John Ruskin on the Tomb of Agostino Sanctucio at the Basilica of Santa Croce

These are a couple photos from the Basilica of S. Croce in Florence that I took while I was there in December. In addition to my Blue Guide, I brought along John Ruskin’s Mornings in Florence, which he published in 1875. Here is his description of the tomb of Agostino Sanctucio, which sits quite neatly with his chapter on the nature of the Gothic from Stones of Venice.

It is the crowning virtue of all great art that, however little is left of it by the injuries of time, that little will be lovely. As long as you can see anything, you can see—almost all;—so much the hand of the master will suggest of his soul.

And here you are well quit, for once, of restoration. No one cares for this sculpture; and if Florence would only thus put all her old sculpture and painting under her feet, and simply use them for gravestones and oilcloth, she would be more merciful to them than she is now. Here, at least, what little is left is true.

And, if you look long, you will find it is not so little. That worn face is still a perfect portrait of the old man, though like one struck out at a venture, with a few rough touches of a master's chisel. And that falling drapery of his cap is, in its few lines, faultless, and subtle beyond description.

And now, here is a simple but most useful test of your capacity for understanding Florentine sculpture or painting. If you can see that the lines of that cap are both right, and lovely; that the choice of the folds is exquisite in its ornamental relations of line; and that the softness and ease of them is complete,—though only sketched with a few dark touches,—then you can understand Giotto's drawing, and Botticelli's;—Donatello's carving and Luca's. But if you see nothing in this sculpture, you will see nothing in theirs, of theirs. Where they choose to imitate flesh, or silk, or to play any vulgar modern trick with marble—(and they often do)—whatever, in a word, is French, or American, or Cockney, in their work, you can see; but what is Florentine, and for ever great—unless you can see also the beauty of this old man in his citizen's cap,—you will see never.

There is more in this sculpture, however, than its simple portraiture and noble drapery. The old man lies on a piece of embroidered carpet; and, protected by the higher relief, many of the finer lines of this are almost uninjured; in particular, its exquisitely-wrought fringe and tassels are nearly perfect. And if you will kneel down and look long at the tassels of the cushion under the head, and the way they fill the angles of the stone, you will,—or may—know, from this example alone, what noble decorative sculpture is, and was, and must be, from the days of earliest Greece to those of latest Italy.

"Exquisitely sculptured fringe!" and you have just been abusing sculptors who play tricks with marble! Yes, and you cannot find a better example, in all the museums of Europe, of the work of a man who does not play tricks with it—than this tomb. Try to understand the difference: it is a point of quite cardinal importance to all your future study of sculpture.

I told you, observe, that the old Galileo was lying on a piece of embroidered carpet. I don't think, if I had not told you, that you would have found it out for yourself. It is not so like a carpet as all that comes to.

But had it been a modern trick-sculpture, the moment you came to the tomb you would have said, "Dear me! how wonderfully that carpet is done,—it doesn't look like stone in the least—one longs to take it up and beat it, to get the dust off."

Now whenever you feel inclined to speak so of a sculptured drapery, be assured, without more ado, the sculpture is base, and bad. You will merely waste your time and corrupt your taste by looking at it. Nothing is so easy as to imitate drapery in marble. You may cast a piece any day; and carve it with such subtlety that the marble shall be an absolute image of the folds. But that is not sculpture. That is mechanical manufacture.”

Tomb of Agostino Sanctucio. Late 15th century. Basilica of Santa Croce. Florence, Italy.

Tomb of Agostino Sanctucio. Late 15th century. Basilica of Santa Croce. Florence, Italy.

Tomb of Agostino Sanctucio. Late 15th century. Basilica of Santa Croce. Florence, Italy.

Tomb of Agostino Sanctucio. Late 15th century. Basilica of Santa Croce. Florence, Italy.