Stones of Venice, The, volume 1

XVIII. Now it is indeed true that where nature loses one kind of beauty, as you approach it, she substitutes another; this is worthy of her infinite power: and, as we shall see, art can sometimes follow her even in doing this; but all I insist upon at present is, that the several effects of nature are each worked with means referred to a particular distance, and producing 247 their effect at that distance only. Take a singular and marked instance: When the sun rises behind a ridge of pines, and those pines are seen from a distance of a mile or two, against his light, the whole form of the tree, trunk, branches, and all, becomes one frostwork of intensely brilliant silver, which is relieved against the clear sky like a burning fringe, for some distance on either side of the sun.71 Now suppose that a person who had never seen pines were, for the first time in his life, to see them under this strange aspect, and, reasoning as to the means by which such effect could be produced, laboriously to approach the eastern ridge, how would he be amazed to find that the fiery spectres had been produced by trees with swarthy and grey trunks, and dark green leaves! We, in our simplicity, if we had been required to produce such an appearance, should have built up trees of chased silver, with trunks of glass, and then been grievously amazed to find that, at two miles off, neither silver nor glass were any more visible; but nature knew better, and prepared for her fairy work with the strong branches and dark leaves, in her own mysterious way.

XIX. Now this is exactly what you have to do with your good ornament. It may be that it is capable of being approached, as well as likely to be seen far away, and then it ought to have microscopic qualities, as the pine leaves have, which will bear approach. But your calculation of its purpose is for a glory to be produced at a given distance; it may be here, or may be there, but it is a given distance; and the excellence of the ornament depends upon its fitting that distance, 248 and being seen better there than anywhere else, and having a particular function and form which it can only discharge and assume there. You are never to say that ornament has great merit because “you cannot see the beauty of it here;” but, it has great merit because “you can see its beauty here only.” And to give it this merit is just about as difficult a task as I could well set you. I have above noted the two ways in which it is done: the one, being merely rough cutting, may be passed over; the other, which is scientific alteration of design, falls, itself, into two great branches, Simplification and Emphasis.

A word or two is necessary on each of these heads.

XX. When an ornamental work is intended to be seen near, if its composition be indeed fine, the subdued and delicate portions of the design lead to, and unite, the energetic parts, and those energetic parts form with the rest a whole, in which their own immediate relations to each other are not perceived. Remove this design to a distance, and the connecting delicacies vanish, the energies alone remain, now either disconnected altogether, or assuming with each other new relations, which, not having been intended by the designer, will probably be painful. There is a like, and a more palpable, effect, in the retirement of a band of music in which the instruments are of very unequal powers; the fluting and fifeing expire, the drumming remains, and that in a painful arrangement, as demanding something which is unheard. In like manner, as the designer at arm’s length removes or elevates his work, fine gradations, and roundings, and incidents, vanish, and a totally unexpected arrangement is established between the remainder of the markings, certainly confused, and in all probability painful.

XXI. The art of architectural design is therefore, first, the preparation for this beforehand, the rejection of all the delicate passages as worse than useless, and the fixing the thought upon the arrangement of the features which will remain visible far away. Nor does this always imply a diminution of resource; for, while it may be assumed as a law that fine modulation of 249 surface in light becomes quickly invisible as the object retires, there are a softness and mystery given to the harder markings, which enable them to be safely used as media of expression. There is an exquisite example of this use, in the head of the Adam of the Ducal Palace. It is only at the height of 17 or 18 feet above the eye; nevertheless, the sculptor felt it was no use to trouble himself about drawing the corners of the mouth, or the lines of the lips, delicately, at that distance; his object has been to mark them clearly, and to prevent accidental shadows from concealing them, or altering their expression. The lips are cut thin and sharp, so that their line cannot be mistaken, and a good deep drill-hole struck into the angle of the mouth; the eye is anxious and questioning, and one is surprised, from below, to perceive a kind of darkness in the iris of it, neither like color, nor like a circular furrow. The expedient can only be discovered by ascending to the level of the head; it is one which would have been quite inadmissible except in distant work, six drill-holes cut into the iris, round a central one for the pupil.

