Personal taste, by definition, shouldn't be up for debate. That said, you don't expect John Ruskin, an architecture critic who was the leading arbiter of taste in the Victorian era, to favor the excessively ornamented Medieval style called Gothic. But as stated in his Book “Lamp of Beauty,” he expected everyone to favor it, too. You get the same message in the new show at Temple Place in London titled “The Power of Seeing” in celebration of his 200th his birth.

Getting down to details

How strongly did Ruskin make the case for Gothic architecture? As The Telegraph art critic Mark Hudson put it in his review of the show, “Ruskin was spectacularly opinionated.” A good example was his view that any other architecture style is a lie. (More about that in a moment). Ruskin was also a spectacularly gifted draftsman. Among his drawings and watercolors in the exhibit, is a study of a brick fragment so scrupulously observed that Hudson rightly called the drawing worthy of the 15th-century master engraver Albrecht Durer.

Ruskin was big on detail, which accounts for why he loved the elaborate rib vaults and flying buttresses of the Gothic cathedral. He saw it as a living, breathing structure.

A matter of opinion

As he explained the point, you know architecture is living and breathing when you can sense in every inch of ornament the workman's spirit, which he contended, you don't get with imitation Gothic building.

In “Lamp of Beauty,” Ruskin cited a lately-built church near Rouen, an emulation of the old style and saw it “as dead as leaves in December.” In his mind, you had to have lived in the Middle Ages to bring off a genuine Gothic building. The style came out of a specific time. Anything else is a lie, he said.

Middle-aged thinking

But here's the thing. Even in its original form, Gothic architecture was sneered at by those as expert as Ruskin - particularly if they came out of the Renaissance. The nicest thing said about the Medieval style that I've read was written by 20th-century art historian Hendrik Van Loon in his book “The Arts.” He wrote that Gothic architecture was a fairy tale style invented in the ugly days of the Middle Ages to cheer people up.

Less generous was 15th-century art historian Giorgio Vasari who mocked the Medieval builders as “Goths,” a.k.a. Huns - those who lived across the Alps. He called them “barbarians” because they were untutored in the classical style, which Vasari saw as superior.

Vasari theorized that the “Goths” invented their own style, which he tagged a “hodgepodge of spires, pinnacles, and gargoyles,” because they didn't know any better as they were, “completely lacking in the simple beauty of classical architecture.” Odd how each of these experts talks as if there's such a thing as right and wrong when it comes to personal taste.

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