On Ruskin's 200th birthday, 8 February 2019, Companion Emma Sdegno co-organised a book launch and round table at Ca' Foscari in Venice. Companion Jeanne Clegg attended the day and wrote a beautiful account of the occasion.
In Venice 8 February 2019 offered an opportunity to celebrate not just Ruskin’s birthday but the publication in English, French and Italian, of Ruskin’s guide to Tintoretto in Venice. Of course Ruskin never published a book thus entitled, but it is Emma Sdegno’s bold argument, put forward in her scholarly but very readable introductory essay, that the ‘Venetian Index’ appendix to Stones III is just such a guide, anticipating in style and concern to be useful the travellers’ guide books of the 1870s. She has therefore made the Index, which has been systematically omitted from modern editions of Stones, never published in Italian, and only in brief extracts in French, the basis of her anthology, adding passages from Modern Painters, the Oxford lecture on Michelangelo and Tintoret, letters and unpublished notes taken on the spot, to make these volumes comprehensive of almost all Ruskin’s writings on works by Tintoretto in the city which– as he himself wrote - is the only place one can truly see him.
It was therefore fitting that we welcomed the French and Italian versions of this book in one of the most beautiful of the Ca’ Foscari University rooms, restored by Carlo Scarpa and named in memory of the French literature scholar and Dean of Faculty, Mario Baratto. Brilliant sunshine lit up the wonderful view over, up and down the Grand Canal at the point of ‘volta’ through the polifora of the second floor, the subject of long and intense study by Ruskin during that same September-October 1845 when he first visited the Scuola di San Rocco and was “overwhelmed by a painter from another planet”. It was also appropriate that this half day of study was opened by Architect Franco Posocco, Guardian Grando of the Scuola di San Rocco, which most generously financed the publication of this multilingual project. We were next greeted by professor Flavio Gregori, Deputy Vice Chancellor with special responsibility for cultural activities, who underlined the international character Ruskin scholars have brought to Ca’ Foscari University over recent years.
In March of last year I wrote for The Companion about the launch of Looking at Tintoretto with John Ruskin (Marsilio 2018), about why one should not only look at Tintoretto with Ruskin, and about how Emma Sdegno’s essay and edition helps us to see how much Ruskin saw: the attention to viewpoint, the distinctive composition which puts secondaries central and pushes central figures to the margins, the suggestiveness of canvases that made them the ideal illustration of the imagination penetrative – a faculty shared by painter and by spectator – the role of obscurity in completing paintings painted specifically for dark corners. The second paper of the afternoon, by professor Valentina Sapienza (Ca’ Foscari University), offered a new and exciting perspective from an art historian with a special interest in Tintoretto (see for example her « Miti, metafore e profezie. Le Storie di Maria di Jacopo Tintoretto nella sala terrena della Scuola Grande di San Rocco », Venezia Cinquecento, XVII (2007), 33, pp. 49-139). In contrast to current views of the painter as a cunning and ruthless businessman out to make money quickly, Sapienza emphasized the care and thought that went into Tintoretto’s apparently hasty brushwork, followed through the implications of Ruskin’s theory of the imagination penetrative, and showed the relevance to Tintoretto’s ‘gospel of poverty’ of recent research that links Tintoretto to unorthodox, even heretical interest in the apocryphal Gospel of St James. These are ideas we look forward to seeing in print very soon.
The interdisciplinary and European dimension of the meeting was confirmed by the round table that took up the second part of the afternoon. First Professor Giuseppe Sandrini, professor of Italian literature at the University of Verona, spoke about Ruskin’s work on Veronese sculpture and architecture, his geological as well as artistic interest in the red marble which gives the city its distinctive colouring. For Ruskin Verona was unique in holding so much of interest and beauty within a very small space, but its importance in his thinking has been undervalued because only a small proportion of his Veronese studies made it into publications issued in his lifetime. Sandrini’s parallel text edition of Ruskin's 1869 letters to his mother and to Joan Severn helps to correct that imbalance.
We heard next from professor André Hélard, classicist, and professor of French literature, author of John Ruskin et le cathedrals de la Terre (Guérin 2005) and translator of John Ruskin, Ecrits sur les Alpes (Publications Universitaires Paris Sorbonne 2013) , as well as of Tintoret sous le regard de John Ruskin (Marsilio and Presses Universitaires de Rennes 2018). Hélard spoke with great energy and clarity about the two dynamics he sees at work in Ruskin's writings on both art and landscape. On the one hand as ‘optical thinker’ Ruskin moves through analysis to synthesis, leading the reader to circulate through the space of a canvas just as he walks us through cloudy mountain ranges, pausing at times to develop full, ekphrastic syntheses. On the other there is a dynamic of the voice trained from youth through hours of reading the Bible aloud with his mother, who insisted always on getting intonation of scriptural verse absolutely right. Orality, Hélard maintained, is a constitutive element of Ruskin’s writing, an expression of the close relationship between teaching, prophecy and preaching. Through several styles ranging from the long Latinate periods of Modern Painters to the concise simpler syntax of the guide books, the translator must seek to make his sentences ‘fall’ – just as a well cut dress falls - as perfectly into French as they do in English.
Finally Professor Sdegno herself spoke about the importance of collaboration in translating, and the value of working closely with Paul Tucker on the Guide to the principal Pictures in the Academy at Venice, (Electa 2014) subsequently with Hélard on Ruskin’s writings on the Alps, and now on Tintoretto secondo John Ruskin (Marsilio 2018). In her translator’s note to the Italian edition of the Guide she drew attention to the stylistic differences between the writings of the 1840s and the guides of the 1870s; translating Ruskin on Tintoretto has revealed further linguistic affinities and differences, and led her to see the Index as experimenting not only with structure and approach but also with a style very different from those of his treatises. In this sense too then the Index is a much neglected work which anticipates communicative strategies he was to develop in a tighter and denser key in the travellers’ books of the 1870s.
There would have been much more to say, but the afternoon had to come to a close at this point with grateful thanks to speakers, audience and all concerned in the organization of this half day of Ruskin studies at exactly 200 years since his birth, and hopes for the conference to be held at Ca’ Foscari on 7-9 October 2019, when scholars from several disciplines and countries will explore Ruskin’s vision of Europe - and beyond - as “A great community". For information and call for papers, see here.
Companions may be interested to read the interview with Emma Sdegno on the University website here.
Jeanne Clegg, February 2019.