Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This article identifies the exact subject of one of John Ruskin’s most highly regarded Alpine watercolours.
The Swiss town of Bellinzona guards the southern entrance to the Alps from Lake Maggiore, and commands the St Gotthard route from Italy to the north. In 1858 Ruskin found there one of the most important subjects of his career. He stayed there from 12 June to 8 July and worked on this subject each afternoon for at least two weeks. Eventually he left off frustrated, but despite that it appears to modern eyes to be one of his most complete and beautiful works and it achieved a world record price for a work by Ruskin of £274,050 when it was sold at Christie’s in London in 2003.
Click on image to see captions
The picture has always been known to show Bellinzona, but despite the celebrity of the picture no-one seems ever to have enquired into the exact site. I confirmed the location as the Church of San Quirico at Daro, which overlooks Bellinzona from nearby to the north east, on a visit in November 2012. The church and view north up the Ticino is almost unchanged, except for the railway and new building in the middle distance. The most remarkable survival is the garden below the terrace, complete with its steep steps and terraces. Ruskin was especially fond of this garden and seems to have felt that it peculiarly exemplified the beauty and hardness of the Ticino. When I photographed the site the clouds capped the distant hills and the afternoon sun illuminated the church and terraces in almost exactly the same way as recorded by Ruskin.
The Terrace at Daro provided the vantage-point for two watercolour studies of the Castel Grande and pencil sketch of San Giovanni. Together these seem to have been intended to form parts of a grand overview of Bellinzona, which the view of San Quirico would have closed to the right.
The two watercolour studies are today untraced, but were reproduced in the Library Edition of the Works of John Ruskin published in 1902-12.
Click on images for captions
These watercolours were made from the same viewpoint, and record the same view of the Castel Grande, but under different effects of light. In the first, it appears to be earlier in the afternoon with the towers silhouetted against southerly light. Conditions are clear, and the higher hills over Lago Maggiore beyond the castle can be seen clearly. In the second, late afternoon light rakes across the Castle from the right, catching the base of the Torre Bianco, and the leading edges of the rocks at the base. There appears to be a lot of cloud to the left, and it may be that Ruskin is recording a late afternoon clearance after rain.
The pencil drawing represents the exact continuation to the right of the two treatments of the Castel Grande. The identification as Bellinzona was first suggested by Ian Warrell in the online catalogue notes when it was sold at Christie’s in London in 1999, but this is the first detailed identification of the subject as San Giovanni, and the first association with the two views of the Castel Grande. The relationship illustrates a practice that was by now routine for Ruskin of working in mosaic. He preferred to approach an expansive subject through small individual studies which might then be pieced together, either physically or in a new drawing, to achieve a comprehensive treatment. There are good examples of this approach to Swiss town subjects in his work at Baden and Fribourg. There are a number of references to unidentified and untraced sketches of Bellinzona by Ruskin and it is possible that more pieces of this particular mosaic remain to be discovered.
Throughout Ruskin’s tour of 1858 he kept a diary in the form of daily letters to his father. The full correspondence was published by John Hayman in John Ruskin: Letters from the Continent, 1858, University of Toronto Press, 1982. These letters (together with a few others) contain a number of references to this work, and other comments that shed light on his thoughts.
Ruskin arrived at Bellinzona on 12 June 1858. After a few days he settled into a routine and on 17 June reported:
My days pass now in a most settled & tranquil way… finding on the whole that I do best work by taking the day quietly… breakfast about seven; and then get to work in a shady place about ½ past 9. Then draw till 12: take umbrella & good (long) brisk walk till ½ past two – always some new place to explore: – home & dress for dinner – dine at 3 – rest a little & get to afternoon work about 5, on a beautiful little terrace commanding the valley west and north, so that I am sure of sunset. Home to tea about eight, and in bed by 1/2 past ten.
The weather was good but unsettled. In the same letter of the 17th he observed; ‘It has been warm for three days – but is now quite cool, and pleasant – some thunder having headed its way among the hills’. On the 18th: ‘Here, we have no east wind, but the weather has clouded over every day at three for these three days back, giving one thoroughly wet afternoon, and two gloomy ones, with growls of thunder. It spoils the sentiment of the place a great deal not to have calm evenings: but I hope for better things.’ The next day it was particularly fine and he reported happy progress with his work at Daro:
It has been a lovely day for drawing, and I have worked long, but I am learning a great deal; having taken up my old field of sketching; and I find many curious matters discoverable therein.. I have got quite a little San Miniato to go to in the afternoons, a church on the hillside with a garden among the rocks, hopelessly beautiful, to give any idea of in drawing; steps descending hither and thither, half rock, half laid stone; just flowers and grass enough to make the rocks lovely without in the least hiding them. The priest is polite in meaning, but boorish in manner, compared to the French ones. He has a nice dog – who was a long time before he would give up barking at me; but is now on the most intimate terms; and picked up my handkerchief for me when I dropped it today like a (gentleman) groom of the chamber.
