John Ruskin.

The seven lamps of architecture; lectures on architecture and painting; The study of architecture online

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Lave thought this almost the first principle of proportion
which a young architect was taught : and yet I remember an
important building, recently erected in England, in which
the columns are cut in half by the projecting architraves of
the central windows ; and it is quite usual to see the spii'ca
of modern Gothic churches divided by a band of ornament
half way up. In all fine spires there are two bands and three
parts, as at Salisbury. The ornamented portion of the tower
is there cut in half, and allowably, because the spire forms the
third mass to which the other two are subordinate : two sto-
ries are also equal in Giotto's campanile, but dominant over
smaller divisions below, and subordinated to the noble third
above. Even this arrangement is difficult to treat ; and it is
usually safer to increase or diminish the height of the divis-
ions regularly as they rise, as in the Doge's Palace, whose
three divisions are in a bold geometrical progression : or, in
towers, to get an alternate proportion between the body, the
belfry, and the crown, as in the campanile of St. Mark's.
But, at all events, get rid of equality ; leave that to children
and their card houses : the laws of nature and the reason of
man are alike against it, in arts, as in politics. There is but
one thoroughly ugly tower in Italy that I know of, and that
is so because it is divided into vertical equal parts : the tower
of Pisa.'"

XXIX. One more principle of Proportion I have to name,
equally simple, equally neglected. Proportion is between
three terms at least. Hence, as the pinnacles are not enough
without the spire, so neither the spire without the pinnacles. AH
men feel this and usually express their feeling by saying that


the pinnacles conceal the junction of the spire and tower.
This is one reason ; but a more influential one is, that the
pinnacles furnish the thu'd term to the spire and tower. So
that it is not enough, in order to secure proportion, to divide
a building unequally ; it must be divided into at least three
parts ; it may be into more (and in details with advantage),
but on a large scale I find three is about the best number of
parts in elevation, and five in horizontal extent, with freedom
of increase to five in the one case and seven in the other ; but
not to more without confusion (in architecture, that is to say ;
for in organic structure the numbers cannot be limited). I
purpose, in the course of worts which are in preparation, to
give copious illustrations of this subject, but I will take at
present only one instance of vertical proportion, from the
flower stem of the common water plantain, Alisma Plantago.
Fig. 5, Plate XII. is a reduced profile of one side of a plant
gathered at random ; it is seen to have five masts, of which,
however, the uppermost is a mere shoot, and we can consider
only their relations up to the fourth. Their lengths are
measured on the hne A B, which is the actual length of the
lowest mass a b, A C—b c, A D— c d, and A 'E=d e. If the
reader wiU take the trouble to measure these lengths and
compare them, he will find that, within half a line, the upper-
most A E=4 of A D, A D=|- of A C, and A 0=^ of A B ; a
most subtle diminishing proportion. From each of the joints
spring three major and three minor branches, each between
each ; but the major branches, at any joint, are placed over
the minor branches at the joint below, by the curious arrange-
ment of the joint itself — the stem is bluntly triangular ; fig.
6 shows the section of any joint. The outer darkened tri-
angle is the section of the lower stem ; the inner, left light,
of the upper stem ; and the three main branches spring from
the ledges left by the recession. Thus the stems di mi n i sh in
diameter just as they diminish in height. The main branches
(falsely placed in the profile over each other to show their
relations) have respectively seven, six, five, four, and three
arm-Dones, Uke the masts of the stem ; these divisions being
proportioned in the same subtle manner. From the joints of


these, it seems to be the plan of the plant that three majoi
and three minor branches should again spring, bearing the
flowers : but, in these infinitely complicated members, vege-
tatiTe nature admits much variety ; in the plant from which
these measures were taken the fuU complement appeared only
at one of the secondary joints.

The leaf of this plant has five ribs on each side, as its flower
generally five masts, arranged with the most exquisite grace
of curve ; but of lateral proportion I shall rather take illustra-
tions from architecture : the reader wLU find several in the ac-
counts of the Duomo at Pisa and St. Mark's at Venice, in
Chap. V. §§ XIV.— XYX I give these arrangements merely as
illustrations, not as precedents : aU beautiful proportions are
unique, they are not general formulae.

