St Mark's, Venice I

By William Morris

I have just received information, on the accuracy of which I can rely, that the restoration of the west front of St. Mark's at Venice, which has long been vaguely threatened, is to be taken in hand at once. A commission is called for next month, to examine its state and to determine whether it is to be pulled down immediately or to be allowed to stand till next year. The fate of such a building seems to me a subject important enough to warrant me in asking you to grant me space to make an appeal to your readers to consider what a disaster is threatened hereby to art and culture in general. Though this marvel of art and treasure of history has suffered some disgraces, chiefly in the base mosaics that have supplanted the earlier ones, it is in the main in a genuine and untouched state, and to the eye of anyone not an expert in building looks safe enough from anything but malice or ignorance. But anyhow, if it be in any way unstable, it is impossible to believe that a very moderate exercise of engineering skill would not make it as sound as any building of its age can be. Whatever pretexts may be put forward, therefore, the proposal to rebuild it can only come from those that suppose that they can renew and better (by imitation) the workmanship of its details, hitherto supposed to be unrivalled; by those that think that there is nothing distinctive between the thoughts, and expression of the thoughts, of the men of the twelfth and of the nineteenth century; by those that prefer gilding, glitter, and blankness, to the solemnity of tone, and the incident that hundreds of years of wind and weather have given to the marble, always beautiful, but from the first meant to grow more beautiful by the lapse of time; in short, those only can think the `restoration' of St. Mark's possible who neither know nor care that it has now become a work of art, a monument of history, and a piece of nature. Surely I need not enlarge on the pre-eminence of St. Mark's in all these characters, for no one who even pretends to care about art, history, or nature, would call it in question; but I will assert that, strongly as I may have seemed to express myself, mywords but feebly represent the feelings of a large body of cultivated men who will feel real grief at the loss that seems imminent - a loss which may be slurred over, but which will not be forgotten, and which will be felt ever deeper as cultivation spreads. That the outward aspect of the work should grow uglier day by day in spite of the aspirations of civilisation, nay, partly because of its triumphs, is a grievous puzzle to some of us who are not lacking in sympathy for those aspirations and triumphs, artists and craftsmen as we are. So grievous it is that sometimes we are tempted to say, `Let them make a clean sweep of it all then: let us forget it all, and muddle on as best we may, unencumbered with either history or hope!' But such despair is, we well know, a treason to the cause of civilisation and the arts, and we do our best to overcome it, and to strengthen ourselves in the belief that even a small minority will at last be listened to, and its reasonable opinions be accepted. In this belief I have troubled you with this letter, and I call on all those who share it to join earnestly in any attempt that may be made to save us from an irreparable loss - a loss which only headlong rashness could make possible. Surely it can never be too late to pull down St Mark's at Venice, the wonder of the civilised world?

Letter to the Daily News, 1 November 1879.

The reference to this piece of work in the Chronology