Stones of Venice, The, volume 1



I. We know now as much as is needful respecting the methods of minor and universal decorations, which were distinguished in Chapter XXII., III., from the ornament which has special relation to particular parts. This local ornament, which, it will be remembered, we arranged in II. of the same chapter under five heads, we have next, under those heads, to consider. And, first, the ornament of the bases, both of walls and shafts.

It was noticed in our account of the divisions of a wall, that there are something in those divisions like the beginning, the several courses, and the close of a human life. And as, in all well-conducted lives, the hard work, and roughing, and gaining of strength come first, the honor or decoration in certain intervals during their course, but most of all in their close, so, in general, the base of the wall, which is its beginning of labor, will bear least decoration, its body more, especially those epochs of rest called its string courses; but its crown or cornice most of all. Still, in some buildings, all these are decorated richly, though the last most; and in others, when the base is well protected and yet conspicuous, it may probably receive even more decoration than other parts.

II. Now, the main things to be expressed in a base are its levelness and evenness. We cannot do better than construct the several members of the base, as developed in Fig. II., p. 55, each of a different colored marble, so as to produce marked level bars of color all along the foundation. This is exquisitely done in all the Italian elaborate wall bases; that of St. Anastasia at Verona is one of the most perfect existing, for 282 play of color; that of Giotto’s campanile is on the whole the most beautifully finished. Then, on the vertical portions, a, b, c, we may put what patterns in mosaic we please, so that they be not too rich; but if we choose rather to have sculpture (or must have it for want of stones to inlay), then observe that all sculpture on bases must be in panels, or it will soon be worn away, and that a plain panelling is often good without any other ornament. The member b, which in St. Mark’s is subordinate, and c, which is expanded into a seat, are both of them decorated with simple but exquisitely-finished panelling, in red and white or green and white marble; and the member e is in bases of this kind very valuable, as an expression of a firm beginning of the substance of the wall itself. This member has been of no service to us hitherto, and was unnoticed in the chapters on construction; but it was expressed in the figure of the wall base, on account of its great value when the foundation is of stone and the wall of brick (coated or not). In such cases it is always better to add the course e, above the slope of the base, than abruptly to begin the common masonry of the wall.

III. It is, however, with the member d, or Xb, that we are most seriously concerned; for this being the essential feature of all bases, and the true preparation for the wall or shaft, it is most necessary that here, if anywhere, we should have full expression of levelness and precision; and farther, that, if possible, the eye should not be suffered to rest on the points of junction of the stones, which would give an effect of instability. Both these objects are accomplished by attracting the eye to two rolls, separated by a deep hollow, in the member d itself. The bold projections of their mouldings entirely prevent the attention from being drawn to the joints of the masonry, and besides form a simple but beautifully connected group of bars of shadow, which express, in their perfect parallelism, the absolute levelness of the foundation.

IV. I need hardly give any perspective drawing of an arrangement which must be perfectly familiar to the reader, as occurring under nearly every column of the too numerous 283 classical buildings all over Europe. But I may name the base of the Bank of England as furnishing a very simple instance of the group, with a square instead of a rounded hollow, both forming the base of the wall, and gathering into that of the shafts as they occur; while the bases of the pillars of the fa�ade of the British Museum are as good examples as the reader can study on a larger scale.


V. I believe this group of mouldings was first invented by the Greeks, and it has never been materially improved, as far as its peculiar purpose is concerned;78 the classical attempts at its variation being the ugliest: one, the using a single roll of larger size, as may be seen in the Duke of York’s column, which therefore looks as if it stood on a large sausage (the Monument has the same base, but more concealed by pedestal decoration): another, the using two rolls without the intermediate cavetto,—a condition hardly less awkward, and which may be studied to advantage in the wall and shaftbases of the Athen�um Club-house: and another, the introduction of what are called fillets between the rolls, as may be seen in the pillars of Hanover Chapel, Regent Street, which look, in consequence, as if they were standing upon a pile of pewter collection plates. But the only successful changes have been medi�val; and their nature will be at once understood by a glance at the varieties given on the opposite page. It will be well first to give the buildings in which they occur, in order.

