Stones of Venice, The, volume 1



I. No subject has been more open ground of dispute among architects than the decoration of the wall veil, because no decoration appeared naturally to grow out of its construction; nor could any curvatures be given to its surface large enough to produce much impression on the eye. It has become, therefore, a kind of general field for experiments of various effects of surface ornament, or has been altogether abandoned to the mosaicist and fresco painter. But we may perhaps conclude, from what was advanced in the Fifth Chapter, that there is one kind of decoration which will, indeed, naturally follow on its construction. For it is perfectly natural that the different kinds of stone used in its successive courses should be of different colors; and there are many associations and analogies which metaphysically justify the introduction of horizontal bands of color, or of light and shade. They are, in the first place, a kind of expression of the growth or age of the wall, like the rings in the wood of a tree; then they are a farther symbol of the alternation of light and darkness, which was above noted as the source of the charm of many inferior mouldings: again, they are valuable as an expression of horizontal space to the imagination, space of which the conception is opposed, and gives more effect by its opposition, to the enclosing power of the wall itself (this I spoke of as probably the great charm of these horizontal bars to the Arabian mind): and again they are valuable in their suggestion of the natural courses of rocks, and beds of the earth itself. And to all these powerful imaginative reasons we have to add the merely ocular charm of interlineal opposition of color; a charm so great, 295 that all the best colorists, without a single exception, depend upon it for the most piquant of their pictorial effects, some vigorous mass of alternate stripes or bars of color being made central in all their richest arrangements. The whole system of Tintoret’s great picture of the Miracle of St. Mark is poised on the bars of blue, which cross the white turban of the executioner.


II. There are, therefore, no ornaments more deeply suggestive in their simplicity than these alternate bars of horizontal colors; nor do I know any buildings more noble than those of the Pisan Romanesque, in which they are habitually employed; and certainly none so graceful, so attractive, so enduringly delightful in their nobleness. Yet, of this pure and graceful ornamentation, Professor Willis says, “a practice more destructive of architectural grandeur can hardly be conceived:” and modern architects have substituted for it the ingenious ornament of which the reader has had one specimen above, Fig. III., , and with which half the large buildings in London are disfigured, or else traversed by mere straight lines, as, for instance, the back of the Bank. The lines on the Bank may, perhaps, be considered typical of accounts; but in general the walls, if left destitute of them, would have been as much fairer than the walls charged with them, as a sheet of white paper is than the leaf of a ledger. But that the reader may have free liberty of judgment in this matter, I place two examples of the old and the Renaissance ornament side by side on the opposite page. That on the right is Romanesque, from St. Pietro of Pistoja; that on the left, modern English, from the Arthur Club-house, St. James’s Street.

III. But why, it will be asked, should the lines which mark the division of the stones be wrong when they are chiselled, and right when they are marked by color? First, because the color separation is a natural one. You build with different kinds of stone, of which, probably, one is more costly than another; which latter, as you cannot construct your building of it entirely, you arrange in conspicuous bars. But the chiselling of the stones is a wilful throwing away of time and labor 296 in defacing the building: it costs much to hew one of those monstrous blocks into shape; and, when it is done, the building is weaker than it was before, by just as much stone as has been cut away from its joints. And, secondly, because, as I have repeatedly urged, straight lines are ugly things as lines, but admirable as limits of colored spaces; and the joints of the stones, which are painful in proportion to their regularity, if drawn as lines, are perfectly agreeable when marked by variations of hue.

IV. What is true of the divisions of stone by chiselling, is equally true of divisions of bricks by pointing. Nor, of course, is the mere horizontal bar the only arrangement in which the colors of brickwork or masonry can be gracefully disposed. It is rather one which can only be employed with advantage when the courses of stone are deep and bold. When the masonry is small, it is better to throw its colors into chequered patterns. We shall have several interesting examples to study in Venice besides the well-known one of the Ducal Palace. The town of Moulins, in France, is one of the most remarkable on this side the Alps for its chequered patterns in bricks. The church of Christchurch, Streatham, lately built, though spoiled by many grievous errors (the iron work in the campanile being the grossest), yet affords the inhabitants of the district a means of obtaining some idea of the variety of effects which are possible with no other material than brick.

