John Ruskin's The Stones of Venice: Summary & Explanation

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

In ''The Stones of Venice'', John Ruskin examined the architecture of Venice, Italy, and also made an argument for the importance of architecture in the world and the relationship between thought and craft.

The Stones of Venice

John Ruskin, the Victorian writer, art critic, artist, and thinker, was a man of staggering talent and energy. He wrote constantly, producing a gigantic body of work that spanned various disciplines, while being held together by his fascination with the connection between art and life.

Ruskin's The Stones of Venice, published in three volumes between 1851 and 1853, was on the surface a straightforward overview of the history of architecture in Venice, Italy. But the book was more than that, as Ruskin used the survey to make an argument about the connections found among art, architecture, and morality; champion the Gothic style, and discuss the relationship between thinking and manual craft and labor.

Page from The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin
Stones of Venice

Summary of the Book

The Stones of Venice surveyed the history of architecture over the course of three eras: Byzantine, Gothic, and Renaissance. Its mix of classical Roman and Eastern influences characterized Byzantine architecture. The Gothic style of the Middle Ages was known for being more intricate and ornate. The Renaissance style revived the clean forms of classical architecture.

In his book, Ruskin made the argument that the Gothic style was actually preferable to the Renaissance style. He argued that while the Gothic style was not as technically perfect as the Renaissance style, its roughness conveyed emotion and reverence for God. The Renaissance style, on the other hand, he dismissed as cold and emotionless. Ruskin contended that Renaissance architects created for their own glory, while Gothic architects created for the glory of God.

While discussing the Gothic style, Ruskin also argued that the Gothic approach demonstrated a better understanding of the fusion of thought and manual craft. He proposed that the Renaissance style separated the gentlemanly thinker from the common manual laborer. According to Ruskin, these things cannot be separated. It was only through labor that thought could be fully realized and vice versa.

English Gothic Architecture Elements
English Gothic Architecture2

Argument for the Gothic Style

Ruskin's argument in The Stones of Venice was an important part of the Gothic Revival that was underway across Europe during the mid-19th century. The clean, classical style of Renaissance architecture had dominated the 14th through17th centuries, and the Gothic Revival was a response. It focused on the more ornate and intricate decoration of Gothic architecture, as opposed to the smooth surfaces of the Renaissance style.

Ruskin made an important argument for the moral nature of the Gothic style, which many people saw as needless ornamentation. On the contrary, Ruskin contended, the Gothic style was deeply tied to a reverence for God and humility at man's place in the world.

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