 1. Santa Fosca, Torcello.

 2. North transept, St. Mark’s, Venice.

 3. Nave, Torcello.

 4. Nave, Torcello.

 5. South transept, St. Mark’s.

 6. Northern portico, upper shafts, St. Mark’s.

 7. Another of the same group.

 8. Cortile of St. Ambrogio, Milan.

 9. Nave shafts, St. Michele, Pavia.

10. Outside wall base, St. Mark’s, Venice.

11. Fondaco de’ Turchi, Venice.

12. Nave, Vienne, France.

13. Fondaco de’ Turchi, Venice. 284

14. Ca’ Giustiniani, Venice.


15. Byzantine fragment, Venice.

16. St. Mark’s, upper Colonnade.

17. Ducal Palace, Venice (windows.)

18. Ca’ Falier, Venice.

19. St. Zeno, Verona.

20. San Stefano, Venice.

21. Ducal Palace, Venice (windows.)

22. Nave, Salisbury.

23. Santa Fosca, Torcello.

24. Nave, Lyons Cathedral.

25. Notre Dame, Dijon.

26. Nave, Bourges Cathedral.

27. Nave, Mortain (Normandy).

28. Nave, Rouen Cathedral.

VI. Eighteen out of the twenty eight varieties are Venetian, being bases to which I shall have need of future reference; but the interspersed examples, 8, 9, 12, and 19, from Milan, Pavia, Vienne (France), and Verona, show the exactly correspondent conditions of the Romanesque base at the period, throughout the centre of Europe. The last five examples show the changes effected by the French Gothic architects: the Salisbury base (22) I have only introduced to show its dulness and vulgarity beside them; and 23, from Torcello, for a special reason, in that place.

VII. The reader will observe that the two bases, 8 and 9, from the two most important Lombardic churches of Italy, St. Ambrogio of Milan and St. Michele of Pavia, mark the character of the barbaric base founded on pure Roman models, sometimes approximating to such models very closely; and the varieties 10, 11, 13, 16 are Byzantine types, also founded on Roman models. But in the bases 1 to 7 inclusive, and, still more characteristically, in 23 below, there is evidently an original element, a tendency to use the fillet and hollow instead of the roll, which is eminently Gothic; which in the base 3 reminds one even of Flamboyant conditions, and is excessively remarkable as occurring in Italian work certainly not later than the tenth century, taking even the date of the last rebuilding of the Duomo of Torcello, though I am strongly inclined to consider these bases portions of the original church. And I have therefore put the base 23 among the Gothic group to which it has so strong relationship, though, on the last supposition, five centuries older than the earliest of the five terminal examples; and it is still more remarkable because it reverses the usual treatment of the lower roll, which is in 285 general a tolerably accurate test of the age of a base, in the degree of its projection. Thus, in the examples 2, 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 12, the lower roll is hardly rounded at all, and diametrically opposed to the late Gothic conditions, 24 to 28, in which it advances gradually, like a wave preparing to break, and at last is actually seen curling over with the long-backed rush of surf upon the shore. Yet the Torcello base resembles these Gothic ones both in expansion beneath and in depth of cavetto above.

VIII. There can be no question of the ineffable superiority of these Gothic bases, in grace of profile, to any ever invented by the ancients. But they have all two great faults: They seem, in the first place, to have been designed without sufficient reference to the necessity of their being usually seen from above; their grace of profile cannot be estimated when so seen, and their excessive expansion gives them an appearance of flatness and separation from the shaft, as if they had splashed out under its pressure: in the second place their cavetto is so deeply cut that it has the appearance of a black fissure between the members of the base; and in the Lyons and Bourges shafts, 24 and 26, it is impossible to conquer the idea suggested by it, that the two stones above and below have been intended to join close, but that some pebbles have got in and kept them from fitting; one is always expecting the pebbles to be crushed, and the shaft to settle into its place with a thunder-clap.

IX. For these reasons, I said that the profile of the pure classic base had hardly been materially improved; but the various conditions of it are beautiful or commonplace, in proportion to the variety of proportion among their lines and the delicacy of their curvatures; that is to say, the expression of characters like those of the abstract lines in Plate VII.

The five best profiles in Plate X. are 10, 17, 19, 20, 21; 10 is peculiarly beautiful in the opposition between the bold projection of its upper roll, and the delicate leafy curvature of its lower; and this and 21 may be taken as nearly perfect types, the one of the steep, the other of the expansive basic profiles. 286 The characters of all, however, are so dependent upon their place and expression, that it is unfair to judge them thus separately; and the precision of curvature is a matter of so small consequence in general effect, that we need not here pursue the subject farther.

