Marmor Magnificus

February 11, 2017

A deep, inky black with pale veins spreading throughout like the most delicate snow-covered branches against a midnight sky; gently wavering stripes of garnet, burnt orange, and yellow, an earthly reflection of Mars’ celestial bands of color; creamy white clouds with soil brown rims; a flowering of pink, red, and peach; sharp lines, rich hues, unimaginable, ever-varied patterns no artist could have dreamed up.  This is not a post about a statue or painting, an artifact, or even a building: this is an ode to material, to the marble masterpieces of mother nature. 

She begins with limestone. Tectonic plates work day in and day out, applying heat and pressure as they slide, ever so slowly transforming the lime with a new combination of calcite crystals. When the time comes, the finished product is excavated, transported, and displayed with the utmost pride in its champion museum, the Roman empire. 1

Rome is by nature a city of tufa, travertine, and peperino with no depositories of marble anywhere nearby. This means that every towering column, every slab that dignifies a building, every inlaid floor, mosaic tile, every fountain, sarcophagus, and sculpture were at some point transported into the city. Given that one square meter of marble weighs almost six thousand pounds, this was an astounding accomplishment. After the topsoil above a quarry was removed, throngs of ill-fated slaves worked to separate blocks of stone from the mass. They would hammer cracks into the rock with metal picks or force dried wooden wedges into cracks which when moistened would expand and cause them to widen. Before removing the blocks from the quarry, skilled masons would carve the stone into the approximate shape for its destined use so as not to transport more than necessary. With a system of ropes, pulleys, and cranes, the roughly-shaped blocks were lifted from their natural workshop, carefully slid on rollers or sleds to flat ground, hauled by oxen, and floated down rivers and seas to Rome where they entered the workshops and building sites of men. 2 Writers unsurprisingly mentioned marble with frequency. In his biography of Augustus, Suetonius says,

Urbem neque pro maiestate imperii ornatam et inundationibus incendiisque obnoxiam excoluit adeo, ut iure sit gloriatus marmoream se relinquere, quam latericiam accepisset3

Augustus thus built his way into eternal memory. His rule was a blueprint for emperors to follow and the marbles he imported from the foreign quarries he monopolized set a solid precedent. For what better way to boast dominance over foreign lands than to lay their natural treasure underfoot in glorious flooring or to stack it high in dedication to the gods who permitted the victories? The Romans chose marble deliberately as the stone most suited to the grandeur and beauty of their projects. Pliny the Elder in his Natural Histories even says,

Hercules, non fuisset picturis honos ullus, non modo tantus, aliqua marmorum auctoritate.4

He so appreciates the natural splendor of the marble that he suggests painting never would have been so celebrated had people already discovered it. But Pliny also questions whether or not it is moral for men to ravage the mountainsides in pursuit of this artful stone. The thirty-sixth book of his Natural Histories opens with an impassioned sermon in defense of the mountainsides:

Lapidum natura restat, hoc est praecipua morum insania…In portento prope maiores habuere Alpis ab Hannibale exsuperatas et postea a Cimbris: nunc ipsae caeduntur in mille genera marmorum. Promunturia aperiuntur mari, et rerum natura agitur in planum…secum quisque cogitet, et quae pretia horum audiat, quas vehi trahique moles videat, et quam sine iis multorum sit beatior vita. ista facere, immo verius pati mortales quos ob usus quasve ad voluptates alias nisi ut inter maculas lapidum iaceant.”5

In this same chapter, Pliny also describes how the mountains were not made for mankind: they were made by and for Nature herself. They curb the violence of rivers and keep the seas in check and act as a fastening to hold in the entrails of the earth. To Pliny it is disgraceful to tear these mountains asunder so that men may bask amongst their polished products. What Pliny considers an assault on nature that causes man’s moral sturdiness to wither in luxury, Vitruvius on the other hand, the architectural expert, considers a natural event in the course of human striving toward perfection. In his De Architectura, Vitruvius discusses the progress of building beginning with the earliest shelters in caves or woven from branches in imitation of birds’ nests. Gaining experience each day and driven by pride in our accomplishments, we improved our standing in the world. In this way Vitruvius counters Pliny’s fears:

Deinde observationibus studiorum e vagantibus iudiciis et incertis ad certas symmetriarum perduxerunt rationes. Posteaquam animadvertunt profusos esse partus ab natura materiae et abundantiam copiarum ad aedificationes ab ea comparatam, tractando nutrierunt et auctam per artes ornaverunt voluptatibus elegantiam vitae.6

Rather than lament the destruction of nature, Vitruvius celebrates our ingenuity in employing it. It is human nature to strive continuously toward a better condition. For is it possible for mankind to sit idly without discovery, without attempting something new? If only Vitruvius could see the architectural feats of the twenty first century, so far have we come from our first crude imitations of animal dens. Pliny’s concern, however, is valid. He saw how men were exploiting the earth for the sake of luxury and comfort, something that two thousand years later is problematic in ways he could not have imagined. When I see the marble remains of my ancestors, I cannot help but be filled with admiration for the capacity of people to create and to feel connected to all of those who have also marveled at the intricacy of marble’s designs. As humans, we cannot resist the appreciation of beauty, the desire to build, and the need to leave a mark on the planet after we die. It is imperative, and I hope inevitable, that we find a way to continue to make progress without, as Pliny warns, damaging the planet or ourselves too much in the process. 

1) Above photo: Marble samples displayed in the Palatine Museum

2) Wootton, W., Russell, B., and Rockwell, P. (2013). ‘Stoneworking techniques and processes (version 1.0)’, The Art of Making in Antiquity: Stoneworking in the Roman World. (11/01/2016)

3) “He improved the city, which had not been decorated in accordance with the dignity of the empire and liable to floods and fires, to the extent that he justly boasted that he left in marble what he had found in brick.” - Suetonius, De Vita Caesarum, Vita Divi Augusti, Chapter 28

4) "By Hercules, the art of painting would never have been held in such esteem, or indeed, any esteem at all, if variegated marbles had been!” -Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, Book 36, Chapter 5

5) "It now remains for us to discuss the nature of stones, or, in other words, the principal folly of our morals. Our forefathers regarded the Alps as a near prodigy first conquered by Hannibal, and afterward by the Cimbri: but now, these very mountains are hacked into a thousand types of marble. Promontories are thrown open to the sea, and the face of Nature is being reduced to a level…. May each person reflect, may each grasp the steep prices set upon these things; when he sees these masses carted and dragged away, may he realize that life, without them, is passed more happily. For what utility or for what pleasures do morals commit such acts, or more truly speaking, suffer them, except in order that others may take their repose amongst variegated stones?” - Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, Book 36, Chapter 1

6) “Then by observations of these pursuits, reasoning lead us forth from wandering and uncertain judgments to a certainty about symmetry and proportion. Afterwards, our reason realized that material, the offspring of the earth, was poured forth from nature and that from her there was an abundance of supplies for buildings provided. By working with it, men supplied for themselves and through art and skill, they furnished a grander elegance for the pleasures of life.” - Vitruvius, De Architectura. Book 2, Chapter 1, Part 7