Then, miraculously, out of the hundreds of nearly indistinguishable stone figurines, my husband found the one we were looking for. We were now standing in the very same place where Ruskin, over a century and a half earlier and Proust 50 years after him, had stood, looking with wonder and delight at the same rather coarsely carved, though touching figure. For the first time that day my experience was in accord with what I had anticipated from reading Ruskin. I felt the force of his argument about why the world looks the way it does. The ‘vexed and puzzled’ little fellow, in all its raw expressiveness and vitality, was the physical embodiment of the stone-carver’s joy in his labor; for why else, as Ruskin pointed out, would the carver have taken the time and care to indicate, rough line by rough line, the wrinkles under the figure’s eye as his cheek rested on his hand? After all, we are talking about a face of a figure smaller than my thumb that is a mere filling of an interstice on the outside of a cathedral gate, a figure that passionate pilgrims like my husband and myself failed to notice even when we were looking directly at the carved panel on which it reclines.
Having now seen the tiny Gothic figure that had occupied such a large place in my imagination, I could only wonder at the depth and range of Ruskin’s sensibility contained in that observation. And, I began to realize, I was equally if not more astounded by Ruskin’s acute vision. With thousands of sculpted figures of all sizes and description to fill one’s eye and mind, how hard he must have looked to see that particular tiny, obscure figure, for, unlike us (or Proust), Ruskin had no guide. Instead, my husband ventured, his mind must have been prepared, his eye alert, his attention intensely concentrated in ways that few of us are capable of today. As I felt the page in my hand of Ruskin’s etching, we began to speak of the way cultivated travelers used to memorize and preserve the details of beloved paintings, sculptures, buildings, and landscapes they visited by drawing them or painting watercolors—and in Ruskin’s case, by making his own etchings of his drawings for his books. We thought of the time and mindfulness and care that the handmade world required, how radically opposed it was to today’s automaton picture-taking and instant, disposable ‘messaging.’