Fig. LIX

X. We have thus far, however, considered only the lines of moulding in the member X b, whether of wall or shaft base. But the reader will remember that in our best shaft base, in Fig. XII. (), certain props or spurs were applied to the slope of X b; but now that X b is divided into these delicate mouldings, we cannot conveniently apply the spur to its irregular profile; we must be content to set it against the lower roll. Let the upper edge of this lower roll be the curved line here, a, d, e, b, Fig. LIX., and c the angle of the square plinth projecting beneath it. Then the spur, applied as we saw in Chap. VII., will be of some such form as the triangle c e d, Fig. LIX.

XI. Now it has just been stated that it is of small importance whether the abstract lines of the profile of a base moulding be fine or not, because we rarely stoop down to look at them. But this triangular spur is nearly always seen from above, and the eye is drawn to it as one of the most important features of the whole base; therefore it is a point of immediate necessity to substitute for its harsh right lines (c d, c e) some curve of noble abstract character.

XII. I mentioned, in speaking of the line of the salvia leaf at , that I had marked off the portion of it, x y, because I thought it likely to be generally useful to us afterwards; and I promised the reader that as he had built, so he should decorate his edifice at his own free will. If, therefore, he likes the 287 above triangular spur, c d e, by all means let him keep it; but if he be on the whole dissatisfied with it, I may be permitted, perhaps, to advise him to set to work like a tapestry bee, to cut off the little bit of line of salvia leaf x y, and try how he can best substitute it for the awkward lines c d c e. He may try it any way that he likes; but if he puts the salvia curvature inside the present lines, he will find the spur looks weak, and I think he will determine at last on placing it as I have done at c d, c e, Fig. LX. (If the reader will be at the pains to transfer the salvia leaf line with tracing paper, he will find it accurately used in this figure.) Then I merely add an outer circular line to represent the outer swell of the roll against which the spur is set, and I put another such spur to the opposite corner of the square, and we have the half base, Fig. LX., which is a general type of the best Gothic bases in existence, being very nearly that of the upper shafts of the Ducal Palace of Venice. In those shafts the quadrant a b, or the upper edge of the lower roll, is 2 feet 1-3/8 inches round, and the base of the spur d e, is 10 inches; the line d e being therefore to a b as 10 to 25-3/8. In Fig. LX. it is as 10 to 24, the measurement being easier and the type somewhat more generally representative of the best, i. e. broadest, spurs of Italian Gothic.

Fig. LX.

XIII. Now, the reader is to remember, there is nothing 288 magical in salvia leaves: the line I take from them happened merely to fall conveniently on the page, and might as well have been taken from anything else; it is simply its character of gradated curvature which fits it for our use. On Plate XI., opposite, I have given plans of the spurs and quadrants of twelve Italian and three Northern bases; these latter (13), from Bourges, (14) from Lyons, (15) from Rouen, are given merely to show the Northern disposition to break up bounding lines, and lose breadth in picturesqueness. These Northern bases look the prettiest in this plate, because this variation of the outline is nearly all the ornament they have, being cut very rudely; but the Italian bases above them are merely prepared by their simple outlines for far richer decoration at the next step, as we shall see presently. The Northern bases are to be noted also for another grand error: the projection of the roll beyond the square plinth, of which the corner is seen, in various degrees of advancement, in the three examples. 13 is the base whose profile is No. 26 in Plate X.; 14 is 24 in the same plate; and 15 is 28.


XIV. The Italian bases are the following; all, except 7 and 10, being Venetian: 1 and 2, upper colonnade, St. Mark’s; 3, Ca’ Falier; 4, lower colonnade, and 5, transept, St. Mark’s; 6, from the Church of St. John and Paul; 7, from the tomb near St. Anastasia, Verona, described above (); 8 and 9, Fon daco de’ Turchi, Venice; 10, tomb of Can Mastino della Scala, Verona; 11, San Stefano, Venice; 12, Ducal Palace, Venice, upper colonnade. The Nos. 3, 8, 9, 11 are the bases whose profiles are respectively Nos. 18, 11, 13, and 20 in Plate X. The flat surfaces of the basic plinths are here shaded; and in the lower corner of the square occupied by each quadrant is put, also shaded, the central profile of each spur, from its root at the roll of the base to its point; those of Nos. 1 and 2 being conjectural, for their spurs were so rude and ugly, that I took no note of their profiles; but they would probably be as here given. As these bases, though here, for the sake of comparison, reduced within squares of equal size, in reality belong to shafts of very different size, 9 being some six or seven inches 289 in diameter, and 6, three or four feet, the proportionate size of the roll varies accordingly, being largest, as in 9, where the base is smallest, and in 6 and 12 the leaf profile is given on a larger scale than the plan, or its character could not have been exhibited.


