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Stones of Venice, The, volume 1

CHAPTER XXI.

TREATMENT OF ORNAMENT.

I. We now know where we are to look for subjects of decoration. The next question is, as the reader must remember, how to treat or express these subjects.

There are evidently two branches of treatment: the first being the expression, or rendering to the eye and mind, of the thing itself; and the second, the arrangement of the thing so expressed: both of these being quite distinct from the placing of the ornament in proper parts of the building. For instance, suppose we take a vine-leaf for our subject. The first question is, how to cut the vine-leaf? Shall we cut its ribs and notches on the edge, or only its general outline? and so on. Then, how to arrange the vine-leaves when we have them; whether symmetrically, or at random; or unsymmetrically, yet within certain limits? All these I call questions of treatment. Then, whether the vine-leaves so arranged are to be set on the capital of a pillar or on its shaft, I call a question of place.

II. So, then, the questions of mere treatment are twofold, how to express, and how to arrange. And expression is to the mind or the sight. Therefore, the inquiry becomes really threefold:—

1. How ornament is to be expressed with reference to the mind.

2. How ornament is to be arranged with reference to the sight.

3. How ornament is to be arranged with reference to both.

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III. (1.) How is ornament to be treated with reference to the mind?

If, to produce a good or beautiful ornament, it were only necessary to produce a perfect piece of sculpture, and if a well cut group of flowers or animals were indeed an ornament wherever it might be placed, the work of the architect would be comparatively easy. Sculpture and architecture would become separate arts; and the architect would order so many pieces of such subject and size as he needed, without troubling himself with any questions but those of disposition and proportion. But this is not so. No perfect piece either of painting or sculpture is an architectural ornament at all, except in that vague sense in which any beautiful thing is said to ornament the place it is in. Thus we say that pictures ornament a room; but we should not thank an architect who told us that his design, to be complete, required a Titian to be put in one corner of it, and a Velasquez in the other; and it is just as unreasonable to call perfect sculpture, niched in, or encrusted on a building, a portion of the ornament of that building, as it would be to hang pictures by the way of ornament on the outside of it. It is very possible that the sculptured work may be harmoniously associated with the building, or the building executed with reference to it; but in this latter case the architecture is subordinate to the sculpture, as in the Medicean chapel, and I believe also in the Parthenon. And so far from the perfection of the work conducing to its ornamental purpose, we may say, with entire security, that its perfection, in some degree, unfits it for its purpose, and that no absolutely complete sculpture can be decoratively right. We have a familiar instance in the flower-work of St. Paul’s, which is probably, in the abstract, as perfect flower sculpture as could be produced at the time; and which is just as rational an ornament of the building as so many valuable Van Huysums, framed and glazed and hung up over each window.

IV. The especial condition of true ornament is, that it be beautiful in its place, and nowhere else, and that it aid the effect of every portion of the building over which it has influence; 238 that it does not, by its richness, make other parts bald, or, by its delicacy, make other parts coarse. Every one of its qualities has reference to its place and use: and it is fitted for its service by what would be faults and deficiencies if it had no especial duty. Ornament, the servant, is often formal, where sculpture, the master, would have been free; the servant is often silent where the master would have been eloquent; or hurried, where the master would have been serene.

V. How far this subordination is in different situations to be expressed, or how far it may be surrendered, and ornament, the servant, be permitted to have independent will; and by what means the subordination is best to be expressed when it is required, are by far the most difficult questions I have ever tried to work out respecting any branch of art; for, in many of the examples to which I look as authoritative in their majesty of effect, it is almost impossible to say whether the abstraction or imperfection of the sculpture was owing to the choice, or the incapacity of the workman; and, if to the latter, how far the result of fortunate incapacity can be imitated by prudent self-restraint. The reader, I think, will understand this at once by considering the effect of the illuminations of an old missal. In their bold rejection of all principles of perspective, light and shade, and drawing, they are infinitely more ornamental to the page, owing to the vivid opposition of their bright colors and quaint lines, than if they had been drawn by Da Vinci himself: and so the Arena chapel is far more brightly decorated by the archaic frescoes of Giotti, than the Stanze of the Vatican are by those of Raffaelle. But how far it is possible to recur to such archaicism, or to make up for it by any voluntary abandonment of power, I cannot as yet venture in any wise to determine.