XXX. The other condition of architectural treatment which
we proposed to notice was the abstraction of imitated form.
But there is a peculiar difficulty in touching within these nar-
row limits on such a subject as this, because the abstraction
of which we find examples in existing art, is partly involun-
tary ; and it is a matter of much nicety to determine where it
begins to be purposed. In the progress of national as well
as of individual mind, the first attempts at imitation are al-
ways abstract and incomplete. Greater completion marks
the progress of art, absolute completion usually its decline ;
whence absolute completion of imitative form is often sup-
posed to be in itself wrong. But it is not vwong always, only
dangerous. Let us endeavor briefiy to ascertain wherein its
danger consists, and wherein its dignity.

XXXI. I have said that all art is abstract in its beginnings ;
that is to say, it expresses only a small number of the qualities
of the thing represented. Ciu-ved and complex lines are repre-
sented by straight and simple ones ; interior markings of forms
are few, and much is symbolical and conventional There is a
resembance between the work of a great nation, in this phase,
and the work of childhood and ignorance, which, in the mind
of a careless observer, might attach something Kke ridicule to it.
The form of a tree on the Ninevite sculptures is much like that
which, some twenty years ago, was familiar upon samplers ; and


the types of the face aad figure in early Italian art are suscepti
ble of easy caricature. On the signs which separate the infancy
of magnificent manhood from every other, I do not pause to
insist (they consist entirely in the choice of the symbol and of
the features abstracted) ; but I pass to the next stage of art, a
condition of strength in which the abstraction which was begun
in incapability is continued in free will. This is the case, how-
ever, in pure sculpture and painting, as well as in architecture ;
and we have nothing to do but with that greater severity of
manner which fits either to be associated with the more reahst
art. I believe it properly consists only in a due expression of
their subordination, an expression varying according to their
place and office. The question is first to be clearly determined
whether the architecture is a frame for the sculpture, or the
sculpture an ornament of the architecture. If the latter, then
the first office of that sculptvure is not to represent the things it
imitates, but to gather out of them those arrangements of
form which shall be pleasing to the eye iu their intended places.
So soon as agreeable Hues and points of shade have been added
to the mouldings which were meagre, or to the lights which
were unrelieved, the architectural work of the imitation is ac-
complished ; and how far it shall be vreought towards complete-
ness or not, win depend upon its place, and upon other various
circumstances. If, in its particular use or position, it is sym-
metrically arranged, there is, of course, an instant indication of
architectural subjection. But symmetry is not abstraction.
Leaves may be carved in the most regular order, and yet be
meanly imitative ; or, on the other hand, they may be thrown
wild and loose, and yet be highly architectural iu their separate
treatment. Nothing can be less symmetrical than the group of
leaves which join the two columns in Plate XIII. ; yet, since
nothing of the leaf character is given but what is necessary
for the bare suggestion of its image and the attainment of the
lines desired, their treatment is highly abstract It shows that
the workman only wanted so much of the leaf as he supposed
good for his architecture, and would allow no more ; and how
much is to be supposed good, depends, as I have said, much
more on place and circumstance than on general laws. I know


that this is not usually thought, and that many good architecta
would insist on abstraction in all cases : the question is so wide
and so difiicult that I express my opinion upon it most diffi-
dently ; but my own feeUng is, that a purely abstract manner,
like that of our earliest English work, does not afford room for
the perfection of beautiful form, and that its severity is weari-
some after the eye has been long accustomed to it. I have not
done justice to the Salisbury dog-tooth moulding, of which the
effect is sketched in fig. 5, Plate X., but I have done more jus-
tice to it nevertheless than to the beautiful French one above
it ; and I do not think that any candid reader would deny that,
piquant and spirited as is that from Salisbury, the Eouen motild-
ing is, in every respect, nobler. It will be observed that its
symmetry is more complioated, the leafage being divided into
double groups of two lobes each, each lobe of different struct-
ure. With exquisite feeling, one of these double groups is
alternately omitted on the other side of the moulding (not seeu
in the Plate, but occupying the cavetto of tlie section), thus
giving a playful lightness to the whole ; and it the reader will
allow for a beauty in the flow of the curved outlines (especially
on the angle), of which he cannot in the least judge from my
rude drawing, he wiU not, I think, expect easily to find a nobler
instance of decoration adapted to the severest mouldings.

