08 November 2018

‘The fast-gaining waves …
beat, like passing bells,
against the Stones of Venice’

John Ruskin said ‘The Ducal palace of Venice … is the central building of the world’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

It is impossible to pass the Doge’s Palace at the waterfront in Saint Mark’s Square in Venice without recalling how John Ruskin once said: ‘The Ducal palace of Venice contains the three elements in exactly equal proportions – the Roman, Lombard, and Arab. It is the central building of the world.’

Two of the greatest writers about Venice in the English-speaking world must be John Julius Norwich, who died earlier this year [1 June 2018], and John Ruskin (1819-1900), whose bicentenary is being marked next year.

I met John Julius Norwich at the Wexford Festival two years ago, just a few weeks after I had acquired for the first tome a copy of John Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice.

I had often borrowed library copies and read other people’s versions of Ruskin’s Stones of Venice, but only acquired my own copy in a second-hand bookshop in Cambridge in September 2016, a slim edition edited by JG Links, author of Venice for Pleasure and published in 2001 in London by Pallas Athene.

Ruskin’s work was so influential that it brought Victorian Gothic architecture to a new stage beyond AWN Pugin. The Stones of Venice was originally a three-volume work on Venetian art and architecture, published in 1851-1853. Had I studied architecture rather than theology, this would have been on the essential reading list.

Ruskin had an intense bond with Venice and described himself as her ‘foster-child.’ This bond began with his first visit at the age of 16, and was nourished over the span of his lifetime, with 11 visits between 1835 and 1888. He wrote in 1851, ‘Thank God I am here, it is a Paradise of Cities.’

Ruskin succeeded in influencing the aesthetics of his time with his interpretation of art and architecture and contributed to spreading the myth of Venice, extolling its beauty right in the period of its decline.

The Stones of Venice was published in three volumes between 1851 and 1853, and was revised after he had witnessed the demolition of important parts of Saint Mark’s Basilica. It was a hymn to the beauty and extreme fragility of Venice, and became a guide to the city ‘for the few travellers who still care about its monuments.’

Ruskin was Victorian England’s greatest writer on art, literature and architecture. He first described architecture as poetry in 1839, and later wrote: ‘To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, ― all in one.’ Later, Ruskin would describe the Church of Saint Augustine and Saint John the Baptist or John’s Lane Church in Thomas Street, Dublin, designed by Edward Welby Pugin, as ‘a poem in stone.’

The Doge’s Palace is the one building more than any other in Venice that inspired Ruskin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The Doge’s Palace is the one building more than any other in Venice that inspired Ruskin. He explored this building in depth from different angles in his sketchbooks, watercolours, architectural studies, plaster casts, albumen and platinum prints.

The Stones of Venice has been described as the greatest guidebook ever written. It was read by all who went to Venice and thousands who did not. It opened Victorian eyes to the glories of a city under threat even then, and transformed the study and practice of architecture forever. It took Ruskin almost half a million words to launch this devastating attack on the Renaissance, and to explain how to see and make true architecture.

Ruskin’s famous essay, ‘The Nature of Gothic,’ strongly influenced the Gothic revival in architecture in Britain, Ireland and elsewhere from the mid-19th century on.

His passionate exposition of the Gothic, which he saw as perfected in Venice, was linked to his commitment to socialism and to his love of literature. But it is fair to ask what the myth of Venice would be in the minds of most western Europeans without John Ruskin, who recorded the city’s during its decline, examining and describing the city in the most minute detail, offering a paean to its beauty, uniqueness and fragility.

Venice ‘is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak – so quiet, -- so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow. I would endeavour to trace the lines of this image before it be for ever lost, and to record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat, like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice.’

JG Links (1904-¬1997), who edited the version of The Stones of Venice I bought in Cambridge two years ago, described it ‘as a book for the lover of architecture, the lover of Venice, the lover of lost causes … but, perhaps, above all, for the lover of fine writing.’