VI. So, on the other hand, in many instances of finished work in which I find most to regret or to reprobate, I can hardly distinguish what is erroneous in principle from what is vulgar in execution. For instance, in most Romanesque churches of Italy, the porches are guarded by gigantic animals, lions or griffins, of admirable severity of design; yet, in many cases, 239 of so rude workmanship, that it can hardly be determined how much of this severity was intentional,—how much involuntary: in the cathedral of Genoa two modern lions have, in imitation of this ancient custom, been placed on the steps of its west front; and the Italian sculptor, thinking himself a marvellous great man because he knew what lions were really like, has copied them, in the menagerie, with great success, and produced two hairy and well-whiskered beasts, as like to real lions as he could possibly cut them. One wishes them back in the menagerie for his pains; but it is impossible to say how far the offence of their presence is owing to the mere stupidity and vulgarity of the sculpture, and how far we might have been delighted with a realisation, carried to nearly the same length by Ghiberti or Michael Angelo. (I say nearly, because neither Ghiberti nor Michael Angelo would ever have attempted, or permitted, entire realisation, even in independent sculpture.)

VII. In spite of these embarrassments, however, some few certainties may be marked in the treatment of past architecture, and secure conclusions deduced for future practice. There is first, for instance, the assuredly intended and resolute abstraction of the Ninevite and Egyptian sculptors. The men who cut those granite lions in the Egyptian room of the British Museum, and who carved the calm faces of those Ninevite kings, knew much more, both of lions and kings, than they chose to express. Then there is the Greek system, in which the human sculpture is perfect, the architecture and animal sculpture is subordinate to it, and the architectural ornament severely subordinated to this again, so as to be composed of little more than abstract lines: and, finally, there is the peculiarly medi�val system, in which the inferior details are carried to as great or greater imitative perfection as the higher sculpture; and the subordination is chiefly effected by symmetries of arrangement, and quaintnesses of treatment, respecting which it is difficult to say how far they resulted from intention, and how far from incapacity.

VIII. Now of these systems, the Ninevite and Egyptian 240 are altogether opposed to modern habits of thought and action; they are sculptures evidently executed under absolute authorities, physical and mental, such as cannot at present exist. The Greek system presupposes the possession of a Phidias; it is ridiculous to talk of building in the Greek manner; you may build a Greek shell or box, such as the Greek intended to contain sculpture, but you have not the sculpture to put in it. Find your Phidias first, and your new Phidias will very soon settle all your architectural difficulties in very unexpected ways indeed; but until you find him, do not think yourselves architects while you go on copying those poor subordinations, and secondary and tertiary orders of ornament, which the Greek put on the shell of his sculpture. Some of them, beads, and dentils, and such like, are as good as they can be for their work, and you may use them for subordinate work still; but they are nothing to be proud of, especially when you did not invent them: and others of them are mistakes and impertinences in the Greek himself, such as his so-called honeysuckle ornaments and others, in which there is a starched and dull suggestion of vegetable form, and yet no real resemblance nor life, for the conditions of them result from his own conceit of himself, and ignorance of the physical sciences, and want of relish for common nature, and vain fancy that he could improve everything he touched, and that he honored it by taking it into his service: by freedom from which conceits the true Christian architecture is distinguished—not by points to its arches.

IX. There remains, therefore, only the medi�val system, in which I think, generally, more completion is permitted (though this often because more was possible) in the inferior than in the higher portions of ornamental subject. Leaves, and birds, and lizards are realised, or nearly so; men and quadrupeds formalised. For observe, the smaller and inferior subject remains subordinate, however richly finished; but the human sculpture can only be subordinate by being imperfect. The realisation is, however, in all cases, dangerous except 241 under most skilful management, and the abstraction, if true and noble, is almost always more delightful.70

VIII.
DECORATION BY DISKS.
PALAZZO DEI BADOARI PARTECIPAZZI.

X. What, then, is noble abstraction? It is taking first the essential elements of the thing to be represented, then the rest in the order of importance (so that wherever we pause we shall always have obtained more than we leave behind), and using any expedient to impress what we want upon the mind, without caring about the mere literal accuracy of such expedient. Suppose, for instance, we have to represent a peacock: now a peacock has a graceful neck, so has a swan; it has a high crest, so has a cockatoo; it has a long tail, so has a bird of Paradise. But the whole spirit and power of peacock is in those eyes of the tail. It is true, the argus pheasant, and one or two more birds, have something like them, but nothing for a moment comparable to them in brilliancy: express the gleaming of the blue eyes through the plumage, and you have nearly all you want of peacock, but without this, nothing; and yet those eyes are not in relief; a rigidly true sculpture of a peacock’s form could have no eyes,—nothing but feathers. Here, then, enters the stratagem of sculpture; you must cut the eyes in relief, somehow or another; see how it is done in the peacock on the opposite page; it is so done by nearly all the Byzantine sculptors: this particular peacock is meant to be seen at some distance (how far off I know not, for it is an interpolation in the building where it occurs, of which more hereafter), but at all events at a distance of thirty or forty feet; I have put it close to you that you may see plainly the rude rings and rods which stand for the eyes and quills, but at the just distance their effect is perfect.