Now it win be observed, that there is in its treatment a
high degree of abstraction, though not so conventional as that
of Sahsbury : that is to say, the leaves have little more than
their fiow and outline represented ; they are hardly undercut,
but their edges are connected by a gentle and most studied
curve with the stone behind ; they have no serrations, no
veinings, no rib or stalk on the angle, only an incision grace-
fully made towards their extremities, indicative of the central
rib and depression. The whole style of the abstraction shows
that the architect could, if he had chosen, have carried the
imitation much farther, btit stayed at this point of his own
free wiU ; and what he has done is also so perfect in its Mnd,
that I feel disposed to accept his authority without question,
so far as I can gather it from Ijiis works, on the whole subject
of abstractioiL


XXXII. Happily his opinion is franHy expressed. TMa
moulding is on the lateral buttress, and on a level with the top
of the north gate ; it cannot therefore be closely seen except
from the wooden stairs of the belfry ; it is not intended to be
so seen, but calculated for a distance of, at least, forty to fifty
feet from the eye. In the vault of the gate itself, half as near
again, there are three rows of mouldings, as I think, by the
same designer, at all events part of the same plan. One of
them is given iu Plate L fig. 2 a. It will be seen that the ab-
straction is here infinitely less ; the ivy leaves have stalks and
associated fruit, and a rib for each lobe, and are so far imder-
cut as to detach their forms from the stone ; while in the vine-
leaf moulding above, of the same period, from the south gate,
seiTation appears added to other purely imitative characters.
Finally, in the animals which form the ornaments of the por-
tion of the gate which ia close to the eye, abstraction nearly
vanishes into perfect sculpture.

XXXHL Nearness to the eye, however, is not the only cir-
cumstance which influences architectural abstraction. These
very animals are not merely better cut because close to the
eye ; they are put close to the eye that they may, without in-
discretion, be better cut, on the noble principle, first I think,
clearly enunciated by Mr. Eastlate, that the closest imitation
shall be of the noblest object. Farther, since the wildness
and manner of growth of vegetation render a bona fide imita-
tion of it impossible in sculpture — since its members must be
reduced in number, ordered in direction, and cut away from
their roots, even under the most earnestly imitative treatment,
— it becomes a point, as I think, of good judgment, to pro-
portion the completeness of execution of parts to the formality
of the whole ; and since five or six leaves must stand for a
tree, to let also five or six touches stand for a leaf. But since
the animal generally admits of perfect outline — since its form
is detached, and may be fully represented, its sculpture may
be more complete and faithful in all its parts. And this prin
ciple will be actually found, I believe, to guide the old work
men. If the animal form be in a gargoyle, incomplete, and
coming out of a block of stone, or if a head only, as for a boss


or other such partial use, its sculpture -will be highly abstract
But if it be an entii-e animal, as a Hzard, or a bird, or a
squirrel, peeping among leafage, its sculpture will be much
farther carried, and I think, if small, near the eye, and worked
in a fine material, may rightly be carried to the utmost possi-
ble completion. Surely we cannot wish a less finish bestowed
on those which animate the mouldings of the south door of
the cathedral of Florence ; nor desire that the birds in the
capitals of the Doge's palace should be stripped of a single

