Stones of Venice, The, volume 1



I. The decoration of the angle by various forms of chamfer and bead, as above described, is the quietest method we can employ; too quiet, when great energy is to be given to the moulding, and impossible, when, instead of a bold angle, we have to deal with a small projecting edge, like c in Fig. LI. In such cases we may employ a decoration, far ruder and easier in its simplest conditions than the bead, far more effective when not used in too great profusion; and of which the complete developments are the source of mouldings at once the most picturesque and most serviceable which the Gothic builders invented.

II. The gunwales of the Venetian heavy barges being liable to somewhat rough collision with each other, and with the walls of the streets, are generally protected by a piece of timber, which projects in the form of the fillet, a, Fig. LI.; but which, like all other fillets, may, if we so choose, be considered as composed of two angles or edges, which the natural and most wholesome love of the Venetian boatmen for ornament, otherwise strikingly evidenced by their painted sails and glittering flag-vanes, will not suffer to remain wholly undecorated. The rough service of these timbers, however, will not admit of rich ornament, and the boatbuilder usually contents himself with cutting a series of notches in each edge, one series alternating with the other, as represented at 1, Plate IX.

III. In that simple ornament, not as confined to Venetian boats, but as representative of a general human instinct to 268 hack at an edge, demonstrated by all school-boys and all idle possessors of penknives or other cutting instruments on both sides of the Atlantic;—in that rude Venetian gunwale, I say, is the germ of all the ornament which has touched, with its rich successions of angular shadow, the portals and archivolts of nearly every early building of importance, from the North Cape to the Straits of Messina. Nor are the modifications of the first suggestion intricate. All that is generic in their character may be seen on Plate IX. at a glance.


IV. Taking a piece of stone instead of timber, and enlarging the notches, until they meet each other, we have the condition 2, which is a moulding from the tomb of the Doge Andrea Dandolo, in St. Mark’s. Now, considering this moulding as composed of two decorated edges, each edge will be reduced, by the meeting of the notches, to a series of four-sided pyramids (as marked off by the dotted lines), which, the notches here being shallow, will be shallow pyramids; but by deepening the notches, we get them as at 3, with a profile a, more or less steep. This moulding I shall always call “the plain dogtooth;” it is used in profusion in the Venetian and Veronese Gothic, generally set with its front to the spectator, as here at 3; but its effect may be much varied by placing it obliquely (4, and profile as at b); or with one side horizontal (5, and profile c). Of these three conditions, 3 and 5 are exactly the same in reality, only differently placed; but in 4 the pyramid is obtuse, and the inclination of its base variable, the upper side of it being always kept vertical. It is comparatively rare. Of the three, the last, 5, is far the most brilliant in effect, giving in the distance a zigzag form to the high light on it, and a full sharp shadow below. The use of this shadow is sufficiently seen by fig. 7 in this plate (the arch on the left, the number beneath it), in which these levelled dogteeth, with a small interval between each, are employed to set off by their vigor the delicacy of floral ornament above. This arch is the side of a niche from the tomb of Can Signorio della Scala, at Verona; and the value, as well as the distant expression of its dogtooth, may be seen by referring to Prout’s beautiful drawing of this 269 tomb in his “Sketches in France and Italy.” I have before observed that this artist never fails of seizing the true and leading expression of whatever he touches: he has made this ornament the leading feature of the niche, expressing it, as in distance it is only expressible, by a zigzag.

V. The reader may perhaps be surprised at my speaking so highly of this drawing, if he take the pains to compare Prout’s symbolism of the work on the niche with the facts as they stand here in Plate IX. But the truth is that Prout has rendered the effect of the monument on the mind of the passer-by;—the effect it was intended to have on every man who turned the corner of the street beneath it: and in this sense there is actually more truth and likeness74 in Prout’s translation than in my fac-simile, made diligently by peering into the details from a ladder. I do not say that all the symbolism in Prout’s Sketch is the best possible; but it is the best which any architectural draughtsman has yet invented; and in its application to special subjects it always shows curious internal evidence that the sketch has been made on the spot, and that the artist tried to draw what he saw, not to invent an attractive subject. I shall notice other instances of this hereafter.

VI. The dogtooth, employed in this simple form, is, however, rather a foil for other ornament, than itself a satisfactory or generally available decoration. It is, however, easy to enrich it as we choose: taking up its simple form at 3, and describing the arcs marked by the dotted lines upon its sides, and cutting a small triangular cavity between them, we shall leave its ridges somewhat rudely representative of four leaves, as at 8, which is the section and front view of one of the Venetian stone cornices described above, Chap. XIV., IV., the figure 8 being here put in the hollow of the gutter. The dogtooth is put on the outer lower truncation, and is actually in position as fig. 5; but being always looked up to, is to the spectator as 3, and always 270 rich and effective. The dogteeth are perhaps most frequently expanded to the width of fig. 9.

