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Stones of Venice, The, volume 1

CHAPTER XX.

THE MATERIAL OF ORNAMENT.

I. We enter now on the second division of our subject. We have no more to do with heavy stones and hard lines; we are going to be happy: to look round in the world and discover (in a serious manner always, however, and under a sense of responsibility) what we like best in it, and to enjoy the same at our leisure: to gather it, examine it, fasten all we can of it into imperishable forms, and put it where we may see it for ever.

This is to decorate architecture.

II. There are, therefore, three steps in the process: first, to find out in a grave manner what we like best; secondly, to put as much of this as we can (which is little enough) into form; thirdly, to put this formed abstraction into a proper place.

And we have now, therefore, to make these three inquiries in succession: first, what we like, or what is the right material of ornament; then how we are to present it, or its right treatment; then, where we are to put it, or its right place. I think I can answer that first inquiry in this Chapter, the second inquiry in the next Chapter, and the third I shall answer in a more diffusive manner, by taking up in succession the several parts of architecture above distinguished, and rapidly noting the kind of ornament fittest for each.

III. I said in chapter II. XIV., that all noble ornamentation was the expression of man’s delight in God’s work. This implied that there was an ignoble ornamentation, which was the expression of man’s delight in his own. There is such a school, chiefly degraded classic and Renaissance, in which the 212 ornament is composed of imitations of tilings made by man. I think, before inquiring what we like best of God’s work, we had better get rid of all this imitation of man’s, and be quite sure we do not like that.

IV. We shall rapidly glance, then, at the material of decoration hence derived. And now I cannot, as I before have done respecting construction, convince the reader of one thing being wrong, and another right. I have confessed as much again and again; I am now only to make appeal to him, and cross-question him, whether he really does like things or not. If he likes the ornament on the base of the column of the Place Vend�me, composed of Wellington boots and laced frock coats, I cannot help it; I can only say I differ from him, and don’t like it. And if, therefore, I speak dictatorially, and say this is base, or degraded, or ugly, I mean, only that I believe men of the longest experience in the matter would either think it so, or would be prevented from thinking it so only by some morbid condition of their minds; and I believe that the reader, if he examine himself candidly, will usually agree in my statements.

V. The subjects of ornament found in man’s work may properly fall into four heads: 1. Instruments of art, agriculture, and war; armor, and dress; 2. Drapery; 3. Shipping; 4. Architecture itself.

1. Instruments, armor, and dress.

The custom of raising trophies on pillars, and of dedicating arms in temples, appears to have first suggested the idea of employing them as the subjects of sculptural ornament: thenceforward, this abuse has been chiefly characteristic of classical architecture, whether true or Renaissance. Armor is a noble thing in its proper service and subordination to the body; so is an animal’s hide on its back; but a heap of cast skins, or of shed armor, is alike unworthy of all regard or imitation. We owe much true sublimity, and more of delightful picturesqueness, to the introduction of armor both in painting and sculpture: in poetry it is better still,—Homer’s undressed Achilles is less grand than his crested and shielded Achilles, 213 though Phidias would rather have had him naked; in all medi�val painting, arms, like all other parts of costume, are treated with exquisite care and delight; in the designs of Leonardo, Raffaelle, and Perugino, the armor sometimes becomes almost too conspicuous from the rich and endless invention bestowed upon it; while Titian and Rubens seek in its flash what the Milanese and Perugian sought in its form, sometimes subordinating heroism to the light of the steel, while the great designers wearied themselves in its elaborate fancy.

