Ruskin, Venice and the Fulcrum of European Architecture

by Peter Kellow

At the start of his three-volume The Stones of Venice, published from 1851 to 1853, John Ruskin sets out what will be a recurring theme in his explanation of the style of Venetian architecture. He proceeds from the state of Europe following the collapse of the Roman Empire:

On the north and west the influence was of the Latins; on the south and east of the Greeks. Two nations preeminent above all the rest. As the central power is eclipsed, the orbs of reflected light gather into their fullness; and when sensuality and idolatry had done their work and the religion of the empire was laid asleep in a glittering sepulchre, the living light rose upon both horizons and the fierce swords of the Lombard and the Arab were shaken over its golden paralysis.

The work of the Lombard was to give hardihood to the enervated body and enfeebled mind of Christendom; that of the Arab to punish idolatry and proclaim the spirituality of worship. Opposite in the character and mission, alike in the magnificence of their energy, they came from the North and from the South, the glacier torrent and the lava stream: they met and contended over the wreck of the Roman empire; the point of pause of both, the dead water of the opposite eddies, charged with embayed fragments of the Roman wreck is VENICE.1

To carry out the research for The Stones of Venice, Ruskin arrived in that city in November of 1849, accompanied by his new wife, Effie. Venice had just been recaptured in August of that year by the Austrians. (It had joined in the revolutions general throughout Europe in 1848, by rebelling against Austrian rule.) To take Venice, the Austrians had resorted to remote bombardment. This destroyed the railway bridge connecting the city to the mainland, which had been constructed in 1846. The Austrians also devised a new form of aerial attack, using manned bomber balloons that sailed over the city dropping explosives. And so just prior to the Ruskins’ arrival, Venice had been summarily introduced to both modern transport and modern warfare.

The first thing to say about Ruskin’s book is that he was a pioneer in the type of research he was undertaking. No one before had attempted to construct a history and an interpretation of architecture based on close personal observation. Later scholars were to be better resourced and had the advantage of much published research. Of these, I shall quote from the American Arthur Kingsley Porter and the Englishman Thomas Graham Jackson. Both published their views over seventy years after Ruskin. Ruskin also was handicapped by having no access to photography, although Effie records that he used the newly available daguerreotypes, apparently without success. Ruskin states that the Lombards and the Arabs influenced Venice and European architecture in general. But who exactly were the Lombards? And who were the Arabs? Or more precisely, which Arabs? Let us start with the Lombards.

A Germanic people know as the Longobards (or long beards) originated in southern Scandinavia, and their existence can be traced back to the first century ad. During the general migrations of the Germanic peoples during the middle ages, the Longobards went south and eventually crossed the Alps into Italy in 1568. The remnants of the Roman Empire could not resist, and the Longobards were able to take over almost the whole of Italy—right down to the heel—and establish a kingdom, the only areas remaining outside their control being certain coastal areas that were still under Byzantine Empire influence. They established, following a modification of their name, the Lombard Kingdom. This was the vehicle by which Ruskin’s “glacier torrent” came to Italy and went on to contribute to the creation of Venetian Gothic.

View of the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo, Venice, Italy, Unknown Lombard artist, 1740-50

To support his thesis, Ruskin engages in some detailed detective work in Venice. An example is in analysis of cornices:

… the cornice as the close of the wall’s life is of all its features that which is best fitted for ornament. …the fittest place to receive the decoration is the slope which is inclined to the spectator [below]. If the climate be fine, we shall not hollow the [slope]. But if the climate be one in which rain is frequent, we may be compelled to consider the cornice in a character distinctly protective and to hollow out [the slope]. [This means the rain will be thrown off and not run down the wall.] A cornice thus treated loses its character as the crown of the wall [and] takes on the office of protector and is called a DRIPSTONE. The Lombards brought with them from the North the fear of rain, and in all Lombardic Gothic we instantly recognize the shadowy dripstone.2

