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“We have botched them and patched them”: Modernity and Restoration in Henry James’s Italian Hours



Cet article porte sur la question de la rénovation de l’architecture italienne dans les écrits de voyage de Henry James en Italie, Italian Hours. Plus généralement, cet article se penche sur les rapports entre paysage urbain et modernité. Au 19e siècle, la rénovation était au centre des débats intellectuels et artistiques, avec des perspectives variées. Henry James, à l’instar de John Ruskin, condamnait les résultats de la rénovation des monuments italiens. Les raisons de cette réaction sont diverses : tout d’abord, sa vision de l’architecture en tant qu’art organique, sa position discrète de voyageur qui refuse de s’immiscer dans la vie des objets contemplés, sa critique de la rénovation comme preuve de mauvais goût. Même s’il rejette la rénovation en tant qu’intervention brutale du présent dans le passé, il accepte, à contrecœur, le fait que l’Italie se dirige inéluctablement vers la modernité. La réaction nuancée de James aux opinions de Ruskin s’inscrit dans son attitude ambivalente concernant l’évolution des villes italiennes vers la modernité.

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  • 1  For an analysis of the distinct theories of Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc which also investigates the (...)
  • 2  IH: Henry James, Italian Hours; LV: Henry James,“The Last of the Valerii”.

1Henry James’s Italian Hours (written between 1882 and 1909) constructs an image of Italy as a land of artistic excess, as an assault on the senses and as a heritage that has come down through time to offer itself, dark and ruinous, to the contemplation of the transatlantic traveler. James’s essays are, implicitly and explicitly, a meditation on the nature of ruins and ancient architecture, on their lessons, on their completeness and incompleteness, on the way modernity has (mis)treated them or should have treated them. This article examines the connection between architecture and restoration in James’s Italian essays, with special emphasis on the relationship between art and time, ruins and modernity, improvement and destruction. Renovation represented a central issue in the intellectual and artistic debates of the 19th century, which triggered distinct responses from critics and practitioners (if we think of Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc1). James’s dialogue with John Ruskin is seminal in his assessment of the results of renovation in Italian cities and in his criticism of the intrusions of modernity in the cityscape. The issue of architectural restoration cannot be separated from James’s complex weaving of various kinds of transatlantic temporality and spatiality in the construction of his own stance as a traveler in the Italian essays: the American writer and tourist (an embodiment of modernity by definition) is contemplating with “new world eyes” (IH, 4452) the restoration of old European buildings, reacting to it and drawing comparisons with the countries and cities of modernity (Paris, London, New York).

2This paper will first examine the Gothic associations that certain haunted-looking houses call to mind. Indirectly, James is formulating a theory of the organic cycle of buildings, which grow, thrive and suffer together with their inhabitants, even acting as substitutes for them. In such an organic context, restoration appears as unwanted and unnecessary. We will then examine some of the values and shades of “duskiness” in the Italian essays, and the ways in which restoration operates upon it, emerging as an addition, an improvement or as a “laying bare” of the nudity of buildings or works of art, as an act of “botching” and “patching”. More generally, James’s understanding of architecture as an art anchored in duration, in a historical process of evolution, will be discussed, together with all the consequences that such a vision has upon the relevance or irrelevance of restoration. Finally, some brief remarks on James’s relationship with Ruskin as an authority will be formulated, with special emphasis on their distinct stances as critics and visitors. The modern mutations of the Italian cityscape provoke different reactions in James and Ruskin, the final (unsolved) problem being that of the role and place of modernity in the Italian city at the turn of the century.

