Having endured for centuries, steadfast upon the city that rises from the sea, St. Mark’s Basilica, the eternal symbol of Venice, almost saw an ugly end in the 1870s, at the hands of those who wanted to save her.
Restoration work, which the symbol of the Republic of Venice risked in the 19th century, which would have been an example of the saying “good intentions paved the streets of hell”, had an Englishman with bushy sideburns not intervened.
John Ruskin, born in 1819, was perhaps the man who most loved Venice – with that absolute and wild love that only a romantic can demonstrate. In their haste to start work on the basilica, which after the fall of the Republic was decaying year after year, restorers sent from the Kingdom of Italy removed large portions of the mosaics. One-third of the total area was lost. Ruskin, together with a group of intellectuals, managed to stop (and limit) this massacre.
For a total of eleven times, the writer, painter (he was called the greatest Victorian watercolour artist) and London art critic went to the Venetian lagoon, finishing notebook after notebook on what was happening in Venice. He saw the city as a jewel that was about to quickly disappear, using his words, “like a lump of sugar in boiling water”. However, he did not just write. Ruskin also took photographs. His daguerreotypes presented the image of a popular city, without the pump and circumstance of the era of the doges or the mass tourism that would arrive a few decades later.
Above all, Ruskin drew – quick glances, corners, even a section of a wall, details that others missed. On sheets of paper, he copied each of the Basilica, in the conviction of leaving the next generation the last testimony of something that was lost forever. Sketches that are actually works of art, now exhibited, until June 10th at Palazzo Ducale for the show entitled “The Stones of Venice” (the name borrows from the title of Ruskin’s most famous essay).
Next to the reproductions that bear witness to the architectural uniqueness of Venice, there are his studies of great Venetian masters, including Tintoretto and Carpaccio, as well as representations of alpine landscapes and studies on botany and geology: «If you can paint a leaf – you can read in his notes – you can paint the world».
The Venetian exhibition also offers a surprise for visitors: three paintings by William Turner in which the great impressionist portrays Venice: a view of the lagoon of San Marco, the tip of the customs building (the dogana), which seems to disappear into a dazzling white, and the dome of Santa Maria della Salute (St. Mary of Health) that can be barely seen in the clear sky.
Venice is also the “travelling” protagonist of another important event, the retrospective exhibit dedicated to Canaletto, offering the life works of the great “veduta” artist. In order to put together the Palazzo Braschi exhibition – one of the most complete exhibitions ever organized – museums from around the world have been raided: from the Pushkin in Moscow to the National Gallery in London, passing through the Kunthistorisches Museum in Vienna. The Russian museum offers the most impressive work: “Return of the Bucintoro to the Molo (pier) on Ascension Day”, the best account of one of the oldest traditions of the Republic of San Marco: the wedding of the sea.