XV. Now, in all these spurs, the reader will observe that the narrowest are for the most part the earliest. No. 2, from the upper colonnade of St. Mark’s, is the only instance I ever saw of the double spur, as transitive between the square and octagon plinth; the truncated form, 1, is also rare and very ugly. Nos. 3, 4, 5, 7 and 9 are the general conditions of the Byzantine spur; 8 is a very rare form of plan in Byzantine work, but proved to be so by its rude level profile; while 7, on the contrary, Byzantine in plan, is eminently Gothic in the profile. 9 to 12 are from formed Gothic buildings, equally refined in their profile and plan.

XVI. The character of the profile is indeed much altered by the accidental nature of the surface decoration; but the importance of the broad difference between the raised and flat profile will be felt on glancing at the examples 1 to 6 in Plate XII. The three upper examples are the Romanesque types, which occur as parallels with the Byzantine types, 1 to 3 of Plate XI. Their plans would be nearly the same; but instead of resembling flat leaves, they are literally spurs, or claws, as high as they are broad; and the third, from St. Michele of Pavia, appears to be intended to have its resemblance to a claw enforced by the transverse fillet. 1 is from St. Ambrogio, Milan; 2 from Vienne, France. The 4th type, Plate XII., almost like the extremity of a man’s foot, is a Byzantine form (perhaps worn on the edges), from the nave of St. Mark’s; and the two next show the unity of the two principles, forming the perfect Italian Gothic types,—5, from tomb of Can Signorio della Scala, Verona; 6, from San Stefano, Venice (the base 11 of Plate XI., in perspective). The two other bases, 10 and 12 of Plate XI., are conditions of the same kind, showing the varieties of rise and fall in exquisite modulation; the 10th, a type more frequent at Verona than Venice, in 290 which the spur profile overlaps the roll, instead of rising out of it, and seems to hold it down, as if it were a ring held by sockets. This is a character found both in early and late work; a kind of band, or fillet, appears to hold, and even compress, the centre of the roll in the base of one of the crypt shafts of St. Peter’s, Oxford, which has also spurs at its angles; and long bands flow over the base of the angle shaft of the Ducal Palace of Venice, next the Porta della Carta.

XVII. When the main contours of the base are once determined, its decoration is as easy as it is infinite. I have merely given, in Plate XII., three examples to which I shall need to refer, hereafter. No. 9 is a very early and curious one; the decoration of the base 6 in Plate XI., representing a leaf turned over and flattened down; or, rather, the idea of the turned leaf, worked as well as could be imagined on the flat contour of the spur. Then 10 is the perfect, but simplest possible development of the same idea, from the earliest bases of the upper colonnade of the Ducal Palace, that is to say, the bases of the sea fa�ade; and 7 and 8 are its lateral profile and transverse section. Finally, 11 and 12 are two of the spurs of the later shafts of the same colonnade on the Piazzetta side (No. 12 of Plate XI.). No. 11 occurs on one of these shafts only, and is singularly beautiful. I suspect it to be earlier than the other, which is the characteristic base of the rest of the series, and already shows the loose, sensual, ungoverned character of fifteenth century ornament in the dissoluteness of its rolling.

XVIII. I merely give these as examples ready to my hand, and necessary for future reference; not as in anywise representative of the variety of the Italian treatment of the general contour, far less of the endless caprices of the North. The most beautiful base I ever saw, on the whole, is a Byzantine one in the Baptistery of St. Mark’s, in which the spur profile approximates to that of No. 10 in Plate XI.; but it is formed by a cherub, who sweeps downwards on the wing. His two wings, as they half close, form the upper part of the spur, and the rise of it in the front is formed by exactly the action of Alichino, swooping on the pitch lake: “quei drizzo, volando, 291 suso il petto.” But it requires noble management to confine such a fancy within such limits. The greater number of the best bases are formed of leaves; and the reader may amuse himself as he will by endless inventions of them, from types which he may gather among the weeds at the nearest roadside. The value of the vegetable form is especially here, as above noted, Chap. XX., XXXII., its capability of unity with the mass of the base, and of being suggested by few lines; none but the Northern Gothic architects are able to introduce entire animal forms in this position with perfect success. There is a beautiful instance at the north door of the west front of Rouen; a lizard pausing and curling himself round a little in the angle; one expects him the next instant to lash round the shaft and vanish: and we may with advantage compare this base with those of Renaissance Scuola di San Rocca79 at Venice, in which the architect, imitating the medi�val bases, which he did not understand, has put an elephant, four inches higher, in the same position.

