Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/May 1877/Antique Marbles
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By John D. Champlin Jr.
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NOTHING more forcibly attests the imperial power and magnificence of Rome, at the height of her glory, than the fragments of precious marbles which almost every excavation among her ruins brings to light. Even if her history were lost to us, these varied bits of stone would tell in language stronger than words the story of her universal dominion, when her ships sought every clime, and every land paid tribute to her luxury. This piece reflects the glowing suns of Numidia, that the green of Tempe's Vale; this was quarried on Pentelicus, this in storied Chios, and these tell of Gallic and of Hispanic conquest. Many have a double history, having served to decorate some forum or temple of the East before its spoliation by a Mummius or a Sulla.
Toward the end of the second century B. C. the Romans, who had become conversant with Greek art through their conquests, began to appreciate sculptures and precious marbles, and from that time on-ward almost every captured city was rifled of its treasures. Not only were all the quarries of the world put under contribution, but statues, columns, and capitals, slabs, pavements, and sometimes entire edifices, were transported to Rome. Carthage, from the time of its destruction, furnished an almost inexhaustible supply. Edrisi, the Arab geographer of the twelfth century, says that marbles of so many different species were found among its ruins that it would be impossible to describe them. Blocks thirty feet high and sixty-three inches in diameter, and columns thirty feet in circumference, were taken out.
A large fleet of vessels was employed solely in transporting marbles, and slaves or freedmen were stationed in the various ports from which they were sent, who were charged with the duty of keeping account of the number, quality, and date of shipment of all stones. In 1868 excavations on the banks of the Tiber brought to light the ancient marmorata or marble-wharf, where these vessels landed their cargoes. Many blocks of precious colored marbles were exhumed here, some of colossal proportions. One of yellow African marble was twenty-seven feet long by five and a half feet wide, and weighed thirty-four tons. Another, sent from a then newly-opened quarry in the mountains north of the Adriatic, to the Emperor Nero, was marked with the name of his freedman Carynthus.
So immense was the store of marbles amassed in Rome that for centuries after her spoliation by the northern barbarians her ruined edifices were regarded as the richest of quarries, from which pope, nobles, and peasants, drew at will. Most of the mediæval churches and other public edifices now extant are decorated with the spoils of imperial palaces, basilicas, baths, and the temples of the gods. Vast quantities of marble were even burned for lime; and, as if in retribution, Rome was robbed to beautify other cities. Her sculptured marbles were transported to Aix-la-Chapelle to decorate the buildings of Charlemagne, and the ancient capital of the world, Petrarch laments, was forced to adorn from her own bowels the slothful luxury of Naples.
Of the white marbles of antiquity the most important were the Parian and the Pentelic, both the product of Greek quarries. The Parian was obtained from Mount Marpessa, in the island of Paros, one of the Cyclades, whence it was sometimes called Marpessian. It was also called lychnites, because, says Pliny, the quarries were worked by lamplight. Dodwell disputes this, averring that the quarries are cut down the mountain-side and open to the light; and he suggests that the marble was so called from its glittering fracture, or its translucence. This leads one to doubt whether Dodwell ever visited them, for Bory Saint-Vincent, of the French commission to the Morea, expressly describes them as subterranean, and says the entrance of the principal one was so filled up at the time of his visit that he was obliged to creep to enter it. There are three quarries on the mountain, and the largest has several lateral cuttings. The marks of the ancient wedges are everywhere visible, and it is evident from the manner in which the blocks were taken out that the utmost care was exercised to avoid waste. In consequence of the numerous fissures through the beds, comparatively small blocks could be obtained, generally not more than five feet in length.
Parian marble is of a yellowish white, very near the tint of white wax. Theocritus compares it to the color of teeth. It was, therefore, considered better adapted for the representation of human flesh than any other material. Its grain is much coarser than that of the Pentelic marble, but it takes a most exquisite polish, and, as it gradually hardens by exposure to atmospheric air, it resists decomposition for ages. To this quality is attributable the fine state of preservation of many of the most celebrated of the antique statues, such as the "Venus de' Medici," the "Diana Venatrix," the "Juno Capitolina," the "Ariadne," and the colossal "Minerva" —otherwise called the "Pallas of Velletri" —all of which are of Parian marble.
The neighboring island of Naxos produced a white marble scarcely inferior to that of Paros, but exhibiting a little more advanced state of crystallization. The marble, too, of Tenos, an island north of Paros, and of Thasos, the most northerly of the Ægean group, was considered nearly equal to that of Paros. Chios, Lesbos, Samos, and several other islands of the archipelago, also produced white marbles, generally of a more snowy white than the Parian. They are called usually by the Italians marmo Greco.