In addition, Ruskin has an ingenious theory for how the Lombards originated that essential feature of mature Gothic, the continuous vertical shaft, stretching from floor to vault:

The Lombard architecture represents the whole of the northern barbaric nations. And this I believe was at first an imitation in wood. The nave was separated from the aisles by rows of shafts which supported above large spaces of flat dead wall. These high dead walls were in Roman work built of stone, but in the wooden work of the North they must necessarily have been made of horizontal boards or timbers attached to uprights. These uprights were necessarily thicker than the rest of the timbers, and formed vertical square pilasters above the nave piers. As Christianity extended and civilization increased, these wooden structures were changed into stone; but they were literally petrified, retaining the form which had been made necessary by their being of wood.3

Canaletto, La Riva degli Schiavoni verso est, c. 1730 (Doge’s Palace, Venice, 1438), National Trust, Tatton Park, Cheshire, England

I will return to the theory of Gothic shafts being petrified timber posts later. For now, let us ask ourselves how likely it is that the Lombards should not shake off their custom of designing buildings for Northern rain when building in the South, some 800 years after they had left their homeland. But there is a deeper problem. We know that the Longobards had no architectural tradition at all when they arrived in Italy. Porter writes “...[the Lombards] possessed no architectural art of their own.”4

The key to the confusion, for Ruskin and many later writers, is equating the Longobards with the Lombards. The invaders may have given their name to their kingdom, but the inhabitants of that kingdom did not share their ethnic identity. They were, as we would say today, “Italians.” The Lombard Kingdom embraced practically the whole of Italy, and anyone who lived in it was known per force as a Lombard. Jackson writes of the architectural development at that time: “It is not to be supposed that the Lombards themselves had much to do with it directly. They were for some generations, a conquering aristocracy, rude in manners and caring for war alone, for whom the subject provincials had to work.” However, under the Lombards, the renowned Magistri Comacini developed, and these “were at all events at first Romans, skilled masons and carpenters who worked the quarries, and wrought the freestone and the timber. That they should organize themselves into a guild was natural. They were not Lombards, but Romans under Lombard rule, and the tradeguilds were a regular institution of every craft.”5

The Lombard Kingdom fell to Charlemagne in 1774, although the name Lombard stuck and continued to be used for centuries. Porter writes: “... the effects of the Carolingian conquest upon architecture were positive and creative, not negative and destructive like those of the Lombard invasion. Charlemagne was impressed by the monuments of architecture which he saw in Italy.”6 Under the Empire, architecture in Italy continued to develop. This came, not from an imaginary architecture of the north, but from the indigenous Roman tradition.

The skill of these “Lombards” became widely known in the eleventh century, and their services as architects and masons were in demand in southern France, Catalonia, Burgundy and elsewhere where there was no effective ancient architectural tradition to call on. They gave birth to the Romanesque style that was to spread all over western Europe. They were naturally also called to Venice. The Byzantine connection was strong in Venice from the time of her rise in the eleventh century, and building arts long owed much to this tradition, but the services of the Lombards could not be dispensed with. They were used, most obviously, for the typically Italian Gothic churches such as Santi Giovanni e Paolo, where the distinctive Lombard arched corbelling can be seen running around the gable end and eaves. I shall return to the role of Italian Gothic in Venice later.

What then of Ruskin’s “lava stream,” the Arab influence in Venice? There can be absolutely no doubt that the style of Venetian Gothic owes a lot to Arab architecture. It is not the sole influence, as we shall see, but let us identify clearly where the influence is indisputable. We need to trace briefly the development of architecture in Venice, particularly in regard to the merchants’ “palaces” that line the Grand Canal. Here Ruskin made a careful and valuable study of their development. He recounts how the first palaces were wholly Byzantine in style and execution. Detached as she was from the Italian mainland, Venice looked to Byzantium for her architectural style. The big change of influence came after the Fourth Crusade of 1208, when Venice participated in the sack of Constantinople and from which the Byzantine capital never recovered. Thereafter, architectural influence in Venice came from those lands which were the most important to her—those which provided the foundations of her expanding wealth from trade. This meant the ancient trading centers like Damascus and Alexandria but above all the rapidly growing new city of Cairo. International trade in the middle ages was much greater than is normally imagined, but most of this was in bulk commodities like corn and salt. Venetian wealth, however, was based on luxury items such as silks and spices, and the source for these was the East.

