Monday, November 4, 2013

There for every reader to see: John Ruskin's "The Seven Lamps of Architecture"

"I must be prepared to bear the charge of impertinence which can hardly but attach to the writer who assumes a dogmatical tone in speaking of an art he has never practised."

That's John Ruskin from his preface to The Seven Lamps of Architecture, published in 1849 and being read by me in its 1854 first American edition, a fragile book despite the library binding; I have to watch myself lest the front matter come tumbling free of the spine.

Ruskin was never a practicing architect, nor a builder, but he felt so strongly about the fine decorative arts (and so many other things, as will be revealed) that he was compelled to write a long argument against the destruction of fine Gothic buildings and the erection of aesthetically displeasing mid-19th-century buildings. Ruskin breaks his argument into seven major sections (the "lamps," by which he means more like the spirit, or guiding principle). Ruskin begins each section (so far, anyway) with a statement of his theological and philosophical basis for the "lamp" to be discussed.

A month ago, in a comment to one of my dull posts, Umbagollah said:

"Ruskin telling the reader that he is "consistent" (which he does more than once) reminds me how inconsistent he is, until the sight of Ruskin writing "I am consistent" says everything to me except "Ruskin is consistent." But he is writing down a desire there, I think, rather than a thought (I mean: a thought based on observation and facts that he can point to, as he does when he's discussing granite or feathers); and the desire uses the same language that a thought would have used if he'd had absolute factual rock solid evidence that he was actually consistent, which he doesn't and in fact the opposite situation pertains throughout his work"

And I find this to be true of The Seven Lamps of Architecture. Ruskin has his beliefs, which are complex and clearly much thought-over, and as long as his claims about art and architecture match up with his beliefs, he is "consistent." But his system of beliefs is itself inconsistent, contradictory, and sometimes just capricious and arbitrary. All in all, this amuses me despite (and I must say it, as Ruskin no doubt felt compelled) Ruskin's near-hysterical attacks on Catholicism. A man holding Anglicism up as the One True Faith has no room to talk, my dears. But I am able to forgive Ruskin his occasional religious lunacy because of this beautiful paragraph about the men who built and decorated the great Catholic cathedrals of Europe: is to its far happier, far higher, exaltation that we owe those fair fronts of variegated mosaic, charged with wild fancies and dark hosts of imagery, thicker and quainter than ever filled the depth of midsummer dream; those vaulted gates, trellised with close leaves; those window-labyrinths of twisted tracery and starry light; those misty masses of multitudinous pinnacle and diademed tower; the only witnesses, perhaps that remain to us of the faith and fear of nations. All else for which the builders sacrificed, has passed away--all their living interests, and aims, and achievements. We know not for what they labored, and we see no evidence of their reward. Victory, wealth, authority, happiness--all have departed, though bought by many a bitter sacrifice. But of them, and their life, and their toil upon the earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those gray heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honors, and their errors; but they have left us their adoration.

Ruskin writes engagingly and with great affection (and, even if he may be absolutely wrong about facts, with great certainty) for his subject, which is the art of decoration as opposed to the art of building. He is interested, he tells us, in the "useless" features of buildings, though even that claim of "uselessness" is contradicted when he's talking about the aesthetics of structure. Ruskin writes finely, around and around in great spirals, caught up with whatever has caught his eye, and as long as he believes it at the moment of writing, he need not reconcile those momentary clashes where his claims knock against each other. None of that really matters, because Ruskin is not an architect, and he really just wants us to appreciate beauty and learn to separate truly beautiful adornment from mere adornment which might dazzle but fails to please. Or something like that.

