This essay performs a new reading of John Ruskin's The Stones of Venice, placing the work in the context of nineteenth-century Italian nationalist debates on the character and history of Venice. Using letters, diaries, and other sources, the essay discusses the ways in which the production of Ruskin's architectural treatise was informed by a number of contemporary contexts. These include Ruskin's own frustration with the effects of the Austrian occupation on Venice and his awareness of the conflict between pro- and anti-Austrian parties in the city in the aftermath of the 1848 revolution. Ruskin's awareness of and conflict with the leggenda nera (black legend) debate—the political myth of a despotic Venice first propagated by apologists for Napoleon's annexation of the city—is discussed in depth. Ruskin's work is further compared with two contemporary American treatments of Italy, Nathaniel Hawthorne's “romance” The Marble Faun and William Dean Howells's Venetian Life, an account of his time as U.S. consul in Venice. This comparison highlights the variety of ways in which Anglo-American literary figures engaged with contemporary Italian politics in their visions of Italy—from the anxious negation of the political present performed by Hawthorne in his descriptions of Rome in The Marble Faun to the journalistic record of a tense, divided Venice in Howells's book—challenging the popular Anglo-American notion of an “apolitical,” fantastic Italy. In its conclusion, the essay shows how Ruskin's appropriation of Venetian history may be read in parallel with the rhetoric of Italian nationalism as both aimed to recover a lost, proud, ancient Venice.

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