 “Sentient” ruins: restoration versus Gothic retribution

3James’s perception of Italian architecture is resolutely and sensitively anthropomorphic, the descriptions of houses being couched in the language of old age, disease and extinction. James relies on the romantic tradition of lament over ruins and crumbling buildings, mementoes of a declined civilization, destroyed by its own excesses. The didacticism of history and ruins, which figures repeatedly in Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, is also present in Italian Hours, with a voluptuous tinge of aesthetic pleasure that generally characterizes James’s meditations on history. In Venice, “the most beautiful of tombs” (IH, 314), houses as mausoleums are essentially the abode of the dead, where the past is encrypted, discarding the future:

Nowhere else has the past been laid to rest with such tenderness, such a sadness of resignation and remembrance. Nowhere else is the present so alien, so discontinuous, so like a crowd in a cemetery without garlands for the graves. (IH, 314)

4The trope of Venice as a sublime cemetery has a specific meaning as far as architecture is concerned: it suggests not only the decay of buildings, but also, more subtly, the fact that the visitor is faced with an architecture of death, with a splendor inherently permeated with its own doom. Decline is thus inscribed in the origin of the building itself. In such an urban space of retrospective visions and nostalgia, the visitor can only be an outsider, an intruder, a figure of displacement gaping at the melancholy façades of houses, or, at times, received inside them and overwhelmed with an excess of objects and accumulated history. A house in Venice that opens its doors to James is inhabited by mummified people and mummified art works:

It was a high historic house, with such a quantity of recorded past twinkling in the multitudinous candles that one grasped at the idea of something waning and displaced, and might secretly nurse the conceit that there is no appreciable future left for such manners… (IH, 350)

5Already entombed but not yet extinguished, life in such a place is paradoxically devoid of vitality, the afterlife of a solemn museum.

6The mood of these urban meditations is a mixture of compassion and curiosity. James attempts to offer more than a series of detached descriptions of Italian houses: his monologues ring with an empathetic vibration, with the melancholy curiosity of the foreigner wishing to penetrate the mysteries lying behind opaque walls and doors temptingly left ajar. The traveler takes mental possession of the houses he most admires and invests their space in an imaginative way: “in imagination you hire three or four” (IH, 403). Houses not only look like ageing bodies, they also seem to be permeated with the life of their former inhabitants, which lends them a dark human aura, a psyche:

The gigantic houses enclosing the rest of the Piazza [in Siena] took up the tale and mingled with it their burden. ‘We are very old and a trifle weary, but we were built strong and piled high, and we shall last for many an age. The present is cold and heedless, but we keep ourselves in heart by brooding over our store of memories and traditions. We are haunted houses in every creaking timber and aching stone’. Such were the gossiping connections I established with Siena before I went to bed. (IH, 514)

7Houses are endowed with “faded, conscious faces” (IH, 320), with an inscrutable mental lucidity that makes their old age even more poignant. Such projections of tormented life and subjectivity into stone carry literary overtones, with Gothic sins and murders lurking ominously in the shadows, with Hawthorne’s Marble Faun and the mysteries of Udolpho (IH, 473) informing James’s vision of Italian architecture. “Sentient” houses (IH, 441) conceal “abysmal” tales (IH, 479), both human and literary, with numberless possibilities of novelistic development. In Florence, houses represent above all stories, novelistic potential, a suggestion of Gothic conventions: “This one has a story; that one has another; they all look as if they had stories—none in truth predominantly gay” (IH, 403). The vocabulary of fiction and fiction writing permeates the perception of Italian houses, since the “tale” of the house, yet untold, is intuitively resurrected from the shapes of decay. The very idea of restoring such ruins is preposterous (ruins being the “natural” architectural medium of the Gothic genre). These “writerly” buildings that correspond to Gothic stereotypes deserve to be left as they are, on the verge of total destruction:

Something human seems to pant beneath the grey pall of time and to implore you to rescue it, to pity it, to stand by it somehow. But you leave it to its lingering death without compunction, almost with pleasure; for the place seems vaguely crime-haunted—paying at least the penalty of some hard immorality. (IH, 480)

