What Ruskin Saw Framed in the Stones of Florence

One day in the 1860’s Ruskin had stood here at the base of the Campanile in Florence, his famously observant eyes captivated, darting back and forth between the sketchbook in his hand and one particular engraved stone just above eye level on the tower’s north wall. What architectural detail could possibly be so fascinating and significant?


19th century photo of Giotto’s Tower

Having studied my Ruskin, I knew what it was. I’ve never found the drawing, but have photographs of the stone carving. Ruskin spoke about it in an 1872 lecture called “The Relation of Engraving to the Other Arts of Florence” in which 19th century Britain’s pre-eminent art critic, surveying the works of that great seat of Renaissance art, startles his audience with the question, “Have you considered, in the early history of painting, how important also is the history of the frame-maker?” Anticipating their surprise, he added, “It is a matter, I assure you, needing our very best consideration.” The lecture contains a powerful lesson in the significance of frames and profound purpose of the art of framing pictures. And now at last I had a chance to see in person what Ruskin saw—the source of such revelation as to the worthiness of my own craft.

So, while I was by no means happy to leave Paradise (and no, I wasn’t thrown out, like some people), a great reward awaited me in Florence. Yes, Florence has cars, but it at least wasn’t built for cars. Nor was it built by slaves to please the egos of emperors, as Rome was. Florence has this in common with Venice: for a modern city, it’s still humane. It’s human scale and highly walk-able. And the medieval parts at least were built by a people free to put their humanity into their work.


Base of Giotto’s Tower

Florence, like Venice, was one of Italy’s great medieval republics. A flourishing society, its arts naturally flourished as well, and none more than its architecture, the true basis of all the constructive arts, Ruskin believed. In the famous Duomo, Baptistry, and Campanile he called “the most perfect tower in Europe,” Ruskin saw manifested the extraordinary state of civic solidarity and consequent extraordinary harmony and unity among the arts of the Florentine Republic. Ruskin dubbed the Campanile he so admired “The Shepherd’s Tower,” expressing the humble origins of its architect, Giotto, once a mere shepherd boy from a nearby rural village. Giotto and his cohorts carved in a set of stones that encircle the base of the tower representations of many arts—both fine arts and the arts of industry key to the city’s prosperity. The professor pointed out to his students the inclusiveness and variety of arts honored, and all on the same level, with equal artistic treatment: building, agriculture, pottery, metal forging, weaving, etc., right along with the fine arts you would expect to see, sculpture and painting. Thus the buildings of the medieval Republic, the expression of powerful civic pride, exemplify the true nature of architecture as the most public and cooperative art, “the work of the whole race,” as Ruskin called it.

The bas relief representing weaving

The bas relief representing weaving

But what consumed Ruskin throughout his life, as you may know, was the rise and decay of societies—the implications of which for his own troubled age he was anxiously aware. And around 1500, after a few hundred vital years, the extraordinarily cohesive state of medieval Florentine society began to come apart, and its arts were never again to be depicted in such inclusiveness and equality as they were around Giotto’s tower. Instead, as they fell into division and disunion they were increasingly marked by a “trenchant separation” between the “fine” and the minor arts.

In his lecture, Ruskin used a carefully composed timeline to painstakingly chart this story of disunion, with the names and dates of Florence’s most famous artists, and with this evidence, summed up its meaning. Among the artists of 1300, he says,

The bas relief representing building

The bas relief representing building

four of the five men are architects as well as sculptors and painters. In the 1400 group, there is one architect; in the 1500, none. And the meaning of that is, that in 1300 the arts were all united, and duly led by architecture; in 1400, sculpture began to assume too separate a power to herself; in 1500, painting arrogated all, and, at last, betrayed all. From which, with much other collateral evidence, you may justly conclude that the three arts ought to be practiced together, and that they naturally are so.

Exemplifying the old unified, civically embedded art, Ruskin says, is Giotto’s “bell tower, to ring all over the town, when they were either to pray together, rejoice together or to be warned of danger.” And driving home his point, Ruskin brings out, as illustration, the drawing he had made at the foot of that tower. “I made a little sketch, when last in Florence,” he says,

Giotto-ptg-web1000of a subject which will fix the idea of this unity of the arts in your minds. At the base of the tower of Giotto are two rows of hexagonal panels filled with bas reliefs. Some of these are by unknown hands, —some by Andrea Pisano, some by Lucca della Robbia, two by Giotto himself; of these I sketched the panel representing the art of Painting. You have in the bas-relief one of the foundation stones of the most perfectly-built tower in Europe; you have that stone carved by its architect’s own hand; you find, further, that this architect and sculptor was the greatest painter of his time, and the friend of the greatest poet [Dante]; and you have represented by him a painter in his shop…as symbolic of the entire art of painting.