During this time, as Ruskin explains, the architectural style of the palaces evolved, and the old Byzantine round window arches gave way to more exotic forms. Arched openings became pointed, in one way or another, and so the distinctive Venetian Gothic began to develop. At this stage, the influence was mainly from the East. The big change of style that lead to the mature Venetian Gothic style took place with the construction of the Doge’s Palace in 1438, the façade of which (unlike the interior, which was later gutted by fire) we still see today. Ruskin tells us how this was a watershed, for once the Doge’s Palace was completed, every subsequent merchant’s palace imitated its style. This façade, therefore, requires special attention.

If we try to set aside its familiarity, we can see this building as one of the most unlikely, strangest buildings to ever have been built. In the first place, the main façade is continuous from end to end with hardly an acknowledgement of the center or of the corners. This alone makes it stand out from buildings of the time. Further, the same façade treatment continues around the corner without any change. Again there was no precedent for this. The Palace broke all the rules of architectural design as they then were.

Al-Azhar Mosque, 972, Cairo, Egypt

Now let us examine the façade according to its horizontal divisions. These are four. At the base, there is a Gothic style arcade, and upon this is an open tracery enclosing a walkway behind. Above, there is a flat façade of marble bricks, relieved by large pointed arched windows and roundels floating above and between them. The whole is terminated by what may be described as a “foliated parapet.” In this ensemble, the first-floor tracery stands out as a highly innovative structure. Here the architect took the nonstructural element of traceried windows, familiar from Gothic churches like Santi Giovanni e Paolo, and turned it into a structural form that supported the wall above. For this, the trefoil and quatrefoil stonework had to be substantially thickened. It was the imitation of this in subsequent merchants’ palaces that caused Rusk in to identify the Doge’s Palace as a major turning point for Venetian Gothic. This invention was never used outside Venice and remained a distinctive aspect of her architecture that she endlessly repeated.

However, this is the only aspect of this façade that is of original design. The rest, I believe, is derived from Arab architecture, in particular, the mosques of Cairo. The continuity of the façade from corner to corner and then around the side has a precedent in these mosques, for their courtyards had a similar continuity on all sides. The architect of the Doge’s Palace simply turned this inside out. I will take the example of the Al-Azhar mosque, constructed in 1972 under the Fatimid caliphate, but there are others that would equally make the same point. As well as the continuity, all the horizontal elements of the façade are there, except for the open Gothic traceries floor. The origin of the Doge’s Palace design is in the Cairo mosques, and this could hardly be more appropriate as it gazes out to the Adriatic and beyond to the source of Venetian wealth.

Ruskin never visited Arab lands and so was not directly familiar with the Cairo mosques. However, he correctly traces certain “Arabian” or “Saracen” features in Venetian architecture. Where he is on less firm ground is in his view of Venice as the conduit for Arab influence on Northern Gothic. He writes: “... the lava stream of the Arab, even after it had ceased to flow, warmed the whole of the northern air; and the history of Gothic architecture is the history of the refinement and spiritualization of Northern work under its influence.”7 This general account is, I believe, correct but the route of the “lava stream” was not through Venice. Venice was a great absorber of architectural influences but did not transmit them on.