8This is the retribution of architecture, the pathetic fallacy of houses burdened with the sins of their past inhabitants, an example of poetic justice in architectural terms. The Gothic genre and restoration are thus mutually exclusive, the “aching stone” being doomed to eternal pain as a sort of substitute victim. Thus, the interplay between literature and architecture influences the perception of ruins and their destiny. Ruskin advocates timely repair and criticizes any kind of restoration of old buildings, deemed monstrous and destructive for reasons having to do with (intellectual) possession: according to him, monuments do not belong to us and their original spirit “cannot be recalled” (1964, 135). James does not celebrate the primacy of the original design or “spirit” of the building, but rather its “sentience”, its slow absorption of previous life. Through his weaving together of Gothic sensibility and architectural perception, he seems to be asserting the necessity of a natural cycle of decay for haunted buildings, which become untouchable. The spectral quality of such houses makes it impossible to conceive of restoration otherwise than as a dangerous tampering not only with the outer look of the house, but also with the inner life and pain of the ghostly stone. Modernity and the stance of modern man are restricted to a compassionate, meditative contemplation of ruin with literary overtones, but no interference is considered appropriate. Even the act of prying excessively into the secret life of the walls and the gardens is dangerous, as James’s fiction makes clear, as if there were some privacy of architecture that needed to be preserved from barbarous intrusion.

9The darkly vivid memory of Italian houses dangerously brought to life by American hands and eyes is a topos that James exploits in “The Last of the Valerii” for instance, where the irruption of pagan and erotic elements from the obscure Roman past (the unconscious of architecture and of the earth itself) unsettles the tranquility of a transatlantic marriage. Deep down in the entrails of the Roman garden there lie not just meaningless or simply beautiful fragments of marble but rather the remains of the “poor disinherited gods” (LV, 21) concealing “stony secrets” (LV, 18)—a religious substratum of atavism, another form of powerful “sentience”. Arguably, we could talk about an aesthetic of sensitivity and of resurgence that James seems to be formulating. James’s fiction complements the essays, prolonging the experience of Italy into the life of fictional characters, showing that the past can still affect the present through the awakening of potent forces and figures.

Restoration: addition, improvement and duskiness

10If the sentimental tourist accepts without compunction, even “with pleasure”, the decay of dusky, supposedly sinful houses, the great monuments of religious architecture already display signs of restoration, invariably deplored both by Ruskin and by James. Venice and St. Mark’s are the epitome of a style of decrepitude and a decrepitude of style, but James is unable to decide which of the two is at the origin of the other: “Is it the style that has brought about the decrepitude, or the decrepitude that has, as it were, intensified and consecrated the style?” (IH, 347). This is of course an archetype and a stereotype, that of the intrinsic beauty of ruins, that of the oxymoronic brilliance of Venetian decay (Perosa, 285). Venetian ruins (actually all the ruins of Italy) are perfect as such, complete and unsurpassable in their apparently fragmentary state—a paradoxically holistic fragment. Transatlantic humour projects ruins into a normal temporality and sequentiality where achievement and consummation are reached upon completion of the building, somehow upon completion of the ruins themselves. James refers to an American joke about the Colosseum: “it will be a very handsome building when it’s finished” (IH, 503). Interestingly, Venice appears to be a city originally built through the incorporation of other ruins, as Ruskin points out: “[the Venetians] were exiles from ancient and beautiful cities and had been accustomed to build with their ruins” (1960,153). Ruins as a foundation become ruins as a destiny, the inevitable fragmentary condition of a city whose architecture had already incorporated fragments into its organic development.

11Venice as a tomb-city is perfect as such, in its ruinous imperfection, upon which the improvements of the present act like a destructive supplement. The self-sufficient city is encroached upon by parasitical forces, which have disfigured St. Mark’s:

The restoration of the outer walls, which has lately been so much attacked and defended, is certainly a great shock. Of the necessity of the work only an expert is, I suppose, in a position to judge; but there is no doubt that, if a necessity it be, it is one that is deeply to be regretted. […] Wherever the hand of the restorer has been laid all semblance of beauty has vanished. […] The old softness and mellowness of colour—the work of the quiet centuries and of the breath of the salt sea—is giving way to large crude patches of new material which have the effect of a monstrous malady rather than that of a restoration to health. They look like blotches of red and white paint and dishonourable smears of chalk on the cheeks of a noble matron. (IH, 293)

  • 3  The notions of bad taste and aesthetic vulgarity figure prominently in Italian Hours and would des (...)

