Ruskin's Venice: The Stones Revisited... Under Quarantine

Sarah Quill, author and photographer of the best-selling Ruskin's Venice: The Stones Revisited, reflects on her experience of being in Venice during the first few days of government lockdown and on the particular challenges faced by the city, from Ruskin's time to the present day. 


The title of the Venice Architectural Biennale this year –– currently re-scheduled from late May to take place at the end of August ––  is How will we live together?, an apt title, considering it was planned long before the outbreak of the coronavirus in Europe. A decision as to whether or not the Biennale and the Film Festival really can take place in the city in late summer seems still to be in the balance.

West and south facades of the Ducal Palace at dawn (1998) from Ruskin's Venice: The Stones Revisited

Northern Italy was badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic at an early stage, with an outbreak of cases in Lombardy in February. When the quarantine measures for Italy were announced on the evening of 7th March, I was working in Venice, having just given a couple of lectures on a course that runs yearly in the city for a group of eighteen-year-old students.  The title of one of my talks, The Changing Face of Venice, took on a new meaning as events rapidly unfolded in the light of the sudden and severe restrictions.  The students were immediately transported to Florence and onwards to Rome for flights back to the UK. Following the announcement that the quarantine lockdown would now cover all of Italy, along with travel restrictions and a ban on public gatherings, my return flight from Venice to London was cancelled, and the next few days passed in a worrying delirium of cancelled flights and attempts to re-schedule. 

The Piazzetta of San Marco, March 2020

I had planned to spend the last few days continuing the research and photography for my next book, but that was now going to be out of the question: all libraries and museums had closed a few days earlier. But photographic aspects opened up: the experience of walking through a city suddenly emptied of mass tourism – in fact, empty of any tourism at all – was a rare and wonderful sensation, and a reminder of what the city used to be before the explosion of mass tourism became such a problem for Venice.  

Heading for the Piazza and Piazzetta of San Marco, the area where I tend to spend time working on a book connected with the Ducal Palace, I found it deserted. Inevitably, this is always the most overcrowded part of Venice, and for that reason it can at times be more of an ordeal than a pleasure to be there –– but now it was gloriously empty, and it was possible to walk along the arcades of the Ducal Palace undisturbed. An abiding memory is the sight of a Dalmatian dog bounding joyfully round the deserted Piazza. Had it not been for the anxiety about the possibility of being stranded, those few days in an empty Venice would have been doubly enjoyable.

Inlaid marble decoration on the façade of Palazzo Trevisan Cappello

The vaporetti transport boats, normally crowded to capacity, continued to run on time but they were almost empty, and the only language heard in the streets was Italian or Venetian, as residents walked their dogs or shopped for essentials. Bars, restaurants and cafés were instructed to close at 6.00 pm; by the time I left they had been closed down entirely, while yet more stringent restrictions were imposed by the day.

In between increasingly frantic attempts to book a flight back to London, there was time to reflect on Venice’s problems, many of which had been predicted by Ruskin in the mid-nineteenth century.  He was acutely aware of the threat posed by industrial pollution in Europe, and his two lectures at the London Institution on ‘The Storm-Cloud of the Nineteenth Century’ broadly covered the subject of what we now call climate change.

South-west portico of St Mark’s, looking towards the Ducal Palace

Spandrel and capital, south façade of the Ducal Palace
& John Ruskin, Capital of Birds, Plate V in The Seven Lamps of Architecture 
The disastrous floods of 1966 which caused such devastation in Florence and Venice, led to the foundation of several charities, including the Venice in Peril Fund in London and Save Venice Inc. in New York, both of which will celebrate their 50th anniversaries in 2021. A long programme of restoration and conservation of Venetian architecture was begun, and it continues to this day, supported by a number of international charitable committees.

