John Ruskin: On Restoration

John Ruskin,  Ca’ d’Oro , pencil, watercolour and tempera on grey paper, 1845

John Ruskin, Ca’ d’Oro, pencil, watercolour and tempera on grey paper, 1845

... Let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labour and wrought substance of them, "See! this our fathers did for us". For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, nor in its gold. Its glory is in its Age and in that deep sense of voice­fulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympa­thy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shape­liness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half consti­tutes the identity, as it concentrates the sym­pathy of nations: it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and colour, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, until it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, 'til its walls have been witness of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess, of language and of life.

For that period, then, we must build ... and there is a beauty in those effects (of time) themselves, which nothing else can replace …

Neither by the public, nor by those who have the care of public monuments, is the true meaning of the word restoration understood. It means the most total destruction which a building can suffer; a destruction out of which no remnants can be gathered: a destruction accompanied with false description of the thing destroyed. False, also, in the manner of parody, - the most loathsome manner of falsehood. Do not let us deceive our­selves in this important matter; it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architec­ture. That which I have above insisted upon as the life of the whole, that spirit which is given only by the hand and eye of the workman, can never be recalled. Another spirit may be given by another time, and it is then a new building; but the spirit of the dead workman cannot be summoned up, and commanded to direct other hands, and other thoughts. And as for direct simple copying, it is palpably impossible. What copying can there be of surfaces that have been worn half-an-inch down? The whole finish of the work was in the half-inch that is gone; if you attempt to restore that finish, you do it conjecturally; if you copy what is left, granting fidelity to be possible, (and what care or watchfulness, or cost can secure it), how is the new work better than the old? There was yet in the old some life, some mysterious suggestion of what it had been, and of what it had lost; some sweetness in the gentle lines which rain and sun had wrought. There can be none in the brute hardness of the new carving ... The first step to restoration, (I have seen it, and that again and again - seen it on the Baptistery of Pisa, seen it on the Casa d'Oro at Venice, seen it on the Cathedral of Lisieux), is to dash the old work to pieces; the second is usually to put up the cheapest and basest imitations ... 

Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from beginning to end. You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse, and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton, with what advantage I neither see nor care: but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust, or melted into a mass of clay: more has been gleaned out of desolated Nineveh than ever will be out of re-built Milan ... 

Take proper care of your monuments, and you will not need to restore them ... 

Watch an old building with an anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation. Count its stones as you would jewels of a crown; set watches about it as if at the gates of a besieged city; bind it to­gether with iron where it loosens; stay it with timber where it declines; do not care about the unsight­liness of the aid; better a crutch than a lost limb; and do this tenderly and reverently, and conti­nually, and many a generation will still be born and pass away beneath its shadow. Its evil day must come at last; but let it come declaredly and openly, and let no dishonouring and false substitute de­prive it of the funeral offices of memory. 

Of more wanton or ignorant ravage it is vain to speak; my words will not reach those who commit them, and yet, be it heard or not, I must not leave the truth unstated, that it is again no question of expediency or feeling whether we shall preserve the buildings of past times or not. We have no right whatever to touch them. They are not ours. They belong partly to those who built them, and partly to all the generations of mankind who are to follow us. The dead have still their right in them: that which they laboured for, the praise of achievement or the expression of religious feeling, whatever else it might be which in those buildings they intended to be permanent, we have no right to obliterate. What we have ourselves built, we are at liberty to throw down; but what other men gave their strength and wealth and life to accomplish, their right over does not pass away with their death; still less is the right to use of what they have left vested in us only. It belongs to all their successors. It may hereafter be a subject of sorrow, or a cause of injury, to millions, that we have consulted our present convenience by casting down such buil­dings as we choose to dispense with. That sorrow, that loss, we have no right to inflict. Did the Cathe­dral of Avranches belong to the mob who de­stroyed it, any more than it did to us, who walk in sorrow to and fro over its foundation? Neither does any building whatever belong to those mobs who do violence to it. For a mob it is, and must be always; it matters not whether enraged, or in de­liberate folly; whether countless, or sitting in com­mittees; the people who destroy anything cause­lessly are a mob, and Architecture is always destroyed causelessly. A fair building is necessa­rily worth the ground it stands upon, and will be so until Central Africa and America shall have become as populous as Middlesex; nor is any cause whatever valid as a ground for its destruc­tion. If they were valid, certainly not now, when the place both of the past and future is too much usur­ped in our minds by the restless and discontented present. The very quietness of nature is gradually withdrawn from us; thousands who once in their necessarily prolonged travel were subjected to an influence, from the silent sky and slumbering fields, more effectual than known or confessed, now bear with them even there the ceaseless fever of their life and along the iron veins that traverse the frame of our country, beat and flow the fiery pulses of its exertion, hotter and faster every hour. All vitality is concentrated through those throbbing arteries into the central cities; the country is passed over like a green sea by narrow bridges, and we are thrown back in continually closer crowds upon the city gates. The only influence which can in any wise there take the place of that of the woods and fields, is the power of ancient Architecture ... 

 

NOTES

This extract from John Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1880) was originally published in New Buildings in Old Settings, Bavaria Satz, 1978