V. We have yet to notice another effort of the Renaissance architects to adorn the blank spaces of their walls by what is called Rustication. There is sometimes an obscure trace of the remains of the imitation of something organic in this kind of work. In some of the better French eighteenth century buildings it has a distinctly floral character, like a final degradation of Flamboyant leafage; and some of our modern English architects appear to have taken the decayed teeth of elephants for their type; but, for the most part, it resembles nothing so much as worm casts; nor these with any precision. If it did, it would not bring it within the sphere of our properly 297 imitative ornamentation. I thought it unnecessary to warn the reader that he was not to copy forms of refuse or corruption; and that, while he might legitimately take the worm or the reptile for a subject of imitation, he was not to study the worm cast or coprolite.

VI. It is, however, I believe, sometimes supposed that rustication gives an appearance of solidity to foundation stones. Not so; at least to any one who knows the look of a hard stone. You may, by rustication, make your good marble or granite look like wet slime, honeycombed by sand-eels, or like half-baked tufo covered with slow exudation of stalactite, or like rotten claystone coated with concretions of its own mud; but not like the stones of which the hard world is built. Do not think that nature rusticates her foundations. Smooth sheets of rock, glistening like sea waves, and that ring under the hammer like a brazen bell,—that is her preparation for first stories. She does rusticate sometimes: crumbly sand-stones, with their ripple-marks filled with red mud; dusty lime-stones, which the rains wash into labyrinthine cavities; spongy lavas, which the volcano blast drags hither and thither into ropy coils and bubbling hollows;—these she rusticates, indeed, when she wants to make oyster-shells and magnesia of them; but not when she needs to lay foundations with them. Then she seeks the polished surface and iron heart, not rough looks and incoherent substance.

VII. Of the richer modes of wall decoration it is impossible to institute any general comparison; they are quite infinite, from mere inlaid geometrical figures up to incrustations of elaborate bas-relief. The architect has perhaps more license in them, and more power of producing good effect with rude design than in any other features of the building; the chequer and hatchet work of the Normans and the rude bas-reliefs of the Lombards being almost as satisfactory as the delicate panelling and mosaic of the Duomo of Florence. But this is to be noted of all good wall ornament, that it retains the expression of firm and massive substance, and of broad surface, and that architecture instantly declined when linear design was substituted 298 for massive, and the sense of weight of wall was lost in a wilderness of upright or undulating rods. Of the richest and most delicate wall veil decoration by inlaid work, as practised in Italy from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, I have given the reader two characteristic examples in Plates XX. and XXI.

Fig. LXI.

VIII. There are, however, three spaces in which the wall veil, peculiarly limited in shape, was always felt to be fitted for surface decoration of the most elaborate kind; and in these spaces are found the most majestic instances of its treatment, even to late periods. One of these is the spandril space, or the filling between any two arches, commonly of the shape a, Fig. LXI.; the half of which, or the flank filling of any arch, is called a spandril. In Chapter XVII., on Filling of Apertures, the reader will find another of these spaces noted, called the tympanum, and commonly of the form b, Fig. LXI.: and finally, in Chapter XVIII., he will find the third space described, that between an arch and its protecting gable, approximating generally to the form c, Fig. LXI.

IX. The methods of treating these spaces might alone furnish subject for three very interesting essays; but I shall only note the most essential points respecting them.

(1.) The Spandril. It was observed in Chapter XII., that this portion of the arch load might frequently be lightened with great advantage by piercing it with a circle, or with a group of circles; and the roof of the Euston Square railroad station was adduced as an example. One of the spandril decorations of Bayeux Cathedral is given in the “Seven Lamps,” Plate VII. fig. 4. It is little more than one of these Euston Square spandrils, with its circles foliated.


Sometimes the circle is entirely pierced; at other times it 299 is merely suggested by a mosaic or light tracery on the wall surface, as in the plate opposite, which is one of the spandrils of the Ducal Palace at Venice. It was evidently intended that all the spandrils of this building should be decorated in this manner, but only two of them seem to have been completed.82

X. The other modes of spandril filling may be broadly reduced to four heads. 1. Free figure sculpture, as in the Chapter-house of Salisbury, and very superbly along the west front of Bourges, the best Gothic spandrils I know. 2. Radiated foliage, more or less referred to the centre, or to the bottom of the spandril for its origin; single figures with expanded wings often answering the same purpose. 3. Trefoils; and 4, ordinary wall decoration continued into the spandril space, as in Plate XIII., above, from St. Pietro at Pistoja, and in Westminster Abbey. The Renaissance architects introduced spandril fillings composed of colossal human figures reclining on the sides of the arch, in precarious lassitude; but these cannot come under the head of wall veil decoration.