12Modern restoration thus activates one term (the unexpected one) of a series of opposites which are both organic and gendered: health/disease (St. Mark’s as a body and a face), honorable/dishonorable (St. Mark’s as a fallen woman). Contagion and make-up are the two metaphors that introduce carnivalesque meanings (St. Mark’s has been disguised, its visual identity has been altered by renovation). New materials garishly flaunt their vulgar brightness, whereas old materials softly irradiate with a subdued, venerable glow. In The Stones of Venice, Ruskin insists on the technique of incrustation favored by Venetian builders, the “incrustation of brick with more precious materials” (1960,151). Ruskin celebrates the perfect aesthetic balance obtained through such a method: “the school of incrusted architecture is the only one in which perfect and permanent chromatic decoration is possible” (1960, 154). Through renovation, the original chromatic perfection of precious materials is debased, translated into the language of a new kind of incrustation, that of the new onto the old. Restoration emerges as a recklessly incoherent addition, as an example of bad taste3: “We have botched them and patched them and covered them with sordid signs; we have restored and improved them with a merciless taste” (IH, 320). The use of the first person plural is interesting here, as if the foreigner had endorsed responsibility for the “botching” and “patching” and had included himself in the group of the culprits. This is not the norm however in James’s assessment of the consequences of restoration, since usually Italy as a modern state is taken to task for the disastrous improvements operated upon its monuments and also for the general pillage and destruction of religious art: “One can hardly envy young Italy the number of odious things she has had to do” (IH, 411). Modern Italy is also responsible for “the shrunken proportions of Catholicism” that James does not fail to notice (IH, 448). Restoration is most of the time seen as an Italian decision and process, and the foreigners coming to visit Italy are seen as obstacles to the havoc of restoration due to their unanimous condemnation of the “improvements”:

Pictures and buildings won’t be completely destroyed, because in that case the forestieri, scatterers of cash, would cease to arrive and the turn-stiles at the doors of the old palaces and convents, with the little patented slit for absorbing your half-franc, would grow quite rusty, would stiffen with disuse. (IH, 405)

13The representation of the forestieri in Italian Hours is ambivalent: they are both the defenders of old monuments through the threat of their withdrawal from the Italian scene if restorations are pursued, and the modern-day “barbarians” (IH, 465) ushering in precisely the vulgarity of modern times typical of the “improvements” themselves. Associations with the New World and with European capitals intervene in the evaluation of the results of restoration. In the case of St. Mark’s, “the model they have taken [is] the floor of a London club-house or of a New York hotel” (IH, 294). The result is therefore incongruous, a shocking hybrid of old and new, of Venice and New York/London, of a church and a club-house or hotel. The ambivalence of the forestieri is akin to the ambivalence of James himself as a traveler in Italy, as an eternal insider-outsider having embarked upon a “dangerous pilgrimage” across the Atlantic (as Malcolm Bradbury calls it). Interestingly, Ruskin’s own description of the various phases of the construction of St. Mark’s across the centuries insists on the destruction of some of the original Greek mosaics, covered by the pupils of Titian and Tintoretto with their own compositions: “happily, though with no good-will, having left enough to enable us to imagine and lament what they destroyed” (1960,142). This kind of destruction is however seen as part of the process of building and decorating the basilica, hence an organic process having nothing to do with the alterations of contemporary restorers.

14Whereas before undergoing restoration St. Mark’s used to resemble the ocean floor or a cave, restoration appears as a forced passage from a natural state to an artificial one, as if the organic cycle of the building had been broken. It is interesting to analyze some of the ruptures and translations operated by renovation from the natural to the artificial, from duskiness to brightness, from organic irregularity to the perfection of the straight line. The essays in Italian Hours repeatedly refer to the darkness or dimness that dominates Italian streets and the interior of Italian architecture. Such references range from the religious register of “the sacred dusk” inside St. Mark’s (IH, 292) to the inexpressive “dusky blankness” of the Chigi Palace, which is however transfigured in the “suggestive twilight as the most haunted of houses” (IH, 449). References to St. Mark’s as a cave appear in Ruskin as well, where the darkness is considered to create a powerful contrast with the bright materials and the mosaics telling religious tales (1960, 150). In the church of St. Francis of Assisi, the dusk, combined with occasional glittering, helps the on-looker reach the heart of mystery itself: “The tone of the place is a triumph of mystery, the richest harmony of lurking shadows and dusky corners, all relieved by scattered images and scintillations” (IH, 499). Between mysticism and pragmatism, the lover of mysterious atmosphere celebrates the shadows, but the lover of Giotto’s frescoes laments the fact that so many of them are “ill-lighted” and their details are difficult to discern (IH, 499). In a more realistic regime (verging on the naturalistic), James has a vision of Italian villages in the neighbourhood of Rome as a condensation of promiscuity, poverty and backwardness:

