Looking at Tintoretto with John Ruskin

“Dearest father, I have been quite overwhelmed today by a man whom I never dreamed of – Tintoret” - these were the words John Ruskin wrote to his father in 1845. 

On the 200th anniversary of John Ruskin's birth and on the 500th of Tintoretto’s, Ca’ Foscari is hosting a seminar on the two great historical figures, employing the help of Emma Sdegno’s scientific work and her volume “Looking at Tintoretto with John Ruskin”, published by Marsilio in English, Italian and French.  

The book is intended as a Venetian anthology, a collection of writings by the famous English art critic, most of them have been overlooked up until this moment. Ruskin described himself as “overwhelmed” by the mastery of the Venetian painter and felt the responsibility to safeguard his masterpieces, as well as the rest of Venice’s artistic heritage. The meeting with Tintoretto was a significant way point in Ruskin’s aesthetics and influenced some beautiful pages in his main works, like "Modern Painters" and "The Stones of Venice".

These texts have now been published together for the first time in an easily accessible edition, which Ruskin himself had thought fit for the 18th century English tourist in Venice, when he compiled the "Venetian Index" for the "Stones of Venice" . Listing all the Venetian must-see buildings and artworks alphabetically, Ruskin guides the reader into the greatness of Tintoretto’s paintings, into churches and Venetian institutions, with the Scuola Grande di San Rocco and its church as standout landmarks. 

The idea for this book – explained Emma Sdegno, researcher at the Department of Linguistics and Comparative Cultural Studies – was born a few years ago, in parallel with the History of English Culture class, where some of my lectures focused on the ‘victorian’ Venice. I used to dwell on Ruskin’s writings and sketches, on the insight of this Englishman, his fascination and bewilderment for this extraordinary yet fragile city.  
Towards the end of the course, I would always take the students to visit the Scuola Grande di San Rocco, where I read passages from various texts, which I had previously photocopied. The sheets of paper would inevitably fall every time. It wasn’t very practical, but the students really enjoyed it. Reading these excerpts together made us open our eyes on their incredible communicative potential, their ability to engage and inspire the viewers. Just by reading, we were putting his lesson into practice. This is how I realized that the writings on Tintoretto, scattered all across that encyclopedic work, formed a vast and interesting corpus. And so the book was born, also thanks to André Hélard – an excellent translator and Ruskin expert who helped me with the French edition. I got the idea of using the "Venetian Index" – an appendix to the 3rd volume of “Stones of Venice”, in which Ruskin lists all the must-see landmarks for tourists, even for a brief escapade in Venice, and I compiled a sort of ‘Tintoretto’s Index’ ”. From the Madonna dell’Orto church to the Carmini one, from the Scuola Grande di San Rocco to the Madonna della Salute, a list of essential places for those who wish to explore Tintoretto’s paintings. 

The volume, which was integrated in the initiatives planned by the Scuola Grande di San Rocco for the 500th anniversary of Tintoretto’s birth, was able to build a bridge between the venetian institutions celebrating Tintoretto and Ruskin, like the Doge’s Palace, the Gallerie dell’Accademia, the Patriarchate and even the National Gallery in Washington D.C..

“This edition will give new exposure to this material, not only for scholars of various disciplines – added the Ca’ Foscari researcher – but also for students and lovers of Venetian art. I analyzed the effect that Tintoretto had on Ruskin’s manuscripts and I studied the sketches of the paintings that he made. Both of these topics could become the object of further examination.  

John Ruskin - Study of Tintoretto's "Adoration of the Magi", 1852 - Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice

At times, Ruskin has been perceived like the aesthete with the verbose writing and the exaggerated judgment, clouded by prejudices.  Luckily, many studies and recent editions of his works, together with exhibitions like the one the Doge’s Palace hosted last March and the one that is currently on display in London, have all contributed to painting an increasingly accurate picture of this great critic’s complexity. My book is a small contribution to introduce people to Ruskin’s body of work on Tintoretto, writings that I believe could leave us all with an improved ability of looking at the masterpieces of this extraordinary painter. 

February 8th, 2019, 2.00 p.m. - "John Ruskin, Febraury 8th 1819-1919"
Ca' Foscari Main Building, Aula Baratto 

Full Program