John Ruskins conservation principles

The anti-restoration movement criticized restoration architects for the destruction of the historical authenticity of the buildings, and fought for their protection, conservation and maintenance. The principal protagonist in this movement was John Ruskin (1819-1900), whose piercing eye and biting pen detected and denounced any sort of restoration. As a result, in the English language, the word 'restoration' came to indicate something negative, and, in due time, was replaced by the word 'conservation'; the movement itself became the 'conservation movement'. Ruskin saw a historic building, painting or sculpture

John Ruskin National Portrait Gallery
Figure 7.1 John Ruskin (National Portrait Gallery)

as a unique creation by an artisan or artist in a specific historic context. Such a genuine work of art resulted from personal sacrifice; it was based on man's perception of beauty in nature, where it existed as a reflection of God. Age in itself contributed to beauty; the marks of age could thus be seen as an essential element in an object, that could only be considered 'mature' in its beauty after several centuries.

Having received a sheltered education in a wealthy family, Ruskin was well read in the classics of literature and philosophy with special interest in Thomas Carlyle. With his mother, he spent much time studying the Bible, and his parents would have like to see him as a bishop. Instead, he became an art critic and theorist; he was a good draughtsman and painter, as well as teacher. He travelled extensively, and spent much time in Italy especially. His writings were rich in ideas, often polemical, and exhibited all the resources of language; his publications dealt with a variety of subjects, including art and architecture, history and geology, social and political issues. His principal works in relation to the arts were the five volumes of Modern Painters (1843-60), three volumes of The Stones of Venice (1851-53) and the The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849). In his mature life, he came to have doubts about religion and changed his thinking. He concluded his literary work with an autobiography, Praeterita (1885-89), in which his mind wandered selectively amongst places that had given him pleasure, and he ended at the Gate of Siena, seeing 'the fireflies everywhere in sky and cloud rising and falling, mixed with the lightning and more intense than the stars'.

Ruskin did not write a theory of conservation, but he identified the values and the significance of historic buildings and objects more clearly than anyone before him, thus providing a foundation for modern conservation philosophies. The classic reference in his writings concerning 'restoration' is The Seven Lamps of Architecture. This was his contribution to the debate on the definition of the qualities and values of architecture in general, and there was a major accent on historicity. The lamps, or the guiding principles, Ruskin identified as: sacrifice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory and obedience. Where he differed from Scott was in his absolute defence of the material truth of historic architecture. The genuine monument, and not its modern replica, was the nation's real heritage and the memorial of the past. This insistence came down to the question of the spirit and joy of creation, which was a condition for the quality of workmanship. The seven lamps were conceived by Ruskin as the seven fundamental and cardinal laws to be observed and obeyed by any conscientious architect and builder. The idea for the title came from the words of his favourite Psalm, 119:

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path . . .

Thy testimonies have I taken as an heritage for ever:

for they are the rejoicing of my heart. I have inclined mine heart to perform thy statutes away, even unto the end.

To restore a historic building or a work of art, even using the methods of the historic period, and even 'faithfully', in any case, meant much reproduction of its old forms in new material, and therefore destruction of the unique, authentic work as moulded by the original artist, and as weathered through time and history. Ruskin thus exclaimed in the 'Lamp of Memory' of the Seven Lamps:

Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer: a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed . . . Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end. You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton, with what advantage I neither see nor care: but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust, or melted into a mass of clay: more has been gleaned out of desolated Nineveh than ever will be out of rebuilt Milan.

He distinguished between building and architecture: 'building' was the actual construction according to the requirements of intended use; 'architecture', instead, was concerned with those features of an edifice which were above and beyond its common use, and therefore provided it with particular qualities. He defined it in the 'The Lamp of Sacrifice': 'Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man, for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them may contribute to his mental health, power, and pleasure.' This emphasized the artistic treatment that added to the aesthetic appreciation of the building. Ruskin was the first to give such an emphasis on ornamentation in the context of the architectural whole. On the other hand, he understood that good architecture needed a good building, and although he liked to distinguish between these two aspects, he saw them together contributing to one whole. He looked at architecture at different levels, from the whole spatial and compositional disposition down to the minute details and the choice of materials (Unrau, 1978). When he spoke about decay and restoration, he thought about the final finish of architectural ornamentation, and claimed that when this last half inch was gone, no restoration could bring it back.

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