The mouldy grey houses on the steep crooked street, with their black cavernous archways pervaded by bad smells, by the braying of asses and by human intonations hardly more musical, the haggard and tattered peasantry staring at you with hungry-heavy eyes, the brutish-looking monks (there are still enough to point a moral), the soldiers, the mounted constables, the dirt, the dreariness, the misery, and the dark overgrown palace frowning over it all from barred window and guarded gateway—what more than all this do we dimly descry in a mental image of the dark ages. (IH, 450)

  • 4  For an examination of the phenomenon of globalization in American literature at the turn of the ce (...)

15This vignette does not correspond to the sanitized, picturesque stereotype of Italy, but it relies on a different kind of stereotype, that of the Middle Ages as “the dark ages”. Although James is appalled by the sordid aspect of such townships, he does not seem ready to sacrifice the duskiness and the crookedness of the urban landscape and of the buildings themselves in favor of a more aseptic and luminous urban environment. The darkness of old buildings and townships, be it squalid or romantic, characterized by crooked shapes and irregular contours, is precisely what is doomed to disappear in the process of restoration and in the march towards progress: “Even Perugia is going the way of all Italy—straightening out her streets, preparing her ruins, laying her venerable ghosts” (IH, 503). James’s attitude towards modernity in Italy is twofold: in “Italy Revisited” he lucidly advocates the necessity of modernizing Italy, laying emphasis on the commercial and economic aspects of modernity, whereas the “cherisher of quaintness” (IH, 447) is definitely longing for the status quo or even for a nostalgic regression in the past. When comparing “glittering” Paris and “dusky” Rome, James asks himself whether “meager”, “dusty” and “provincial” as it is, Rome could after all be “a world-city” (IH, 470). This questioning of the status of Rome as a cosmopolis, which is inscribed in James’s global vision of cities and in his own global status as a traveler, redefines the notion of “world-city” to include Rome as well4. The answer lies in “the nutritive essence of the atmosphere” distilled by centuries of art and history, whereas “the glitter of Paris is now all gaslight” (IH, 470)—the superficial aura of modernity. Just like the ocean-floor and the cave of St. Mark’s, old houses in Perugia, “of the colour of buried things—things buried, that is, in accumulations of time, closer packed […] than spadefuls of earth—resemble exposed sections of natural rock” (IH, 506). There is no frontier between nature and culture, between natural rock and the house walls. In this indistinct merging of architecture and the land, James formulates an indirect answer to the issue of restoration.

16At the end of “Italy Revisited”, after having described the cathedral of Orvieto and having found it “inferior to its fame”, James states that “[its] interest is mainly not the visible result, but the historical process that lies behind it” (IH, 412). He mentions the hundreds of years of Catholic worship which have grown into the building itself, shaping its identity. Once again, the human element is essential for James in the definition of architecture as a symbiosis of buildings and people. Just as the “sentient” houses of Gothic genealogy seem to have absorbed the sins of their former inhabitants and to deserve some form of retribution, cathedrals bear the memory of their worshipers. Restoration seems to halt the natural growth and decline of buildings by brutally interfering with the “historical process”, as if the natural time of the building had been cut short and replaced by the artificial time and look of the act of restoration—what James calls a “visible result” and by no means a process. The notion of duration is fundamental in the understanding of the ways in which James articulates time and architecture, modernity and improvement.

