Ruskin’s “The Seven Lamps of Architecture”

In 1849, with the release of The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin really began to emerge as a leading architectural writer. This book-length essay, which contains fourteen of Ruskin’s own sketches, lays out his seven major principles, or “lamps,” of architecture: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, and Obedience. While he does not specifically focus on Venice in this book, he develops the theories and ideas that he later applies to the architecture of Venice in The Stones of Venice. The most important premise of this book is the idea, already seen in Modern Painters, that architecture is closely related to the moral state of a nation or city, be it England, Venice, or elsewhere. By doing this, Ruskin established architecture as not only an aesthetic presence, but also a political and “moral presence in the life of the average Victorian.”[1] For instance, “The Lamp of Sacrifice” is based on the premise that architecture, most specifically churches, should serve as proof of the society’s obedience and dedication to God. He takes this idea further in “The Lamp of Truth,” arguing for an “honest architecture,” one in which there is no deceit in its construction. These forms of deceit include the painting of surfaces to appear like another surface, machine-made ornaments, and the illusion of some other form of support than what actually exists.[2] The honesty of ornament was particularly important to Ruskin because he considered it the distinguishing factor between architecture and simple building.

Ruskin further develops the ideas of truth in the following chapters, arguing that architecture should not only be honest but also a reflection of the society that produced it. For example, in “The Lamp of Memory,” he examines the relationship between a building and its history, reaching the conclusion that restoration “is a lie from beginning to end” because it destroys the original structure and attempts to place a work of the “cheapest and basest imitation” in its place, as he felt had been done to St. Mark’s.[3] Throughout each of the chapters, he consistently maintains that the Gothic style is the greatest form because it, as any noble form of architecture, is “in some sort the embodiment of the Polity, Life, History, and Religious Faith of nations.”[4] By detailing his views on what architecture should and should not be, Ruskin lays an excellent foundation for The Stones of Venice, in which he takes principles from The Seven Lamps of Architecture and applies them to specific structures in Venice.

[1] John Batchelor, John Ruskin: A Life (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2000), 76.

[2] John Ruskin, The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Vol. 1 of The Complete Works of John Ruskin (New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell & Co., 1905), 32.

[3] Ibid., 180.

[4] Ibid., 184.

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