John Ruskin: Les
Pierres de Venise.
Trans by Mme Mathilde P. Crémieux.
Preface by M. Robert de la Sizeranne.
A translation of The Stones
of Venice that adds to the French intelligence a new and
notable part of the spirit of Ruskin and the spirit of Venice,
would have been an interesting event in our literary history in
any period, outside any contingence. But this one (the first in
the French language) that we owe to the admirable efforts of Mme
Crémieux, has also come, as they say, very much of its hour. The
hour of Venice perhaps, too, one might be led to think from
certain signs, the hour of Ruskin in France, the hour of Venice
in any case. Venice has never enjoyed, among the intellects of
the elite, a favour as special and as lofty as it does today. In
order to take back its position of eminence Venice has never,
unlike Versailles, had to climb back up such a steep slope of
disdain (Musset's "dull park of Versailles" became,
through Barrès, through Montesquiou, through Henri de Régnier,
Helleu, Nolhac, Lobre, Boldini1, the residence of choice for poets and sages); the
rather populist and muddled vogue which it held (and scarcely
distinguished it from Naples or Sorrento other than through its
tragic legends which created the romantic foundation in the
universal surroundings of love) has transformed itself into a
ceaseless refined and profound predilection of the rarest minds
of our times. The dying Venice of Barrès, the carnivalesque and
posthumous Venice of Régnier, the Venice insatiable in love of
Mme de Noailles, the Venice of Léon Daudet, of Jacques Vontade2 exercise a unique
fascination on all well bred imaginations. And now Ruskin is
going to lead us away from this rather passive contemplation of
He allows us to glide along by gondola. He himself, in Praeterita, confessed to the gentle voluptuousness he had found there. But it will be necessary, The Stones of Venice in our hand, to stop off at all the churches and dwellings, half erected, delightful and pink, rising from the waters in which they are plunged, to study each capital, to ask for a ladder to make out a relief to whose importance Ruskin has drawn our attention and which, were it not for him, we would never have noticed; not contenting ourselves with viewing Venice as the decoration that formerly inspired Daniel Halévy to his exquisite and scornful pages, but as a city which is alive, which is, among all living cities, noble and wise, and whose nobility, wisdom and vitality are still visible and admirable in those stones that they ordain according to their laws.3 A sort of museum, intact and perfect, of the domestic architecture during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance - the sublime Middle Ages and the disastrous Renaissance - that the inexhaustible and marvellous lessons Venice is going to teach us, now that Ruskin is to make its stones speak to us, and, thanks to Mme Crémieux's superb translation, is going to address us in our own language, like one of those apostles gilded with glossolalia4 which are represented in the baptistery of St Mark's. So it is with beauty as with good fortune (of which a certain poet, moreover, said that it was the promise), and beauty fades away, like good fortune, into dull weariness if we pursue it to the exclusion of all else. We could have wearied ourselves with the languor of Venice and coldly repeat, in its praise, litanies of genius. And now, upon our return to our Ruskinian pilgrimages, energetic and industrious as they are, in which we will search for truth and not pleasure, our pleasure will become all the more profound, and Venice will shed upon us even greater enchantment for having been for us a place of study and given us voluptuousness beyond measure. Passionate pilgrims to the stones which were at first ideas and which they become once more for us, what wonderful lessons we hear the master preach to us at the water's edge! To the colours of the Venetian skies, to the mosaics in St Mark's, are added new colours, more enchanting still because they are the very hues of a marvellous imagination, Ruskin's colours, that his prose, like an enchanted ship, carry across the world!
M. Alinari's photographs, both lively and artistic, console us a little for the publishers or Ruskin's heirs not authorizing the reproduction of the Master's wonderful engravings. One could, upon seeing M. Alinari's plates, reply to the question posed recently by M. de la Sizeranne, that photography is indeed an art form in its own right. The marvellous lecture on Ruskin that the latter gave at the Doge's Palace and which reverberated so deeply in France and in England, forms the preface of this book. In these Stones of Venice, necessarily abridged, but still brimming with beautiful things, we find pages on arrival in Venice, on Torcello, on St Mark's, which in the anthology of Venice can, without fear of argument, take their place beside those most beautiful pages in Barrès' book. For Venice Ruskin will achieve in France what has been begun by Turner, Barrès, Mme de Noailles, Henri de Régnier and Whistler. A second edition is already going to press as we write. Mme Crémieux's translation, being conceived primarily as a guide to Venice, is a sort of abridgement of the "Travellers' Edition", and we entreat for the third edition an appendix which contains, if possible, the extract about the works of Vittore Carpaccio. (At the very least it should introduce in the Venetian index the material Ruskin added in his 1877 revision. Without that we simply have the note on San Giorgio dei Schiavoni which features in Mme Crémieux's translation: "it is considered to contain a beautiful series by Carpaccio", which is far too stupefactive to anybody who is familiar with Ruskin's claim that he discovered Carpaccio.) Other parts of the book have some kinship with other books by Ruskin, certain works of Venetian criticism played a significant role in the evolution of Ruskin's taste, take up an important part in his work - the place that they held in his life - and inspired him to the wonderful development of his other books, that one regrets that the necessary limitations did not allow Mme Crémieux a full table of references. But she has condensed so much into one volume that it is already a miracle that she has been able to succeed so well. The dazzling success of her translation is, as they say, an extremely favourable prognosis, from the point of view of the influence of Great Britain's beauties, viewed from here at a distance and as if through a mist by those who can only but imperfectly read the original, but introduced to them through this translation in pure and clear light, cannot fail to exercise French sensibility.
First published in La Chronique des arts et de la curiosité, 5 May 1906.
1. A prose writer, two poets, an engraver, a scholar, two painters. Montesquiou dedicated his collection of sonnets, Les Perles rouges (1899) to Maurice Lobre (1862 - 1951).
2. Pseudonym of Mme Bulteau, novelist.
3. Proust always spoke of his old friend with a mixture of affection and reserve. Here he is thinking of two articles that Daniel Halévy wrote for La Revue de Paris (1 Aug & 1 Sept 1898) under the title Vénétie et Tuscane.
4. The gift of language.
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