Ralph Rumney, The Leaning Tower of Venice (1957)





Re_Iter Ralph Rumney

In 1957, the English artist Ralph Rumney (1934-2002) achieved "The Leaning Tower of Venice", one of the earliest experiences in the history of psychogeography. Rumney chose and followed an itinerary through the city and documented it photographically.

For the first time, Re_iter Ralph Rumney has reconstructed this itinerary in all the details, making it available to those who want to look for the feelings and emotions that the author experienced.


history of the project

Rumney conceived the project of a psychogeographic guide to Venice in 1957, the year in which he participated in the founding meeting of the Situationist International in Cosio di Arroscia (Imperia), together with the French Guy Debord and Michèle Bernstein, the Danish Asger Jorn, and the Italian Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio. At that time Rumney was living in Venice with Pegeen Guggenheim, daughter of the famous art collector Peggy Guggenheim. It was during the Cosio meeting that he proposed the idea of a psychogeographic exploration of Venice, approaching the city through the relations with the emotional states it provoked.

Guy Debord, who in 1957 had authored the Psychogeographic Guide to Paris, wrote in his unpublished introduction to Rumney’s work that this was the ‘first exhaustive photographic work applied to urbanism’ and that the English artist had chosen Venice out of many other equally interesting ‘zones of experimentation’ because of the ‘sentimental resonance’ of a city so ‘tied to the most backward emotions of the old aesthetic’ (Debord, Guy, Préface «pour un livre projeté par Ralph Rumney», septembre 1957, in Debord, Guy; Debord, Alice, Oeuvres, Paris, Gallimard, 2006, pp. 332-5. English translation: http://www.notbored.org/psychogeographical-venice.html).

The Situationist project of creating psychogeographic city guides hinged on the concept of derive, which Debord elaborated in 1956 and consists of letting oneself ‘be drawn by the solicitations of the terrain and of chance encounters’ (Internationale Situationiste, 2, Décembre 1958, p. 19).

More than thirty years later, Rumney explained that his intention was that of creating ‘a sketch which would show the areas where no one went, far from the Grand Canal’ (Rumney, Ralph, The Consul, Conversations with Gérard Berréby, San Francisco, City Lights Books, 2002, p. 47). The idea was to ‘de-spectacularize Venice by suggesting unknown routes through it’, taking advantage of the many chances of ‘detournement’ that the city offers. (Rumney, Ralph, The Consul, Conversations with Gérard Berréby, San Francisco, City Lights Books, 2002, p. 47).

Alluding to the iconic Tower di Pisa, he called the project The Leaning Tower of Venice, portraying the leaning bell tower of the church of Santo Stefano in the opening image of his work. Rumney was fascinated by the fotoromanzo, a photo story magazine very popular in the Italy of that time, and decided to use it as model for creating a story and a psychogeographic map of Venice illustrated by the black and white photographs he himself shot with his Rolleiflex.

He announced his project in the issue 29 (November 1957) of Potlatch, the last issue of the journal established in 1954 as Information Bulletin of the French Section of the Lettrist International, and, since June 1955, as Information Bulletin of the Lettrist International. The following year, however, the news entitled Venice has Vanquished Ralph Rumney featured in the first issue of the International Situationist Bulletin (June 1958) and told about the failure of his project. According to the Bulletin, directed by Guy Debord, Rumney had informed the editorial staff that he had come to a ‘complete standstill’ after he had fought against ‘innumerable difficulties, becoming more and more bound by the terrain he had attempted to cross’ (Internationale Situationniste, 1, Juin 1958, p. 28. English translation: https://isinenglish.com/15-venice-has-vanquished-ralph-rumney/). The news ended with a kind of obituary, according to which the ‘Venetian jungle’ had proved stronger and had ‘closed in on a young man, full of life and promise, who disappears, who dissolves amongst our many memories’ (Ibid.).

Three decades later, Rumney explained in an interview that he never clearly understood the reasons for his exclusion, though admitting that his private life was ‘extremely complicated’ at that time (Rumney, The Consul, p. 51).

In fact, the artist achieved his project in 1959 and published it between 1959 and 1960 in the magazine of the London Royal College of Arts, ARK, from which the images featuring in this website are taken. Unfortunately, the magazine’s director lost the original materials later on and the recent limited edition of Rumney’s work by Silverbridge (Paris, 2002) is based on the photographs taken at the exhibition On the Passage of a Few People Through a Rather Brief Moment in Time: The Situationist International, 1957-72, held at the ICA, London, in 1989.

the text

The Leaning Tower of Venice is the textual and visual account of the Venetian itinerary followed by Rumney’s alter ego and friend, the American poet Alan Ansen. The work articulates in the following six Documents:

Document 1

The Leaning Tower of Venice.

