Ruskin hated imitations; building materials and working methods must be honestly what they appear, and the creator's intention was essential. He promoted traditional workmanship because he feared that industrialization would alienate man from enjoying his work, and the result would thus remain empty and lifeless, lacking the life and 'sacrifice'. In his letters, there are pages and pages of anger for the loss of familiar works of art, destruction of Giotto's frescoes in Pisa, replacement of historic buildings in Verona, renewal of Ca' d'Oro in Venice, and even 'chipping & cleaning' Giotto's Campanile. What should then be done with these buildings in order to keep their historical values? In June 1845, Ruskin wrote to his father, 'This I would have. Let them take the greatest possible care of all they have got, & when care will preserve it no longer, let it perish inch by inch, rather than retouch it.' This phrase that he later included in the 'Lamp of Memory', has almost become Ruskin's 'trade mark'. Ruskin liked to use extreme expressions in order to clarify the point; here, he did not mean that one should not repair an old building. On the contrary he recommended maintenance, as William Morris after him, in order to avoid the 'necessity of restoration', which was too often given as an excuse for replacement (VLxix):
Watch an old building with an anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation. Count its stones as you would jewels of a crown; set watches about it as if at the gates of a besieged city; bind it together with iron where it loosens; stay it with timber where it declines; do not care about the unsightliness of the aid.
Ruskin was concerned about new development in urban areas, and the loss of identity of old towns if buildings were destroyed to make way for new squares and wider streets. He warned against taking false pride in these, and drew attention instead to the values found
in the old districts and the dark streets of the old town. A historic city did not consist only of single monuments, but was an ensemble of different types of buildings, spaces and details. He emphasized that the interest in historic towns in countries like France and Italy did not depend so much on the richness of some isolated palaces, but 'on the cherished and exquisite decoration of even the smallest tenements of their proud periods' (VI:v). In Venice, some of the best architecture could be found on the tiny side canals, and they were often small two or three-storey buildings.
In 1854, Ruskin was invited to give the opening speech at the new Crystal Palace, and he used this opportunity to make an appeal for the sake of works of art and historic buildings. He was not so concerned for the new streets and boulevards being built in Paris, because of its 'peculiar character of bright magnificence', but he was seriously worried about its effect all over Europe on the existing historic cities. He mentioned the old Norman houses at Rouen, which were to be completely renewed and whitewashed in order to respect the newness of the recent hotels and offices. He also utterly condemned the restoration of the principal cathedrals of France under the Second Empire; although these pretended to have been done with 'mathematical exactness' and great skill.
Was this article helpful?