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