XI. And the simplicity of the means here employed may help us, both to some clear understanding of the spirit of Ninevite and Egyptian work, and to some perception of the kind of enfantillage or archaicism to which it may be possible, even in days of advanced science, legitimately to return. The 242 architect has no right, as we said before, to require of us a picture of Titian’s in order to complete his design; neither has he the right to calculate on the co-operation of perfect sculptors, in subordinate capacities. Far from this; his business is to dispense with such aid altogether, and to devise such a system of ornament as shall be capable of execution by uninventive and even unintelligent workmen; for supposing that he required noble sculpture for his ornament, how far would this at once limit the number and the scale of possible buildings? Architecture is the work of nations; but we cannot have nations of great sculptors. Every house in every street of every city ought to be good architecture, but we cannot have Flaxman or Thorwaldsen at work upon it: nor, even if we chose only to devote ourselves to our public buildings, could the mass and majesty of them be great, if we required all to be executed by great men; greatness is not to be had in the required quantity. Giotto may design a campanile, but he cannot carve it; he can only carve one or two of the bas-reliefs at the base of it. And with every increase of your fastidiousness in the execution of your ornament, you diminish the possible number and grandeur of your buildings. Do not think you can educate your workmen, or that the demand for perfection will increase the supply: educated imbecility and finessed foolishness are the worst of all imbecilities and foolishnesses; and there is no free-trade measure, which will ever lower the price of brains,—there is no California of common sense. Exactly in the degree in which you require your decoration to be wrought by thoughtful men, you diminish the extent and number of architectural works. Your business as an architect, is to calculate only on the co-operation of inferior men, to think for them, and to indicate for them such expressions of your thoughts as the weakest capacity can comprehend and the feeblest hand can execute. This is the definition of the purest architectural abstractions. They are the deep and laborious thoughts of the greatest men, put into such easy letters that they can be written by the simplest. They are expressions of the mind of manhood by the hands of childhood.

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XII. And now suppose one of those old Ninevite or Egyptian builders, with a couple of thousand men—mud-bred, onion-eating creatures—under him, to be set to work, like so many ants, on his temple sculptures. What is he to do with them? He can put them through a granitic exercise of current hand; he can teach them all how to curl hair thoroughly into croche-cœurs, as you teach a bench of school-boys how to shape pothooks; he can teach them all how to draw long eyes and straight noses, and how to copy accurately certain well-defined lines. Then he fits his own great design to their capacities; he takes out of king, or lion, or god, as much as was expressible by croche-cœurs and granitic pothooks; he throws this into noble forms of his own imagining, and having mapped out their lines so that there can be no possibility of error, sets his two thousand men to work upon them, with a will, and so many onions a day.

XIII. I said those times cannot now return. We have, with Christianity, recognised the individual value of every soul; and there is no intelligence so feeble but that its single ray may in some sort contribute to the general light. This is the glory of Gothic architecture, that every jot and tittle, every point and niche of it, affords room, fuel, and focus for individual fire. But you cease to acknowledge this, and you refuse to accept the help of the lesser mind, if you require the work to be all executed in a great manner. Your business is to think out all of it nobly, to dictate the expression of it as far as your dictation can assist the less elevated intelligence: then to leave this, aided and taught as far as may be, to its own simple act and effort; and to rejoice in its simplicity if not in its power, and in its vitality if not in its science.

XIV. We have, then, three orders of ornament, classed according to the degrees of correspondence of the executive and conceptive minds. We have the servile ornament, in which the executive is absolutely subjected to the inventive,—the ornament of the great Eastern nations, more especially Hamite, and all pre-Christian, yet thoroughly noble in its submissiveness. Then we have the medi�val system, in which 244 the mind of the inferior workman is recognised, and has full room for action, but is guided and ennobled by the ruling mind. This is the truly Christian and only perfect system. Finally, we have ornaments expressing the endeavor to equalise the executive and inventive,—endeavor which is Renaissance and revolutionary, and destructive of all noble architecture.