XI. (2.) The Tympanum. It was noted that, in Gothic architecture, this is for the most part a detached slab of stone, having no constructional relation to the rest of the building. The plan of its sculpture is therefore quite arbitrary; and, as it is generally in a conspicuous position, near the eye, and above the entrance, it is almost always charged with a series of rich figure sculptures, solemn in feeling and consecutive in subject. It occupies in Christian sacred edifices very nearly the position of the pediment in Greek sculpture. This latter is itself a kind of tympanum, and charged with sculpture in the same manner.

XII. (3.) The Gable. The same principles apply to it which have been noted respecting the spandril, with one more of some importance. The chief difficulty in treating a gable lies in the excessive sharpness of its upper point. It may, indeed, on its outside apex, receive a finial; but the meeting 300 of the inside lines of its terminal mouldings is necessarily both harsh and conspicuous, unless artificially concealed. The most beautiful victory I have ever seen obtained over this difficulty was by placing a sharp shield, its point, as usual, downwards, at the apex of the gable, which exactly reversed the offensive lines, yet without actually breaking them; the gable being completed behind the shield. The same thing is done in the Northern and Southern Gothic: in the porches of Abbeville and the tombs of Verona.

XIII. I believe there is little else to be noted of general laws of ornament respecting the wall veil. We have next to consider its concentration in the shaft.

Now the principal beauty of a shaft is its perfect proportion to its work,—its exact expression of necessary strength. If this has been truly attained, it will hardly need, in some cases hardly bear, more decoration than is given to it by its own rounding and taper curvatures; for, if we cut ornaments in intaglio on its surface, we weaken it; if we leave them in relief, we overcharge it, and the sweep of the line from its base to its summit, though deduced in Chapter VIII., from necessities of construction, is already one of gradated curvature, and of high decorative value.

XIV. It is, however, carefully to be noted, that decorations are admissible on colossal and on diminutive shafts, which are wrong upon those of middle size. For, when the shaft is enormous, incisions or sculpture on its sides (unless colossal also), do not materially interfere with the sweep of its curve, nor diminish the efficiency of its sustaining mass. And if it be diminutive, its sustaining function is comparatively of so small importance, the injurious results of failure so much less, and the relative strength and cohesion of its mass so much greater, that it may be suffered in the extravagance of ornament or outline which would be unendurable in a shaft of middle size, and impossible in one of colossal. Thus, the shafts drawn in Plate XIII., of the “Seven Lamps,” though given as examples of extravagance, are yet pleasing in the general effect of the arcade they support; being each some six or seven 301 feet high. But they would have been monstrous, as well as unsafe, if they had been sixty or seventy.

XV. Therefore, to determine the general rule for shaft decoration, we must ascertain the proportions representative of the mean bulk of shafts: they might easily be calculated from a sufficient number of examples, but it may perhaps be assumed, for our present general purpose, that the mean standard would be of some twenty feet in height, by eight or nine in circumference: then this will be the size on which decoration is most difficult and dangerous: and shafts become more and more fit subjects for decoration, as they rise farther above, or fall farther beneath it, until very small and very vast shafts will both be found to look blank unless they receive some chasing or imagery; blank, whether they support a chair or table on the one side, or sustain a village on the ridge of an Egyptian architrave on the other.

XVI. Of the various ornamentation of colossal shafts, there are no examples so noble as the Egyptian; these the reader can study in Mr. Roberts’ work on Egypt nearly as well, I imagine, as if he were beneath their shadow, one of their chief merits, as examples of method, being the perfect decision and visibility of their designs at the necessary distance: contrast with these the incrustations of bas-relief on the Trajan pillar, much interfering with the smooth lines of the shaft, and yet themselves untraceable, if not invisible.

