It's Saturday night, and we emerge from the Scuola di San Rocco into the twilight; stiff of back and sore of bottom, after a two-and-a-half hour presentation of a new book on John Ruskin and his time in Venice. We are amongst the hardy bunch who survived the whole series of lectures, an initially healthy audience having dwindled to a handful over the course of the evening. It's been informative, enjoyable, and perhaps - like Ruskin's The Stones of Venice- there's also been rather too much of it.
Ruskin's attention to detail is staggering, obsessive even. There is scarcely a column, cornice or capital in St Mark's Basilica or the Ducal Palace that is not dissected and analysed to its most minute aspect. His reasons for this were simple - Venice, he thought, would either fall into ruin or, worse, be destroyed by restoration, and it was important to record what was there as best he could. Admirable, yes, heroic even; but it does not make the Stones an easy book to read in its entirety.
He hated half the buildings in the city as much as he loved the other half. He considered the Gothic and the Byzantine to be the high points of architecture, but despised the Baroque (the "Grotesque Renaissance", as he puts it); whilst Palladio's Classicism drove him into a furious rage ("...contemptible under
every point of rational regard!").
Nevertheless, he needs to be read. It may not be necessary to read the whole thing (to be honest, without being as intelligent as the man himself, it may not even be possible to read the whole thing) but he's certainly worth dipping into. When he dismisses a favourite building of yours with his curt (and frequently used) one-liner - "of no interest" - you'll want to shout at him, "oh for God's sake man, just look at the bloody thing, what do you mean it's 'of no interest'"! But he's always erudite and informative, and, more surprisingly, he can also be waspishly funny and magnificently rude.
At the end of his days, he seems to have felt ambivalent about his relationship with the city, fearing, perhaps, that he had devoted too much of his time and energy to a place that he considered essentially to be dead or dying; more of a museum than an actual functioning city. People are still debating that, over one hundred years after his death. Proof, perhaps, that the old place has some life in it yet.