In the sketch before them, Ruskin’s students saw the painter leaning into his easel (note the stool tipping) with the attitude of eagerness and anticipation of the reward awaiting him—a Gothic triptych frame adorned with crockets and occupying nearly half of the composition. “In which representation,” the professor went on,

please note how carefully Giotto shows you the tabernacles, or niches, in which the paintings are to be placed. Not independent of their frames, these panels of his, you see!

And finally, his revelation of the meaning of this image representative of the art of painting, but nearly half of which is occupied by one of the relatively minor crafts:

    Have you considered, in the early history of painting, how important also is the history of the frame-maker? It is a matter, I assure you, needing our very best consideration. For the frame was made before the picture. The painted window is much, but the aperture it fills was thought of before it. The fresco by Giotto is much, but the vault it adorns was planned first.

“And in pointing out to you this fact,” he concluded, “I may once for all prove to you the essential unity of the arts, and show you how impossible it is to understand one without reference to another.”

Giotto's Tower, Florence

Giotto’s Tower, Florence

His audience must have scoffed. “You take us to Florence, home of renaissance geniuses, not to show us great paintings but to show us…the FRAMES???” What Ruskin saw, however, in the stones of Florence, at the foundation of one of its great artistic achievements, was clear evidence from another age, of a great architect, sculptor and painter’s acknowledgement and praise of a humbler but no less worthy art—one of the many minor arts that comprise the great art of architecture and on which the fine arts depend for their place in civilization. He saw an art that had originally been frankly architectural and devoted to connecting pictures to their larger settings; the vital ancestor of an art now fallen into decay, corrupted and abused to isolate and separate painting—the art that had “arrogated all”—from the humbler decorative arts and from the “vulgar” surrounding world.

Something Ruskin said in another context applies here as well: “Do not think I am irreverently comparing great things and small. The system of the world is entirely one; small things and great are alike part of one mighty whole.” What Ruskin saw in that carved stone on Giotto’s Tower was the picture frame as emblematic of the primal unity of all the arts—fine and “lesser”. He saw the original purpose and power of the frame to unify and join the most individual and isolated art—painting—with the most public and cooperative art—architecture. He saw the frame as standing for all the denigrated “lesser” arts—what he called “the vital craftsmanship of the world,” the great thing holding it all together.

Book learning in such matters is one thing; witnessing and partaking in civilization’s monumental achievements, even to the limited extent a mere tourist does, is something else altogether. Ruskin in Florence was a man possessed by discovering the vital laws of art and society. Against the prejudices the modern audience held toward the middle ages, which they called “the dark ages,” he recognized in that time what historians now acknowledge: the medieval republics were vital societies, outstanding in human history, the evidence of their vitality fully visible in the unity of their arts and the great outgrowth of their peoples’ labor.

Following in his footsteps, seeing what he saw, now I too was possessed—my soul possessed by the knowledge that even as a mere frame-maker, I am bound, as all craftsmen are, to help join the world; and am joined to innumerable artists and artisans both living and passed away, but all united in the work of the whole race, the enduring arts of civilization, the vital craftsmanship of the world.


View a good short discussion of the reliefs at the base of  Giotto’s Tower, here.

Not for the faint of heart, read the entire lecture, “The Relation of Engraving to the Other Arts of Florence,” here.

Read Framing Paradise in the Stones of Venice…

Read Framing a Good Life: Lessons from the Stones of Siena…

More images—


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2 thoughts on “What Ruskin Saw Framed in the Stones of Florence

  1. This was enlightening. Truly. I am just tickled by the fact that a relative detail of architecture could be so expansive in what it lets us understand about the past. This hasn’t been in any of my reading on the Renaissance, overshadowed as everything is by the Duomo. Because of this article I went searching for a book specifically on Giotto’s Tower, and someday soon I’ll read “The Camponile of Florence Cathedral: Giotto’s Tower,” by Marvin Trachtenberg. Thank you for writing this.

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