VII. As in nearly all other ornaments previously described, so in this,—we have only to deepen the Italian cutting, and we shall get the Northern type. If we make the original pyramid somewhat steeper, and instead of lightly incising, cut it through, so as to have the leaves held only by their points to the base, we shall have the English dogtooth; somewhat vulgar in its piquancy, when compared with French mouldings of a similar kind.75 It occurs, I think, on one house in Venice, in the Campo St. Polo; but the ordinary moulding, with light incisions, is frequent in archivolts and architraves, as well as in the roof cornices.

VIII. This being the simplest treatment of the pyramid, fig. 10, from the refectory of Wenlock Abbey, is an example of the simplest decoration of the recesses or inward angles between the pyramids; that is to say, of a simple hacked edge like one of those in fig. 2, the cuts being taken up and decorated instead of the points. Each is worked into a small trefoiled arch, with an incision round it to mark its outline, and another slight incision above, expressing the angle of the first cutting. I said that the teeth in fig. 7 had in distance the effect of a zigzag: in fig. 10 this zigzag effect is seized upon and developed, but with the easiest and roughest work; the angular incision being a mere limiting line, like that described in IX. of the last chapter. But hence the farther steps to every condition of Norman ornament are self evident. I do not say that all of them arose from development of the dogtooth in this manner, many being quite independent inventions and uses of zigzag lines; still, they may all be referred to this simple type as their root and representative, that is to say, the mere hack of the Venetian gunwale, with a limiting line following the resultant zigzag.

IX. Fig. 11 is a singular and much more artificial condition, cast in brick, from the church of the Frari, and given 271 here only for future reference. Fig. 12, resulting from a fillet with the cuts on each of its edges interrupted by a bar, is a frequent Venetian moulding, and of great value; but the plain or leaved dogteeth have been the favorites, and that to such a degree, that even the Renaissance architects took them up; and the best bit of Renaissance design in Venice, the side of the Ducal Palace next the Bridge of Sighs, owes great part of its splendor to its foundation, faced with large flat dogteeth, each about a foot wide in the base, with their points truncated, and alternating with cavities which are their own negatives or casts.

X. One other form of the dogtooth is of great importance in northern architecture, that produced by oblique cuts slightly curved, as in the margin, Fig. LVI. It is susceptible of the most fantastic and endless decoration; each of the resulting leaves being, in the early porches of Rouen and Lisieux, hollowed out and worked into branching tracery: and at Bourges, for distant effect, worked into plain leaves, or bold bony processes with knobs at the points, and near the spectator, into crouching demons and broad winged owls, and other fancies and intricacies, innumerable and inexpressible.

Fig. LVI.

XI. Thus much is enough to be noted respecting edge decoration. We were next to consider the fillet. Professor Willis has noticed an ornament, which he has called the Venetian dentil, “as the most universal ornament in its own district that ever I met with;” but has not noticed the reason for its frequency. It is nevertheless highly interesting.

The whole early architecture of Venice is architecture of incrustation: this has not been enough noticed in its peculiar relation to that of the rest of Italy. There is, indeed, much incrusted architecture throughout Italy, in elaborate ecclesiastical work, but there is more which is frankly of brick, or thoroughly of stone. But the Venetian habitually incrusted his work with nacre; he built his houses, even the meanest, as if he had been a shell-fish,—roughly inside, 272 mother-of-pearl on the surface: he was content, perforce, to gather the clay of the Brenta banks, and bake it into brick for his substance of wall; but he overlaid it with the wealth of ocean, with the most precious foreign marbles. You might fancy early Venice one wilderness of brick, which a petrifying sea had beaten upon till it coated it with marble: at first a dark city—washed white by the sea foam. And I told you before that it was also a city of shafts and arches, and that its dwellings were raised upon continuous arcades, among which the sea waves wandered. Hence the thoughts of its builders were early and constantly directed to the incrustation of arches.

Fig. LVII.

XII. In Fig. LVII. I have given two of these Byzantine stilted arches: the one on the right, a, as they now too often appear, in its bare brickwork; that on the left, with its alabaster covering, literally marble defensive armor, riveted together in pieces, which follow the contours of the building. Now, on the wall, these pieces are mere flat slabs cut to the arch outline; but under the soffit of the arch the marble mail is curved, often cut singularly thin, like bent tiles, and fitted together so that the pieces would sustain each other even without rivets. It is of course desirable that this thin sub-arch of marble should project enough to sustain the facing of the wall; and the reader will see, in Fig. LVII., that its edge forms a kind of narrow band round the arch (b), a band which the least enrichment would render a valuable decorative feature. Now this band is, of course, if the soffit-pieces project a little beyond the face of the wall-pieces, a mere fillet, like the wooden gunwale in Plate IX.; and the question is, how to enrich it most wisely. It might easily have been dogtoothed, but the Byzantine architects had not invented the dogtooth, and would not have used it here, if they had; for the dogtooth 273 cannot be employed alone, especially on so principal an angle as this of the main arches, without giving to the whole building a peculiar look, which I can not otherwise describe than as being to the eye, exactly what untempered acid is to the tongue. The mere dogtooth is an acid moulding, and can only be used in certain mingling with others, to give them piquancy; never alone. What, then, will be the next easiest method of giving interest to the fillet?