The following day the weather continued fine: ‘It is quite cloudless today, cloudless with purpose of remaining so; and the green vines & mountains all in sacred peace. I still think this place the most beautiful I have yet found among the hills. Write still here. I have no intention of moving for at least ten days.’
On the 23rd all remained sunny and happy, although Ruskin could felt obliged to remark on the apparent lack of industry amongst the peasants:
The grapes here seem to get larger visibly. They are in many vineyards as large as this [sketch] already – and if the Xeres ones are in as good health as there here I don’t think there will be any more in need of rise in price. But it seems a pity that the beautiful tree should encourage at once idleness and drunkenness. The vines are planted only that the peasants may have nothing or as little as possible to do. It is true the ground in some of the better farms is sown with potatoes between the rows of vines; or with maize; but more frequently, nothing but the mountain grass grows there; the people taking evidently no trouble with either grass or grape, but mow the one in hay time – and pluck the other. You have it appears as much heat in London as we have here. It is not in the least oppressive though the snow is beginning to gleam sparingly on the mountain peaks; and the cascades fade away one by one.’
By the 27th, with the fine weather persisting, Ruskin began to see that the area was beginning to dry out rather alarmingly, and was perhaps beginning to find his spirits flagging, despite the fact that it was a feast day:
I see an account of an awful hailstorm at Chatsworth. Hail or thunder, the poor people would have been glad to have had it here. They are being ruined by drought. It is more than two months since they had a serviceable shower – and today is as bright as if it had just set in fine after two months of rain, intensely bright, everywhere. It is a festa & shawls and bed covers are hung out of windows all over the town so what with sunshine and shawls, the place looks gay, but the people are not; and all my beautiful cascades are becoming mere tricklets of water here and there among white pebbles & scorched rocks. But it is not hot. It is the wind that keeps off the rain, they say.
One 30 June he reported that he was beginning to see an end to his work and the next day (1 July) reported that the summer drought had taken a firm grip:
Coutet [his guide and assistant, Joseph Couttet of Chamonix] says it is ‘too fine’ – there will be heavy storms to make up for it. It is a sad thing to see the grapes falling from their stems – or shrinking to narrow ovals instead of full rounds: – the trees too are all taking their autumnal tints already. I never saw a country so truly suffering from drought – it is very sad.
Ruskin does appear to be over-reacting to the dry conditions. This is, after all, the Southern Alps in high summer. He might have reflected that the climate was the explanation for the nature of local cultivation – it was simply too dry in high summer to permit the kind of agricultural industry he would have preferred to see.
He worked on at Bellinzona until 8 July when he moved on to Isola Bella on Lago Maggiore. On 9 July he wrote to his father:
No pity nor respect can be felt for these people, who have sunk and remain sunk, merely by idleness and wantonness in the midst of all blessings and advantages: who cannot so much as bank out—or in—a mountain stream, because, as one of their priests told me the other day, every man always acts for himself: they will never act together and do anything at common expense for the common good; but every man tries to embank his own land and throw the stream upon his neighbours; and so the stream masters them all and sweeps its way down all the valley in victory. This I heard from the curate of a mountain chapel at Bellinzona*, when I went every evening to draw his garden; and where, by the steps cut in its rock, and the winding paths round it, and the vines hanging over it, and the little patch of golden corn at the bottom of it, and the white lily growing on a rock in the midst of it, and the white church tower holding the dark bells over it, and the deep purple mountains encompassing it, I got so frightfully and hopelessly beaten. It was partly the priest’s fault too, for he cut the white lily to present to the Madonna one festa day [see 27 June]—not knowing that it was just the heart of my subject—and a day or two afterwards he cut his corn (and planted languid little lettuces or some such thing in its stead), which took away all my gold as before he had taken all my silver, and so discouraged me [see 30 June ‘I am beginning to see an end to my work..’].