Ruskin returned to Venice earlier this year through a major exhibition that focussed on his relationship with Venice.

The exhibition was hosted in the sequence of rooms and halls in the Doge’s Palace that Rusking depicted so many times. The backdrop by Pier Luigi Pizzi emphasised the architectural and sculptural features of Gothic and Byzantine, mediaeval and anti-classical Venice that Ruskin so loved and wished to preserve from oblivion.

Ruskin once warned that this city was being so abused and neglected that it would eventually melt into the lagoon ‘like a lump of sugar in hot tea.’ He launched an alarm signal that is still resonant today as ‘the fast-gaining waves … beat, like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice.’

My visit to Venice has been too late to see ‘John Ruskin. The Stones of Venice’ at the Doge’s Palace. It finished on 10 June 2018. But, hopefully, it is not too late to save Venice.

‘The fast-gaining waves … beat, like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

An old Cold War border
crossing in a divided city is
a reminder of new values

The railway station at the Slovenian side of Transalpina Square, the crossing point between Italy and Slovenia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I have been in many divided cities: Nicosia in Cyprus remains Europe’s only divided capital city; Berlin has been reunited, but I was still conscious recently of where the border once ran between east and west when I visited the Brandenburg Gate and Checkpoint Charlie; and Strabane and Lifford are really one town, although they are divided between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, between Tyrone and Donegal.

I spent much of yesterday [7 November 2018] in the divided town of Gorizia, between Gorizia and Nova Gorica, crossing the border between Italy and Slovenia a number of times, travelling in and out of one railway station in Italy, and having lunch in another in Slovenia.

However, it would be just too easy to compare the once divided Gorizia with Berlin during the Cold War. Even at the height of the Cold War, Yugoslavia was technically nonaligned, and Italy and Yugoslavia shared many cultural and sporting events until the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991.

After that break-up, the frontier dividing Gorizia remained in place until Slovenia became part of the Schengen Agreement on 21 December 2007.

Today, the border between Italy and Slovenia border is almost invisible, an artificial line that runs between Gorizia in Italy and Nova Gorica in Slovenia. There are several border crossings between the two parts of this one city, and two of us walked back and forth across the border, as we walked through various suburban streets yesterday.

The most celebrated crossing of the international border is at Transalpina railway square, but there are other border crossings between Gorizia and Nova Gorica, including Casa Rossa and Rožna Dolina, at Via San Gabriele and Erjavčeva ulica, at Via del Rafut and Pristava, and between San Pietro (Via Vittorio Veneto) and Šempeter pri Gorici (Goriška ulica).

Today, Transalpina Square is an open pedestrian square, dissected by a border that was once fenced. The square was never an official crossing and for decades signboards were in place to stop people from crossing the square from one side to the other.

A crossing point that has become a matter of curiosity since the end of the Cold War and due to Schengen Agreement (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Gorizia is at the foot of the Julian Alps and just two hours by train from Venice. Over the centuries, it has been ruled by the Romans, the Holy Roman Empire, the Venetians, the Habsburgs of Austria, and was a place of refuge for the exiled Bourbon family when they were dethroned in France.

Gorizia stands where the Isonzo and Vipava valleys meet, in a plain overlooked by the Gorizia Hills. Its name comes from the Slovene word gorica, meaning little hill.’ The town first emerged as a watchtower controlling a crossing on the River Isonzo, and was a village near Via Gemina, the Roman road linking Aquileia and Emona, or present-day Ljubljana.

The name Gorizia is first recorded in 1001, when the Holy Roman Emperor Otto III granted the castle and village of Goriza to John II, Patriarch of Aquileia, and Count Verihen Eppenstein of Friuli.

By 1127, Count Meinhard was calling himself Graf von Görz. From the 12th to the early 16th century, the town was the political and administrative centre of an independent county, with a village around the upper castle district and a lower village.

