Stones of Venice, The, volume 1



I. Hitherto our enquiry has been unembarrassed by any considerations relating exclusively either to the exterior or interior of buildings. But it can remain so no longer. As far as the architect is concerned, one side of a wall is generally the same as another; but in the roof there are usually two distinct divisions of the structure; one, a shell, vault, or flat ceiling, internally visible, the other, an upper structure, built of timber, to protect the lower; or of some different form, to support it. Sometimes, indeed, the internally visible structure is the real roof, and sometimes there are more than two divisions, as in St. Paul’s, where we have a central shell with a mask below and above. Still it will be convenient to remember the distinction between the part of the roof which is usually visible from within, and whose only business is to stand strongly, and not fall in, which I shall call the Roof Proper; and, secondly, the upper roof, which, being often partly supported by the lower, is not so much concerned with its own stability as with the weather, and is appointed to throw off snow, and get rid of rain, as fast as possible, which I shall call the Roof Mask.

II. It is, however, needless for me to engage the reader in the discussion of the various methods of construction of Roofs Proper, for this simple reason, that no person without long experience can tell whether a roof be wisely constructed or not; nor tell at all, even with help of any amount of experience, without examination of the several parts and bearings of it, very different from any observation possible to the general 149 critic: and more than this, the enquiry would be useless to us in our Venetian studies, where the roofs are either not contemporary with the buildings, or flat, or else vaults of the simplest possible constructions, which have been admirably explained by Willis in his “Architecture of the Middle Ages,” Chap. VII., to which I may refer the reader for all that it would be well for him to know respecting the connexion of the different parts of the vault with the shafts. He would also do well to read the passages on Tudor vaulting, pp. 185-193, in Mr. Garbett’s rudimentary Treatise on Design, before alluded to.50 I shall content myself therefore with noting one or two points on which neither writer has had occasion to touch, respecting the Roof Mask.

III. It was said in V. of Chapter III. that we should not have occasion, in speaking of roof construction, to add materially to the forms then suggested. The forms which we have to add are only those resulting from the other curves of the arch developed in the last chapter; that is to say, the various eastern domes and cupolas arising out of the revolution of the horseshoe and ogee curves, together with the well-known Chinese concave roof. All these forms are of course purely decorative, the bulging outline, or concave surface, being of no more use, or rather of less, in throwing off snow or rain, than the ordinary spire and gable; and it is rather curious, therefore, that all of them, on a small scale, should have obtained so extensive use in Germany and Switzerland, their native climate being that of the east, where their purpose seems rather to concentrate light upon their orbed surfaces. I much doubt their applicability, on a large scale, to architecture of any admirable dignity; their chief charm is, to the European eye, that of strangeness; and it seems to me possible that in the east the bulging form may be also delightful, from the idea of its enclosing a volume of cool air. I enjoy them in St. Mark’s, chiefly because they increase the fantastic and unreal character of St. Mark’s Place; and because they 150 appear to sympathise with an expression, common, I think, to all the buildings of that group, of a natural buoyancy, as if they floated in the air or on the surface of the sea. But, assuredly, they are not features to be recommended for imitation.51


IV. One form, closely connected with the Chinese concave, is, however, often constructively right,—the gable with an inward angle, occurring with exquisitely picturesque effect throughout the domestic architecture of the north, especially Germany and Switzerland; the lower slope being either an attached external penthouse roof, for protection of the wall, as in Fig. XXXVII., or else a kind of buttress set on the angle of the tower; and in either case the roof itself being a simple gable, continuous beneath it.

V. The true gable, as it is the simplest and most natural, so I esteem it the grandest of roofs; whether rising in ridgy darkness, like a grey slope of slaty mountains, over the precipitous walls of the northern cathedrals, or stretched in burning breadth above the white and square-set groups of the southern architecture. But this difference between its slope in the northern and southern structure is a matter of far greater importance than is commonly supposed, and it is this to which I would especially direct the reader’s attention.

VI. One main cause of it, the necessity of throwing off 151 snow in the north, has been a thousand times alluded to: another I do not remember having seen noticed, namely, that rooms in a roof are comfortably habitable in the north, which are painful sotto piombi in Italy; and that there is in wet climates a natural tendency in all men to live as high as possible, out of the damp and mist. These two causes, together with accessible quantities of good timber, have induced in the north a general steep pitch of gable, which, when rounded or squared above a tower, becomes a spire or turret; and this feature, worked out with elaborate decoration, is the key-note of the whole system of aspiration, so called, which the German critics have so ingeniously and falsely ascribed to a devotional sentiment pervading the Northern Gothic: I entirely and boldly deny the whole theory; our cathedrals were for the most part built by worldly people, who loved the world, and would have gladly staid in it for ever; whose best hope was the escaping hell, which they thought to do by building cathedrals, but who had very vague conceptions of Heaven in general, and very feeble desires respecting their entrance therein; and the form of the spired cathedral has no more intentional reference to Heaven, as distinguished from the flattened slope of the Greek pediment, than the steep gable of a Norman house has, as distinguished from the flat roof of a Syrian one. We may now, with ingenious pleasure, trace such symbolic characters in the form; we may now use it with such definite meaning; but we only prevent ourselves from all right understanding of history, by attributing much influence to these poetical symbolisms in the formation of a national style. The human race are, for the most part, not to be moved by such silken cords; and the chances of damp in the cellar, or of loose tiles in the roof, have, unhappily, much more to do with the fashions of a man’s house building than his ideas of celestial happiness or angelic virtue. Associations of affection have far higher power, and forms which can be no otherwise accounted for may often be explained by reference to the natural features of the country, or to anything which habit must have rendered familiar, and therefore delightful; but the direct 152 symbolisation of a sentiment is a weak motive with all men, and far more so in the practical minds of the north than among the early Christians, who were assuredly quite as heavenly-minded, when they built basilicas, or cut conchas out of the catacombs, as were ever the Norman barons or monks.