XXXIV. Under these limitations, then, I think that per-
fect sculpture may be made a part of the severest architecture ;
but this perfection was said in the outset to be dangerous. It
is so in the highest degree ; for the moment the architect
allows himself to dwell on the imitated portions, there is a
chance of his losing sight of the duty of his ornament, of its
business as a part of the composition, and sacrificing its points
of shade and effect to the dehght of delicate carving. And
then he is lost. His architecture has become a mere frame-
work for the setting of delicate sculpture, Avhich had better
be an taken down and put into cabinets. It is well, there-
fore, that the young architect should be taught to thinlr of
imitative ornament as of the extreme of grace in language ; not
to be regarded at first, not to be obtained at the cost of pur-
pose, meaning, force, or. conciseness, yet, indeed, a perfection
— the least of all perfections, and yet the crowning one of all
— one which by itself, and regarded in itself, is an architectu-
ral coxcombry, but is yet the sign of the most highly-trained
mind and power when it is associated with others. It is a
safe manner, as I think, to design all things at first in severe
abstraction, and to be prepared, if need were, to carry them
out in that form ; then to mark the parts where high finish
would be admissible, to complete these always with stem ref-
erence to their general effect, and then connect them by a
graduated scale of abstraction with the rest. And there is
one safeguard against danger in this process on which J
would finally insist. Never imitate anything but natural
forms, and those the noblest, in the completed parts. The

PLATE XI. -{Page 131— Yol. V.)
Baia'Oisv in the Campo, St Benedetto, Venice.


degradation of the cinque cento manner of decoration was not
owing to its naturalism, to its faithfulness of imitation, but tc
its imitation of ugly, i.e. unnatural things. So long as it re-
strained itself to sculpture of animals and flowers, it remained
noble. The balcony, on the opposite page, from a house in
the Campo St. Benedetto at Venice, shows one of the earliest
occurrences of the cinque cento arabesque, and a fragment of
the pattern is given in. Plate XH. fig. 8. It is but the arrest-
ing upon the stone work of a stem or two of the living flowers,
which are rarely wanting in the window above (and which, by
the by, the French and Italian peasantry often trellis with ex-
quisite taste about their casements). This arabesque, reheved
as it is in darkness from the white stone by the staia of time,
is surely both beautiful and pure ; and as long as the renais-
sance ornament remained in such forms it may be beheld with
undeserved admiration. But the moment that unnatural ob-
jects were associated with these, and armor, and musical in-
struments, and wild meaningless scrolls and curled shields, and
other such fancies, became principal in its subjects, its doom
was sealed, and with it that of the architecture of the world.

XXXV. UL Our final inquiry was to be iato the use of
color as associated with architectural ornament.

I do not feel able to speak with any confidence respecting
the touching of sculpture with color. I would only note one
point, that sculpture is the representation of an idea, while
architecture is itself a real thing. The idea may, as I think,
be left colorless, and colored by the beholder's mind : but a
reaHty ought to have reality in all its attributes : its color
should be as fixed as its form. I cannot, therefore, consider
architecture as in any wise perfect without color. Farther, as
I have above noticed, I think the colors of architecture should
be those of natural stones ; partly because more durable, but
also because more perfect and graceful. For to conquer the
harshness and deadness of tones laid upon stone or on gesso,
needs the management and discretion of a true painter ; and
on this co-operation we must not calculate in laying down rules
for general practice. If Tintoret or Giorgione are at hand,
and ask us for a wall to paint, we will alter our whole design


for their sake, and become their servants ; but we must, as
architects, expect the aid of the common workman only ; and
the laying of color by a mechanical hand, and its toning under
a vulgar eye, are far more offensive than rudeness in cutting the
stone. The latter is imperfection only ; the former deadness
or discordance. At the best, such color is so inferior to the
lovely and mellow hues of the natural stone, that it is veise to
sacrifice some of the intricacy of design, if by so doing we
may employ the nobler material. And if, as we looked to
Nature for instruction respecting form, we look to her also to
learn the management of color, we shall, perhaps, find that this
sacrifice of intricacy is for other causes expedient.