XV. Thus far, then, of the incompleteness or simplicity of execution necessary in architectural ornament, as referred to the mind. Next we have to consider that which is required when it is referred to the sight, and the various modifications of treatment which are rendered necessary by the variation of its distance from the eye. I say necessary: not merely expedient or economical. It is foolish to carve what is to be seen forty feet off with the delicacy which the eye demands within two yards; not merely because such delicacy is lost in the distance, but because it is a great deal worse than lost:—the delicate work has actually worse effect in the distance than rough work. This is a fact well known to painters, and, for the most part, acknowledged by the critics of painters, namely, that there is a certain distance for which a picture is painted; and that the finish, which is delightful if that distance be small, is actually injurious if the distance be great: and, moreover, that there is a particular method of handling which none but consummate artists reach, which has its effects at the intended distance, and is altogether hieroglyphical and unintelligible at any other. This, I say, is acknowledged in painting, but it is not practically acknowledged in architecture; nor until my attention was especially directed to it, had I myself any idea of the care with which this great question was studied by the medi�val architects. On my first careful examination of the capitals of the upper arcade of the Ducal Palace at Venice, I was induced, by their singular inferiority of workmanship, to suppose them posterior to those of the lower arcade. It was not till I discovered that some of those which I thought the worst above, were the best when seen from below, that I obtained the key to this marvellous system of adaptation; a 245 system which I afterwards found carried out in every building of the great times which I had opportunity of examining.

XVI. There are two distinct modes in which this adaptation is effected. In the first, the same designs which are delicately worked when near the eye, are rudely cut, and have far fewer details when they are removed from it. In this method it is not always easy to distinguish economy from skill, or slovenliness from science. But, in the second method, a different design is adopted, composed of fewer parts and of simpler lines, and this is cut with exquisite precision. This is of course the higher method, and the more satisfactory proof of purpose; but an equal degree of imperfection is found in both kinds when they are seen close; in the first, a bald execution of a perfect design; the second, a baldness of design with perfect execution. And in these very imperfections lies the admirableness of the ornament.

XVII. It may be asked whether, in advocating this adaptation to the distance of the eye, I obey my adopted rule of observance of natural law. Are not all natural things, it may be asked, as lovely near as far away? Nay, not so. Look at the clouds, and watch the delicate sculpture of their alabaster sides, and the rounded lustre of their magnificent rolling. They are meant to be beheld far away; they were shaped for their place, high above your head; approach them, and they fuse into vague mists, or whirl away in fierce fragments of thunderous vapor. Look at the crest of the Alp, from the far-away plains over which its light is cast, whence human souls have communion with it by their myriads. The child looks up to it in the dawn, and the husbandman in the burden and heat of the day, and the old man in the going down of the sun, and it is to them all as the celestial city on the world’s horizon; dyed with the depth of heaven, and clothed with the calm of eternity. There was it set, for holy dominion, by Him who marked for the sun his journey, and bade the moon know her going down. It was built for its place in the far-off sky; approach it, and as the sound of the voice of man dies away about its foundations, and the tide of human life, shallowed 246 upon the vast a�rial shore, is at last met by the Eternal “Here shall thy waves be stayed,” the glory of its aspect fades into blanched fearfulness; its purple walls are rent into grisly rocks, its silver fretwork saddened into wasting snow, the storm-brands of ages are on its breast, the ashes of its own ruin lie solemnly on its white raiment.

Nor in such instances as these alone, though strangely enough, the discrepancy between apparent and actual beauty is greater in proportion to the unapproachableness of the object, is the law observed. For every distance from the eye there is a peculiar kind of beauty, or a different system of lines of form; the sight of that beauty is reserved for that distance, and for that alone. If you approach nearer, that kind of beauty is lost, and another succeeds, to be disorganised and reduced to strange and incomprehensible means and appliances in its turn. If you desire to perceive the great harmonies of the form of a rocky mountain, you must not ascend upon its sides. All is there disorder and accident, or seems so; sudden starts of its shattered beds hither and thither; ugly struggles of unexpected strength from under the ground; fallen fragments, toppling one over another into more helpless fall. Retire from it, and, as your eye commands it more and more, as you see the ruined mountain world with a wider glance, behold! dim sympathies begin to busy themselves in the disjointed mass; line binds itself into stealthy fellowship with line; group by group, the helpless fragments gather themselves into ordered companies; new captains of hosts and masses of battalions become visible, one by one, and far away answers of foot to foot, and of bone to bone, until the powerless chaos is seen risen up with girded loins, and not one piece of all the unregarded heap could now be spared from the mystic whole.


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