VII. There is, however, in the north an animal activity which materially aided the system of building begun in mere utility,—an animal life, naturally expressed in erect work, as the languor of the south in reclining or level work. Imagine the difference between the action of a man urging himself to his work in a snow storm, and the inaction of one laid at his length on a sunny bank among cicadas and fallen olives, and you will have the key to a whole group of sympathies which were forcefully expressed in the architecture of both; remembering always that sleep would be to the one luxury, to the other death.

VIII. And to the force of this vital instinct we have farther to add the influence of natural scenery; and chiefly of the groups and wildernesses of the tree which is to the German mind what the olive or palm is to the southern, the spruce fir. The eye which has once been habituated to the continual serration of the pine forest, and to the multiplication of its infinite pinnacles, is not easily offended by the repetition of similar forms, nor easily satisfied by the simplicity of flat or massive outlines. Add to the influence of the pine, that of the poplar, more especially in the valleys of France; but think of the spruce chiefly, and meditate on the difference of feeling with which the Northman would be inspired by the frostwork wreathed upon its glittering point, and the Italian by the dark green depth of sunshine on the broad table of the stone-pine52 153 (and consider by the way whether the spruce fir be a more heavenly-minded tree than those dark canopies of the Mediterranean isles).

IX. Circumstance and sentiment, therefore, aiding each other, the steep roof becomes generally adopted, and delighted in, throughout the north; and then, with the gradual exaggeration with which every pleasant idea is pursued by the human mind, it is raised into all manner of peaks, and points, and ridges; and pinnacle after pinnacle is added on its flanks, and the walls increased in height, in proportion, until we get indeed a very sublime mass, but one which has no more principle of religious aspiration in it than a child’s tower of cards. What is more, the desire to build high is complicated with the peculiar love of the grotesque53 which is characteristic of the north, together with especial delight in multiplication of small forms, as well as in exaggerated points of shade and energy, and a certain degree of consequent insensibility to perfect grace and quiet truthfulness; so that a northern architect could not feel the beauty of the Elgin marbles, and there will always be (in those who have devoted themselves to this particular school) a certain incapacity to taste the finer characters of Greek art, or to understand Titian, Tintoret, or Raphael: whereas among the Italian Gothic workmen, this capacity was never lost, and Nino Pisano and Orcagna could have understood the Theseus in an instant, and would have received from it new life. There can be no question that theirs was the greatest school, and carried out by the greatest men; and that while those who began with this school could perfectly well feel Rouen Cathedral, those who study the Northern Gothic remain in a narrowed field—one of small pinnacles, and dots, and crockets, and twitched faces—and cannot comprehend the meaning of a broad surface or a grand line. Nevertheless the northern school is an admirable and delightful thing, but a lower thing than the southern. The Gothic of the Ducal Palace of Venice is in harmony with all that is grand in all 154 the world: that of the north is in harmony with the grotesque northern spirit only.

X. We are, however, beginning to lose sight of our roof structure in its spirit, and must return to our text. As the height of the walls increased, in sympathy with the rise of the roof, while their thickness remained the same, it became more and more necessary to support them by buttresses; but—and this is another point that the reader must specially note—it is not the steep roof mask which requires the buttress, but the vaulting beneath it; the roof mask being a mere wooden frame tied together by cross timbers, and in small buildings often put together on the ground, raised afterwards, and set on the walls like a hat, bearing vertically upon them; and farther, I believe in most cases the northern vaulting requires its great array of external buttress, not so much from any peculiar boldness in its own forms, as from the greater comparative thinness and height of the walls, and more determined throwing of the whole weight of the roof on particular points. Now the connexion of the interior frame-work (or true roof) with the buttress, at such points, is not visible to the spectators from without; but the relation of the roof mask to the top of the wall which it protects, or from which it springs, is perfectly visible; and it is a point of so great importance in the effect of the building, that it will be well to make it a subject of distinct consideration in the following Chapter.

50 Appendix 17

51 I do not speak of the true dome, because I have not studied its construction enough to know at what largeness of scale it begins to be rather a tour de force than a convenient or natural form of roof, and because the ordinary spectator’s choice among its various outlines must always be dependent on �sthetic considerations only, and can in no wise be grounded on any conception of its infinitely complicated structural principles.

52 I shall not be thought to have overrated the effect of forest scenery on the northern mind; but I was glad to hear a Spanish gentleman, the other day, describing, together with his own, the regret which the peasants in his neighborhood had testified for the loss of a noble stone-pine, one of the grandest in Spain, which its proprietor had suffered to be cut down for small gain. He said that the mere spot where it had grown was still popularly known as “El Pino.”

53 Appendix 8.


1 of 2
2 of 2