Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Ruskin Around 3: The Streets

Two years ago (where does the time go...) I did a couple of posts (one and two) about Ruskin's grotesque in The Stones of Venice. At the time I thought it would be wonderful, one day, to go see this city and its grotesquerie for myself.

Well folks, that day has come.

Yes, I'm currently in Venice, and have already started my pilgrimage by visiting one of Ruskin's most hated examples of the grotesque. Here is how he describes it in volume three, chapter three:
"A head,- huge, inhuman, and monstrous,- leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more than an instant: yet let it be endured for that instant; for in that head is embodied the type of the evil spirit to which Venice was abandoned in the fourth period of her decline" (XV).
And still further:
"[This head] evidences of a delight in the contemplation of bestial vice, and the expression of low sarcasm, which is, I believe, the most hopeless state into which the human mind can fall" (XVI).

Harsh words.

I wasn't sure what to expect, heading out to find this bestial visage. First off, it was difficult to pinpoint exactly where it was. For future reference - if anyone else should find themselves in the area and decide to take a look - you will find the head atop a small door at the base of the West side of the tower attached to Chiesa di Santa Maria Formosa: a small (by Italian standards) church overlooking a canal.

(As a side note: I find it strange that there is no mention of the head on the Wikipedia page for the church. It's kind of important...).

You can see the door at the lower left of the photo above.

To find the church, you need to find the square:

Which is easy to locate on a good map of Venice.

Of course, actually making your way there on foot is another challenge. As I have recently discovered, maps are of limited use in Venice, where narrow streets and lanes seem to shift and slide away from you as though some giant troll were constantly twisting the city like a huge Rubik's Cube. Very frustrating. And exciting, if you have time explore, which thankfully I do.

Anyway, having braved the troll and found the church, you might be surprised at the size of this head. I mean, it does seem kind of "huge" in person.

For size reference, here is a random man:

That's a big head.

Up close, the face is full of round pockmarks.

It certainly sticks out in comparison with the rest of the building, which is otherwise quite conventional.

Although it does have a bit of a cool pirate theme going on.

I love a winged skull. So biker. And more common in religious iconography than you would think. I'll do a post on that someday...

I digress.

My impressions of the face are rather different from Ruskin's. For me it has a cheeky, irreverent vibe, as though the artist had tired of creating serious-bearded-man heads and decided to make one with more character. The size makes it quite a statement, and I would love to go back in time and meet whoever created it - and whoever allowed it to be placed in such a low, prominent position.


The man squints right at you when you enter the square from the West, as I did, and is impossible to miss.

 The expression is part sneer, part side-eye, part silly face pulling. And I like it.

Yes that is the extent of my critical commentary at this time. What? Please feel free to add your own thoughts...

I've got several more days in Venice, so I think I'll do a 'part 2' for this post - featuring more Venetian grotesquerie in its natural habitat.

So many grotesques... Excitement!


  1. I completely agree -- Ruskin had it all wrong.
    He reminds me a bit of the trololo trollface meme..

    Keep enjoying Venice, and don't think too much about Don't Look Now!

  2. You know, I was just thinking about that film again today. Visited the San Michele cemetery island and spooked myself a little.

    Got my eyes peeled for red jackets... but so far all I see are bright red tourists!