17Jamesian critics have stressed two contradictory aspects in their analysis of the way in which perception assimilates landscapes, history and art in Italian Hours. They have argued either that we are witnessing a loss of the historical dimension of objects in the aesthetic perception of monuments (MacDonald, 45-48) or that a temporal and spatial consciousness informs perception (Johnson, 47). I believe that the remarks on architectural restoration in Italian Hours necessarily invite history into the equation of aesthetic perception. Whenever James’s critical gaze confronts renovated buildings, modern Italy is also mentioned as an ideological and aesthetic framework encompassing the project of renovation, but also, more generally, his philosophy of history and art as duration is implicitly or explicitly introduced in the debate.

18In spite of his sustained rejection of restoration, James cannot help noticing that paintings and buildings keep deteriorating: “an endless series of dusky pictures are darkening, dampening, fading, failing, through the years” (IH, 393). However, two lines below James refers once more to what he considers to be deplorable examples of restoration (this time in a painting): “the beautiful boy-figure of Andrea del Sarto at Florence, which may be seen at the gallery of the Uffizi with its honorable duskiness quite peeled off and heaven knows what raw, bleeding cuticle laid bare” (IH, 393). “Duskiness” seems to be an integral part of Andrea del Sarto’s painting, an inherent characteristic and not a mere consequence of the process of ageing or an unintended result that should be removed without second thoughts in order to preserve the purity of the original design and color. Again, for James, the “visible result” cannot be separated from the “historical process”, and time participates in the authorship of the work. Restoration is characterized as a “peeling off” and as an act of “laying bare” a minor detail considered to be totally devoid of interest (the “raw, bleeding cuticle”). In contrast, the “duskiness” of time is an “honorable” attribute akin to an aura, inseparable from the work itself, having organically grown into it.

19Art historian Daniel Arasse distinguishes between a history of painting “from a distance”, in which paintings are considered from afar, as global objects, and a history of painting which focuses on the quasi invisible details of paintings, sometimes made manifest only through restoration. He argues that such details (he calls them “surprises”) allow the viewer to enter the intimacy of the painting and occasionally act against the meaning of the work as a whole, developing unexpected local significances (Arasse 8). In Italian Hours, James is definitely interested in establishing an intimate relationship with the details of paintings, which he literally struggles to see closer. However, once such details are brought to the surface by restoration through the loss of the cherished duskiness of paintings, James loses interest in them, and their clarity is the result of a sacrilege.

Henry James and John Ruskin: the Challenge of Modernity

  • 5  For an analysis of Ruskin’s influence on James, see Winner 19-28.

20As far as the theoretical foundations of James’s opinions on restoration are concerned, although he seems to rely entirely on John Ruskin’s texts and pronouncements, their stances as commentators are quite distinct5. I would like to examine briefly the convergences and divergences of James and Ruskin in relation to the place of modernity within cities. First of all, what separates James and Ruskin is their distinct self-fashioning as artistic authorities: Ruskin adopts the tone of a prescriptive and normative authority, whereas James’s point of view is that of the relaxed, but concerned and knowledgeable traveler, eager to discover and discuss Italian art, architecture and landscapes. Besides, James’s constant references to America and to his Americanness introduce a special kind of alienated perspective, both geographical and temporal, which is decidedly American in outlook. Tony Tanner mentions James’s preference for “vagueness” in the Italian essays and his tendency to designate himself in a dozen different ways, refusing any kind of nominal fixity (Tanner 1995, 14). This Protean changefulness and “vagueness” is actually symptomatic of James’s approach to the Italian scene: curious but discreet, and respectful of the privacy of people and monuments. In “Italy Revisited”, James projects an image of Ruskin as a rigid oracle who poses as the ultimate source of truth and who leaves no detail uncommented. In James’s essays there is, on the contrary, no sense of finality, closure and exhaustiveness. In his relationship with Italy, James keeps talking about his contemplation of mere surfaces and about his inability or refusal to go deeper, beneath the surface of things:

I spent the next day at Arezzo, but I confess in very much the same uninvestigating fashion—taking in the ‘general impression’, I dare say, at every pore, but rather systematically leaving the dust of the ages unfingered on the stored records: I should doubtless, in the poor time at my command, have fingered it to so little purpose. (IH, 510)

