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Stones of Venice, circa mid-1850s.
Guest Writer

The ribaldries of drunkeness ...
Stones of Venice vs. Stones of Britain
by Neil Anderson

hich is better? The Stones of Venice or the Stones of Britain?

"A head-huge, inhuman, and monstrous, leering in bestial degradation, too foul to be either pictured or described, or to be beheld for more than an instant."

That quotation, which might understandably be thought to have been written as a recent description of Mick Jagger, was actually written by John Ruskin in "The Stones of Venice," his four-volume bitching about Venetian Renaissance architecture.

Ruskin's complaints in general could just as easily apply to the Rolling Stones as they do to Venice. Thus, the question must – or in my case, at least will – be asked: Which is better? The Stones of Venice or the Stones of Britain?

Appreciating the Rolling Stones, even when they were at (comparatively to themselves only) their best is, to say the least, a task.

As Ruskin said of the four Tintoretto paintings on display at the Madonna dell'Orto, one "need not hope to derive any pleasure from them without resolute study and then not unless we are accustomed to decipher the thoughts of a picture patiently."

Stones of Britain, circa mid-1990s.

It is still undetermined how much "resolute study" would be required to derive pleasure from the Stones' abysmal mid-'90s album, Voodoo Lounge, as I've never known anyone to admit experience of that sensation in regard to this particular album.

More common is the reaction of Ruskin's wife, who stated that "to see a death's head crowned with leaves gave me such a shiver that I ran out of the church and I do not intend to return again."

Though she was speaking of a Tintoretto, it goes double for Keith Richards.

Ruskin deplored the fading gothic charms of Venetian architecture: "it has the sort of roughness, and largeness, and nonchalance, mixed in places with the exquisite tenderness which seems always to be the sign-manual of the broad vision."

One might similarly regret the all-too-fleeting charms of the songs of the Rolling Stones that were actually good, such as "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Gimme Shelter." More recent offerings of the Stones, such as their late-'80s album Steel Wheels, bring to mind Ruskin's description of Venetian Renaissance architecture: "exclusively occupied in the invention of such fantastic and costly pleasures as would best amuse their apathy, lull their remorse, or disguise their ruin."

Amused apathy, circa late-1970s.

Whose apathy has not been amused by the Stones' pandering disco effort, "Miss You"? Whose remorse has not been lulled by the Stones' self-aggrandizing "You Can't Always Get What You Want"? And whose ruin (other than their own) do the Stones ineptly attempt to disguise when they record embarrassing drivel such as "You Got Me Rocking"?

Ruskin might as well have given the final word on the Rolling Stones oeuvre when he wrote that Venetian Renaissance architecture was "the worst and most basest ever built by the hands of man, being especially distinguished by a spirit of brutal mockery and insolent jest, which, exhausting itself in deformed and monstrous sculpture, can sometimes be hardly otherwise described than as the perpetuation in stone of the ribaldries of drunkenness."

See more from Neil in our archives.

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