea!

John Ruskin, Southside of St. Marks After Rain, 1846, Watercolour on paper (Image: The Stones of Venice, 1853)

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