In the palmy days of Greek art the Athenians gave the preference to the Pentelic marble, rather than to that of Paros, probably because it was more accessible to Athens, the quarries being on Mount Pentelicus,only about eight miles from the city. It is finer in grain than the Parian, and is whiter, but it is less translucid, and it has a tendency to exfoliate under atmospheric influence, so that it loses in time its polished surface. It is marked, too, by occasional zones of greenish talc, whence it is called by the Italian sculptors cipolino statuario, from its resemblance to an onion (cipola). It is sometimes called also marmo salino, from its salt-like grains. The Parthenon, the Propylæa, the Erechtheum, and most of the other principal buildings of Athens, were constructed of Pentelic marble, and it was also the material of some of the most celebrated of the ancient statues, such as the "Venus" of the Capitol, the "Pallas" of the Albani villa, the "Indian Bacchus," and many portrait busts.
The Pentelic quarries, says Dodwell, are cut in perpendicular precipices in the side of the mountain. The marks of the tools are everywhere visible, and the tracks of the sledges on which the immense masses were drawn down the declivity to the plain are still to be seen. Several frusta of columns and other blocks lie at the base of the excavation, just as they were left by the ancient quarrymen. One of the larger excavations is worked now.
The Hymettan marble, from Mount Hymettus on the southeast side of Athens, was employed in Xenophon's time in the construction of temples, altars, shrines, and statues, throughout Greece, but especially in Athens. The Romans used it to a much greater extent than the Pentelic, partly because the quarries were nearer the sea, and partly because its peculiar tint became the fashion. It was of a much less brilliant white than the Pentelic, in some places becoming almost gray. It was used chiefly for buildings. According to Pliny, Lucius Scaurus was the first in Rome to decorate his house with Hymettan columns, 104 b. c. The statue of Meleager, in Paris, is made of this marble.
In the time of Julius Cæsar quarries of white marble were opened at Luna, on the coast of Etruria, and thenceforth Rome drew her supply of building-marbles from this place, almost to the exclusion of the Greek marbles. The Pantheon, and many other public buildings, were constructed of it. It was soon found to be adapted also for statuary, and finally came to be preferred to the Parian. The "Antinous" of the Capitol, now in the Paris Museum, is of this marble, and, according to some, the "Apollo Belvedere" also; but the Roman sculptors think the latter is a Greek marble. The marble of Luna, called by the ancients marmor Lunense, and which is the same as the modern Carrara, is whiter than either the Parian or Pentelic, and some of its veins are not inferior in beauty of grain and in softness to the former.
In 1847 a quarry of white marble was opened at Maremma, about thirty-five miles from Leghorn, which bore many evidences of having been worked in ancient times. It closely resembles the Parian in color and grain, works smoothly, and takes a high polish.
White marbles were also obtained by the ancients from Mount Phelleus, Rhamnus, and Snninm, in Attica; Demetrias, in Thessaly; on the river Sangarius, in Phrygia; from near Alexandria Troas; from Mount Prion, near Ephesus; from Cappadocia, and from Mount Libanus, the modern Lebanon.
The marbles of Phelleus, Rhamnus, and Suniuin, were of good color, but were coarse, and less homogeneous than the Pentelic. The Sangarian marble was sometimes called Coralitic. The Cappadocian was called Phengites (Φἑγγος), on account of its translucence. The temple of Fortuna Seia, built by Nero within the precincts of his Golden House, was built of this stone; and, although it had no windows, it is said to have been perfectly light when the door was closed. The marble of Mount Libanus, usually called Tyrian, was probably the material of Solomon's Temple and of Herod's palace. The Scala Santa in the Lateran Palace, Rome, said to have been brought from Pilate's house in Jerusalem, is of this marble, which is a clear blue-white.
The Proconnesian marble, a pure white with black veins, was quarried in the island of Proconnesus, in the Propontis. The celebrity of this stone has changed the name of the island to Marmora, and also given its modern name (Sea of Marmora) to the Propontis. This marble was also called Cyzican, because it was largely used in the city of Cyzicus, opposite the island in Mysia. The palace of Mausolus, at Halicarnassus, was built of it. It was also much used at Constantinople, under Honorius and the younger Theodosius. Several columns of it in the mosque of St. Sophia were spoils of the temple of Cybele at Cyzicus.
A white marble, with yellow spots, was brought from Cappadocia, and a similar marble from Rhodes, but the spots were of a brighter, more golden, yellow. White marble, with black spots, was quarried in the Troad.
