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Stones of Venice, The, volume 1

CHAPTER V.

THE WALL VEIL.

I. The summer of the year 1849 was spent by the writer in researches little bearing upon his present subject, and connected chiefly with proposed illustrations of the mountain forms in the works of J. M. W. Turner. But there are sometimes more valuable lessons to be learned in the school of nature than in that of Vitruvius, and a fragment of building among the Alps is singularly illustrative of the chief feature which I have at present to develope as necessary to the perfection of the wall veil.

It is a fragment of some size; a group of broken walls, one of them overhanging; crowned with a cornice, nodding some hundred and fifty feet over its massy flank, three thousand above its glacier base, and fourteen thousand above the sea,—a wall truly of some majesty, at once the most precipitous and the strongest mass in the whole chain of the Alps, the Mont Cervin.

II. It has been falsely represented as a peak or tower. It is a vast ridged promontory, connected at its western root with the Dent d’Erin, and lifting itself like a rearing horse with its face to the east. All the way along the flank of it, for half a day’s journey on the Zmutt glacier, the grim black terraces of its foundations range almost without a break; and the clouds, when their day’s work is done, and they are weary, lay themselves down on those foundation steps, and rest till dawn, each with his leagues of grey mantle stretched along the grisly ledge, and the cornice of the mighty wall gleaming in the moonlight, three thousand feet above.

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III. The eastern face of the promontory is hewn down, as if by the single sweep of a sword, from the crest of it to the base; hewn concave and smooth, like the hollow of a wave: on each flank of it there is set a buttress, both of about equal height, their heads sloped out from the main wall about seven hundred feet below its summit. That on the north is the most important; it is as sharp as the frontal angle of a bastion, and sloped sheer away to the north-east, throwing out spur beyond spur, until it terminates in a long low curve of russet precipice, at whose foot a great bay of the glacier of the Col de Cervin lies as level as a lake. This spur is one of the few points from which the mass of the Mont Cervin is in anywise approachable. It is a continuation of the masonry of the mountain itself, and affords us the means of examining the character of its materials.

IV. Few architects would like to build with them. The slope of the rocks to the north-west is covered two feet deep with their ruins, a mass of loose and slaty shale, of a dull brick-red color, which yields beneath the foot like ashes, so that, in running down, you step one yard, and slide three. The rock is indeed hard beneath, but still disposed in thin courses of these cloven shales, so finely laid that they look in places more like a heap of crushed autumn leaves than a rock; and the first sensation is one of unmitigated surprise, as if the mountain were upheld by miracle; but surprise becomes more intelligent reverence for the great builder, when we find, in the middle of the mass of these dead leaves, a course of living rock, of quartz as white as the snow that encircles it, and harder than a bed of steel.

V. It is one only of a thousand iron bands that knit the strength of the mighty mountain. Through the buttress and the wall alike, the courses of its varied masonry are seen in their successive order, smooth and true as if laid by line and plummet,34 but of thickness and strength continually varying, and with silver cornices glittering along the edge of each, 60 laid by the snowy winds and carved by the sunshine,—stainless ornaments of the eternal temple, by which “neither the hammer nor the axe, nor any tool, was heard while it was in building.”

VI. I do not, however, bring this forward as an instance of any universal law of natural building; there are solid as well as coursed masses of precipice, but it is somewhat curious that the most noble cliff in Europe, which this eastern front of the Cervin is, I believe, without dispute, should be to us an example of the utmost possible stability of precipitousness attained with materials of imperfect and variable character; and, what is more, there are very few cliffs which do not display alternations between compact and friable conditions of their material, marked in their contours by bevelled slopes when the bricks are soft, and vertical steps when they are harder. And, although we are not hence to conclude that it is well to introduce courses of bad materials when we can get perfect material, I believe we may conclude with great certainty that it is better and easier to strengthen a wall necessarily of imperfect substance, as of brick, by introducing carefully laid courses of stone, than by adding to its thickness; and the first impression we receive from the unbroken aspect of a wall veil, unless it be of hewn stone throughout, is that it must be both thicker and weaker than it would have been, had it been properly coursed. The decorative reasons for adopting the coursed arrangement, which we shall notice hereafter, are so weighty, that they would alone be almost sufficient to enforce it; and the constructive ones will apply universally, except in the rare cases in which the choice of perfect or imperfect material is entirely open to us, or where the general system of the decoration of the building requires absolute unity in its surface.

Fig. III.

VII. As regards the arrangement of the intermediate parts themselves, it is regulated by certain conditions of bonding and fitting the stones or bricks, which the reader need hardly be troubled to consider, and which I wish that bricklayers themselves were always honest enough to observe. 61 But I hardly know whether to note under the head of �sthetic or constructive law, this important principle, that masonry is always bad which appears to have arrested the attention of the architect more than absolute conditions of strength require. Nothing is more contemptible in any work than an appearance of the slightest desire on the part of the builder to direct attention to the way its stones are put together, or of any trouble taken either to show or to conceal it more than was rigidly necessary: it may sometimes, on the one hand, be necessary to conceal it as far as may be, by delicate and close fitting, when the joints would interfere with lines of sculpture or of mouldings; and it may often, on the other hand, be delightful to show it, as it is delightful in places to show the anatomy even of the most delicate human frame: but studiously to conceal it is the error of vulgar painters, who are afraid to show that their figures have bones; and studiously to display it is the error of the base pupils of Michael Angelo, who turned heroes’ limbs into surgeons’ diagrams,—but with less excuse than theirs, for there is less interest in the anatomy displayed. Exhibited masonry is in most cases the expedient of architects who do not know how to fill up blank spaces, and many a building, which would have been decent enough if let alone, has been scrawled over with straight lines, as in Fig. III., on exactly the same principles, and with just the same amount of intelligence as a boy’s in scrawling his copy-book when he cannot write. The device was thought ingenious at one period of architectural history; St. Paul’s and Whitehall are covered with it, and it is in this I imagine that some of our modern architects suppose the great merit of those buildings to consist. There is, however, no excuse for errors in disposition of masonry, for there is but one law upon the subject, and that 62 easily complied with, to avoid all affectation and all unnecessary expense, either in showing or concealing. Every one knows a building is built of separate stones; nobody will ever object to seeing that it is so, but nobody wants to count them. The divisions of a church are much like the divisions of a sermon; they are always right so long as they are necessary to edification, and always wrong when they are thrust upon the attention as divisions only. There may be neatness in carving when there is richness in feasting; but I have heard many a discourse, and seen many a church wall, in which it was all carving and no meat.


34 On the eastern side: violently contorted on the northern and western.


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