Monday, November 11, 2013

The Lamp of Truth

John Ruskin
As we continue our consideration of John Ruskin's extended essay, 'The Seven Lamps of Architecture' it becomes evident that it acts as a treatise on craft as much as architecture. Whereas the 'Lamp of Sacrifice' urged giving one's best, in the 'Lamp of Truth' we see how Ruskin demanded morality in architecture and honesty in craft. Architecture and craft were sacred to Ruskin, the most enduring gift that we have received from our forefathers, one which we have an obligation to pass on to our progeny.

I have heard traditionalists accuse Mr. Ruskin's essay on “Truth” of laying the seeds of modernism. I have similarly heard modernists claim inspiration from the same. However, whereas early modernists such as Adolf Loos viewed all ornamentation as a deceit and craft as criminal and degenerate for an “evolved” man of the 20th century, Ruskin only criticized craft and ornament that was poorly conceived or intended to deceive. A fierce defender of art and craft's intrinsic role in uplifting the human spirit, Ruskin's perspective on “truth in architecture” could not be more diametrically opposed to the modernist movement to come.


Mr. Ruskin begins by opening a window into human nature, specifically regarding our tendency to quickly recognize and reject overtly malicious deceits:
We are too much in the habit of looking at falsehood in its darkest associations...That indignation which we profess to feel at deceit absolute, is indeed only at deceit malicious. We resent calumny, hypocrisy, and treachery because they harm us, not because they are untrue.”

Subsequently, the deceits we too easily tolerate:
But it is the glistening and softly spoken lie; the amiable fantasy; the patriotic lie of the historian, the provident lie of the politician; the zealous lie of the partizan, the merciful lie of the friend, and the careless lie of each man to himself, that cast that black mystery over humanity.”

Is such moralistic reasoning just a product of 19th century Protestant England misapplied to architecture, art and craft? An extreme purism that would stifle any expression of beauty and inventiveness? Is the entirety of painting and sculpture nothing more that an endeavor to deceive? As Ruskin's reasoning unfolds such perceptions are quickly dispelled.


Ruskin makes a clear distinction between artistic deception and imagination, “ spiritual creatures, we should be able to invent and behold what is not.” Yet at the same time he cautions, “ moral creatures, we should know and confess at the same time that it is not.”

In other words, so long as the work of art is understood as such and never implied nor believed to exist, no attempt to deceive has occurred. To the contrary, Ruskin viewed honest art as “a statement of certain facts, in the clearest possible way” and as a “communicated act of imagination.” However, Ruskin felt that the architecture and craft were particularly vulnerable to deceits respecting the nature of materials or the quantity of work.


Spalled Terra Cotta
Structural Truth. Ruskin often to look to nature as an inspiration for good design. Just as a skeleton is hidden underneath flesh and bone so an architect is not bound to exhibit his means of support. Nevertheless, the widespread use of iron reinforcement in the 19th century quickly began to supplant fundamental principles of masonry construction that took thousands of years to develop. Abuses such as cladding systems of veneer stone with iron supports truly deceive the viewer as to the true nature of materials and the amount of work required. Before long senseless designs that never could be realized in self supporting masonry became commonplace.

Surface Truth. Those romantic French and Italians! They must at first seem like easy targets for Ruskin with their frescoed walls, their Trompe-l'œil (fool the eye), faux bois and marbre (fake wood and marble). However, Ruskin hardly provides a universal condemnation. Rather, he admonishes us to “be careful to observe that the evil of them consists always in definitely attempted deception.” Ruskin goes on to contrast two architecturally similar examples.

First the ceiling of Milan Cathedral. The vaults are covered with what from the ground appear to be stone fan traceries. Upon a more careful examination it can be perceived that the traceries are merely painted on, lacking the depth and shadow of stone. This Ruskin felt destroys much of the dignity of an otherwise beautiful building. You find yourself wondering, what else here is fake?

Ceiling, Milan Cathedral

Next Ruskin praises the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. But why the change? Is not the ceiling full of architectural ornament in grisaille mingled with the figures of its frescoes? Yet there is no deception. There is never even a moment when one would question if it is really God Almighty touching the hand of a material Adam. And if the figures are painted then it follows the architectural elements must be as well. Ruskin rightly observes that “so great a painter as Micheal Angelo would never paint badly (or perfectly) enough to deceive.”

Michael Angelo, Sistine Chapel

Courtesy of Palladio Mouldings
Ornamental Truth. This last one particularly resonates with me, living in an age where computer guided machines pump out lifeless ornament. Ruskin said it best over 150 years ago, “it is not the material, but the absence of the human labour, which makes the thing worthless; and a piece of terra cotta, or of plaster of Paris, which has been wrought by the human hand, is worth all the stone in Carrara, cut by machinery...nobody wants ornaments in this world, but every body wants integrity.”

Over the next few post I'll endeavor to highlight each of the “Lamps” or virtues espoused by Mr. Ruskin. Next to consider: The Lamp of Power

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Contributed by Patrick Webb