But the most beautiful of the antique variegated marbles, with a white base, was the Synnadic, Docimæan, or Docimite, sometimes called marmor Phrygium. It was quarried at the village of Docimia, not far from Synnada, in Phrygía Major. The ancient authorities generally describe it as pure white, marked with red or purple veins, which the poets compared to the blood of Atys, slain at Synnada; but Hamilton, who visited the quarries about 1835, says that they yield several different kinds. He mentions white, bluish-white, white with yellow veins, white with blue veins, and white with blue spots, the latter having almost a brecciated appearance. He describes the principal quarry as worked horizontally into the hill, the sides of which are cut away perpendicularly to a great height to secure the splendid columns for which it was famous. Strabo says that pillars and slabs of surprising magnitude and beauty, approaching the alabastrite marble in variety of colors, were conveyed thence to Rome notwithstanding the long land-carriage of more than 100 miles to the place of shipment. The quarries are entirely surrounded by trachytic hills, to which, says Hamilton, the marble "owes its crystalline and altered character, being to all appearance a portion of the older secondary limestone caught up and developed by the protruded volcanic rocks, and crystallized by igneous action."
The alabastrites marble of the ancients, or onychites, was not a marble proper, but a hard carbonate of lime, identical in composition with stalagmite, the modern alabaster. It was quarried, says Pliny, near Thebes, in Egypt, and Damascus. When first brought to Rome it was considered almost a precious stone, and was made into cups and small ornaments, such as the feet of couches and chairs. When Balbus decorated his theatre, in the time of Augustus, with four small columns of this stone, it was noted as an unprecedented occurrence; but, in the reign of Claudius, Callistus, a freedman of that emperor, adorned his banquet hall with thirty large columns of alabastrites. The ancient quarries were reopened by Mehemet Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, to obtain material to build his mausoleum at Cairo. The four magnificent pillars of this marble that support the baldacchino over the altar in the church of San Paolo fuori le Mura, in Rome, were presented by him. Each is a monolith forty feet long.
Of the yellow marbles of antiquity, that called by the Italians giallo antico is the rarest and most beautiful. There are several varieties of it, varying in tint from a cream-yellow to the deepest chrome-yellow, sometimes shading into red and purple hues. Some is as bright as gold (giallo dorato), some of an orange-shade (giallo capo), and some, extremely rare, of a canary-color (giallo paglia). The ancient writers compared it to saffron, to sunlight, and to ivory grown yellow with age. Some of it is variegated with black or dark yellow rings. The grain is exceedingly fine. Its colors are derived entirely from carbonaceous matter. Among the finest existing specimens of this marble are the large columns in the Pantheon at Rome, and a single pair in the Arch of Constantine. The giallo antico was called marmor Numidicum by the Romans, but the precise site of the quarries is not yet ascertained. M. Fournel believes that the yellow marble of Philippeville, Algeria, which closely resembles it in varying tints, is identical with it. The island of Melos and Corinth also produced yellow marbles, and in the time of Justinian a marble of a fiery yellow was quarried in the neighborhood of Jerusalem.
Among the most celebrated marbles of the ancient world was the rosso antico, or red antique. Its color passes from a red, almost scarlet, to a wine-lees or blood-red, which is divided by parallel layers of white, and sometimes also intersected by a network of delicate black veins. Its variation in tint is probably according to the quantity of the oxide of iron contained in it. Until lately this marble was known only through its remains, and it has generally been ascribed to Egypt. The largest ancient specimens preserved are the fourteen slabs composing the double flight of steps in the church of San Prassede, Rome. Napoleon I. at one time intended to carry these to Paris to ornament his throne. There are several statues of rosso antico, including the "Antinous" in Paris and the "Marcus Agrippa" in the Grimani Palace, Venice, and many medallion portraits. It is now ascertained that this beautiful marble was not Egyptian, but Greek. It was quarried on the coast of the gulf of Laconia, near what is now the bay of Scutari. The quarry lies near the sea, and large blocks cut by the ancients are still to be seen there. In 1851 the Greek Government sent specimens from it to the London Exposition, and it was fully recognized as the famous rosso antico.
There are many varieties of the marble called red and white antique, but they are so near alike that it is impossible to distinguish them by description alone. They are variously called by the Italians rosso annulato, serpentelo, vendurino, fiorito, cotonello, etc. They are found only in the Roman ruins, and their quarries are unknown. The marble called cervelas is of a deep red, with numerous gray and white veins. It is supposed to have been brought from Africa.
The ancients were acquainted with many kinds of green marble, one of the most noted of which was the marmor Atracium, called by Julius Pollux Thessalian, and identical with the verde antico of the Italians. The quarries were on Mount Ossa, near the entrance of the vale of Tempe, and not far from Atrax in Thessaly, whence it derived its name. It is a species of breccia, whose paste is a mixture of talc and limestone, interspersed with fragments of white marble. But the verde antique marbles differ from the modern breccias in that the colors are, so blended that the line of demarkation is not perceptible. The Erechtheum in Athens was adorned with columns of verde antique, and it was one of the marbles selected by Justinian for the decoration of St. Sophia, The eight splendid columns of it still to be seen in the mosque are said to have been taken from the temple of Diana at Ephesus.
