There are a number of editions of Ruskin's classic work: this is a review of the Penguin Classic History edition (originally published in 1960), reprinted in 2001. It is edited and abridged from the original three volumes of 450,000 words by Venice and Canaletto scholar, the late J.G. Links, who lauds Ruskin as "one of the greatest teachers - of anything - of all time."
Links points out that Ruskin himself brought out an abridgement of his monumental work, but that this abridgement was itself unsatisfactory, omitting for example Ruskin's chapter on `The Nature of Gothic', the chapter that Kenneth Clark later said he could not read "without a thrill, without a sudden resolution to reform the world." But how much of an abridgement is this edition? It refuses to say, beyond Links pointing out that Ruskin's 30,000-word essay on 'Renaissance Pride' has been omitted. But, at roughly 350 words per page, and roughly 220 pages, I reckon (at a rough calculation) that we have about 77,000 of those 450,000 words. As Links says, "It is surely unfortunate that ... this, probably the best and certainly the most curious [book about Venice] should have been crushed by its own weight of words."
For the dedicated reader, there are available full editions of Ruskin's magnum opus, so my review is directed purely at this abridgement. Links has split his abridgement into two almost equal halves. The first is concerned with the basics of western architecture; the second with reference to Ruskin's views on the Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance styles, using Venetian buildings as examples. But for those wanting a slice of Ruskin that focusses less on the former and more on the latter, then there is Sarah Quill's excellent volume, which I mention at the end of this review.
The introduction to this Penguin abridgement, then, is only two pages. Here Links quotes Ruskin's reaction to the critical reviews that his three-volume work received, Ruskin re-iterating his belief that, "the architects of the last three centuries to have been wrong ... without exception ... totally, and from the foundation." And it is primarily with architecture rather than Venice that the work is concerned.
The opening chapter sets down Ruskin's mission, its first famous foreboding sentence setting the quasi-moral and meta-contextual stage for the story and the details that follow: "Since first the dominion of men was asserted over the ocean, three thrones, of mark beyond all others, have been set upon its sands ..." Venice in the mid-nineteenth century was then a city in deep decay, "a ghost upon the sands of the sea ... we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City and which the Shadow?" Today, of course, Venice, instead of fading into oblivion, has re-illuminated its precious heart and this is greatly due to the battle to save it that Ruskin initiated.
Ruskin outrageously declares the Ducal Palace to be "the central building of the world", containing as it does the three abiding elements of architecture "in exactly equal proportions - the Roman [southern/Classical], Lombard [northern/Gothic] and Arab [eastern/Byzantine-Islamic]." Ruskin's bête noire - and the cause for him of the wrong-headedness of contemporary architecture - is the Renaissance: "It is in Venice ... and in Venice only, that effectual blows can be struck at this pestilent art ... Destroy its claims to admiration there, and it can assert them nowhere else. This ... will be the final purpose of the following essay."
Ruskin can be shockingly partisan in his arguments, employing sentence after sentence of deplorable language to describe the Classical style in his concluding chapters. And this abridgement neglects to include many of the positive things that Ruskin had to say about much of the Renaissance city. But as his arguments unfold there is a core of truth in what Ruskin has to say about the individuality of Gothic and the supposed tyranny of Renaissance building and sculpture. Ruskin's work could have been called "Architecture and Morality".
Having said that, Ruskin often over-eggs his pudding to the detriment of his point of view. Claiming, for instance, Venice to be "once the most religious" of cities would be news to Venetians all down the centuries. Any local would have relayed to him the maxim `first Venetians, then Christians'. It is also important to bear in mind here - and it is something that is often overlooked - that Ruskin wrote these volumes before he lost his faith. This puts his words about, for instance, "all noble ornamentation" being "the expression of man's delight in God's work" in a different kind of context for today's readers.
Adopting his usual style of Victorian paternalism, over the following chapters Ruskin guides the reader through the basics of traditional architecture. In his six comprehensively succinct divisions, he writes about walls, piers, lintels, roofs, buttresses, and apertures: "If the reader will have the patience to go through these six heads ... he shall never confound good architecture with bad any more." That's a tall order. Some of these chapters are very short indeed, a matter of a couple of pages and, as mentioned, there is very little on Venice itself. But at least there is still Ruskin's golden style of writing to compensate, as well as his cajoling morality with its mordant centre: "You were made for enjoyment, and the world was filled with things which you will enjoy, unless you are too proud to be pleased by them, or too grasping to care for what you cannot turn to other account than mere delight."
So it is halfway through this abridgement before Ruskin invites us to, "Come with me, for I have kept you too long from your gondola ..." Space for this review precludes me from detailing many of the insights that Ruskin made in his views on the primacy of gothic and the grotesqueness of renaissance work. But magical quotes are in abundance, and it is with regret that they cannot be fully tasted in this review.
In outline, the remaining chapters look at architecture and morality from the Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance angles, using Venice - and, in particular, Saint Mark's and the Ducal Palace - as his exemplar. But even here Venice is often a shadow. This abridgement contains little or no allusions to Ruskin's views about, for example, the church of San Giorgio Maggiore or the Fondaco dei Turchi, or the "colossal curve" of the Ponte de Rialto.
"The Stones of Venice" is - and has always been viewed since publication as - a classic work of art-historical and art-philosophical meditations. It has never been out of print. But what it is not is a travel book about the architecture of Venice. Potential visitors picking up this book will find little here to orientate them. It is a book of deep and passionate reflections rather than an itinerary. For those wanting to combine Ruskin's writings on Venice with sumptuous photographs and even some of Ruskin's own drawings and paintings of Venice are advised instead to purchase Sarah Quill's excellent "Ruskin's Venice: The Stones Revisited".
Jan Morris wrote that this abridgement by J.G. Links was "meticulous ... spoilt only by the worthless reproductions of its illustrations." Whilst the illustrations are indeed of little merit - and those of far better quality and quantity will no doubt be found in other editions of this work - I am minded not to fully agree with her praise of this edition's meticulousness. Whilst all abridgements are barbarities, the inclusion of Ruskin's introductory chapters on the basics of architecture is at the price of much more interesting critiques of the buildings of Venice themselves.