XXII. By just calculation, like this, of the means at our disposal, by beautiful arrangement of the prominent features, and by choice of different subjects for different places, choosing the broadest forms for the farthest distance, it is possible to give the impression, not only of perfection, but of an exquisite delicacy, to the most distant ornament. And this is the true sign of the right having been done, and the utmost possible power attained:—The spectator should be satisfied to stay in his place, feeling the decoration, wherever it may be, equally rich, full, and lovely: not desiring to climb the steeples in order to examine it, but sure that he has it all, where he is. Perhaps the capitals of the cathedral of Genoa are the best instances of absolute perfection in this kind: seen from below, they appear as rich as the frosted silver of the Strada degli Orefici; and the nearer you approach them, the less delicate they seem.

XXIII. This is, however, not the only mode, though the best, in which ornament is adapted for distance. The other 250 is emphasis,—the unnatural insisting upon explanatory lines, where the subject would otherwise become unintelligible. It is to be remembered that, by a deep and narrow incision, an architect has the power, at least in sunshine, of drawing a black line on stone, just as vigorously as it can be drawn with chalk on grey paper; and that he may thus, wherever and in the degree that he chooses, substitute chalk sketching for sculpture. They are curiously mingled by the Romans. The bas-reliefs of the Arc d’Orange are small, and would be confused, though in bold relief, if they depended for intelligibility on the relief only; but each figure is outlined by a strong incision at its edge into the background, and all the ornaments on the armor are simply drawn with incised lines, and not cut out at all. A similar use of lines is made by the Gothic nations in all their early sculpture, and with delicious effect. Now, to draw a mere pattern—as, for instance, the bearings of a shield—with these simple incisions, would, I suppose, occupy an able sculptor twenty minutes or half an hour; and the pattern is then clearly seen, under all circumstances of light and shade; there can be no mistake about it, and no missing it. To carve out the bearings in due and finished relief would occupy a long summer’s day, and the results would be feeble and indecipherable in the best lights, and in some lights totally and hopelessly invisible, ignored, non-existant. Now the Renaissance architects, and our modern ones, despise the simple expedient of the rough Roman or barbarian. They do not care to be understood. They care only to speak finely, and be thought great orators, if one could only hear them. So I leave you to choose between the old men, who took minutes to tell things plainly, and the modern men, who take days to tell them unintelligibly.

XXIV. All expedients of this kind, both of simplification and energy, for the expression of details at a distance where their actual forms would have been invisible, but more especially this linear method, I shall call Proutism; for the greatest master of the art in modern times has been Samuel Prout. He actually takes up buildings of the later times in which the 251 ornament has been too refined for its place, and translates it into the energised linear ornament of earlier art: and to this power of taking the life and essence of decoration, and putting it into a perfectly intelligible form, when its own fulness would have been confused, is owing the especial power of his drawings. Nothing can be more closely analogous than the method with which an old Lombard uses his chisel, and that with which Prout uses the reed-pen; and we shall see presently farther correspondence in their feeling about the enrichment of luminous surfaces.

XXV. Now, all that has been hitherto said refers to ornament whose distance is fixed, or nearly so; as when it is at any considerable height from the ground, supposing the spectator to desire to see it, and to get as near it as he can. But the distance of ornament is never fixed to the general spectator. The tower of a cathedral is bound to look well, ten miles off, or five miles, or half a mile, or within fifty yards. The ornaments of its top have fixed distances, compared with those of its base; but quite unfixed distances in their relation to the great world: and the ornaments of the base have no fixed distance at all. They are bound to look well from the other side of the cathedral close, and to look equally well, or better, as we enter the cathedral door. How are we to manage this?