The celebrated Carystian marble, the cipolino verde of the Italians, derived its name from Carystus, a town at the foot of Mount Oche, in the island of Eubœa, where it was quarried. The temple of Apollo Marmarinus of Carystus was named from this quarry. It is a true steatitic limestone or cipolin, and is of a beautiful grayish green, with white zones and spots, and sometimes sprinkled with different colors. It was easily obtained in very large blocks, suitable for columns, and was largely used in the temples and other public buildings in Athens and Rome. An English traveler, who visited the quarry lately, found seven entire columns on the site, about three miles from the sea, just as they were left by the ancient workmen.
The marmor Lacedæmonium, Laconicum, or Spartum, of the Romans has always been regarded as a species of verde-antique marble. Clarke says that it differed from the Atracian only in being variegated with black or dark-green serpentine instead of with white. But M. Boblaye, the mineralogist of the French commission to the Morea, has proved pretty conclusively that it was not a marble but a true porphyry, and probably identical with the ophites of the ancients, which Pliny says was so called from its resemblance to the skin of a serpent (ὸφις). Pausanias calls it Crocean stone (Κρόκεων λίθος). The French discovered the quarries near the ancient Croceæ, on the road from Sparta to Gythium, and about two miles from the modern village of Levétzova, in Laconia. The stone is of a dark grass-green, strewed with little parallelograms of a lighter green, sometimes approaching white and sometimes yellow. Procopius compares its color to emerald, and Statius and Sidonius call it a grass-green. Eurycles, the Spartan architect, used this stone in decorating the baths of Neptune at Corinth; and it was quarried to a large extent by the Romans, who enriched the monuments of Greece, Italy, and Gaul, with it.
The Augustan and Tiberian marbles, so fashionable in Rome under those emperors, were obtained in Egypt. They are breccias composed of fragments of greenstone, gneiss, and porphyry, cemented with a calcareous paste. They are similar in color, a bright green, spotted and streaked with dark green, reddish gray, and white; the only difference being, according to Pliny, that in the Augustan the figures undulate and curl to a point, while in the Tiberian the streaks are not involved, but lie wide asunder. It is probable that these marbles were quarried in the mountains between Thebes and the Red Sea. Inscriptions in the ancient quarries there, near the well of Hammamamat, show that they were worked in the sixth dynasty of Manetho. A green marble called Memphites was quarried near Memphis in Egypt.
There were many other varieties of green marble known to the ancients, such as the red-spotted green antique, having a dark-green ground marked with small red and black spots and white fragments of entrochi; the marmo verde paglioco, yellowish green; and leek marble, of the color of a leek; but they exist only in small fragments, and their quarries are unknown. Another variety of green marble was found in the island of Tenos.
A blue marble is said to have been obtained in Libya. The island of Naxos yields a dark blue elegantly striped with white, Tenos a light blue veined with dark blue, and Scyros many kinds of blue and violet breccias, with other colors variously disposed. Scyros was one of the chief places whence the ancients derived their variegated marbles, and its quarries furnished many varieties closely resembling the famous marbles of other localities. Strabo says it produced the Carystian, Deucalian, Synnadic, and Hierapolitic marbles. The quarries of Tenos are still worked to some extent, but those of Scyros and Naxos remain almost as the ancients left them.
Of the black marbles of antiquity that now called nero antico, or black antique, was the most celebrated. It is more intensely black than any marble now quarried, the black marbles of France appearing almost gray beside it. It occurs only in sculptured pieces, and its origin is unknown; but Faujas discovered a quarry which had been worked by the ancients, about two leagues from Spa, not far from Aix-la-Chapelle, the marble of which closely resembles the ancient specimens. The largest masses known of nero antico are two columns in the church of Regina Cœli at Rome, but there are also some fine specimens in the Museum of the Capitol and in other collections. Some suppose it to be identical with the marmor Lucullum which was introduced at Rome by Lucullus in the first century b. c., according to Pliny from Melos (another reading is Chios), but according to other authorities from Egypt or Libya, whence it is sometimes called marmor Libycum. Pliny says that Marcus Scaurus had pillars of it thirty-eight feet high in the atrium of his house. The Chian marble, a deep, transparent black, sometimes variegated with other colors, was quarried on Mount Pelinæus, in the island of Chios. A fine black marble was quarried on Mount Tænarus, in Laconia, and in the island of Lesbos, and a blue-black marble in Lydia. One of the most beautiful of the antique breccias, the African breccia, has a deep-black ground, variegated with fragments of grayish white and deep red or purplish wine-color. The grand antique breccia consists of large fragments of black marble united by veins of shining white. Columns of this and of African breccia are in the Paris Museum, but their quarries are unknown.