But all this labor was given to the living, not the dead armor; to the shell with its animal in it, not the cast shell of the beach; and even so, it was introduced more sparingly by the good sculptors than the good painters; for the former felt, and with justice, that the painter had the power of conquering the over prominence of costume by the expression and color of the countenance, and that by the darkness of the eye, and glow of the cheek, he could always conquer the gloom and the flash of the mail; but they could hardly, by any boldness or energy of the marble features, conquer the forwardness and conspicuousness of the sharp armorial forms. Their armed figures were therefore almost always subordinate, their principal figures draped or naked, and their choice of subject was much influenced by this feeling of necessity. But the Renaissance sculptors displayed the love of a Camilla for the mere crest and plume. Paltry and false alike in every feeling of their narrowed minds, they attached themselves, not only to costume without the person, but to the pettiest details of the costume itself. They could not describe Achilles, but they could describe his shield; a shield like those of dedicated spoil, without a handle, never to be waved in the face of war. And then we have helmets and lances, banners and swords, sometimes with men to hold them, sometimes without; but always chiselled with a tailor-like love of the chasing or the embroidery,—show helmets of the stage, no Vulcan work on them, no heavy hammer strokes, no Etna fire in the metal of them, nothing but pasteboard crests and high feathers. And these, cast together in disorderly heaps, or grinning vacantly over keystones, form 214 one of the leading decorations of Renaissance architecture, and that one of the best; for helmets and lances, however loosely laid, are better than violins, and pipes, and books of music, which were another of the Palladian and Sansovinian sources of ornament. Supported by ancient authority, the abuse soon became a matter of pride, and since it was easy to copy a heap of cast clothes, but difficult to manage an arranged design of human figures, the indolence of architects came to the aid of their affectation, until by the moderns we find the practice carried out to its most interesting results, and, as above noted, a large pair of boots occupying the principal place in the bas-reliefs on the base of the Colonne Vend�me.

VI. A less offensive, because singularly grotesque, example of the abuse at its height, occurs in the H�tel des Invalides, where the dormer windows are suits of armor down to the bottom of the corselet, crowned by the helmet, and with the window in the middle of the breast.

Instruments of agriculture and the arts are of less frequent occurrence, except in hieroglyphics, and other work, where they are not employed as ornaments, but represented for the sake of accurate knowledge, or as symbols. Wherever they have purpose of this kind, they are of course perfectly right; but they are then part of the building’s conversation, not conducive to its beauty. The French have managed, with great dexterity, the representation of the machinery for the elevation of their Luxor obelisk, now sculptured on its base.

VII. 2. Drapery. I have already spoken of the error of introducing drapery, as such, for ornament, in the “Seven Lamps.” I may here note a curious instance of the abuse in the church of the Jesuiti at Venice (Renaissance). On first entering you suppose that the church, being in a poor quarter of the city, has been somewhat meanly decorated by heavy green and white curtains of an ordinary upholsterer’s pattern: on looking closer, they are discovered to be of marble, with the green pattern inlaid. Another remarkable instance is in a piece of not altogether unworthy architecture at Paris (Rue Rivoli), where the columns are supposed to be decorated with images 215 of handkerchiefs tied in a stout knot round the middle of them. This shrewd invention bids fair to become a new order. Multitudes of massy curtains and various upholstery, more or less in imitation of that of the drawing-room, are carved and gilt, in wood or stone, about the altars and other theatrical portions of Romanist churches; but from these coarse and senseless vulgarities we may well turn, in all haste, to note, with respect as well as regret, one of the errors of the great school of Niccolo Pisano,—an error so full of feeling as to be sometimes all but redeemed, and altogether forgiven,—the sculpture, namely, of curtains around the recumbent statues upon tombs, curtains which angels are represented as withdrawing, to gaze upon the faces of those who are at rest. For some time the idea was simply and slightly expressed, and though there was always a painfulness in finding the shafts of stone, which were felt to be the real supporters of the canopy, represented as of yielding drapery, yet the beauty of the angelic figures, and the tenderness of the thought, disarmed all animadversion. But the scholars of the Pisani, as usual, caricatured when they were unable to invent; and the quiet curtained canopy became a huge marble tent, with a pole in the centre of it. Thus vulgarised, the idea itself soon disappeared, to make room for urns, torches, and weepers, and the other modern paraphernalia of the churchyard.

VIII. 3. Shipping. I have allowed this kind of subject to form a separate head, owing to the importance of rostra in Roman decoration, and to the continual occurrence of naval subjects in modern monumental bas-relief. Mr. Fergusson says, somewhat doubtfully, that he perceives a “kind of beauty” in a ship: I say, without any manner of doubt, that a ship is one of the loveliest things man ever made, and one of the noblest; nor do I know any lines, out of divine work, so lovely as those of the head of a ship, or even as the sweep of the timbers of a small boat, not a race boat, a mere floating chisel, but a broad, strong, sea boat, able to breast a wave and break it: and yet, with all this beauty, ships cannot be made subjects of sculpture. No one pauses in particular delight 216 beneath the pediments of the Admiralty; nor does scenery of shipping ever become prominent in bas-relief without destroying it: witness the base of the Nelson pillar. It may be, and must be sometimes, introduced in severe subordination to the figure subject, but just enough to indicate the scene; sketched in the lightest lines on the background; never with any attempt at realisation, never with any equality to the force of the figures, unless the whole purpose of the subject be picturesque. I shall explain this exception presently, in speaking of imitative architecture.