XXXVI. First, then, I think that in making this reference
we are to consider our building as a kind of organized creat-
lu-e ; ia coloring which we must look to the single and sep-
arately organized creatures of Nature, not to her landscape
combinations. Oiu: building, if it is well composed, is one
thiag, and is to be colored as Nature would color one thing —
a shell, a flower, or an animal ; not as she colors groups of

And the first broad conclusion we shall deduce from observ-
ance of natural color in such cases will be, that it never fol-
lows form, but is arranged on an entirely separate system.
What mysterious connection there may be between the shape
of the spots on an animal's sldn and its anatomical system, I
do not know, nor even if such a connection has in any wise
been traced: but to the eye the systems are entirely separate,
and in many cases that of color is accidentally variable. The
stripes of a zebra do not foUow the lines of its body or limbs,
still less the spots of a leopard. In the plumage of birds,
each feather bears a part of the pattern which is arbitrarily
carried over the body, having indeed certain graceful harmo-
nies with the form, diminishing or enlarging in directions
which sometimes foUow, but also not unfrequently oppose, the
directions of its muscular hues. Whatever harmonies there
may be, are distinctly like those of two separate musical parts,
coinciding here and there only — never discordant, but essen-
tially different. I hold this, then, for the first great principle


of architectural color. Let it be visibly independent of form.
Never paint a column with vertical liaes, but always cross it."
Nevei give separate mouldings separate colors (I know this is
heresy, but I never shrink from any conclusions, however con-
traay to human authority, to which I am led by observance of
natural principles) ; and in sculptured ornaments I do not
paint the leaves or figures (I cannot help the Elgin frieze) of
one color and their ground of another, but vary both the
gi'ound and the figures with the same harmony. Notice how
Nature does it in a variegated flower ; not one leaf red and
another white, but a point of red and a zone of white, or what-
ever it may be, to each. In certain places you may run your
two systems closer, and here and there let them be parallel for
a note or two, but see that the colors and the forms coincide
only as two orders of mouldings do ; the same for an instant,
but each holding its own course. So single members may
sometimes have single colors : as a bird's head is sometimes
of one color and its shoulders another, you may make your
capital of one color and your shaft another ; but in general
the best place for color is on broad surfaces, not on the points
of interest in form. An animal is mottled on its breast and
back, rarely on its paws or about its eyes ; so put your varie-
gation boldly on the flat wall and broad shaft, but be shy of
it in the capital and moulding ; in all cases it is a safe rule to
simphfy color when form is rich, and vice versa ; and I tliinlc
it would be well in general to carve all capitals and graceful
ornaments in white marble, and so leave them.

XXXVn. Independence then being first secured, what kind
of limiting outlines shall we adopt for the system of color

I am quite sure that any person familiar with natural ob-
jects will never be surprised at any appearance of care or finish
in them. That is the condition of the universe. But there is
cause both for surprise and inquiry whenever we see anything
like carelessness or incompletion : that is not a common condi-
tion ; it must be one appointed for some singular purpose. I
believe that such surprise ^vill be forcibly felt by any one who,
after studying carefully the Hnes of some variegated organic


form, will set himself to copy with similar diligence those ol
its colors. The boundaries of the forms he will assuredly,
whatever the object, have found drawn with a delicacy and
precision which no human hand can follow. Those of its
colors he will find in many cases, though governed always by
a certain rude symmetry, yet irregular, blotched, imperfect,
liable to all kinds of accidents and awkwardnesses. Look at
the tracery of the lines on a camp shell, and see how oddly and
awkwardly its tents are pitched. It is not indeed always so :
there is occasionally, as in the eye of the peacock's plume, an
apparent precision, but BtUl a precision far inferior to that of
the drawing of the filaments which bear that lovely stain ; and
in the pluraUty of cases a degree of looseness and variation,
and, still more singularly, of harshness and violence in arrange-
ment, is admitted in color which would be monstrous in form.
Observe the difference in the precision of a fish's scales and of
the spots on them.

XXXYnX Now, why it should be that .color is best seen
under these circiunstances I will not here endeavor to deter-
mine ; nor whether the lesson we are to learn from it be that
it is God's will that all manner of delights should never be
combined in one thing. But the fact is certain, that color is
always by Him arranged in these simple or rude forms, and as
certain that, therefore, it must be best seen in them, and that
we shall never mend by refining its arrangements. Experience
teaches us the same thing. Infinite nonsense has been written
about the union of perfect color with perfect form. They never
will, never can be united. Color, to be perfect, must have a

Online LibraryJohn RuskinThe seven lamps of architecture; lectures on architecture and painting; The study of architecture → online text (page 12 of 32)