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Part of the Chapel of St. Mary of the Thorn, PISA, as it was 27 years ago. Now in Ruins.
John Ruskin Fors Clavigera: Letters to the Workmen and Labourers of Great Britain, Volume 1, (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1886), p.265-266. From Letter XX, (Venice, 3rd July, 1872).
It was some comfort to me, that second of May last, at Pisa, to watch the workman's ashamed face, as he struck the old marble cross to pieces. Stolidly and languidly he dealt the blows, down-looking, so far as in any wise sensitive, ashamed, and well he might be.
It was a wonderful thing to see done. This Pisan chapel, first built in 1230, then called the Oracle, or Oratory, "Oraculum, vel Oratorium " of the Blessed Mary of the New Bridge, afterwards called the Seabridge, (Ponte-a-Mare,) was a shrine like that of ours on the bridge of Wakefield; a boatman's praying-place: you may still see, or might, ten years since, have seen, the use of such a thing at the mouth of Boulogne Harbour, when the mackerel boats went out in a fleet at early dawn. There used to be a little shrine at the end of the longest pier; and as the Bonne Esperance, or Grace-de-Dieu, or Vierge Marie, or Notre Dame des Dunes, or Reine des Anges, rose on the first surge of the open sea, their crews bared their heads, and prayed for a few seconds. So also the Pisan oarsmen looked back to their shrine, rnany-pinnacled, standing out from the quay above the river, as they dropped down Arno under their sea bridge, bound for the Isles of Greece. Later, in the fifteenth century, "there was laid up in it a little branch of the Crown of Thorns of the Redeemer, which a merchant had brought home, enclosed in a little urn of Beyond-sea" (ultramarine) and its name was changed to "St. Mary's of the Thorn."
In the year 1840 I first drew it, then as perfect as when it was built. Six hundred and ten years had only given the marble of it a tempered glow, or touched its sculpture here and there, with softer shade. I daguerreotyped the eastern end of it some years later, (photography being then unknown), and copied the daguerreotype, that people might not be plagued in looking, by the lustre. The frontispiece to this letter is engraved from the drawing, and will show you what the building was like.
But the last quarter of a century has brought changes, and made the Italians wiser. British Protestant missionaries explained to them that they had only got a piece of blackberry stem in their ultramarine box. German philosophical missionaries explained to them that the Crown of Thorns itself was only a graceful metaphor. French republican missionaries explained to them that chapels were inconsistent with liberty on the quay; and their own Engineering missionaries of civilization explained to them that steam-power was independent of the Madonna. And now in 1872, rowing by steam, digging by steam, driving by steam, here, behold, are a troublesome pair of human arms out of employ. So the Engineering missionaries fit them with hammer and chisel, and set them to break up the Spina Chapel.
A costly kind of stone-breaking, this, for Italian parishes to set paupers on! Are there not rocks enough of Apennine, think you, they could break down instead? For truly, the God of their Fathers, and of their land, would rather see them mar His own work, than His children's,
Believe me, faithfully yours,