Sublime Sites

Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill

In Ruskin’s Footsteps: the Balconies of Bellinzona

In November 2012 I made a short site visit to the southern Swiss town of Bellinzona. It stands at the entrance to the Ticino valley above Locarno and for centuries served as the southern gateway to the St Gotthard Pass, controlling traffic between northern Italy, especially Lago Maggiore, Milan and Turin, and northern Switzerland including Lucerne and Zurich.

Its castles and bridge provided both Turner and Ruskin with numerous subjects, more of which I hope to illustrate through photographs in future articles, but for the present I want to concentrate on some incidental details that not only proved to be more readily identifiable that I anticipated, but also indicative of Ruskin’s attenuated alertness to quality in artistic expression.

Click on any image to read captions:

Ruskin noticed these wrought-iron balconies during a visit to Bellinzona in 1858. He had them photographed by his assistant Frederick Crawley using the daguerreotype method, and the following year published the images as a frontispiece to his lecture ‘The Two Paths’. The lecture included an illustrated discussion of their quality of craftsmanship and the spirit of that time, which put C19 manufacture to shame. The original daguerreotype plate of the upper image survives in the Ruskin Library at the University of Lancaster. That for the lower image is presently untraced unless it forms part of an extensive private collection of Ruskin daguerreotypes belonging to K&J Jacobson. That collection is soon to be fully published.

Click on any image to read captions:

The actual balconies are here identified with the photographs for the first time. The upper balcony in Ruskin’s illustration is on a house immediately to the south of the Collegiata, and the lower is on a house on the west side of the northern angle of the Piazza. Both images may be presumed to be reversed in the daguerreotypes, but there is too much symmetry in the pattern to be entirely certain. Ruskin also took a separate photograph of the lower balcony as seen from a side angle, and the original plate of that survives in the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster. ‘The Two Paths’ also includes several engravings to support Ruskin’s discussion of the extraordinary attention to detail in the balconies. These were evidently taken from drawings in a notebook of 1858, including one of an oblique view, reproduced below.

Click on any image to read captions:

There is a further daguerreotype at the Ruskin Library of a balcony at Bellinzona. This was catalogued as ‘An Arcade at Bellinzona’. Close inspection, however reveals that the image is reversed (normal in a daguerreotype), and that the street sign to the right reads ‘Piazza Nosetto’. This enables the subject to be here identified for the first time as the entrance to the courtyard of the Old Palazzo Civico in Bellinzona. The building was demolished in 1924 and replaced by the present building, although from the evidence of this photograph the columns and capitals were retained. The balcony of the new building is a much more elaborate Venetian affair, but it is seems probable that the original high quality wrought iron balcony was preserved somewhere.

Frederick Crawley for John Ruskin. The Balcony of the Old Palazzo Civico in the Piazza Nosetto, Bellinzona. Called 'An arcade at Bellinzona', 1858 Daguerreotype Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, RF Dag 112 Photograph by courtesy of the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster.

Frederick Crawley for John Ruskin.
The Balcony of the Old Palazzo Civico in the Piazza Nosetto, Bellinzona. Called ‘An arcade at Bellinzona’, 1858
Daguerreotype
Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster, RF Dag 112
Photograph by courtesy of the Ruskin Library, University of Lancaster.

For all those that have passed through these squares, very few have noticed these balconies as did Ruskin. His drawing requires quite a peculiar station, tucked in the angle of the adjacent house, but only here is it possible to see the projecting nature of the relief. In adopting such a position, Ruskin is revealing himself to be someone of unusual, even eccentric, perceptivity. It might be fairly said that visitors to this square generally have more obvious occupation – companions, business, or recuperation – and the excellence of wrought-iron balconies makes little claim to consideration. But Ruskin was not of any ordinary consciousness and his underlying argument was that normal business dimmed the senses of those with a mind for finer perceptions. There was once a time he fancied when finer standards prevailed. But all he saw now was a contemporary culture blind to everything but its own business.

Ruskin balcony detail #350

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This entry was posted on September 29, 2014 by and tagged , , , , .
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