XIII. Simply to make the incisions square instead of sharp, and to leave equal intervals of the square edge between them. Fig. LVIII. is one of the curved pieces of arch armor, with its edge thus treated; one side only being done at the bottom, to show the simplicity and ease of the work. This ornament gives force and interest to the edge of the arch, without in the least diminishing its quietness. Nothing was ever, nor could be ever invented, fitter for its purpose, or more easily cut. From the arch it therefore found its way into every position where the edge of a piece of stone projected, and became, from its constancy of occurrence in the latest Gothic as well as the earliest Byzantine, most truly deserving of the name of the “Venetian Dentil.” Its complete intention is now, however, only to be seen in the pictures of Gentile Bellini and Vittor Carpaccio; for, like most of the rest of the mouldings of Venetian buildings, it was always either gilded or painted—often both, gold being laid on the faces of the dentils, and their recesses colored alternately red and blue.

XIV. Observe, however, that the reason above given for the universality of this ornament was by no means the reason of its invention. The Venetian dentil is a particular application (consequent on the incrusted character of Venetian architecture) of the general idea of dentil, which had been originally given by the 274 Greeks, and realised both by them and by the Byzantines in many laborious forms, long before there was need of them for arch armor; and the lower half of Plate IX. will give some idea of the conditions which occur in the Romanesque of Venice, distinctly derived from the classical dentil; and of the gradual transition to the more convenient and simple type, the running-hand dentil, which afterwards became the characteristic of Venetian Gothic. No. 1376 is the common dentiled cornice, which occurs repeatedly in St. Mark’s; and, as late as the thirteenth century, a reduplication of it, forming the abaci of the capitals of the Piazzetta shafts. Fig. 15 is perhaps an earlier type; perhaps only one of more careless workmanship, from a Byzantine ruin in the Rio di Ca’ Foscari: and it is interesting to compare it with fig. 14 from the Cathedral of Vienne, in South France. Fig. 17, from St. Mark’s, and 18, from the apse of Murano, are two very early examples in which the future true Venetian dentil is already developed in method of execution, though the object is still only to imitate the classical one; and a rude imitation of the bead is joined with it in fig. 17. No. 16 indicates two examples of experimental forms: the uppermost from the tomb of Mastino della Scala, at Verona; the lower from a door in Venice, I believe, of the thirteenth century: 19 is a more frequent arrangement, chiefly found in cast brick, and connecting the dentils with the dogteeth: 20 is a form introduced richly in the later Gothic, but of rare occurrence until the latter half of the thirteenth century. I shall call it the gabled dentil. It is found in the greatest profusion in sepulchral Gothic, associated with several slight variations from the usual dentil type, of which No. 21, from the tomb of Pietro Cornaro, may serve as an example.

XV. All the forms given in Plate IX. are of not unfrequent occurrence: varying much in size and depth, according to the expression of the work in which they occur; generally increasing in size in late work (the earliest dentils are seldom 275 more than an inch or an inch and a half long: the fully developed dentil of the later Gothic is often as much as four or five in length, by one and a half in breadth); but they are all somewhat rare, compared to the true or armor dentil, above described. On the other hand, there are one or two unique conditions, which will be noted in the buildings where they occur.77 The Ducal Palace furnishes three anomalies in the arch, dogtooth, and dentil: it has a hyperbolic arch, as noted above, Chap. X., XV.; it has a double-fanged dogtooth in the rings of the spiral shafts on its angles; and, finally, it has a dentil with concave sides, of which the section and two of the blocks, real size, are given in Plate XIV. The labor of obtaining this difficult profile has, however, been thrown away; for the effect of the dentil at ten feet distance is exactly the same as that of the usual form: and the reader may consider the dogtooth and dentil in that plate as fairly representing the common use of them in the Venetian Gothic.

XVI. I am aware of no other form of fillet decoration requiring notice: in the Northern Gothic, the fillet is employed chiefly to give severity or flatness to mouldings supposed to be too much rounded, and is therefore generally plain. It is itself an ugly moulding, and, when thus employed, is merely a foil for others, of which, however, it at last usurped the place, and became one of the most painful features in the debased Gothic both of Italy and the North.

74 I do not here speak of artistical merits, but the play of the light among the lower shafts is also singularly beautiful in this sketch of Prout’s, and the character of the wild and broken leaves, half dead, on the stone of the foreground.

75 Vide the “Seven Lamps,” p. 122.

76 The sections of all the mouldings are given on the right of each; the part which is constantly solid being shaded, and that which is cut into dentils left.

77 As, however, we shall not probably be led either to Bergamo or Bologna, I may mention here a curiously rich use of the dentil, entirely covering the foliation and tracery of a niche on the outside of the duomo of Bergamo; and a roll, entirely incrusted, as the handle of a mace often is with nails, with massy dogteeth or nail-heads, on the door of the Pepoli palace of Bologna.


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