By the time the new and revised edition of Ruskin’s Venice: The Stones Revisited was published by Lund Humphries in 2015, there had been a number of changes in the appearance of Venice’s architecture, due to the many restoration programmes underway in the city, so that a number of the subjects included in the first edition (published by Ashgate in 2000) needed to be re-photographed. The fifteen years between the two editions gave plenty of time to record the restored appearance of buildings and exterior sculptures. Church façades of white Istrian stone, which had been blackened for so many years that their sculptures were no longer distinguishable, had been transformed after cleaning.

Ducal Palace: south-west angle, with sculptures of Adam and Eve
& Detail of 14th-century capital on south side of the Ducal Palace, The Bride.

From 2007, the Italian government initiated a long programme of restoration and consolidation of the facades of the Ducal Palace and its Istrian stone sculptures, including the columns and capitals of the exterior arcades. Ruskin, who had described the palace as “a model of all perfection” and “the central building of the world,” considered it to be the supreme example of Venetian Gothic. It had been in a terrible state of repair while he was researching material for The Stones of Venice, and he wrote to his father in January 1852 that the capitals were so rent and worn that he felt sure the Ducal Palace would not last another fifty years.

John Ruskin, Exterior of the Ducal Palace, Venice (1852), © Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

A long restoration was carried out in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, and a total of forty-two capitals from the ground-level and upper arcades were moved inside and replaced by copies. These included thirteen of the earliest fourteenth-century columns and capitals, which were put into storage for more than a century.  In 1995, Venice in Peril funded the cleaning and conservation of those thirteen early capitals, which are now displayed in the Museo dell’Opera inside the palace.

Venice has had a great many problems to contend with over the past half-century, and events over recent months have exacerbated them. Acqua alta (flooding of the city at high tide) had always existed, but has become very much worse, due in great part to the deep dredging of canals to accommodate large shipping. The exceptional acqua alta of November 2019, which flooded 85 per cent of the city, was the second highest since records began in 1923: flood levels reached 1.87 metres (74 inches), only three inches lower than the calamitous high water of 1966.  The situation has not been helped by increasing mass tourism, a rapidly declining population of Venetians and the advent of gigantic cruise ships, the cause of much bitter controversy. These skyscrapers of the sea plough into Venice from the Adriatic, upsetting the fragile eco-system of the lagoon and disgorging thousands of people into the city. Together with increasing numbers of motor-boats, they have become a major source of damage and pollution, and the temporary disappearance of motorised boat traffic from the city during the coronavirus lockdown has resulted in clean canal water, and a resurgence of marine life in the lagoon.

Translation of the body of St Mark to the Basilica, 13th-century mosaic on the west façade

What might Ruskin have thought of Venice today? He held strong views about the kind of destructive restorations he had witnessed in the mid-nineteenth century, and his meeting in Venice in 1877 with the young Count Alvise Piero Zorzi led to their close collaboration on Zorzi’s planned publication: a damning account of the works undertaken on the north and south façades of the Basilica of San Marco, and a forceful protest against the plans scheduled for the west front. Ruskin took part with enthusiasm, writing a long preface to Zorzi’s pamphlet, and undertaking to pay the publication costs. Other countries were inspired to support the campaign to rescue St Mark’s from a damaging restoration, and in England the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) was founded: the society exists to this day and still operates according to its original manifesto and principles. 

In recent decades, one of the biggest threats posed to Venice has been that of mass tourism, which has increased to almost unmanageable levels. The temporary changes –– many of them for the better –– which have transformed the city since the coronavirus lockdown, are certain to provoke much discussion and reflection on Venice’s future.


Sarah Quill, May 2020

All Photographs © Sarah Quill unless otherwise stated.


Sarah Quill's Ruskin's Venice: The Stones Revisited is available to order from our website.


Paperback • 256 Pages • Size: 250 × 190 mm
267 colour and 58 b&w illustrations
ISBN: 9781848221796 • Publication: February 16, 2018

This latest edition, published in paperback in 2018, features 175 new photographs of Venice's buildings, (many of which have been cleaned since the first edition was published), as well as 45 more illustrations, including drawings from Ruskin’s Venetian notebooks and four of his recently rediscovered daguerreotypes of Venice, made as studies for The Stones.