XXVI. As nature manages it. I said above, XVII., that for every distance from the eye there was a different system of form in all natural objects: this is to be so then in architecture. The lesser ornament is to be grafted on the greater, and third or fourth orders of ornaments upon this again, as need may be, until we reach the limits of possible sight; each order of ornament being adapted for a different distance: first, for example, the great masses,—the buttresses and stories and black windows and broad cornices of the tower, which give it make, and organism, as it rises over the horizon, half a score of miles away: then the traceries and shafts and pinnacles, which give it richness as we approach: then the niches and statues and knobs and flowers, which we can only see when we stand beneath it. At this third order of ornament, we may pause, 252 in the upper portions; but on the roofs of the niches, and the robes of the statues, and the rolls of the mouldings, comes a fourth order of ornament, as delicate as the eye can follow, when any of these features may be approached.

XXVII. All good ornamentation is thus arborescent, as it were, one class of it branching out of another and sustained by it; and its nobility consists in this, that whatever order or class of it we may be contemplating, we shall find it subordinated to a greater, simpler, and more powerful; and if we then contemplate the greater order, we shall find it again subordinated to a greater still; until the greatest can only be quite grasped by retiring to the limits of distance commanding it.

And if this subordination be not complete, the ornament is bad: if the figurings and chasings and borderings of a dress be not subordinated to the folds of it,—if the folds are not subordinate to the action and mass of the figure,—if this action and mass not to the divisions of the recesses and shafts among which it stands,—if these not to the shadows of the great arches and buttresses of the whole building, in each case there is error; much more if all be contending with each other and striving for attention at the same time.

XXVIII. It is nevertheless evident, that, however perfect this distribution, there cannot be orders adapted to every distance of the spectator. Between the ranks of ornament there must always be a bold separation; and there must be many intermediate distances, where we are too far off to see the lesser rank clearly, and yet too near to grasp the next higher rank wholly: and at all these distances the spectator will feel himself ill-placed, and will desire to go nearer or farther away. This must be the case in all noble work, natural or artificial. It is exactly the same with respect to Rouen cathedral or the Mont Blanc. We like to see them from the other side of the Seine, or of the lake of Geneva; from the Marchaux Fleurs, or the Valley of Chamouni; from the parapets of the apse, or the crags of the Montagne de la C�te: but there are intermediate distances which dissatisfy us in either case, and from which one is in haste either to advance or to retire.


XXIX. Directly opposed to this ordered, disciplined, well officered and variously ranked ornament, this type of divine, and therefore of all good human government, is the democratic ornament, in which all is equally influential, and has equal office and authority; that is to say, none of it any office nor authority, but a life of continual struggle for independence and notoriety, or of gambling for chance regards. The English perpendicular work is by far the worst of this kind that I know; its main idea, or decimal fraction of an idea, being to cover its walls with dull, successive, eternity of reticulation, to fill with equal foils the equal interstices between the equal bars, and charge the interminable blanks with statues and rosettes, invisible at a distance, and uninteresting near.

The early Lombardic, Veronese, and Norman work is the exact reverse of this; being divided first into large masses, and these masses covered with minute chasing and surface work, which fill them with interest, and yet do not disturb nor divide their greatness. The lights are kept broad and bright, and yet are found on near approach to be charged with intricate design. This, again, is a part of the great system of treatment which I shall hereafter call “Proutism;” much of what is thought mannerism and imperfection in Prout’s work, being the result of his determined resolution that minor details shall never break up his large masses of light.

XXX. Such are the main principles to be observed in the adaptation of ornament to the sight. We have lastly to inquire by what method, and in what quantities, the ornament, thus adapted to mental contemplation, and prepared for its physical position, may most wisely be arranged. I think the method ought first to be considered, and the quantity last; for the advisable quantity depends upon the method.

XXXI. It was said above, that the proper treatment or arrangement of ornament was that which expressed the laws and ways of Deity. Now, the subordination of visible orders to each other, just noted, is one expression of these. But there may also—must also—be a subordination and obedience of the parts of each order to some visible law, out of itself, but having 254 reference to itself only (not to any upper order): some law which shall not oppress, but guide, limit, and sustain.

