'Beauty' was the essence of Ruskin's life, and it resulted from an intrinsic harmony and repose. Perfect beauty was in God, and as a reflection of God it was found in nature and in art. He divided beauty into 'typical' and 'vital', the former consisting of forms and qualities of forms, such as curved lines, the latter concerned with expression, happiness and energy of life. In architecture, he conceived forms to be beautiful so far as they derived from nature, because man was not able to produce beauty by himself. Classical architecture was not based on the imitation of nature, except in details such as the Corinthian capital, and did not meet the requirements of beauty. Renaissance architecture, as imitation of Classical, was rejected with few exceptions - such as Raphael and Michelangelo. Gothic, instead, and especially Italian Gothic, was entirely based on natural forms. Sculpture and ornamentation were here conceived as an integral but subordinate part of the architectural whole. Detailing was balanced according to the distance of observation, the relief was reached for proper depth of shadow, and variety was introduced through naturally coloured stone. He was also sensitive to differences in different types of Gothic, as, for example, comparing Giotto's Campanile and Salisbury Cathedral:
The contrast is indeed strange, if it could be quickly felt, between the rising of those grey walls out of their quiet swarded space, like dark and barren rocks out of a green lake, with their rude, mouldering, rough-grained shafts, and
triple lights, without tracery or other ornament than the martin's nests in the height of them, and that bright, smooth, sunny surface of glowing jasper, those spiral shafts and fairy traceries, so white, so faint, so crystalline, that their slight shapes are hardly traced in darkness on the pallor of the Eastern sky, that serene height of mountain alabaster, coloured like a morning cloud, and chased like a sea shell. (IV:xliii)
The expression of 'picturesque' is often used in connection with ruined buildings, and even to mean 'universal decay'; this Ruskin called 'parasitical sublimity'. To him picturesque meant a combination of beauty and the sublime, expressed in the different characteristics and intentions in art. Gothic sculpture was picturesque due to the way shadows and masses of shadows were handled as a part of the composition, while classical sculpture -
as at the Parthenon - was not, because shadows were used mainly to clarify the subject. In historic buildings, accidental, ruinous picturesqueness was not the main thing; it was the 'noble picturesque', 'that golden stain of time', the marks of ageing on the materials, which give it character. Considering that a building would thus be 'in its prime' only after four or five centuries, it was important to be careful in the choice of building materials to make them stand weathering for such a long time. The 'Lamp of Memory' in a certain way was the culmination of Ruskin's thinking in terms of historic architecture, especially in relation to its national significance and its role in the history of society. If we want to learn anything from the past, he pointed out, and we have any pleasure in being remembered in the future, we need memory, we need something to which to attach our memories. With poetry, architecture was one of the 'conquerors' of time, and Ruskin insisted on our principal duties in its regard: first to create architecture of such quality that it could become historical, and secondly, 'to preserve, as the most precious of inheritances, that of past ages' (VI:ii).
Concerning emotional values, Ruskin saw a 'good man's house' as a personification of the owner, his life, his love, his distress, his memories; it was much more a memorial to him than any that could be erected in a church, and it was the duty of his children and their descendants to take care of it, protect it and conserve it. He saw this also as a task of Christianity; God is present in every household, and it would be a sacrilege to destroy His altar. Consequently, the house belongs to its first builder; it is not ours, though it also belongs to his descendants, and so it is our duty to protect it, to conserve it and to transmit it to those who come after. We have no right to deprive future generations of any benefits, because one of the fundamental conditions of man is to rely on the past; the greater and farther the aims are placed the more we need self-denial and modesty to accept that the results of our efforts should remain available to those who come after. Architecture with its relative permanence will create continuity through various transitional events, linking different ages and contributing to the nation's identity. One can hear echoes of Alberti and of the French Revolution, which Ruskin took further; no longer was he speaking of single national monuments, but of national architectural inheritance, including domestic architecture and even historic towns.
Was this article helpful?