John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, published 1851–53, was an enormously influential book. It is not an exaggeration to say that the book changed the way people looked at Venice, and that to this day we still see the city with eyes and minds infused with Ruskin’s vision.
Before Ruskin, Venetian Byzantine and Gothic architecture, mosaic and painting were ignored as representing a barbarous interlude before civilisation returned with the Renaissance. St Mark’s was abhorred as a monstrous blot; weathered stone was a defect to be put right, funds permitting, with mechanically cut replacements; Grand Tourists learnt that painting began with Titian and architecture with Palladio.
Ruskin’s views, passionately articulated – his idealistic adoration for the Middle Ages, his love of decoration and richness of surface, his belief that the decline of Venice dated from 1418 – were a radical departure from the accepted norms of the past. Underlying his aesthetic preferences were highly original socio-political ideas and the belief that art and architecture were a barometer of the spiritual and moral health of a society. It was this philosophical cogency which gave his writings such impact.
Ruskin’s brilliant polemics taught his readers to look at Venice the way he did, to love the city as he did. He was the first to make a cool-headed appraisal of the problems of Venice – political, physical, and sociological – and as one of the first modern conservationists he instituted a campaign to protect the fabric from ‘improving’ restoration and reconstruction.
The tour also looks at the responses to Venice by other writers, including Wordsworth, Shelley and Byron, and to British and American artists, particularly Turner, whom Ruskin championed, and Whistler, whom he reviled.
Fly at c. 12.30pm from London Gatwick to Venice. Cross the lagoon by motoscafo (water taxi) to the hotel. There is an introductory walk in Piazza San Marco.
See a Carpaccio painting of noblewomen in the Museo Correr which Ruskin gloriously misinterpreted, and S. Maria dei Miracoli, whose sculptures ‘should be examined with great care, as the best possible examples of a bad style’. SS. Giovanni e Paolo contains various funerary monuments, some of which were admired by Ruskin and reviled by others. Visit the Doge’s Palace, of which Ruskin wrote that it ‘contains the three elements in exactly equal proportions: the Roman, Lombard, and Arab. It is the central building in the world’. See also the Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni with the cycle of paintings by Carpaccio which he studied deeply and analysed symbolically.
Visit the Gothic church of Madonna dell’Orto with paintings by Tintoretto. Cross the lagoon by motoscafo to the island of Torcello, movingly desolate in Ruskin’s day and not much changed now; the Byzantine church and mosaics induced him to ecstasy. Continue by vaporetto (water-bus) to the island of Murano to visit S. Donato; see the inlaid floor and mosaic of the Madonna above the altar (for Ruskin, seeing this building was ‘a hard day’s work’). In the evening there is a special after-hours private visit to the Basilica of S. Marco.
As a Gothic structure, the great Franciscan church of S. Maria Gloriosa dei Frari aroused Ruskin’s approbation (he detected Arabic influence in the apse). Of the paintings in the adjacent Scuola di San Rocco he wrote ‘I never was so utterly crushed to the earth before any human intellect as I was today, before Tintoret’. In the afternoon visit the Accademia, Venice’s principal art gallery, to study the painters of most interest to Ruskin: Bellini, Titian, Tintoretto. Ruskin was obsessively interested in the works of Carpaccio, identifying Rose La Touche, with whom he had been hopelessly in love, with the figure of St Ursula.
The morning is free. Travel by motoscafo to Venice airport. Fly to London Gatwick, arriving c. 5.45pm.
Price, per person
Two sharing: £2,410 or £2,230 without flights. Single occupancy: £2,790 or £2,610 without flights.
Flights (Euro Traveller) with British Airways (Airbus 319); travel between Venice Airport and hotel by water-taxi, a vaporetto pass for the duration of the tour; luggage porterage from and to the airport; hotel accommodation; breakfasts; 1 lunch and 3 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions; all tips; all taxes; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
Hotel Splendid, Venice: delightful 4-star hotel situated half-way between Piazza San Marco and the Rialto bridge. Single rooms are doubles for sole use.
The nature of Venice means that the city is more often than not traversed on foot. Although part of her charm, there is a lot of walking along the flat and up and down bridges; standing around in museums and churches is also unavoidable.
Are you fit enough to join the tour?
Between 8 and 18 participants.
Before booking, please refer to the FCDO website to ensure you are happy with the travel advice for the destination(s) you are visiting.
'The lecturer was passionate and eloquent on his subject.'
'The organisation was flawless and the sites fascinating.'
'A good exploration of Ruskin’s Venice.'