Notre Dame (nave and choir), 1208, Paris, France

The idea that Gothic architecture derives from Arab is a long-held view that goes back to Sir Christopher Wren. It is also controversial. The current orthodoxy holds that the Gothic style evolved naturally out of Romanesque. Architects needed to vault the interior space efficiently, and they found that the pointed vault was superior to the round. To accept this interpretation as the origin of the Gothic style, you have to presume that, having adopted the pointed vault, they then used it everywhere else, including on windows, so that everything would “fit in.” This implausible theory allows no outside influence. But there is a very visible connection between Arab architecture and northern Gothic, which runs not through Venice, as Ruskin thought, but through Norman-held Sicily. The Normans conquered Sicily in 1061, until then held by Muslims from present-day Tunisia who had arrived in 1831. The Normans set about constructing numerous buildings, both religious and secular, and used the best craftsmen available. These were the local Arabs. Take the Palatine Chapel (1140) in Palermo as an example. The mosaics are clearly the work of imported Byzantine craftsmen, but the structure is by Arabs. This is proven not only by the stilted, pointed arches but also by the “muqarnas” on the vaulting—a form of construction never mastered by any European. Now let us compare the form of the arch with that of the Al-Azhar mosque. The shape of the arches is different, for the latter uses a “keel” arch (straight portions run up to the point). This, incidentally, derives from Persia and is a reminder that the ultimate origin of the pointed arch lies in the East. Where the Chapel arches and the mosque arches are the same, however, is in the use of rectangular archivolts (archivolt referring to the profile of the arch as it runs around).

This is of great significance, for it indicates that the reason why the Arabs used the pointed arch was quite different from that of the later Gothic architects. For Muslims, the point (like other arch variations such as the horseshoe) was a way of etherealizing the structure. This served to separate their architecture from the earthbound, round arches of the Byzantines and Romans and contributed to their aim of representing “paradise,” remote from worldly existence. The Normans learned from their Arab builders and took the pointed arch back to northern France. Initially, they used the rectangular archivolts of the Arabs, but gradually developed elaborate molded ones. This enabled them to express the sense of organic structure that was to become so essential to the mature Gothic style. Thus, the “fulcrum” of the title of this essay is not Venice, as Ruskin thought, but the Norman Empire.

The Normans also made another fundamental contribution to Gothic, and this refers us back to Ruskin’s claim that the Lombards were responsible for inventing the continuous shaft in Gothic. Ruskin, I believe, is correct in saying this comes from Scandinavian timber, or “stave,” churches. But from every thing we know about the Longobards, there is no justification for seeing them as the conduit. On the contrary, this area was precisely where the Normans came from. The attribution of the Gothic continuous shaft to the Normans is confirmed by their being the first to use it, in the Abbey of Saint-Etienne, Caen, Normandy (1077), some time before it was generally adopted. For instance, in Notre Dame in Paris (nave, 1208), the shafts come down to land awkwardly on stubby columns. In addition, the archivolts are still relatively rectilinear, confirming this as a transitional building.

To complete the circle, we only need note that the mature Gothic style eventually migrated south to Italy. But as Porter says, the classical tradition was so strong that Italian Gothic is often highly impure and “halfhearted.” Gothic buttressing, for example, was never mastered by the Italians. This is the style of Santi Giovanni e Paolo, which was then imitated on the lower two floors of the Doge’s Palace, with its tell-tale northern Gothic three-dimensional molded archivolts. Ruskin was right. The mature Venetian Gothic style did come from the Arab “lava stream.” However, it came, not directly, but by a long circuitous route.


  1. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, ed., J.G. Links (New York: Da Capo, 1960), p. 19.
  2. Ibid., p. 60.
  3. Ibid., p. 21.
  4. Arthur Kingsley Porter, Lombard Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1917), Vol. 1, p. 52.
  5. Thomas Graham Jackson, Byzantine and Romanesque Architecture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1920), p. 213.
  6. Porter, ibid., p. 66.
  7. Ruskin. ibid., p. 21.

American Arts Quarterly, Summer 2014, Volume 31, Number 3