Turner's Approach to Venice, 1843 ...
... and my approach to Venice in 2010:
I have just returned from a 4-day visit to Venice. Weather, accommodation, transport, food and company were excellent, so I could fully enjoy the beauties of this rich and strange place (with that much water everywhere, you cannot blame me for thinking of 'Full Fathom Five'). My book of choice was Ruskin's Stones of Venice (first published 1851-53) and I spent the days flicking through it, reading bits and pieces about those imposing yet often leaning palazzos and casas, marvelling at the beauty of Ruskin's language, as rich, proud and colourful as the buildings themselves. I was looking for descriptions of colour in his work and found that he was fascinated with the subject and devoted whole paragraphs to it. Since he almost exclusively describes the exterior of buildings there is no description of this mosaic in the basilica of Torcello, a long vaporetto ride away in the outskirts of the lagoon, now deserted apart from a few pretentious restaurants and hundreds of cats:
Until this trip I had not seen many Byzantine mosaics, and my knowledge of them was based on what I overheard and overread at the department of Art History at Sussex University, which has a strong contingent of scholars and researchers of Byzantine art. I was overwhelmed by the shimmering surfaces of the mosaics, the strong and fresh colours, against a glorious gold background. The almost clear windows of this tall church lit up the mosaics and made them sparkle, and I wondered what had taken me so long to become interested in the colours of mosaics. Naturally, I wanted to see more, but I tried in vain to get into St Marco; the queues were just too long. I had to make do with a large scholarly book on St Marco that was in our apartment. Since I have been interested in the depiction of rainbows in art (particularly pre-Newtonian) I wanted to see this mosaic in St Marco:
|Basilica di San Marco: Noah and the Rainbow, mosaic, 13th c.|
|One of Ruskin's sketches for |
The Stones of Venice
Observe, it is not now the question whether our Northern cathedrals are better with color or without. Perhaps the great monotone gray of Nature and of Time is a better color than any that the human hand can give; but that is nothing to our present business. The simple fact is, that the builders of those cathedrals laid upon them the brightest colors they could obtain, and that there is not, as far as I am aware, in Europe, any monument of a truly noble school which has not been either painted all over, or vigorously touched with paint, mosaic, and gilding in its prominent parts. Thus far Egyptians, Greeks, Goths, Arabs, and mediaeval Christians all agree: none of them, when in their right senses, ever think of doing without paint; and, therefore, when I said above that the Venetians were the only people who had thoroughly sympathized with the Arabs in this respect, I referred, first, to their intense love of color, which led them to lavish the most expensive decorations on ordinary dwelling-houses; and, secondly, to that perfection of the color-instinct in them, which enabled them to render whatever they did, in this kind, as just in principle as it was gorgeous in appliance. It is this principle of theirs, as distinguished from that of the Northern builders, which we have finally to examine.
From descriptions of the exterior of St Marco: The balls in the archivolt project considerably, and the interstices between their interwoven bands of marble are filled with colours like the illuminations of a manuscript; violet, crimson, blue, gold, and green alternately: but no green is ever used without an intermixture of blue pieces in the mosaic, nor any blue without a little centre of pale green; sometimes only a single piece of glass a quarter of an inch square, so subtle was the feeling for colour which was thus to be satisfied. No two tesserae of the glass are exactly of the same tint, the greens being all varied with blues, the blues of different depths, the reds of different clearness, so that the effect of each mass of colour is full of variety, like the stippled colour of a fruit piece..