21One recognizes, once again, James’s emphasis on his status as an outsider, but also his polite deference towards the past, a tendency to reject brutal interference and any form of inquisitive curiosity. Just like the haunted houses mentioned previously, which should be left to their quiet disintegration, the “stored records” in Arezzo preserve their dust under James’s reverent fingers. This dust is perhaps similar to the duskiness in Andrea del Sarto’s painting, which should not have been “peeled off” by the brutal and ignorant hands of restorers. Attitudes of discretion (combined with defeat) are repeatedly mentioned in Italian Hours, sometimes ludicrously disproportionate to the massive attack of Italian history, as in this example where James responds to the assault of the “story of things” by “sneaking along on tiptoe”:

The seeker for the story of things has moreover, if he be worth his salt, a hundred insidious arts; and in that case indeed—by which I mean when his sensibility had come duly to adjust itself—the story assaults him but from too many sides. He even feels at moments that he must sneak along on tiptoe in order not to have too much of it. (IH, 511)

22According to James, Ruskin adopts the opposite attitude: one of interference and constant criticism, which the former finds unbearable at times. Section V in “Italy Revisited” is devoted to a visit to Florence under the guidance of Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence. A polemical dialogue with Ruskin ensues, where the art critic is quoted and criticized repeatedly for several reasons: his inability to accept the evolution of Italy as a modern state on the one hand, and his peremptory tone and constant chiding in his artistic pronouncements on the other hand. James’s ultimate reaction to Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence is one of unsuppressed laughter:

 [H]e is for ever making his readers laugh. I remembered of course where I was [in Santa Maria Novella], and in spite of my latent hilarity felt I had rarely got such a snubbing. I had really been enjoying the good old city of Florence, but I now learned from Mr. Ruskin that this was a scandalous waste of charity. I should have gone about with an imprecation on my lips, I should have worn a face three yards long. (IH, 406)

23Ruskin’s negative evaluation of Ghirlandaio’s frescoes in Santa Maria Novella and of the Duomo of Santa Croce surprises and annoys James, who feels that Ruskin has cast his readers in the role of ignorant pupils and that he has lost precisely the sense of artistic pleasure which is essential in the contemplation of works of art: “Instead of a garden of delight, [the luckless mortal] finds a sort of assize court in perpetual session” (IH, 408).

24Beyond these artistic divergences, James and Ruskin do not share the same opinion on Italy and modernity, especially on the alliance between the artistic and the financial dimensions in Italy in the second half of the 19th century. “Italy Revisited” is an excellent sample of James’s tolerance and lucidity as far as the changes of modernity are concerned. James is able to go beyond the clichés of Italy as the land of the artistic and the picturesque when it comes to accepting the need for the economic element to enter the picture: “Young Italy, preoccupied with its economical and political future, must be heartily tired of being admired for its eyelashes and its pose” (IH, 392). In a vision of 19th century globalization, James sees Italy soon rivaling America, and he does not rejoice in the prospect: “I see a new Italy in the future which in many important respects will equal, if not surpass, the most enterprising sections of our native land” (IH, 392). Ruskin, on the contrary, is celebrating the artistic element while excluding any other, and his constant tone of arrogant criticism is unbearable to James:

 [I]t savours of arrogance to demand of any people, as a right of one’s own, that they shall be artistic. “Be artistic yourselves!” is the very natural reply that young Italy has at hand for English critics and censors. When a people produces beautiful statues and pictures it gives us something more than is set down in the bond, and we must thank it for its generosity; and when it stops producing them or caring for them we may cease thanking, but we hardly have a right to begin and rail. (IH, 404)

25The shocking juxtapositions that are visible in the cityscape, with the campanile in Florence looming above a taxi-cab, are deplored by Ruskin, but accepted by James as inevitable. Two distinct aesthetic categories, of the sublime and the vulgar, are competing in a context of urban change:

