What follows is a kind of sequel to the introduction to Ruskin I published several years ago.

Ruskin begins The Stones of Venice by identifying what he believes to have been the essential characteristics of Venetian society in its heyday – which is to say, the twelfth century through the fourteenth:

The most curious phenomenon in all Venetian history is the vitality of religion in private life, and its deadness in public policy. Amidst the enthusiasm, chivalry, or fanaticism of the other states of Europe, Venice stands, from first to last, like a masked statue; her coldness impenetrable, her exertion only aroused by the touch of a secret spring. That spring was her commercial interest, — this the one motive of all her important political acts, or enduring national animosities. She could forgive insults to her honor, but never rivalship in her commerce; she calculated the glory of her conquests by their value, and estimated their justice by their facility.

Yet even as they calculated in this crassly financial way,

The habit of assigning to religion a direct influence over all his own actions, and all the affairs of his own daily life, is remarkable in every great Venetian during the times of the prosperity of the state; nor are instances wanting in which the private feeling of the citizens reaches the sphere of their policy, and even becomes the guide of its course where the scales of expediency are doubtfully balanced.

Ruskin goes on to say (somewhat wryly, I think) that this influence of private piety on public policy only happened when the leaders of Venice were rushed — whenever they had time to think they would suppress piety in favor of commercial self-interest.

Nevertheless, the piety of the great Venetians — and Ruskin believes it was sincere, that these men were not hypocrites but rather inconstant and/or skilled in compartmentalizing (as who among us is not?) — seemed to have the power to shape the city’s spirit and to sustain its prosperity, because “the decline of her political prosperity was exactly coincident with that of domestic and individual religion.” When that religion waned, so too did Venice’s political and commercial influence. Ruskin explains that precise correspondence between private piety and public success thus:

We find, on the one hand, a deep and constant tone of individual religion characterising the lives of the citizens of Venice in her greatness; we find this spirit influencing them in all the familiar and immediate concerns of life, giving a peculiar dignity to the conduct even of their commercial transactions, and confessed by them with a simplicity of faith that may well put to shame the hesitation with which a man of the world at present admits (even if it be so in reality) that religious feeling has any influence over the minor branches of his conduct. And we find as the natural consequence of all this, a healthy serenity of mind and energy of will expressed in all their actions, and a habit of heroism which never fails them, even when the immediate motive of action ceases to be praiseworthy. With the fulness of this spirit the prosperity of the state is exactly correspondent, and with its failure her decline, and that with a closeness and precision which it will be one of the collateral objects of the following essay to demonstrate from such accidental evidence as the field of its inquiry presents.

And he pauses at this point in his exposition to suggest that this history might have some relevance to British subjects who have ears to hear. The idea that London is the New Venice is a muted but constant refrain in The Stones of Venice.

This account of politics and religion in Venice is quite interesting, but the thing that makes Ruskin Ruskin is where his thought now takes him: “I would next endeavor to give the reader some idea of the manner in which the testimony of Art bears upon these questions, and of the aspect which the arts themselves assume when they are regarded in their true connexion with the history of the state.” And this is what the rest of The Stones of Venice, all three big volumes of it, does: to explain how the art of Venice — its painting, its architecture, its ornaments and designs in every medium — reveals the rise, the health, the majesty, the decline, and the humiliation of the city of Venice. Which is, I think it’s fair to say, an astonishing project. 

File:The Casa d Oro Venice Ruskin.jpg

The question I keep asking myself — that I’ve been asking myself for years — is: How can I think in a genuinely Ruskinian way about our own time and place? What would that look like? What would be the … I dunno, the ingredients I guess? The only thing I know for sure — and this goes back to the last sentence of my earlier Ruskin essay — is that we must begin by attending to beauty, and to the absence of it, in our public life. But that’s an abstract answer to a question that demands specificity.