The Stones of Eden - Ruskin's The Nature of Gothic and his Description of the Ducal Palace as a Guide to Salvation

Seminar Paper, 2004
15 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Introduction

2. John Ruskin
2.1. Ruskin and Venice
2.2. Ruskin and Great Britain

3. The ‘Architext’

4. The Ducal Palace
4.1. The Gothic in the Ducal Palace
4.1.1. Savageness
4.1.2. Changefulness
4.1.3. Naturalism
4.1.4. Grotesqueness
4.1.5. Rigidity
4.1.6. Redundance
4.2. The Architext of the Ducal Palace
4.2.1. Rudeness
4.2.2. Love of Change
4.2.3. Love of Nature
4.2.4. Disturbed Imagination
4.2.5. Obstinacy
4.2.6. Generosity
4.3. Religious Imagery in the Ducal Palace

5. Conclusion

6. Literature

1. Introduction

John Ruskin was by no doubt the most prominent art critic of the 19th century. His works on art, architecture and, at the height of his career, social problems sparked the Arts and Crafts Movement, enlightened prominent figures, such as William Morris, and proposed a critical point of view on modern life.

[…] he clearly understood himself as a universal critic who, in an age of rapidly advancing differentiation and growing doubts, endeavoured to heighten the public awareness of the relation between artistic performance and social improvement […] (Kamm 2002: 9)

This paper tries to analyse how Ruskin, through his description of the Ducal Palace in Venice, evokes a vision of a ‘Paradise for the Worker’ by instituting The Nature of Gothic as a ‘dictionary’ to an implicit “architext” (Kamm 2002: 6) in John Ruskin’s work on architecture and if he succeeds.

2. John Ruskin

To fully grasp the origins of John Ruskin’s proposed solution to an ailing British workforce it is necessary to review his connection to Venice and Great Britain.

2.1. Ruskin and Venice

Ruskin’s relationship with Venice is not without conflicts, but neither is the Ducal Palace’s history. By taking the visits closest to the publishing of The Stones of Venice, it is evident in what way Ruskin associated feelings of nostalgia with the city. These feelings, in time, would colour his opinions on art and ethics. The trip in 1846, the last family tour, brought the realization that there was “a gulf between them, at least a recognition on both sides of how far the developing tastes of the son had removed him from the world of his parents.” (Bradley 1987: 25) Born into a very religious family, the Bible took an important part in his life early on, shaped his literary style and his inert belief that man must seek salvation from evil. But where did he find that salvation? Matteson’s (2002) arguments that although his parents, especially John Ruskin’s mother, impressed upon him that salvation can only come through the Scripture and the heeding of God’s Word, still, with his mother’s “prison warden’s approach” (Matteson 2002) to the Bible, she fostered an abnegation of orthodox practices in her son. Ultimately, his religious imbalance led to a crisis of faith in 1858 and the abandonment of his Protestant belief. John Ruskin bore the slow poison of failing faith on his trips to Venice in 1835 with his family, his first visit alone in 1845 and with his wife Euphemia Grey in 1849. The estrangement from his parents and later his unhappy marriage, combined with his religious instability transformed his approach to the city as the only thing beautiful and true – the Eden he was later to paint architecturally and morally in The Nature of Gothic. “Ruskin’s medieval Venice was a virtual earthly paradise at once garden and city.” (Spear 1984: 118)

2.2. Ruskin and Great Britain

Although “[…] Venice [and its Gothic architecture] was a powerful force throughout Ruskin’s entire career, […] a storehouse of treasures […], with its buildings and pictures” it was “[…] also a symbol of glorious achievement followed by decline and decay, a moral fable revealed, for Ruskin, by a proper reading of his art, and intended as warning to nineteenth-century England.” (Bradley 1987: 29) This moral fable found a voice in Ruskin’s The Nature of Gothic. Even before Ruskin’s groundbreaking work he criticised the modern metropolis: as early as 1837 Ruskin, at 19 years of age, established his “central tenet” in The Poetry of Architecture: “all buildings, villages, and towns which emerged from a natural, community based, non-mechanized, human activity were inherently beautiful.” (Lang 1999: 20) In his opinion the modern workers of England were anaesthetised, if not completely paralysed, by society and therefore lacked all creative impulse. Ruskin felt that

[…]Gothic architecture and the arts subsidiary to it were the organic expression of the convictions, values, and talents of a whole people. This organic development was broken in the Renaissance and further fragmented by industrialism. The decadent state of contemporary architecture and manufacture so destructive of the natural environment and the human nature of the workers were the manifestations of that fragmentation. (Spear 1984: 216)

The architecture of Great Britain in the 19th century, with its strife for mechanical perfection, numbed the senses. Mass production and standardisation dehumanised the worker. The present was the total opposite of Venice’s social and moral past and Ruskin cried “out for a reality check.” (Matteson 2002) The reality was division of labour, where every worker manufactured minute parts of something they would never grasp mentally and even more so, to Ruskin’s disdain, emotionally. The fact that the artisan could not put his own mind and soul into the finished work meant total alienation from the product. Ruskin’s vision of an organically grown cityscape that represented the innermost feelings of a population stood in stark contrast to the Crystal Palace of 1851. This pivotal work of modern manufacture, all glass and steel, represented no more than the desolate state of the nation’s morals and ethics. Britain was, according to Ruskin, on a straight road to a place utterly devoid of any chance of salvation. Considering his religious background, it is understandable that Ruskin felt “[…]almost forced to advocate the revival of Gothic style as the desired fixed principle which alone seems to proffer beauty, truth, and ultimately hope.” (Kamm 2002: 12)

3. The ‘Architext’

John Ruskin opposed to see architecture in a utilitarian light. His main focus was cast upon the aspects he could associate with the things he most missed in contemporary British architecture: ornamentation or the multi-layered beauty it proclaimed. As a writer the written word, naturally, was closest to him and to his delight he found the language of paintings and sculpture. As a result it was only a small step to interpret the ‘language of architecture’ – the “architext” (Kamm 2002: 6). The concept of the architext proposes that architecture, like poetry, contains “a semiotic system which generates meaning” (Kamm 2002: 6) – it communicates with the observer, who in turn interprets the communicated content. The interpretation, however, must always be dependent on what the observer brings with him. What Ruskin brought to Venice was the conflicted relationship with Great Britain of the 19th century, a memory of happy times in the lagoon city and his religious heritage. “Ruskin’s power of analysis and observation and the fruits of his Evangelical heritage – typologically based exegesis, the ethical concern, the literalism, the urge to preach and to proselytize – are never in better balance than in […]” (Spear 1984: 114) The Nature of Gothic.


Excerpt out of 15 pages


The Stones of Eden - Ruskin's The Nature of Gothic and his Description of the Ducal Palace as a Guide to Salvation
University of Passau  (Philosophische Fakultät: Englische Kulturwissenschaften)
Proseminar Victorian Culture and Society
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
492 KB
Hausarbeit über den bedeutendsten Kunstkritiker des Viktorianismus, John Ruskin, und seine sozialkritische Architekturprosa.
Stones, Eden, Ruskin, Nature, Gothic, Description, Ducal, Palace, Guide, Salvation, Proseminar, Victorian, Culture, Society
Quote paper
Philip Jacobi (Author), 2004, The Stones of Eden - Ruskin's The Nature of Gothic and his Description of the Ducal Palace as a Guide to Salvation, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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