On 24 August while settled in Turin he wrote jocularly to artist John Frederick Lewis to reflect on his difficulties in drawing of the summer;
..not that I have made quite so much of my summer as I had hoped; but I am much the better of even its catastrophes. I can hardly call them less. I got quite sulky about it at one time, and have never been fit to write to any of my friends – for I should have been merely grumbling. When I came abroad first, this year, I had come to the conclusion that I was beginning to be too fond of minor detail; and resolved accordingly to sketch a great many subjects of the Grand kind in an impressive and ‘eclectic’ manner. The result of this experiment was that I made myself entirely miserable in a week – feeling as if I never could touch pencil again. After (drawing) taking breath a little, I resolved to try the old plan again fairly; and began a drawing in complete light and shade. Having executed a little bit so as to give some promise of coming satisfactorily, I proceeded to calculate how long it would take to finish the drawing: and found the period required to be Fifteen years, six months, & some days. Not having this time at my disposal at Bellinzona, where I made the experiment – I packed up my drawing materials – and endeavoured to find some profit in doing nothing…’
In 1866 Ruskin presented this drawing to Rev J Moore and on 22 October wrote to describe the circumstances under in which it was painted :
Dear Mr Moore
I have made no drawings at any time but for notes of fact: more for pleasure of sketching- so that I have had great difficulty in finding one that seemed the least fit for presentation to you. Nor can I ever conceive any one taking any pleasure in my imperfect work. However the sketch I send looks pretty well at a distance, and it is of an interesting scene enough, in its way. The little rocky garden & the view of village near Bellinzona – which being much too steep for the old priest to trouble himself by walking- much less working in – had near perished by drought when I sketched it- though a mountain stream dashed by only a hundred yards below.- from which- when I was tired of drawing, my quick hand brought up sundry bucketsfull of snow water to the poor garden- much to its refreshment- and the villagers’ astonishment and our own piece of mind- for that afternoon. The valley in the distance is the ascent (crossed through) access to the pass of the St Gothard.- you are looking north. This sketch belonged to my mother but she likes you to have it. And so do I, if you like it. I wish the fig leaves had stalks to them- (or stitches together at any rate)- but I got tired at the time of the tailoring, and I can’t do it now rightly,
Ever affectionately Yours J Ruskin
Another aspect of this picture that does not ever seem to have occasioned any comment is the way in which it determines not to be a picture of Bellinzona. The ancient city and its castles are all behind us, and we look away north towards the St Gotthard. The composition isolates a vignette of a southern Alpine situation, with pockets of habitation and cultivation on steep rock. The composition is of a garden-scale intimacy completely tuned to a habitat of rock and vine, and one evidently situated to maximize awareness of being, at the very least to enjoy the view, but more subtly to come especially to life when the bells start ringing and the sound measures the substance and nature of the space in which it sits. Despite his diffidence with regard to its claims as art, it is an object lesson in Ruskin’s thinking himself into place through a detail. He finds real beauty in the situation, and makes something beautiful out of it.
Nevertheless, he was also finding his quest for beauty constantly reminded of human and natural realities. So he saw that the climate engendered hardness and difficulty, and he was conflicted by his own vanity and self-indulgence, even narcissism and ultimately went off to luxuriate in Turin. Ruskin was in transition and was preparing to launch an assault on the social and creative impoverishment of political economy in the contemporary world. It is perhaps indicative of the importance of his visit to Bellinzona that he returned to his experiences on this terrace in his first major book of political injustice, Unto This Last, published in 1860:
The most accurately nugatory labour is, perhaps, that of which not enough is given to answer a purpose effectually, and which, therefore, has all to be done over again. Also, labour which fails of effect through non-co-operation. The curè of a little village near Bellinzona, to whom I had expressed wonder that the peasants allowed the Ticino to flood their fields, told me that they would not join to build an effectual embankment high up the valley, because everybody said that would help his neighbours as much as himself. So every proprietor built a bit of low embankment about his own field; and the Ticino, as soon as it had a mind, swept away and swallowed all up together.
He referred to this again in letters on Roman Inundations.
There is yet one further evil. The snow on the bared rock slips lower and melts faster; snows which in mossy or grass ground would have lain long, and furnished steadily flowing streams far on into summer, fall or melt from the bare rock in avalanche and flood, and spend in desolation in a few days what would have been nourishment for half the year. And against all this there are no remedies possible in any sudden or external action. It is the law of the Heaven which sends flood and food, that national prosperity can only be achieved by national forethought and unity of purpose.
In the year 1858 I was staying the greater part of the summer at Bellinzona, during a drought as harmful as the storms of ten years later. The Ticino sank into a green rivulet; and not having seen the right way to deal with the matter, I had many a talk with the parroco of a little church whose tower I was drawing, as to the possibility of setting his peasants to work to repair the embankment while the river was low. But the good old priest said, sorrowfully, the peasants were too jealous of each other, that no one would build anything or protect his own ground for fear his work might also benefit his neighbours.
Part of his later feelings about his drawing at Bellinzona was perhaps that through it he discovered the imperfection of the world and rendered himself unwilling and unable to connive in the propagation of an aesthetic fiction. He constantly told his father that he was learning a lot through his drawing whilst achieving little in it. He does not say, however, what it was that he was learning, and perhaps he did not yet see that clearly enough except for it to express itself in unease and dissatisfaction, but not yet definition and resolution.
When I photographed the subject on 2 November 2012 there were a few figs and olives growing on the terraces, together with one rather untidy Kiwi fruit, but the garden looked unloved. Given Ruskin’s description: ‘hopelessly beautiful, to give any idea of in drawing; steps descending hither and thither, half rock, half laid stone; just flowers and grass enough to make the rocks lovely without in the least hiding them’, and his obligation to tend it with ‘sundry bucketsfull of snow water… much to its refreshment- and the villagers’ astonishment’, it might be a worthwhile project for the citizens of Bellinzona to bring back something of that loveliness to these terraces as a living memorial to Ruskin’s association with the city.