In the tenth chapter of the second volume of “Modern Painters,” the reader will find that I traced one part of the beauty of God’s creation to the expression of a self-restrained liberty: that is to say, the image of that perfection of divine action, which, though free to work in arbitrary methods, works always in consistent methods, called by us Laws.

Now, correspondingly, we find that when these natural objects are to become subjects of the art of man, their perfect treatment is an image of the perfection of human action: a voluntary submission to divine law.

It was suggested to me but lately by the friend to whose originality of thought I have before expressed my obligations, Mr. Newton, that the Greek pediment, with its enclosed sculptures, represented to the Greek mind the law of Fate, confining human action within limits not to be overpassed. I do not believe the Greeks ever distinctly thought of this; but the instinct of all the human race, since the world began, agrees in some expression of such limitation as one of the first necessities of good ornament.72 And this expression is heightened, rather than diminished, when some portion of the design slightly breaks the law to which the rest is subjected; it is like expressing the use of miracles in the divine government; or, perhaps, in slighter degrees, the relaxing of a law, generally imperative, in compliance with some more imperative need—the hungering of David. How eagerly this special infringement of a general law was sometimes sought by the medi�val workmen, I shall be frequently able to point out to the reader; but I remember just now a most curious instance, in an archivolt of a house in the Corte del Remer close to the Rialto at Venice. It is composed of a wreath of flower-work—a constant Byzantine design—with an animal in each coil; the 255 whole enclosed between two fillets. Each animal, leaping or eating, scratching or biting, is kept nevertheless strictly within its coil, and between the fillets. Not the shake of an ear, not the tip of a tail, overpasses this appointed line, through a series of some five-and-twenty or thirty animals; until, on a sudden, and by mutual consent, two little beasts (not looking, for the rest, more rampant than the others), one on each side, lay their small paws across the enclosing fillet at exactly the same point of its course, and thus break the continuity of its line. Two ears of corn, or leaves, do the same thing in the mouldings round the northern door of the Baptistery at Florence.

XXXII. Observe, however, and this is of the utmost possible importance, that the value of this type does not consist in the mere shutting of the ornament into a certain space, but in the acknowledgment by the ornament of the fitness of the limitation—of its own perfect willingness to submit to it; nay, of a predisposition in itself to fall into the ordained form, without any direct expression of the command to do so; an anticipation of the authority, and an instant and willing submission to it, in every fibre and spray: not merely willing, but happy submission, as being pleased rather than vexed to have so beautiful a law suggested to it, and one which to follow is so justly in accordance with its own nature. You must not cut out a branch of hawthorn as it grows, and rule a triangle round it, and suppose that it is then submitted to law. Not a bit of it. It is only put in a cage, and will look as if it must get out, for its life, or wither in the confinement. But the spirit of triangle must be put into the hawthorn. It must suck in isoscelesism with its sap. Thorn and blossom, leaf and spray, must grow with an awful sense of triangular necessity upon them, for the guidance of which they are to be thankful, and to grow all the stronger and more gloriously. And though there may be a transgression here and there, and an adaptation to some other need, or a reaching forth to some other end greater even than the triangle, yet this liberty is to be always accepted under a solemn sense of special permission; and when the full form is reached and the entire submission 256 expressed, and every blossom has a thrilling sense of its responsibility down into its tiniest stamen, you may take your terminal line away if you will. No need for it any more. The commandment is written on the heart of the thing.

XXXIII. Then, besides this obedience to external law, there is the obedience to internal headship, which constitutes the unity of ornament, of which I think enough has been said for my present purpose in the chapter on Unity in the second vol. of “Modern Painters.” But I hardly know whether to arrange as an expression of a divine law, or a representation of a physical fact, the alternation of shade with light which, in equal succession, forms one of the chief elements of continuous ornament, and in some peculiar ones, such as dentils and billet mouldings, is the source of their only charm. The opposition of good and evil, the antagonism of the entire human system (so ably worked out by Lord Lindsay), the alternation of labor with rest, the mingling of life with death, or the actual physical fact of the division of light from darkness, and of the falling and rising of night and day, are all typified or represented by these chains of shade and light of which the eye never wearies, though their true meaning may never occur to the thoughts.