The family of the Counts of Gorizia died out in 1500, and after a short period of rule from Venice in 1508-1509, Gorizia came under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs. Under Habsburg rule, the town spread out below the castle, and many people moved in to the area from neighbouring parts of northern Italy. Gorizia quickly became a multi-ethnic town where Friulian, Venetian, German and Slovene were spoken.

During the Reformation, the prominent Slovene preacher Primož Trubar visited and preached in Gorizia. By the end of the 16th century, however, the Catholic Counter-Reformation had gained force in Gorizia. Janez Tavčar, who became Bishop of Ljubljana, was instrumental in bringing the Jesuits to Gorizia.

When the Patriarchate of Aquileia was abolished in 1751, the Archdiocese of Gorizia was formed in Habsburg territory, with suffragan dioceses in Trieste, Trento, Como and Pedena. A new town developed around the cathedral, many new baroque villas were built, and a new synagogue symbolised the multi-ethnic, tolerant life in the town.

During the Napoleonic era, Gorizia was under French rule in 1809-1813. After the restoration of the Austrian rule, Gorizia became a popular summer residence for the Austrian nobility, and became known as the ‘Austrian Nice.’ When the French Bourbons were deposed in 1830, the last Bourbon king, Charles X, moved to Gorizia.

In mid-19th century, Gorizia had regional autonomy and was a multi-ethnic and tolerant town where Italian, Venetian, Slovene, Friulian and German were all spoken in the streets, and where there was a flourishing cultural life.

On the eve of World War I, Gorizia had around 31,000 residents, with another 14,000 people living in the suburbs.

The first victim of World War I in Gorizia was Countess Lucy Christalnigg, who was shot on 10 August 1914 by Landsturmer guards while driving her car on a mission for the Austrian Red Cross. Italy entered World War I on 24 May 1915, and the hills west of Gorizia soon became the location of fighting between Italian and Austro-Hungarian troops. Most of its inhabitants of Gorizia were evacuated by early 1916, the Italian army captured Gorizia in August 1916, but the town returned to Austro-Hungarian control at the end of 1917.

At the end of World War I, Gorizia was contested, and it was occupied by Italian troops again in early November 1918. In 1927, Gorizia became a provincial capital.

With the rise of Fascism, many Slovenes fled Gorizia to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and South America, and the town borders were expanded. Mussolini visited the town twice, in 1938 and 1942. After the Italian armistice in 1943, the town was shortly occupied by Slovene partisans, but then fell to Nazi Germany.

The entire region was at the heart of a territorial dispute between Italy and Yugoslavia after World War II. When the new boundaries were drawn up in 1947, the old town was part of Italy, and Nova Gorica was on the Yugoslav side.

But today the two towns form one conurbation that also includes the Slovenian municipality of Šempeter-Vrtojba. Since May 2011, these three towns are joined in a common trans-border metropolitan zone, administered by a joint administration board.

As I stepped between three towns and two countries, no-one asked me for a passport, no one asked me to take my place in a queue, asking for identity, or my opinion on who should be in the European Union and who should be out.

At one point, a Slovenian policeman at a former checkpoint seemed to be amused by my enthusiasm for taking a photograph looking back into the Italian side. At the bar in the Slovenian train station, they called a taxi for me without asking which side of the town I was going to. The taxi driver between one train station and the next worked comfortably in both Italian and Slovene, but only charged in one currency.

Borders in Europe have become meaningless. They respect cultural variety and celebrate difference. It is so sad that they could become a point of political argument and dissent that forget the peace that we have worked so hard to build in Europe not only since the end of World War II in 1945, but since the end of World War I 100 years ago in 1918.

A memorial to the victims of the Holocaust at the train station on the Italian side of the town is a reminder that we should never forget the horrors of racism and the destruction that war brings … Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, Mauthusen, Flossenburg, Ravensbruck, Risiera San Sabba …

The Holocaust Memorial facing the Italian train station in Gorizia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)