Psychogeography is the study of the exact effects of geographic environment, controlled or otherwise, on the affective behaviour of individuals...... G. E. Debord

The photos in this study were taken at points along the black line on the map, which is an ideal trajectory through the zones of main psychogeographic interest.

This View of Venice [photo below, left] (pop:density 2.1/sq metre) shows road-rail bridge from Italy, rail terminal, cemetery isle (arrow) and distant Lido, playground of the idle rich!

200 lb. ‘A’ ¬– wellknown author of ‘Heroin – an Ode’, orients fast in N. Adriatic honeymoon town built on 118 islets joined by 364 bridges.

‘A’ is aware of photographer and is showing off. Nevertheless environment is clearly affecting his play-patterns.

It is our thesis that cities should embody a builtin play factor. We are studying here a play-environment relationship. At this stage environment is of greater interest than the player.... But, How would ‘A’ play in London?

Though Play and Game are not synonymous, photo left shows they are not always contradictory.

Document 2

Ghétto Vècchio

The Ghetto has the most beautiful ‘ambiance’ in Venice and would reward exhaustive study by one more competent than the author.

‘A’ now recrosses the Canal Grande by gondola and enters an extremely sinister zone frequented by cats and men with Tommy guns (see next photo). Even some of the canals in this sector are dry.

Document 3

Via Garibaldi

The pause that refreshes! The part of Venice shown in this episode is extremely depressing. We observe that ‘A’ is running in many photographs.

At this point [photo below, left] ‘A’ is very near the Arsenale, centre of Venetian military power. It is possible that the white blotches on this series of photographs is due to some emanation from the source. Even at the doors of the Arsenale ‘A’ cannot resist, in spite of the sinister feeling in this region, the temptation to mount one of the stone lions brought back from the East many years ago by Venetian conquerors. Venice is filled with these symbols of past glory.

‘A’ is now at the back door of Venice, the ‘Fondamente Nuove’ from which corpses are carried by gondola to the island cemetery.

Document 4

San Francesco della Vigna

A chance meeting with a friend from New York dispels the gloom and ‘A’ is seen indulging in a series of games.

This zone is much frequented by children and a series of happy shots give us glimpses of ‘A’ playing amongst them with gay abandon or, watched by them, playing at games which the moment inspires.

THE LITTLE KNOWN ‘ZEN’ MACHINE [photo below, right]

More children.......

Abruptly there are no more children, but their influence is still present in ‘A’s play patterns.

Document 5

Santa Maria Formosa

When there is sufficient documentation of psg phenomena we shall derive information for the creation of Situationnist cities. See maps and plans of Paris published by Situationnist International.

Venice-type play pattern is crystallizing. Note ‘A’s interest and participation in children’s games [photo below, left], also his hostility to cats and pigeons.

Photos left [photo below, centre] show pronounced microclimate of Ruga Giuffa (damp and fog). The exact cause of these phenomena is not yet known. Another fogpatch on a sunny day is noticeable (right) [photo below, right] near S. Martino. We suspect that in special cases weather is modified by environment. ¿MANCHESTER?

Document 6

As our study draws to its close ‘A’ hastens to Rialto while a light rain falls in the sombre streets.

This final sinister episode is unexplained[,] it interrupted this study at a crucial stage and disgusted the author forever with psychogeography. ‘A’ is seen for the last time with arms outspread on Rialto Bridge [photo below, left]. Descending the other side we discover Dover Street playboy [photo below, right] L+wr+n c + +ll+w+y.

[After leaving the Situationist Movement, Rumney collaborated actively with the ICA, in Dover Street, London. The British art critic and curator Lawrence Alloway had joined ICA in 1955 as assistant director.]


Rumney's work features 128 photographs. For 92 of them, numbered progressively in the section, it has been possible to identify the portrayed place, of which a map is provided. The itinerary shown here has been reorganised on the basis of the route that the author traced (see photo) on a Venice map and that does not correspond to the original order of the ‘documents’, progressively numbered from 1 to 6. The sequence of these documents is here as follows: 1, 5, 3, 4, 2, 6. Keeping Piazzale Roma as the beginning of the itinerary and Rialto Bridge as the end, the reorganised route articulates in the following six itineraries:


Piazzale Roma, Ponte degli Scalzi, Strada Nuova, Campo Santi Apostoli;


Campo Santi Apostoli, Campo Santa Maria Formosa, Campo Bandiera e Moro, Riva Ca’ di Dio;


Riva Ca’ di Dio, Via Garibaldi, Arsenale, Celestia, Campo San Francesco della Vigna;


Campo San Francesco della Vigna, Campo San Giovanni e Paolo, Campo Abazia, Ponte de Gheto Novo;


Gheto, San Giacomo dell’Orio, Ponte de le Tette;


Ponte de le Tette, Campo San Polo, Rialto.

© Museo del Camminare 2019, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-ND 4.0