Ruskin isn't to be read (or at least this book isn't to be read) to learn about architecture. What's good about The Seven Lamps of Architecture is the philosophical writing at the head of each section. There, Ruskin writes breathtakingly and with conviction, and you can see the light shining from his eyes:

We are too much in the habit of looking at falsehood in its darkest associations, and through the color of its worst purposes. That indignation which we profess to feel at deceit absolute, is indeed only at deceit malicious. We resent calumny, hypocrisy and treachery, because they harm us, not because they are untrue. Take the detraction and the mischief from the untruth, and we are little offended by it; turn it into praise, and we may be pleased with it. And yet it is not calumny nor treachery that does the largest sum of mischief in the world; they are continually crushed, and are felt only in being conquered. But it is the glistening and softly spoken lie; the amiable fallacy; the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the politician, the zealous lie of the partizan, the merciful lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to himself, that cast that black mystery over humanity, through which any man who pierces, we thank as we would thank one who dug a well in a desert; happy in that the thirst for truth still remains with us, even when we have wilfully left the fountains of it.

It is educational, I say, to see a man try to discuss art and the broader world in the light of his ethical system, aware that his discussion is alleged to be situated within his ethics, there for every reader to see. That's quite enough for now.


  1. I am also reading Lovecraft. The Shadow Over Innsmouth is curiously preoccupied with the architecture of churches. Coincidence?

  2. This is a very deep observation and one I am not prepared to engage in, however, I just want to say I love this sentence... long as he believes it at the moment of writing, he need not reconcile those momentary clashes where his claims knock against each other.

    It speaks to me in a way I can't discuss. I know what I want to say about it -- truth, writing, reconciling -- but I can't find the words to make myself sound coherent. Sorry.

    Your thoughts are too big for my brain, Mr. Bailey.

  3. Amusingly, The Stones of Venice, for which Seven Lamps is a warm-up, is full of architecture. How stone arches are built, how flying buttresses work, that sort of thing.

    The more expert reader will have to think about how much of the architecture to skip to get to the unique stuff, the purer Ruskin.

    He is such a fine rhetorician.

  4. It turns out that (happily enough) reading Lamps is making me more aware of architecture, so well done Ruskin. Yesterday afternoon and this morning I've taken closer note of the pseudo-Gothic ornaments stuck onto all the Bauhaus neubauten here at the university, and I am better able to say why it's so displeasing to the eye. I wish I'd read this before we went to Prague and Vienna; I'd have paid better attention to all the churches we were in, looked at the buildings more and the altars less. Maybe. Those were some fine altars.

  5. In my most recent encounter with Italian Renaissance painting, I could not stop looking at their terrible rocks. All Ruskin's doing. But seriously, what had they been looking at? Had Botticelli never actually seen a rock?

    And come to think of it, Ruskin certainly helped open up Chartres Cathedral for me a couple of years ago.

  6. Scott, you and Tom's previous posts on R have made a Ruskin believer about me--even though I don't think I've ever read him. Anglicism/Catholicism thing aside (too funny!), I guess I see no reason not to trust Ruskin's aesthetic convictions any less than those pesky literary critics who filter all their own opinions through Freud or Lacan--at least until I test drive his writings for myself.

  7. The thing about Ruskin is that, even if I don't think I agree with his point of view, he's giving me a point of view with which to look more meaningfully at architecture, so that's incredibly valuable. Ruskin talks about overall dimension and mass, and I look at buildings and see the overall dimensions and mass. Ruskin talks about gross divisions between light and shade, and I see gross divisions between light and shade. I can get finicky, if I want, about his details and his particular reasoning, but on the whole he's an excellent guide; he knows what he's looking at even if his aesthetic judgment about it doesn't agree with yours. Doric versus Corinthian capitals? It doesn't matter which you prefer, as long as you pay attention to the differences Ruskin points out between them, and grasp the concept that Doric is an unnatural form where Corinthian is based on nature. Etc. Good, good stuff. And also, the writing Not About Architecture is so very fine.

  8. Maybe a better way to put that is that reading Ruskin's book is like attending a series of lectures by a brilliant scholar who makes no bones about his strong opinions. You feel bossed around by his opinions, but you know he's presenting good stuff in a memorable way. You grow to suspect that the main reason you resist his opinions is his force in voicing them. After a while, you catch yourself agreeing with the opinionated lecturer, because you begin to understand what he's really driving at. Or so you tell yourself.