IX. There is one piece of a ship’s fittings, however, which may be thought to have obtained acceptance as a constant element of architectural ornament,—the cable: it is not, however, the cable itself, but its abstract form, a group of twisted lines (which a cable only exhibits in common with many natural objects), which is indeed beautiful as an ornament. Make the resemblance complete, give to the stone the threads and character of the cable, and you may, perhaps, regard the sculpture with curiosity, but never more with admiration. Consider the effect of the base of the statue of King William IV. at the end of London Bridge.

X. 4. Architecture itself. The erroneous use of armor, or dress, or instruments, or shipping, as decorative subject, is almost exclusively confined to bad architecture—Roman or Renaissance. But the false use of architecture itself, as an ornament of architecture, is conspicuous even in the medi�val work of the best times, and is a grievous fault in some of its noblest examples.

It is, therefore, of great importance to note exactly at what point this abuse begins, and in what it consists.

XI. In all bas-relief, architecture may be introduced as an explanation of the scene in which the figures act; but with more or less prominence in the inverse ratio of the importance of the figures.

The metaphysical reason of this is, that where the figures are of great value and beauty, the mind is supposed to be engaged wholly with them; and it is an impertinence to disturb 217 its contemplation of them by any minor features whatever. As the figures become of less value, and are regarded with less intensity, accessory subjects may be introduced, such as the thoughts may have leisure for.

Thus, if the figures be as large as life, and complete statues, it is gross vulgarity to carve a temple above them, or distribute them over sculptured rocks, or lead them up steps into pyramids: I need hardly instance Canova’s works,63 and the Dutch pulpit groups, with fishermen, boats, and nets, in the midst of church naves.

If the figures be in bas-relief, though as large as life, the scene may be explained by lightly traced outlines: this is admirably done in the Ninevite marbles.

If the figures be in bas-relief, or even alto-relievo, but less than life, and if their purpose is rather to enrich a space and produce picturesque shadows, than to draw the thoughts entirely to themselves, the scenery in which they act may become prominent. The most exquisite examples of this treatment are the gates of Ghiberti. What would that Madonna of the Annunciation be, without the little shrine into which she shrinks back? But all medi�val work is full of delightful examples of the same kind of treatment: the gates of hell and of paradise are important pieces, both of explanation and effect, in all early representations of the last judgment, or of the descent into Hades. The keys of St. Peter, and the crushing flat of the devil under his own door, when it is beaten in, would hardly be understood without the respective gate-ways above. The best of all the later capitals of the Ducal Palace of Venice depends for great part of its value on the richness of a small campanile, which is pointed to proudly by a small emperor in a turned-up hat, who, the legend informs us, is “Numa Pompilio, imperador, edifichador di tempi e chiese.”

XII. Shipping may be introduced, or rich fancy of vestments, 218 crowns, and ornaments, exactly on the same conditions as architecture; and if the reader will look back to my definition of the picturesque in the “Seven Lamps,” he will see why I said, above, that they might only be prominent when the purpose of the subject was partly picturesque; that is to say, when the mind is intended to derive part of its enjoyment from the parasitical qualities and accidents of the thing, not from the heart of the thing itself.

And thus, while we must regret the flapping sails in the death of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, we may yet most heartily enjoy the sculpture of a storm in one of the bas-reliefs of the tomb of St. Pietro Martire in the church of St. Eustorgio at Milan, where the grouping of the figures is most fancifully complicated by the undercut cordage of the vessel.

XIII. In all these instances, however, observe that the permission to represent the human work as an ornament, is conditional on its being necessary to the representation of a scene, or explanation of an action. On no terms whatever could any such subject be independently admissible.

Observe, therefore, the use of manufacture as ornament is—

1. With heroic figure sculpture, not admissible at all.

2. With picturesque figure sculpture, admissible in the degree of its picturesqueness.

3. Without figure sculpture, not admissible at all.

So also in painting: Michael Angelo, in the Sistine Chapel, would not have willingly painted a dress of figured damask or of watered satin; his was heroic painting, not admitting accessories.

