RECORD: Darwin, C. R. et al. 1879. The society for the protection of ancient buildings (Venice Memorial). The Times (19 November): 8.

REVISION HISTORY: Transcribed and edited by John van Wyhe 1.2020. RN1

NOTE: See record in the Freeman Bibliographical Database, enter its Identifier here. The text of this memorial and a letter to Newman Marks are published with important editorial notes in Correspondence vol. 27, pp. 487-9.

[page] 8

SAINT MARK'S CHURCH, VENICE.—Imminent REBUILDING of the WEST FRONT.—The following Memorial will be translated into Italian by a competent person:—

To his Excellency the Minister of Public Works of Italy.

We, the undersigned, architects, artists, men of letters, and others, lovers of art, and students of history, having been informed that the rebuilding or renewal of the Great Façade of St. Mark's Church, at Venice, is under consideration, venture most respectfully to address your Excellency, and to express a hope that you will give your attention to some considerations contained in the following memorial, which we make bold to lay before you on the ground of the universality of the interest in a building which has always been a centre of attraction for people of taste and cultivation.

In an admirable picture by Gentile Bellini, preserved in the Academy at Venice, there is, as you are doubtless aware, an accurate representation of this miracle of art as it then existed; and, comparing this with the building as it now is, we can see clearly that the façade has suffered little from the ravages of time since the end of the fifteenth century. Almost the only notable change is the substitution of comparatively modern mosaics for the ancient ones; though even of these a beautiful and perfect specimen is left us in the doorway at the north end of the façade. The delicate carvings and mouldings are as sharp and clear as if only finished yesterday; the shafts of rare marbles, collected with such care and pains, are still in their places: the marble slabs that cover the walls have not fallen down; and, in short, the whole front remains for us a storehouse of instruction in the history of style, and in the practice of architecture.

But furthermore, the lapse of time has done more than merely pass harmless over the invention and incident wrought out by the original builders; rather it has glorified them; it has cast a veil of beautiful tone over the surface, which no device of man's hand could accomplish; it has softened whatever was crude, without hiding anything that was delicate; it has, we may say, restored those rare and laboured stones to nature without taking them from art.

Nor is that all. If this excellent work of art so kindly dealt with by nature had been preserved to the world with scanty or no records of its origin, it would be precious indeed; how much more precious is it then, being as it is a very hive of history and tradition; a relic of the wonderful state of Venice in the days when she was the link between the East and the West, and the foundress of European commerce. What a treasure the world has in this lovely building, schemed by men whose noble and dramatic lives have made their names household words at every hearth of the civilized world!

And if this art, history, and beauty of surface still exist in the building, and make the square of St. Mark's one of the classical spots of the earth, how lamentably rash must any alteration be. We are compelled to ask, what is there to restore, when all that architects, painters, and historians seek for is there in full measure? And if such restoration were desirable, it would be impossible. And in the vain attempt at it, the total loss of that beauty of form and of surface, and the historical interest which the building now possesses, would not be risked merely, but certainly incurred. For every age has had its own style of art, bred of its own thoughts and aspirations, and every change in these latter has immediately received its due expression in art. The imitation of the workmanship of past times, therefore, must be carried out by those whose daily lives, in common with those of all modern workmen, are passed amid thoughts strange to that workmanship. They cannot understands its forms, which are repellant to their instincts; the rudenesses, of which most mediæval work is full, seem ridiculous to them; its excellencies are not those they have been aiming at; they work, therefore, fettered doubly, by their own traditions and by those of the past. The very central point and reason for existence of the ancient work is missed by them, and they produce a mere caricature of it. The building dies under their hands.

The loss of the time-softened surface of an ancient building by the process of renewal is obvious enough, and it might have been thought that no less obvious would be the loss of its historical interest as a genuine document: indeed this is allowed universally in the case of buildings that are beyond a certain age. No one, we imagine, has suggested the restoration of the Parthenon, of the Temple of Philæ, or the Circles of Stonehenge; yet we fail to see that the past of Venice is less a part of history than that of Greece, Egypt, or England or that the study of it should be denied to the lovers of freedom and progress.

We also beg to remind your Excellency that the rebuilding of the façade would certainly necessitate the destruction of the historically interesting, and artistically unrivalled mosaics that at present adorn the ceiling of the portico. We say destruction, because though the restoration of several parts of the mosaics of the interior has been attempted, the result has been the loss of all beauty and interest in those parts, in spite of the skill and care which undoubtedly have been employed in those restorations. On all grounds, therefore, we believe that any re-building of the façade of St Mark's Church, any renewal of its beautiful and venerable surface, will be an irreparable misfortune to art.

As to the soundness of its structure we are not in a position to express any definite opinion, but we are confident that, if it be threatened, it is within the power of science to devise a remedy which would restore its stability without moving a stone or altering the present surface in the least. If, on the contrary, that surface is tampered with, all will disappear for which the façade is now valued, nor will it ever be possible to bring it back again.

Such, your Excellency, are our firm convictions on this matter, and they urge us to plead earnestly with you for, at least, delay and further consideration of the question—a prayer that we feel sure will be widely echoed throughout Europe and America among cultivated people. 

In conclusion, we beg your Excellency to excuse us if in pressing any point, our words have been too warm, since we trust you will believe us to be actuated by that gratitude to Italy, our instructress in the Arts, and by that sympathy both with her past and present life, which is universal in all civilised countries, and is felt in none we believe more strongly than in England.

The above memorial has been supported by the following:—


Professor Darwin, F.R.S.

[The other 29 signatories are not transcribed.]

and many hundred others distinguished in Art, Literature, and Science.

The above Memorial lies for signature at the offices of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings; or the text of the Memorial will be sent for signature on application to the Secretary, Newman Marks, 9 Buckingham-street, Strand, W.C.

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