MARBLE


MARBLE
   The Ancient Roman Emperor Augustus reportedly stated, "I found a city of brick and left it a city of marble." This sentiment echoes the love of marble found across the Ancient Greek and Roman empires during their high points. The term marmaros, or "shining stone," is Greek in origin, and certainly Ancient Greece is known for its white marble sculptures. A greater variety of marble colors and types became available after the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean, and the high cost of such marbles, logistically difficult to quarry and transport such great distances, bestowed an elevated level of prestige on the patron. Marble is a metamorphic rock made mostly of limestone, and its high polish is what makes it distinct from other stones. While white marble came from the famous quarry at Carrara in Italy, black, red, and green marbles came from the area around Greece, purple marbles were from Turkey and Egypt, and yellow marble was from Tunisia. Marble was increasingly used on architectural construction; thin slabs were hung onto brick walls while thicker slabs were used for floors. The use of marble as a symbol of wealth and high culture can be found in the subsequent Renaissance, Baroque, and Neo-Classical eras, and indeed, it has even continued into the 21st century.
   The most famous marble structures from Ancient Greece are found on the Acropolis in Athens. The Acropolis, rebuilt with the large amounts of money the Athenians acquired after their defeat of the Persians, was a powerful symbol of Athenian domination in the Greek Empire. At the Acropolis, built during the rule of Pericles in the mid-400s BC, architects and sculptors had access to unprecedented amounts of money, and the use of marble for the entire construction of these buildings stood as a powerful propagandistic tool for the Athenians. Prior to the construction of this complex, marble was used primarily for architectural sculpture, but in the grandest of monuments, such as the Parthenon, marble was used as the main structural component. The rectangular base of the Parthenon is a limestone platform made from large blocks of stone, which were carved out in rough blocks and then dressed. Greek marble came from either Mount Pentelus in Attica or a few islands such as Paros. The columns, triangular pediments, and architectural sculpture are all made of marble. Most of these sculptures, called the "Elgin Marbles," are now located in the British Museum in London, but negotiations to return them to their homeland continue.
   The Romans were the first to cut marble into thinner slabs, called opus sectile, which could be used to cover concrete walls in a type of veneer. The use of a thinner marble reduced its cost and allowed the Romans to cover many more buildings in this stone than the Greeks could cover with solid blocks of marble. In Rome, the use of marble became widespread, and over 50 different types and colors were available in the Empire. The Pantheon, built in Rome in AD 118-125, is one of the best-preserved buildings from antiquity. Constructed from concrete to support a massive, unencumbered dome, the interior walls and floor were then covered in different types of marble to make patterns of contrasting colors and shapes.
   This use of colored marble to make beautiful designs was further developed through the Middle Ages, when marble began to be used to cover Romanesque church floors, doors, and liturgical objects with a mixture of mosaics set within a colored marble framework. A historical marble craftsman named Cosmas, who supposedly came to Rome from Byzantium, is thought to be the source of this style of marble flooring, which is called Cosmati work. The first church pavement done in this particular technique is considered to be the Abbey at Montecassino, which was rebuilt at the end of the 11th century under the patronage of the Abbot Desiderius, who brought marble workers from Constantinople. In this style, mosaics, made from small pieces of stone and colored glass set into a paste, alternate with strips of marble laid in contrasting colors to provide a rich overall design. The original Cosmati work at Montecassino does not exist today.
   Marble inlay was increasingly used in the Italian Renaissance as well; it expanded from its primary use on church flooring and furnishings to domestic furniture and other decorative pieces. In the 1600s, the use of marble was widespread. A beautiful example of colored marble inlay is found on the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, built by Shah Jahan in the early 1600s as a memorial to his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died in childbirth. This beautiful funerary monument is made from white marble, but upon closer inspection, one can see that black marble inlay forms verses from the Koran while sapphire from Sri Lanka, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, turquoise from Tibet, jasper from India, and jade and crystal from China were also used to create a beautiful inlay design of the garden of paradise, at the same time providing visual confirmation of the far-reaching power of the Mughal Empire.
   The subsequent use of marble in later architectural styles has often resulted from a similar desire to recall the grandeur of historical monuments as well as to refer to the wealth and authority of the current patrons. Richard Morris Hunt, a Beaux-Arts architect who worked for wealthy families in the United States at the end of the 19th century, sought to introduce the great architecture of Renaissance and Baroque Europe in his monumental marble homes and civic and government buildings on the East Coast. For example, the "Marble House," built by Morris for William Kissam Vanderbilt in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1888-1892, was modeled on the Petit Trianon at Versailles, and this home was pivotal in the transformation of the seaside town of Newport from a small community of wooden cottages to a stone-lined resort for the wealthy.

Historical Dictionaries of Literature and the Arts. . 2008.

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