XXXIV. The next question respecting the arrangement of ornament is one closely connected also with its quantity. The system of creation is one in which “God’s creatures leap not, but express a feast, where all the guests sit close, and nothing wants.” It is also a feast, where there is nothing redundant. So, then, in distributing our ornament, there must never be any sense of gap or blank, neither any sense of there being a single member, or fragment of a member, which could be spared. Whatever has nothing to do, whatever could go without being missed, is not ornament; it is deformity and encumbrance. Away with it. And, on the other hand, care must be taken either to diffuse the ornament which we permit, in due relation over the whole building, or so to concentrate it, as never to leave a sense of its having got into knots, and curdled upon some points, and left the rest of the building 257 whey. It is very difficult to give the rules, or analyse the feelings, which should direct us in this matter: for some shafts may be carved and others left unfinished, and that with advantage; some windows may be jewelled like Aladdin’s, and one left plain, and still with advantage; the door or doors, or a single turret, or the whole western fa�ade of a church, or the apse or transept, may be made special subjects of decoration, and the rest left plain, and still sometimes with advantage. But in all such cases there is either sign of that feeling which I advocated in the First Chapter of the “Seven Lamps,” the desire of rather doing some portion of the building as we would have it, and leaving the rest plain, than doing the whole imperfectly; or else there is choice made of some important feature, to which, as more honorable than the rest, the decoration is confined. The evil is when, without system, and without preference of the nobler members, the ornament alternates between sickly luxuriance and sudden blankness. In many of our Scotch and English abbeys, especially Melrose, this is painfully felt; but the worst instance I have ever seen is the window in the side of the arch under the Wellington statue, next St. George’s Hospital. In the first place, a window has no business there at all; in the second, the bars of the window are not the proper place for decoration, especially wavy decoration, which one instantly fancies of cast iron; in the third, the richness of the ornament is a mere patch and eruption upon the wall, and one hardly knows whether to be most irritated at the affectation of severity in the rest, or at the vain luxuriance of the dissolute parallelogram.

XXXV. Finally, as regards quantity of ornament I have already said, again and again, you cannot have too much if it be good; that is, if it be thoroughly united and harmonised by the laws hitherto insisted upon. But you may easily have too much if you have more than you have sense to manage. For with every added order of ornament increases the difficulty of discipline. It is exactly the same as in war: you cannot, as an abstract law, have too many soldiers, but you may easily have more than the country is able to sustain, or than your generalship 258 is competent to command. And every regiment which you cannot manage will, on the day of battle, be in your way, and encumber the movements it is not in disposition to sustain.

XXXVI. As an architect, therefore, you are modestly to measure your capacity of governing ornament. Remember, its essence,—its being ornament at all, consists in its being governed. Lose your authority over it, let it command you, or lead you, or dictate to you in any wise, and it is an offence, an incumbrance, and a dishonor. And it is always ready to do this; wild to get the bit in its teeth, and rush forth on its own devices. Measure, therefore, your strength; and as long as there is no chance of mutiny, add soldier to soldier, battalion to battalion; but be assured that all are heartily in the cause, and that there is not one of whose position you are ignorant, or whose service you could spare.

70 Vide “Seven Lamps,” Chap. IV. 34.

71 Shakspeare and Wordsworth (I think they only) have noticed this, Shakspeare, in Richard II.:—

“But when, from under this terrestrial ball,

He fires the proud tops of the eastern pines.”

And Wordsworth, in one of his minor poems, on leaving Italy:

“My thoughts become bright like yon edging of pines

On the steep’s lofty verge—how it blackened the air!

But, touched from behind by the sun, it now shines

With threads that seem part of his own silver hair.”

72 Some valuable remarks on this subject will be found in a notice of the “Seven Lamps” in the British Quarterly for August, 1849. I think, however, the writer attaches too great importance to one out of many ornamental necessities.


1 of 2
2 of 2