Gothic Revival: John Ruskin Was an Enemy of Democracy, Writes Tim Abrahams

By Abrahams, Tim | New Statesman (1996), September 27, 2010 | Go to article overview

Gothic Revival: John Ruskin Was an Enemy of Democracy, Writes Tim Abrahams


Abrahams, Tim, New Statesman (1996)


British Pavilion

Venice Architecture Biennale

Britain's contribution to the Venice Architecture Biennale has been praised by critics, with good reason. The exhibition, housed in a small, neoclassical pavilion in the Giardini in Venice, explores the relationship between the Victorian art critic John Ruskin and Venice in a questioning way. Dominated by a huge scale model of the London 2012 Olympic stadium, made by Venetian gondola builders and converted into a drawing studio, the exhibition poses some important questions about Ruskin's relationship with architecture's role in contemporary society.

Venice is a city that the English art critic, who was born in 1819, catalogued assiduously. (A small collection of his notebooks is included in the exhibition.) With his book The Stones of Venice, published in 1851, Ruskin made an immense contribution towards establishing architecture as an art form. He posits Venice as a text, which he goes on to decipher, with a specific purpose in mind: he uses the city to make an impassioned defence of the Gothic style--at whose heart he places Venice--as the morally superior form of European architecture. Ruskin's argument is that the Gothic is produced by master builders, dedicated in their tasks to a collective sharing of skill (often in directly venerating God, but not exclusively so), and working in semi-autonomous units throughout Europe.

Up until the end of his life, there remained in this favouring of the Gothic--this transmission of God's word through the tactile language of stone--a mistrust of the centralised authority of the papacy. Though Ruskin was raised as a Protestant by evangelising parents in the 19th century, he found the same sense of brotherhood in the work of masons of the late medieval period. To him, the Renaissance was a period in which mankind regressed morally.

Why should this talk of the Gothic and morality engage us in the present day? Because the focus of Ruskin's argument is not ultimately the evils of the Renaissance, nor even Catholicism. The real enemies, for Ruskin, were democracy and industry. Of particular import to his thinking was the essayist Thomas Carlyle's comparison between the Bury St Edmunds of his day and the same town in the 12th century. …

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