This re-reading was prompted by a lecture I gave last week on ‘Ruskin and Venice’. I enjoyed describing how Ruskin, standing with his back to the lagoon and gazing up at the façade of the Doge’s Palace, declared ecstatically that it was ‘the central building of the world’. I then asked my audience to imagine the Great Man (still only in his early thirties) turning around and shuddering in disgust at the spectacle of Palladio’s San Giorgio Maggiore across the water:
It is impossible to conceive a design more gross, more barbarous, more childish in conception, more servile in plagiarism, more insipid in result, more contemptible under every point of rational regard.
This duly provoked gasps and chuckles of astonishment. (It’s always reassuring when your audience react as you hope they will.)
I first encountered Ruskin and Venice when I was sixteen and reading E.M. Forster’s Howards End for the first time. In Chapter 6, Leonard Bast returns to his drab flat after his day’s work as a lowly insurance clerk, finds tea ‘that still survived upon an upper shelf’ and devours ‘some dusty crumbs of a cake’; then
He went back to the sitting-room, settled himself anew, and began to read a volume of Ruskin.
‘Seven miles to the north of Venice …’
How perfectly the famous chapter opens! How supreme its command of admonition and of poetry! The rich man is speaking to us from his gondola.
‘Seven miles…’ This is the opening of Ruskin’s celebrated description of the island of Torcello. Now observe (as Ruskin is always saying to his readers) the cunning of that last short sentence. Whose voice? Forster’s, or his narrator’s – the two are not the same – or Leonard Bast’s, or even a combination of all three? This seems like straightforward free indirect style; but are we, Forster’s readers, included in that ‘us’? Isn’t it just Leonard fantasizing about belonging to the cultured elite who go to concerts at the Queen’s Hall and read Ruskin after dinner? Then there’s the ambiguity of ‘his’ gondola: are we – again, Forster’s readers, not Ruskin’s – meant to join Leonard in thinking of Ruskin as ‘the rich man’ who, because he is rich, can afford his own gondola? Surely (we’d like to think) it’s only poor – literally poor – Leonard struggling to improve himself and his prose style by imitating The Stones of Venice, who betrays his envy of Ruskin ‘the rich man’.
The rich man at his castle,
The poor man at his gate:
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.
Leonard’s echoing of the notorious verse from All things bright and beautiful (1848) creates a subtle sense of bathos: no matter how hard he tries to improve himself, his lowly estate is fixed. Ironically, there is also bathos about Forster’s first encounter with a gondola, which took place not in Venice but at the Empress Hall, Earl’s Court. Although he had travelled widely in Italy during 1901-2, he had not been to Venice. Then, in May 1904 he visited an Italian exhibition that was to prove the hit of the summer. In distant Western Australia, The Kalgoorlie Miner described the show’s highlight, ‘Venice by Night’ thus:
Here by the light of innumerable lamps and the aid of gondoliers, who have under their charge a fleet of thirty-six genuine gondolas, the Londoner can travel the canals and ‘see’ the sights of Venice in miniature. There is the Doge's Palace, the Campanile (now a ruin* in real Venice), the Palace Dario, the Churches of St. Mark and St. Maria, and the Bridge of Sighs, the Rialto Bridges, and the Three Arches. There is three-quarters of a mile of canal, and Italian love songs float across the lagoon.
Forster loved ‘Venice by Night’. He found it ‘absurdly moving and touched in me loves for Italy hitherto unimagined.’ He took a gondola ride, gliding along the three-quarters of a mile of canal ‘between pasteboard walls in water 18 inches deep, by a canvas panorama of the Piazetta [sic] and Doge’s Palace.’ Ruskin would have despaired. Forster, too, acknowledges the kitschy make-believe:
But the gondola was real, and so was the gondolier, who allowed me to move myself by the sound of my own voice speaking Italian. He was young, incompetent, and a little drunk. For a moment the place was real, just as a poem is real.
But it was only for a moment.
Writing Howards End five years later, Forster finds Ruskin a troubling figure. For while Leonard is trying to model his writing on Ruskin (‘he understood him to be the greatest master of English prose’), Forster is trying to expunge Ruskinian mannerisms from his own writing. And, in so doing, he seeks to parody Ruskin’s seductive prose and his noble sentiments as no more authentic than the canvas panorama that had briefly, if absurdly, moved him at Earl’s Court:
And the voice in the gondola rolled on, piping melodiously of Effort and Self-Sacrifice, full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and love of men, yet somehow eluding all that was actual and insistent in Leonard’s life. For it was the voice of one who had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are.
But Forster has not done with Ruskin yet: this chapter of Howards End closes with Ruskin himself, in an extraordinary post-modern turn, being allowed the last word on Leonard. At the end of the dismal evening, when Leonard gives up his Arnoldian aspirations (‘To see life steadily and to see it whole was not for the likes of him’) and is forced to abandoned The Stones of Venice altogether, the novelist puts into Ruskin’s mind the thought that perhaps he is reluctant to articulate in his own:
Ruskin had visited Torcello by this time, and was ordering his gondoliers to take him to Murano. It occurred to him, as he glided over the whispering lagoons, that the power of Nature could not be shortened by the folly, nor her beauty altogether saddened by the misery, of such as Leonard.
* The original Campanile in St Mark’s had collapsed in 1902. It was rebuilt and re-opened in 1912.
[References: Ruskin’s denunciation of San Giorgio Maggiore will be found in his ‘Venetian Index’ at the end of The Stones of Venice, vol. III. His evocation of Torcello opens Chapter 2 of vol. II. Incidentally, Forster is a little less than fair to Ruskin, imagining him ‘gliding over the whispering lagoons’ after leaving Torcello. Ruskin’s next stop was Murano:
But it is morning now: we have a hard day’s work to do at Murano, and our boat shoots swiftly from beneath the last bridge of Venice, and brings us out into the open sea and sky. (Ch. 3, § IV.)
Forster’s account of visiting ‘Venice by Night’ is quoted by P.N. Furbank in his excellent and still definitive biography, E.M. Forster: A Life (1977), p.116. All quotations from Howards End will be found in Chapter 6, which begins, ‘We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’