Explorations in the footsteps of Turner, Cotman and Ruskin with Professor David Hill
This article returns the attention of Sublimesites.co to the southern Swiss city of Bellinzona to investigate another site drawn by John Ruskin. Bellinzona has been the subject of two previous articles published on 29 September 2014. The new site is the Salita della Nocca, a narrow, cobbled path that climbs outside the walls to Montebello Castle from the near the old south gate to the city. Ruskin made three works there during his visit to the city in 1858. Two of these, a pencil drawing and a watercolour are at the Bowdoin College of Art Museum, Maine, USA, and the third, a daguerreotype photograph is in the collection of Ken and Jenny Jacobson. The occasion of this article is the first publication of the daguerreotype in a superb catalogue raisonnee of Ruskin’s daguerreotypes by Ken and Jenny Jacobson, recently published by Bernard Quaritch. The three works have all previously been identified as Bellinzona, but this article for the first time identifies the exact site. (1)
Going up from the present youth hostel, the Salita della Nocca climbs steeply between a rock face on the right and a stone wall on the left. After a straight ascent the path turns left and on the corner is a natural rock seat. From here there is a view straight back down the path over the valley towards Lago Maggiore. Over the wall to the right are the vineyards and walls of Montebello Castle. Today, the Salita della Nocca is a quiet backwater, not often found by tourists. Its obscurity certainly explains why it has not previously been recognised, and also begs some questions as to what brought Ruskin to it. The large building in the centre of the pencil drawing is the modern youth hostel, but before that it housed a school, the Instituto Santa Maria. Beyond that on the Piazza San Rocco outside the Porta Lugano stood the hotel, the Aquila d’Oro, in which Ruskin stayed in 1858. I have not yet managed to exactly pinpoint the original hotel on the ground, but Ruskin does record that it had a good view south. It seems doubtful that he would have found out the Salita as a subject if he had not been staying nearby, and had it not been for him an obvious route of ascent to Montebello Castle.
One particular advantage of the Salita as a vantage point would have been its shade. Despite being amongst the mountains Bellinzona has a southern climate. When I visited in November 2012 it was still too warm to sit out in the direct sun for very long. Ruskin was there in June and July when the days heat up very rapidly, and he worried over the heat and drought. The south-west aspect of this view would have meant that he was nicely shaded right through the morning.
The Bowdoin pencil drawing takes in the wider field of view, with the walls of Montebello Castle tumbling down to the old south gate, the Porta Lugano. The centre of the composition is dominated by the still-standing building that became the Instituto Santa Maria, and to the left is the Salita, flanked on the left by its rock wall, and on the right by a rough stone wall that takes advantage of some outcrops of native rock. The viewpoint is perfectly recognisable today. The native rock is still present in the wall, although less prominently than in Ruskin’s time and the ledges of rock to the left are remarkably unchanged. The building in the centre is the current youth hostel, and compares well with the present building from this angle. The vineyards to the right and fortified walls descending from Montebello Castle are also perfectly recognisable, but obscured somewhat by the growth of trees and the increased height of the foreground wall. When I photographed the view at about 4.30 pm (local) on 1 November 2012, the sun was almost directly contre-jour along the line of the path. The subject would be better in the morning with the light behind or to the left, and Ruskin seems to have applied himself to it after breakfast.
He might have been attracted to the view by the knowledge that Turner had drawn a similar subject, but from a slightly higher viewpoint in TB CCCXXXVI 14 (Tate Britain). He spent the winter before his visit to Bellinzona sorting through the tens of thousands of sketches and drawings that Turner had Bequeathed to the National Gallery. He was particularly fond of sketches from Turner’s later tours to the Alps and he would have been particularly interested in those of Bellinzona. Ruskin’s treatment of the material is, however, completely different. Turner takes the attention immediately to the broad spaces of the middle distance and from there to the distant Lago Maggiore and flanking hills. Ruskin on the other hand resolutely keeps the attention in the foreground, even in the more expansive of the two compositions, and only reluctantly allows the eye to escape into the valley and distance. He had a professional interest in wine growing – his father was a major sherry importer – and he cast a knowledgeable and critical eye over the cultivation of the terraces in the area.