Tintoret, Titian, Veronese, Rubens, and Vandyck, would be very sorry to part with their figured stuffs and lustrous silks; and sorry, observe, exactly in the degree of their picturesque feeling. Should not we also be sorry to have Bishop Ambrose without his vest, in that picture of the National Gallery?

But I think Vandyck would not have liked, on the other 219 hand, the vest without the bishop. I much doubt if Titian or Veronese would have enjoyed going into Waterloo House, and making studies of dresses upon the counter.

XIV. So, therefore, finally, neither architecture nor any other human work is admissible as an ornament, except in subordination to figure subject. And this law is grossly and painfully violated by those curious examples of Gothic, both early and late, in the north, (but late, I think, exclusively, in Italy,) in which the minor features of the architecture were composed of small models of the larger: examples which led the way to a series of abuses materially affecting the life, strength, and nobleness of the Northern Gothic,—abuses which no Ninevite, nor Egyptian, nor Greek, nor Byzantine, nor Italian of the earlier ages would have endured for an instant, and which strike me with renewed surprise whenever I pass beneath a portal of thirteenth century Northern Gothic, associated as they are with manifestations of exquisite feeling and power in other directions. The porches of Bourges, Amiens, Notre Dame of Paris, and Notre Dame of Dijon, may be noted as conspicuous in error: small models of feudal towers with diminutive windows and battlements, of cathedral spires with scaly pinnacles, mixed with temple pediments and nondescript edifices of every kind, are crowded together over the recess of the niche into a confused fool’s cap for the saint below. Italian Gothic is almost entirely free from the taint of this barbarism until the Renaissance period, when it becomes rampant in the cathedral of Como and Certosa of Pavia; and at Venice we find the Renaissance churches decorated with models of fortifications like those in the Repository at Woolwich, or inlaid with mock arcades in pseudo-perspective, copied from gardeners’ paintings at the ends of conservatories.

XV. I conclude, then, with the reader’s leave, that all ornament is base which takes for its subject human work, that it is utterly base,—painful to every rightly-toned mind, without perhaps immediate sense of the reason, but for a reason palpable enough when we do think of it. For to carve our own 220 work, and set it up for admiration, is a miserable self-complacency, a contentment in our own wretched doings, when we might have been looking at God’s doings. And all noble ornament is the exact reverse of this. It is the expression of man’s delight in God’s work.

XVI. For observe, the function of ornament is to make you happy. Now in what are you rightly happy? Not in thinking of what you have done yourself; not in your own pride, not your own birth; not in your own being, or your own will, but in looking at God; watching what He does, what He is; and obeying His law, and yielding yourself to His will.

You are to be made happy by ornaments; therefore they must be the expression of all this. Not copies of your own handiwork; not boastings of your own grandeur; not heraldries; not king’s arms, nor any creature’s arms, but God’s arm, seen in His work. Not manifestation of your delight in your own laws, or your own liberties, or your own inventions; but in divine laws, constant, daily, common laws;—not Composite laws, nor Doric laws, nor laws of the five orders, but of the Ten Commandments.

XVII. Then the proper material of ornament will be whatever God has created; and its proper treatment, that which seems in accordance with or symbolical of His laws. And, for material, we shall therefore have, first, the abstract lines which are most frequent in nature; and then, from lower to higher, the whole range of systematised inorganic and organic forms. We shall rapidly glance in order at their kinds; and, however absurd the elemental division of inorganic matter by the ancients may seem to the modern chemist, it is one so grand and simple for arrangements of external appearances, that I shall here follow it; noticing first, after abstract lines, the imitable forms of the four elements, of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, and then those of animal organisms. It may be convenient to the reader to have the order stated in a clear succession at first, thus:—

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 1. Abstract lines.

 2. Forms of Earth (Crystals).

 3. Forms of Water (Waves).

 4. Forms of Fire (Flames and Rays).

 5. Forms of Air (Clouds).

 6. (Organic forms.) Shells.

 7. Fish.

 8. Reptiles and insects.

 9. Vegetation (A.) Stems and Trunks.

10. Vegetation (B.) Foliage.

11. Birds.

12. Mammalian animals and Man.

It may be objected that clouds are a form of moisture, not of air. They are, however, a perfect expression of a�rial states and currents, and may sufficiently well stand for the element they move in. And I have put vegetation apparently somewhat out of its place, owing to its vast importance as a means of decoration, and its constant association with birds and men.


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