The nature of Gothic

The chapter on the 'The Nature of Gothic' in The Stones of Venice gives some of the key elements for understanding his concept of architecture, and the way he saw the mediaeval workmen approaching their task. Architecture could be compared with minerals since both could be conceived in two aspects; in minerals, one was external, its crystalline form, hardness and lustre, and the other internal, related to its constituent atoms. In relation to architecture, he continued (vol. 2, VI:iv):

Exactly in the same manner, we shall find that Gothic architecture has external forms and internal elements. Its elements are certain mental tendencies of the builders, legibly expressed in it; as fancifulness, love of variety, love of richness, and such others. Its external forms are pointed arches, vaulted roofs, etc. And unless both the elements and the forms are there, we have no right to call the style Gothic. It is not enough that it has the Form, if it have not also the power and life. It is not enough that it has the Power, if it have not the form. We must therefore inquire into each of these characters successively; and determine first, what is the Mental Expression, and secondly, what the Material Form of Gothic architecture, properly so called.

He defined the characteristic or moral elements of Gothic as: savageness, love of change, love of nature, disturbed imagination, obstinacy, and generosity, in this order of importance. Architectural ornaments, he divided into three categories:

1. Servile ornaments, where the execution by an inferior workman is entirely subject to the intellect of the higher authority.

2. Constitutional ornaments, in which the executive inferior power is, to a certain point, emancipated and independent.

3. Revolutionary ornaments, in which no executive inferiority is admitted at all.

The first category was characterized by the Greek, Ninevite and Egyptian architecture, where ornaments were executed according to geometric patterns and under strict control. The second type of ornament resulted from an inner freedom and creativity in the execution, as could be found in Gothic architecture, of which the noble character was an expression not of climate but of religious principle. The third type of ornament was found in the Renaissance, 'which was destructive of all noble architecture' (vol. 1, XXI:xiv).

Christianity having recognized the individual value of every soul, and, at the same time, having confessed its own imperfection, had made away with slavery in truly Christian architecture. If the workman is let to imagine, to think, to try to do anything worth doing, the mechanical precision is gone; even though he may make mistakes, he will also grow and bring out the whole majesty that potentially lies in him. And how should we address the workman today in order to obtain healthy and ennobling labour? Easily, says Ruskin, by the observance of simple rules: 'Never encourage the manufacture of any article not absolutely necessary, in the production of which

Invention has no share. Never demand an exact finish for its own sake, but only for some practical or noble end. Never encourage imitation or copying of any kind except for the sake of preserving records of great works' (vol. 2, VI:xvii). Ruskin invited people to go and have another look at an old cathedral:

go forth again to gaze upon the old cathedral front, where you have smiled so often at the fantastic ignorance of the old sculptors: examine once more those ugly goblins, and formless monsters, and stern statues, anatomiless and rigid; but do not mock at them, for they are signs of life and liberty of every workman who struck the stone; a freedom of thought, and rank in scale of being, such as no laws, no charters, no charities can secure; but which it must be the first aim of all Europe at this day to regain for her children. (vol. 2, VI:xiv)

At Amiens, Ruskin considered it was important for a visitor to find the right route to approach the cathedral and to understand both the setting and the way architecture was conceived. He recommended starting from a hill on the other side of the river, in order to appreciate the real height and relation of tower and town. Coming down towards the Cathedral, he advised going straight to the south transept, as entering there gave the most noble experience, 'the shafts of the transept aisles forming wonderful groups with those of the choir and nave; also, the apse shows its height better, as it opens to you when you advance from the transept into the mid-nave, than when it is seen at once from the west end of the nave' (Ruskin, 1897,iv:8). Having examined the interior in detail and coming out again, gave one the possibility to compare the interior and the exterior, and to appreciate better the meaning of buttresses and traceries, mainly built to make the inside work. Except for its sculpture, he argued, the exterior of a French cathedral was always to be thought of as the wrong side of the stuff, 'in which you find how the threads go that produce the inside of right side pattern'.

7.1.2 Rural areas

All through his life, Ruskin maintained a deep admiration and love for nature, where he

found perfect beauty and the presence of God. He had a special admiration for mountains, crystals and minerals, to which was partly dedicated the fourth volume of Modern Painters (1856). His writings were important both in exciting the passion for natural landscape, and especially in analysing and defining relevant concepts for his readers. In his youth Ruskin was much influenced by William Wordsworth's (1770-1850) love for the Lake District and the description of humble rural cottages as if grown out of the native rock and 'received into the bosom of the living principle of things', so expressing the tranquil course of Nature, along which the inhabitants have been led for generations (Wordsworth, 1835).

The dwelling-houses, and contiguous outhouses, are, in many instances, of the colour of the native rock, out of which they have been built; but, frequently the Dwelling or Fire-house, as it is ordinarily called, has been distinguished from the barn or byre by rough-cast and whitewash, which, as the inhabitants are not hasty in renewing it, in a few years acquires, by the influence of weather, a tint at once sober and variegated. As these houses have been, from father to son, inhabited by persons engaged in the same occupations, yet necessarily with changes in their circumstances, they have received without incongruity additions and accommodations adapted to the needs of each successive occupant, who, being for the most part proprietor, was at liberty to follow his own fancy.

Figure 7.3 John Ruskin described the northern character of the grey walls of the architecture of Salisbury Cathedral as greatly different from Mediterranean buildings

In his early work, The Poetry of Architecture, Ruskin described and compared the national characteristics of cottage and villa architecture in England, France, Italy and Switzerland, paying special attention to 'age value' and 'the unity of feeling, the basis of all grace, the essence of all beauty'. Admiring how the fading beauty of English cottages worked on imagination, he regretted their destruction due to development. The keen interest and appreciation of simple forms of art was shown when Ruskin observed a bullfinch's nest, an 'intricate Gothic boss of extreme grace and quaintness', which had apparently been made with much pleasure, and with 'definitive purpose' of obtaining an ornamental form (Ruskin, 1872). This sort of nest building could be seen in the architecture of the old houses of Strasbourg, which was in proportion to the needs and environment, and brought much pleasure to the peasant. When Ruskin spoke about the sacrifice that he expected from the architect and the builder, he meant that each should give his best and sacrifice other pleasures for the sake of architecture. This included the use of locally available materials, selecting the best quality for each specific purpose so as to make a true and honest contribution toward an aesthetic enjoyment and the durability of the building.

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