Monday, 18 October 2010

"All good colour is in some degree pensive" - Ruskin and the colours of Venice

 Turner's Approach to Venice, 1843 ...

 ... and my approach to Venice in 2010:

I have just returned from a 4-day visit to Venice. Weather, accommodation, transport, food and company were excellent, so I could fully enjoy the beauties of this rich and strange place (with that much water everywhere, you cannot blame me for thinking of 'Full Fathom Five'). My book of choice was Ruskin's Stones of Venice (first published 1851-53) and I spent the days flicking through it, reading bits and pieces about those imposing yet often leaning palazzos and casas, marvelling at the beauty of Ruskin's language, as rich, proud and colourful as the buildings themselves.  I was looking for descriptions of colour in his work and found that he was fascinated with the subject and devoted whole paragraphs to it. Since he almost exclusively describes the exterior of buildings there is no description of this mosaic in the basilica of Torcello, a long vaporetto ride away in the outskirts of the lagoon, now deserted apart from a few pretentious restaurants and hundreds of cats:

The Master of Torcello: The Virgin Mary, mosaic, completed 12th c.

Until this trip I had not seen many Byzantine mosaics, and my knowledge of them was based on what I overheard and overread at the department of Art History at Sussex University, which has a strong contingent of scholars and researchers of Byzantine art. I was overwhelmed by the shimmering surfaces of the mosaics, the strong and fresh colours, against a glorious gold background. The almost clear windows of this tall church lit up the mosaics and made them sparkle, and I wondered what had taken me so long to become interested in the colours of mosaics. Naturally, I wanted to see more, but I tried in vain to get into St Marco; the queues were just too long. I had to make do with a large scholarly book on St Marco that was in our apartment. Since I have been interested in the depiction of rainbows in art (particularly pre-Newtonian) I wanted to see this mosaic in St Marco:
Basilica di San Marco: Noah and the Rainbow, mosaic, 13th c.
It looks to me as if this rainbow consists of only 4 or 5 colours, possibly omitting indigo.

But to come back to Ruskin and colour, in The Stones of Venice he compares attitudes to colouring and architectural colour in northern european and southern european/oriental buildings. Rather than paraphrase him I have copied extracts from the relevant paragraphs on the topic by him (all from volume two of The Stones of Venice). I am not sure I fully follow his argument about northern and southern archictecture, but I do like the connections he makes between Byzantine colouring and the great Venetian painters of the Renaissance, as well as his observations of colours within colours. The concluding sentence makes me think that I have defintely chosen the right research topic.

One of Ruskin's sketches for
The Stones of Venice

In the same way, whenever the subject of the sculpture was definite, its colour was of necessity definite also; and, in the hands of the Northern builders, it often became, in consequence, rather the means of explaining and animating the stories of their stone-work, than a matter of abstract decorative science. Flowers were painted red, trees green, and faces flesh-colour; the result of the whole being often far more entertaining than beautiful. And also, though in the lines of the mouldings and the decorations of shafts or vaults, a richer and more abstract method of coloring was adopted (aided by the rapid development of the best principles of color in early glass-painting), the vigorous depths of shadow in the Northern sculpture confused the architect's eye, compelling him to use violent colors in the recesses, if these were to be seen as color at all, and thus injured his perception of more delicate color harmonies; so that in innumerable instances it becomes very disputable whether monuments even of the best times were improved by the color bestowed upon them, or the contrary. But, in the South, the flatness and comparatively vague forms of the sculpture, while they appeared to call for color in order to enhance their interest, presented exactly the conditions which would set it off to the greatest advantage; breadth or surface displaying even the most delicate tints in the lights, and faintness of shadow joining with the most delicate and pearly greys of colour harmony; while the subject of the design being in nearly all cases reduced to mere intricacy of ornamental line, might be colored in any way the architect chose without any loss of rationality. Where oak-leaves and roses were carved into fresh relief and perfect bloom, it was necessary to paint the one green and the other red; but in portions of ornamentation where there was nothing which could be definitely construed into either an oak-leaf or a rose, but a mere labyrinth of beautiful lines, becoming here something like a leaf, and there something like a flower, the whole tracery of the sculpture might be left white, and grounded with gold or blue, or treated in any other manner best harmonizing with the colors around it. And as the necessarily feeble character of the sculpture called for and was ready to display the best arrangements of color, so the precious marbles in the architect's hands give him at once the best examples and the best means of color. The best examples, for the tints of all natural stones are as exquisite in quality as endless in change; and the best means, for they are all permanent.

Observe, it is not now the question whether our Northern cathedrals are better with color or without. Perhaps the great monotone gray of Nature and of Time is a better color than any that the human hand can give; but that is nothing to our present business. The simple fact is, that the builders of those cathedrals laid upon them the brightest colors they could obtain, and that there is not, as far as I am aware, in Europe, any monument of a truly noble school which has not been either painted all over, or vigorously touched with paint, mosaic, and gilding in its prominent parts. Thus far Egyptians, Greeks, Goths, Arabs, and mediaeval Christians all agree: none of them, when in their right senses, ever think of doing without paint; and, therefore, when I said above that the Venetians were the only people who had thoroughly sympathized with the Arabs in this respect, I referred, first, to their intense love of color, which led them to lavish the most expensive decorations on ordinary dwelling-houses; and, secondly, to that perfection of the color-instinct in them, which enabled them to render whatever they did, in this kind, as just in principle as it was gorgeous in appliance. It is this principle of theirs, as distinguished from that of the Northern builders, which we have finally to examine.
From descriptions of the exterior of St Marco: The balls in the archivolt project considerably, and the interstices between their interwoven bands of marble are filled with colours like the illuminations of a manuscript; violet, crimson, blue, gold, and green alternately: but no green is ever used without an intermixture of blue pieces in the mosaic, nor any blue without a little centre of pale green; sometimes only a single piece of glass a quarter of an inch square, so subtle was the feeling for colour which was thus to be satisfied. No two tesserae of the glass are exactly of the same tint, the greens being all varied with blues, the blues of different depths, the reds of different clearness, so that the effect of each mass of colour is full of variety, like the stippled colour of a fruit piece..
The principal circumstance which marks the seriousness of the early Venetian mind is perhaps the last in which the reader would suppose it was traceable;—that love of bright and pure colour which, in a modified form, was afterwards the root of all the triumph of the Venetian schools of painting, but which, in its utmost simplicity, was characteristic of the Byzantine period only; and of which, therefore, in the close of our review of that period, it will be well that we should truly estimate the significance. The fact is, we none of us enough appreciate the nobleness and sacredness of colour. ... The fact is, that, of all God’s gifts to the sight of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn. We speak rashly of gay colour, and sad colour, for colour cannot at once be good and gay. All good colour is in some degree pensive, the loveliest is melancholy, and the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.