XVII. On shafts of middle size, the only ornament which has ever been accepted as right, is the Doric fluting, which, indeed, gave the effect of a succession of unequal lines of shade, but lost much of the repose of the cylindrical gradation. The Corinthian fluting, which is a mean multiplication and deepening of the Doric, with a square instead of a sharp ridge between each hollow, destroyed the serenity of the shaft altogether, and is always rigid and meagre. Both are, in fact, wrong in principle; they are an elaborate weakening83 of the shaft, exactly opposed (as above shown) to the ribbed form, 302 which is the result of a group of shafts bound together, and which is especially beautiful when special service is given to each member.


XVIII. On shafts of inferior size, every species of decoration may be wisely lavished, and in any quantity, so only that the form of the shaft be clearly visible. This I hold to be absolutely essential, and that barbarism begins wherever the sculpture is either so bossy, or so deeply cut, as to break the contour of the shaft, or compromise its solidity. Thus, in Plate XXI. (Appendix 8), the richly sculptured shaft of the lower story has lost its dignity and definite function, and become a shapeless mass, injurious to the symmetry of the building, though of some value as adding to its imaginative and fantastic character. Had all the shafts been like it, the fa´┐Żade would have been entirely spoiled; the inlaid pattern, on the contrary, which is used on the shortest shaft of the upper story, adds to its preciousness without interfering with its purpose, and is every way delightful, as are all the inlaid shaft ornaments of this noble church (another example of them is given in Plate XII. of the “Seven Lamps”). The same rule would condemn the Caryatid; which I entirely agree with Mr. Fergusson in thinking (both for this and other reasons) one of the chief errors of the Greek schools; and, more decisively still, the Renaissance inventions of shaft ornament, almost too absurd and too monstrous to be seriously noticed, which consist in leaving square blocks between the cylinder joints, as in the portico of No. 1, Regent Street, and many other buildings in London; or in rusticating portions of the shafts, or wrapping fleeces about them, as at the entrance of Burlington House, in Piccadilly; or tying drapery round them in knots, as in the new buildings above noticed (Chap. 20, VII.), at Paris. But, within the limits thus defined, there is no feature capable of richer decoration than the shaft; the most beautiful examples of all I have seen, are the slender pillars, encrusted with arabesques, which flank the portals of the Baptistery and Duomo at Pisa, and some others of the Pisan and Lucchese churches; but the varieties of sculpture 303 and inlaying, with which the small Romanesque shafts, whether Italian or Northern, are adorned when they occupy important positions, are quite endless, and nearly all admirable. Mr. Digby Wyatt has given a beautiful example of inlaid work so employed, from the cloisters of the Lateran, in his work on early mosaic; an example which unites the surface decoration of the shaft with the adoption of the spiral contour. This latter is often all the decoration which is needed, and none can be more beautiful; it has been spoken against, like many other good and lovely things, because it has been too often used in extravagant degrees, like the well-known twisting of the pillars in Raffaelle’s “Beautiful gate.” But that extravagant condition was a Renaissance barbarism: the old Romanesque builders kept their spirals slight and pure; often, as in the example from St. Zeno, in Plate XVII. below, giving only half a turn from the base of the shaft to its head, and nearly always observing what I hold to be an imperative law, that no twisted shaft shall be single, but composed of at least two distinct members, twined with each other. I suppose they followed their own right feeling in doing this, and had never studied natural shafts; but the type they might have followed was caught by one of the few great painters who were not affected by the evil influence of the fifteenth century, Benozzo Gozzoli, who, in the frescoes of the Ricardi Palace, among stems of trees for the most part as vertical as stone shafts, has suddenly introduced one of the shape given in Fig. LXII. Many forest trees present, in their accidental contortions, types of most complicated spiral shafts, the plan being originally of a grouped shaft rising from several roots; nor, indeed, will the reader ever find models for every kind of shaft decoration, so graceful or so gorgeous, as he will find in the great forest aisle, where the strength of the earth itself seems to rise from the roots into the vaulting; but the shaft surface, barred as it expands with rings of ebony and 304 silver, is fretted with traceries of ivy, marbled with purple moss, veined with grey lichen, and tesselated, by the rays of the rolling heaven, with flitting fancies of blue shadow and burning gold.

82 Vide end of Appendix 20.

83 Vide, however, their defence in the Essay above quoted, .


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