Revisiting the Stones

This is the second edition of a book originally published in 2000 to enthusiastic reviews and which, one may assume from this new version, quite reasonably sold out. The text is only slightly rearranged and remains for the most part what it was: a series of judiciously culled selections from Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, the sprawling half-million-word work that was published in three volumes between 1851 and 1853. The abridgement was illustrated with Ruskin’s original drawings and printed versions from his book, in addition to many photographs made by Sarah Quill.

Second editions often incorporate material discovered since the appearance of the first, or allow the insertion of thoughts that have occurred to the author in the meantime. In this case there are additions in both categories. In the first, the chance discovery in 2006 of more than 180 daguerreotypes made in Venice for Ruskin as study material dramatically altered what we know of the images at his disposal as he worked. As for the second, the author-editor’s updated thoughts centered on her pictures.

Sarah Quill is a first-rate photographer; she reconsidered the illustrations extensively, and there are many new photographs—both additions and replacements—that improve the visual content of the second edition. There are as well some significant changes to its design, which is now clearer and more appealing; notes that were in the margins have been moved to the end, for example, making pages open and pleasanter to read. And while it is not likely that many people will carry the book around Venice as a tourist guide, that will be easier to do with the new version, for in an added section all the sites referred to in the text are listed by sestiere, the six sections of the city.

Given that the content of Ruskin’s Venice has not been radically altered, the following brief discussion is only secondarily a review of the book as an abridged edition of Ruskin’s great work, a topic covered in write-ups of the first edition. My primary interest here is the second edition as a carefully crafted illustrated book. Nonetheless a word or two is in order about The Stones of Venice and why we need to have it in a shortened and rearranged form.

Ruskin had a great poetic soul, but his perceptive and vastly wide-ranging mind was not very well organized. He worked on many things at once—The Stones of Venice was, along with two editions of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, written between volumes 1 and 2 of Modern Painters. Kenneth Clark suggested that one of the reasons Ruskin is hard to read is his severe inability to concentrate. He tended to write things as they popped into his head, and his ideas on one topic often appear in a book that purports to be on another; Modern Painters contains an extended discussion of the geology of the Alps, and in The Stones of Venice Ruskin wanders off the subject to rail against the evils of the capitalism of his own day. An example of this tendency that bears on Ms. Quill’s book is the text she put on her frontispiece: the justly famous and rapturous description of Venice as “a golden city, paved with emerald . . . bossed with jasper.” It is in fact not from The Stones of Venice but from volume 2 of Modern Painters. Ruskin penned it after the former was finished, so, too good not to use, it was slipped into the next thing he wrote. To be sure, he smoothed transitions to some degree, but the many changes of direction and unexpected inclusions give to his works at times an almost stream-of-consciousness character. The passage in question fits far better where Sarah Quill put it than where Ruskin did. To be fair to Ruskin, she could do it easily while he could not, but the reader is still grateful to her for bringing it into the book on Venice.

The glory of the new edition lies in its much-improved photographic illustrations. Ms. Quill is gifted, of course, but she is also fortunate in her publisher; not all houses would allow a photographer to change serviceable pictures merely because they can be improved. One learns a great deal about Ms. Quill as an exacting image maker by carefully comparing pictures in the two editions. As that is not the sort of thing most readers will do (although it is much recommended), I mention it here.

Improvements take the form of images that were remade in more balanced light and from more informative angles. One in particular, which shows the labors of the months from an arch at San Marco, is vastly superior to the illustration in the first edition. A different sort of improvement, one that is striking for its intelligence, is seen in a picture of some houses in Campo Santa Maria Mater Domini. The original showed much more of them than was necessary to make Ruskin’s point, so it was remade and better cropped to focus more on what matters in his context. That saves some space on the page, allowing for an additional picture, and tightens the visual presentation. Nearly every new photograph repays careful looking.

Ruskin had a love-hate relationship with photography. When he first saw a daguerreotype he thought it was a miracle of accuracy and that the new medium would save him a great deal of labor. But later he came to distrust and dismiss camera-made images, preferring to make his own illustrations by hand rather than settling for what the process gave him. Photography could scarcely be more different today from what it was in Ruskin’s time, and although it is risky to guess what an author as crotchety and opinionated as he was would have made of digital images, I am rather sure that he would have been delighted by the illustrations Sarah Quill made and selected for her new presentation of The Stones of Venice. Feeling as he did about modern industrial means, he might not have been impressed by their technical aspects, more than likely disparaging them as machine made; but he would have recognized instantly that they are deeply respectful of his aims and aspirations. When he had lingered over them a bit and reread his words, he would surely have acknowledged that, with their deep and palpable respect for the lovingly hand-carved forms they show, many of the Quill photographs serve Ruskin’s ideas every bit as well as—and perhaps even better than—his own drawings.

Ralph Lieberman is an architectural historian and photographer who has published on Renaissance architecture in Venice, Michelangelo, perspective, and the Crystal Palace. He has taught at Williams College, Smith College, Amherst College, Harvard University, and the Rhode Island School of Design, and is now at work on a book on photography and art history.