The wreck of Florence, says Mr. Ruskin, “is now too ghastly and heart-breaking to any human soul that remembers the days of old”, and these desperate words are an allusion to the fact that the little square in front of the cathedral, at the foot of Giotto’s Tower […] is now the resort of a number of hackney-coaches and omnibuses. This fact is doubtless lamentable, and it would be a hundred times more agreeable to see among people who have been made the heirs of so priceless a work of art as the sublime campanile some such feeling about it as would keep it free even from the danger of defilement. A cab-stand is a very ugly and dirty thing, and Giotto’s Tower should have nothing in common with such conveniences. But there is more than one way of taking such things and the sensitive stranger […] may feel at last in looking into Mr. Ruskin’s little tracts that, discord for discord, there isn’t much to choose between the importunity of the author’s personal ill-humour and the incongruity of horse-pails and bundles of hay. (IH, 405)

26Ruskin’s condemnation of the cab-stand is in the end just as deplorable as the cab-stand itself. Although James rejects Ruskin’s angry rhetoric of defilement and his inability to accept the intrusions of modernity into the cityscape, he himself repeatedly refers to the vulgarity of Italian cities seen as pitiful curiosity shops, watering places and commercial spaces where “marketable relics” (IH, 326) are sold to herds/hordes of tourists/barbarians. Their difference lies rather in their tone and attitude rather than in the substance of their opinions. This is part of James’s ambivalence towards modernity: accepting its inevitability, lamenting its ugliness, but refusing to be excessively sour and critical about the metamorphosis it operates. James thus appears as a combination of the reluctant modernist and the devout nostalgic. In spite of James’s complaints and misgivings, Ruskin remains an inescapable landmark when it comes to the issue of renovation: “We feel at such moments as if the eye of Mr. Ruskin were upon us” (IH, 325).

27In the end, for James it is still the architecture of the past that dominates the cityscape and that attracts his aesthetic and intellectual interest. In a comparison with the American Declaration of Independence, James identifies a tower in Siena with a genuine “declaration of independence” on behalf of eternity and immutability. Here, the tower is not read as an eloquent and melancholy ruin bespeaking the demise of an ancient civilization, but as a powerful symbol of indestructibility:

This beautiful tower, the finest thing in Siena and, in its rigid fashion, as permanently fine thus as a really handsome nose on a face of no matter what accumulated age, figures there still as a Declaration of Independence beside which such an affair as ours, thrown off at Philadelphia, appears to have scarce done more than helplessly give way to time. Our Independence has become a dependence on a thousand such dreadful things as the incorrupt declaration of Siena strikes us as looking forever straight over the level of. (IH, 514)

28 “Incorruptible” architecture is confronted with “our Independence”, that of modernity and modern man, which is actually defined as dependence and as a fall in time. Hanging above the world and above the vanity of everyday life, this tower is an anti-ruin and an anti-fragment posited in an ideal space beyond restoration, beyond “botching” and “patching”—a space of idealism as well, that of the transatlantic traveler who inscribes eternity into stone and thus lifts it above the artistic debates on preservation. Already and always “preserved”, such a monument is made by James to speak a language other than that of modernity and restoration, a language of architectural purity and transcendence. One cannot help thinking of a rewriting of the myth of Babel, another tower, which is however traditionally represented in ruins. The tower of Siena is a perfect tower of pre-Babelian confusion, speaking the original language of architecture.

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1  For an analysis of the distinct theories of Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc which also investigates the complex relationship they establish between architecture and the other arts, see David Spurr, “Ruskin and Viollet-le-Duc: Figures of Ruin and Restoration”.

2  IH: Henry James, Italian Hours; LV: Henry James,“The Last of the Valerii”.

3  The notions of bad taste and aesthetic vulgarity figure prominently in Italian Hours and would deserve a separate analysis.

4  For an examination of the phenomenon of globalization in American literature at the turn of the century, see Thomas Peyser, Utopia and Cosmopolis: Globalization in the Era of Literary Realism.

5  For an analysis of Ruskin’s influence on James, see Winner 19-28.

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Monica MANOLESCU-OANCEA, « “We have botched them and patched them”: Modernity and Restoration in Henry James’s Italian Hours »e-Rea [En ligne], 7.2 | 2010, mis en ligne le 24 mars 2010, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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