Another of Ruskin’s major interests was geology and he was particularly interested by the gneiss rock of Bellinzona, which reminded him of his native Scotland, particularly of Glen Garry and Glenfinlas that he had studied carefully in previous years.
The rocks to the left especially caught his attention, and having thoroughly comprehended their structural character in pencil, he set on to develop his complete his understanding of their material nature in colour. Ruskin worked slowly in colour, and the Bowdoin watercolour is a typically intense product of observation and consideration, applied to a limited field of view, probably over several days. It is remarkable how unchanged is the rock; it appears to have hardly weathered at all in the one hundred and fifty four years that separates his drawing and my photograph. The character of the exposure is, however, rather different. In Ruskin’s day the surface appears to have been relatively clean and dry. In November 2012 the path was overshaded by trees, and much damper, so that the rock was covered in algae, liverwort and moss and the bedding fractures festooned with autumn leaves. In many ways the site presented an even more typically Ruskinian subject to my camera than it had to his pencils and watercolour, though he would have no doubt been dismayed by the drainage pipe now affixed to his subject.
He finished his visual investigations by having his assistant, Frederick Crawley take a photograph of an even more concentrated view of the bedding fractures. This was discovered in the treasure-trove of unrecognised Ruskin Daguerreotypes that Ken and Jenny Jacobson secured in 2006. As they recount in their catalogue, the subject (quite understandably) resisted identification. Initially it was thought to be a landscape-format composition, and a suggestion was made that it might have been taken at Fribourg [an important subject for Ruskin and the subject of several other daguerreotypes] until the scholar Ian Warrell realised it might be a portrait-format and thus made the connection with the drawings at Bowdoin. It was only when the book arrived in the post last weekend, that I had my first sight of the daguerreotype, and realised that I had photographed the exact subject in 2012 when researching the Bowdoin drawings. Cropping one of my original photographs to the field of view of the daguerreotype, I was surprised just how exactly it could be made to match. The pipe is perhaps not such a photogenic object, and before the growth of the trees the surface of the rock was drier and more exclusively lichenous, but the roofline at the foot of the path lined up precisely, and the colours turned out to be remarkably in tune with Ruskin’s palette in many of his studies of rocks and vegetation.
Understandably, with their collection of Ruskin daguerreotypes just published, the Jacobsons want to restrict dissemination of images to their book for the time being. In due course, when an image becomes available, I will post it alongside my photograph. In the meantime I can say that it is well worth seeking out the book. It is a foundational contribution to Ruskin scholarship, and a real labour of love.
The comparison of the daguerreotype with the drawings is instructive. The pencil drawing, for example, imputes a much more sinuous character to the rock, capturing the processes of deformation and fluid plasticity that the rock has endured. This is still more intensively entered into in the watercolour. Peculiarly, neither drawing nor watercolour give anything like the visual prominence to the surface lichen that is one of the most striking features of the daguerreotype. It is noted to some degree in the watercolour, but sparingly. One striking elision from the watercolour, especially, is of the vegetation that the photograph, and to some degree the pencil drawing, shows growing along the line of fracture of the bedding planes. Ruskin normally took full account of such matters, as intrinsic expressions of the nature of the subject. His principal motive here, however, was the plastic nature of the rock. There are one or two indications of the vegetation, but in this case carried no further than that. The most striking difference between photograph and drawings is that the photograph projects a sense of solid, static mass, the drawings project a sense of fluidity, dynamism, movement and change. The one freezes time and process, the other takes time and enacts process and comprehends change in both short and long durations. The one is raw data, the other processed, and remoulded by the questions, clarifications and frameworks of perception of the intelligent understanding.
1 John Hayman, John Ruskin and Switzerland, 1990, nos. 41, 42 identifies the Bowdoin drawings as from the Castello Grande looking towards Locarno, noting that there is no longer any access to the rocky path. Ken and Jenny Jacobson’s catalogue of the daguerreotypes, Carrying off the Palaces: John Ruskin’s Lost Daguerreotypes, 2015, no.309 and pp.110-11 describes the subject as ‘Castelgrande. Rock face in castle grounds’.
I am grateful to Joachim Homann (Curator) and Michelle Henning (Assistant to the Registrar) at Bowdoin College for permission to reproduce the drawings by John Ruskin in their care.