Ruskin and Venice
Many architectural details in the Museum Building can be found in the illustrated writings of pre-eminent Victorian art critic John Ruskin (1819-1900). While Ruskin researched The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) and the three volumes of his magisterial Stones of Venice (1851-3) he was aghast at the rate of destruction of medieval buildings, and nowhere more so than Venice:
[Venice]… is still left for our beholding in the final period of her decline: a ghost upon the sands of the sea, so weak—so quiet,—so bereft of all but her loveliness, that we might well doubt, as we watched her faint reflection in the mirage of the lagoon, which was the City, and which the Shadow.
I would endeavour to trace the lines of this image before it be forever lost, and to record, as far as I may, the warning which seems to me to be uttered by every one of the fast-gaining waves, that beat, like passing bells, against the Stones of Venice.
John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice, 1851.
Wall Veil Decoration from the Ca’ Trevisan and Ca’ Dario, from vol I of The Stones of Venice.
By the early 1850s British antiquarians had been studying medieval Italy for several decades, influenced by German scholars and architects who were already reviving the Rundbogenstil (round-arched style) in the 1820s and 30s. Some monographs focused on specific groups of buildings, such as Cresy and Taylor’s monumental study of Pisan Romanesque (1829). Thomas Hope’s posthumously published two-volume Essay on Historical Architecture (1835) did much to promote the Lombardo-Romanesque style, as did Alexander Crawford Lindsey’s two volume Sketches of the History of Christian Art (1847).
View of Palazzo Publico, Piacenza, by Thomas Hope in An Historical Essay on Architecture (1835)
Hope also championed the architecture of the early Christian basilicas of Rome over its Renaissance and modern works, and celebrated the Italian tradition of pietre dure (hard stones), paved in geometrical patterns in Italo-Byzantine churches. English antiquarian Henry Gally Knight commissioned drawings from Italian, German and English artists for his two-volume survey The Ecclesiastical Architecture of Italy from the time of Constantine to the fifteenth century (1842-3). These sources provided the impetus for a revival of Italian Romanesque and Gothic architecture in Britain and Ireland from the 1840s and 50s.
Waring & Macquoid
The most earnest attempt to record the ornament of Romanesque and Early Renaissance Italy for practicing architects in Victorian Britain was by J. B. Waring & T. R. Macquoid, two members of the Royal Institute of British Architects, who in 1850 published Examples of Architectural Art in Italy and Spain.
As The Builder commented in its review of the book in August 1850, ‘It is not merely a pretty work, and a pleasant work to turn over, but a practically useful work, presenting a mass of data, models to work upon, and materials for re-combination.’ It is this idea of re-combination, already articulated by Shaw in 1842, that underpins the working method of Deane, Son, and Woodward. And in choosing the round-arched rather than the pointed, they were following Waring and Macquoid’s prescription for a stylistic departure in British architecture:
There is much talk, in this age of inventions, of a new style, that is, a system of Architecture possessing a distinct character from those already known ; if such a reward does attend the activity and creative power of the century, it seems pretty certain that the semi-circular arch will be its constructive and characteristic feature ; and a more noble foundation art never rested on ; perfect in its form, calm, powerful, continuous, it is certainly suited to give grandeur to any system that may be raised on it. However this may be, considering the constant use of the arch at the present day, its ornamentation has been strangely neglected, and we have, therefore, sought for the best examples of its ornamental construction in Romanesque and Cinque-Cento, where it forms an important feature.
Unsurprisingly, given their conviction of its merits, it was Waring, along with Matthew Digby Wyatt, who would arrange the Byzantine and Romanesque courts at the Great Exhibition of 1851.