XIX. I have not in this chapter spoken at all of the profiles which are given in Northern architecture to the projections of the lower members of the base, b and c in Fig. II., nor of the methods in which both these, and the rolls of the mouldings in Plate X., are decorated, especially in Roman architecture, with superadded chain work or chasing of various patterns. Of the first I have not spoken, because I shall have no occasion to allude to them in the following essay; nor of the second, because I consider them barbarisms. Decorated rolls and decorated ogee profiles, such, for instance, as the base of the Arc de l’Etoile at Paris, are among the richest and farthest refinements of decorative appliances; and they ought always to be reserved for jambs, cornices, and archivolts: if you begin with them in the base, you have no power of refining your decorations as you ascend, and, which is still worse, you put your 292 most delicate work on the jutting portions of the foundation,—the very portions which are most exposed to abrasion. The best expression of a base is that of stern endurance,—the look of being able to bear roughing; or, if the whole building is so delicate that no one can be expected to treat even its base with unkindness,80 then at least the expression of quiet, prefatory simplicity. The angle spur may receive such decoration as we have seen, because it is one of the most important features in the whole building; and the eye is always so attracted to it that it cannot be in rich architecture left altogether blank; the eye is stayed upon it by its position, but glides, and ought to glide, along the basic rolls to take measurement of their length: and even with all this added fitness, the ornament of the basic spur is best, in the long run, when it is boldest and simplest. The base above described, XVIII., as the most beautiful I ever saw, was not for that reason the best I ever saw: beautiful in its place, in a quiet corner of a Baptistery sheeted with jasper and alabaster, it would have been utterly wrong, nay, even offensive, if used in sterner work, or repeated along a whole colonnade. The base No. 10 of Plate XII. is the richest with which I was ever perfectly satisfied for general service; and the basic spurs of the building which I have named as the best Gothic monument in the world (), have no ornament upon them whatever. The adaptation, therefore, of rich cornice and roll mouldings to the level and ordinary lines of bases, whether of walls or shafts, I hold to be one of the worst barbarisms which the Roman and Renaissance architects ever committed; and that nothing can afterwards redeem the effeminacy and vulgarity of the buildings in which it prominently takes place.

XX. I have also passed over, without present notice, the fantastic bases formed by couchant animals, which sustain many Lombardic shafts. The pillars they support have independent bases of the ordinary kind; and the animal form beneath is less to be considered as a true base (though often 293 exquisitely combined with it, as in the shaft on the south-west angle of the cathedral of Genoa) than as a piece of sculpture, otherwise necessary to the nobility of the building, and deriving its value from its special positive fulfilment of expressional purposes, with which we have here no concern. As the embodiment of a wild superstition, and the representation of supernatural powers, their appeal to the imagination sets at utter defiance all judgment based on ordinary canons of law; and the magnificence of their treatment atones, in nearly every case, for the extravagance of their conception. I should not admit this appeal to the imagination, if it had been made by a nation in whom the powers of body and mind had been languid; but by the Lombard, strong in all the realities of human life, we need not fear being led astray: the visions of a distempered fancy are not indeed permitted to replace the truth, or set aside the laws of science: but the imagination which is thoroughly under the command of the intelligent will,81 has a dominion indiscernible by science, and illimitable by law; and we may acknowledge the authority of the Lombardic gryphons in the mere splendor of their presence, without thinking idolatry an excuse for mechanical misconstruction, or dreading to be called upon, in other cases, to admire a systemless architecture, because it may happen to have sprung from an irrational religion.

78 Another most important reason for the peculiar sufficiency and value of this base, especially as opposed to the bulging forms of the single or double roll, without the cavetto, has been suggested by the writer of the Essay on the �sthetics of Gothic Architecture in the British Quarterly for August, 1849:—“The Attic base recedes at the point where, if it suffered from superincumbent weight, it would bulge out.”

79 I have put in Appendix 24, “Renaissance Bases,” my memorandum written respecting this building on the spot. But the reader had better delay referring to it, until we have completed our examination of ornaments in shafts and capitals.

80 Appendix 25, “Romanist Decoration of Bases.”

81 In all the wildness of the Lombardic fancy (described in Appendix 8), this command of the will over its action is as distinct as it is stern. The fancy is, in the early work of the nation, visibly diseased; but never the will, nor the reason.


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