THE COLOURS OF ANTIQUITY. THE SANTARELLI MARBLES AT THE CAPITOLINE MUSEUMS
Reflections and exhibition project
“One who wanders the Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, the ruins of thermae and monuments, will find among the rocks and the loose earth, especially after the rain, small flakes and fragments of various types of coloured marbles. These fragments are not stones that are native to the soil of Rome; they come from all over the Empire.”
This passage is taken from Marmora Romana, the seminal text written by Raniero Gnoli in 1971, in which the author, retracing Faustino Corsi’s journey, visited the major marble quarries and the main sites and monuments in the Mediterranean basin where ancient marbles can be found.
Rome is a city built on tuff, travertine and peperino. Coloured marbles were imported by the Romans from every corner of the Empire, forming an artificial geology that became the symbol of the city – even though it wasn’t actually autochthonous. Disks or panels of porphyry or serpentine, sections of columns, repurposed in other forms and other structures, in a continuous transhumance from Rome to Constantinople and beyond. Stones move from one building to another, from one city to another, they are reborn, they never grow old and they never die. The history of man goes hand in hand with the movement of stones, and for those who love them, the secret soul of the earth can be found there.
The Capitoline Museums are considered the most ancient museum in the world. A magnificent, earlier example is the museum that was founded by Princess Ennigaldi-Nanna, dating back to c. AD 530, in the city of Ur (in present-day Southern Iraq), dedicated to ancient Mesopotamia, which sadly no longer exists. The creation of the Capitoline Museums dates back to 1471, when Pope Sixtus IV donated to the Roman people some ancient bronze statues (the She-Wolf, the Spinario, the Camillus and the colossal head of Constantine with the globe and the hand) which formed the initial core of its collection. After opening to the public in 1734, the collection grew over the centuries with donations of other Popes and, after 1870, with materials from archaeological excavations in the city of Rome. It can be said that it is a large collection made out of multiple collections; in the last decade, the collaboration with the Fondazione Dino ed Ernesta Santarelli has been a new addition, first with the ten-year exhibition of glyptics, spanning five millennia, and now with the exhibition of architectural fragments of Classical-era polychrome marbles.
As part of the exhibition The Colours of Antiquity. The Santarelli Marbles at the Capitoline Museums, 82 architectural fragments of the Roman Empire, belonging to Fondazione Santarelli, have been selected, forming an archive that is not only geological, but also geopolitical, architectural and artistic. In this case too, it is a collection made out of several collections, systematically acquired over the years, including samples and fragments of polychrome marbles from the collections of Federico Zeri, Raniero Gnoli, Franco Di Castro, Enrico Fiorentini and important international auctions. The Santarelli collection of polychrome fragments is now probably the most extensive private collection of Imperial-era polychrome marbles.
The two rooms of the Capitoline Museums where these marbles are displayed are at the centre of the great thoroughfares of the Empire. In fact, the exhibition of the fragments has not been divided by variety or alphabetical order, but according to their origin, considering the quarries of the Mediterranean basin. The four walls of the exhibition hall have been arranged according to the four cardinal points where the marbles come from. The substantial quantitative difference between the south-eastern and eastern walls and the northern and western walls is indicative of the more developed civilisations, both with respect to the geological richness of their soil and to the development of the arts in the provinces that were conquered or acquired by the Romans during the Imperial age, such as present-day Greece, Egypt and Turkey, where most of the coloured marbles came from.
At the centre of this division, there is the location of these two rooms of the Capitoline Museums – that is to say, Rome – in order to communicate to the visitor the close connection between the presence of these “exotic” materials and the political, economic and geographic expansion of the ancient Roman Empire. In fact, these stones came from quarries scattered in the extended colonial dominion of the Empire, tracing territories and geographical networks through history and memory.
The huge number of stones that were transported to Rome from all the regions of the world that were known at the time presupposed a very complex organisation, from the prospectors to those who worked in the quarries and the transport, up to the storage sites where the marble was received and sorted in Ostia and Rome. The Edict of Diocletian in AD 301 is the only known document that provides the prices and exchange values of the marbles used in antiquity. The introduction of the many foreign marbles dates back to the final years of the Republic and it is closely connected to Rome’s policy of expansion. Marble became a form of propaganda: the use of specific marbles often symbolised the conquest of the provinces that they came from. The golden age of the inflow of stones in Rome lasted almost four hundred years, until the end of the 3rd century, when due to the decreasing number of slaves and the complex political and economic context that stirred the Empire, it inevitably started to dwindle.
Rome still doesn’t have a museum dedicated to marble, and the view of its past primarily takes into account the “white” variety of this material. The exhibition The Colours of Antiquity. The Santarelli Marbles at the Capitoline Museums seeks to bring attention to a fundamental theme in the history of Rome. The exhibition will have an extraordinary duration of ten years, bringing this project closer to a rearrangement of the museum’s display. That is why the exhibition design was conceived to last over time and to spatially represent the curatorial message of the exhibition. The concept of archive is central in this conversation, choosing to show the 82 polychrome fragments – of varying shape, weight and colour – on the four walls of the main room, each corresponding to one of the four cardinal points. The wall-mounted metal grids bring to mind the dividing elements used to catalogue and study the collections of stones and minerals, giving an overview of the large number of marbles used in Roman times and of the elaborate hues and veins of the different varieties. The select criteria of the exhibition was to include polychrome marbles as fragments that haven’t been reworked in other times, following the imperial period. As to their origin, extensive research has been conducted to trace the history of these stones. Whenever the area of origin raised questions, the geographic option that was conjectured by Raniero Gnoli prevailed.
This “deconstructed sample collection” of polychrome fragments is in dialogue with the Santarelli samples and the Capitoline samples, both present in the adjacent didactic room. The Santarelli samples are composed of two display cabinets containing 422 pieces. The collection was constituted in the early 19th century in Rome, using two display cabinets from the late 18th century, in lacquered and gilded wood. The Capitoline sample collection, on the other hand, was created by Enrico Guj and consists of 288 fixed-module samples, of which 160 on view, in two display cases; it was presumably collected between the second half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. In 1960, Treccani published the first edition of the Encyclopaedia of Ancient Art. In a later edition from 1995, under the definition of the word “marble”, there is an image of the Santarelli cabinets, now at the Capitoline Museums, and of a 19th century chest of drawers, which also belongs to the Fondazione – whose field of study is, indeed, marble.
We have chosen to include in the exhibition only one sculpture: a female torso with the head of Dionysus, because it is composed of eight different varieties of marble. The sculpture depicts a rare female torso in red Egyptian porphyry, identifiable as the torso of a Nike, with a male head representing Dionysus, in white lunense marble from the 2nd century AD. The torso features a remarkable drapery of red porphyry from the 2nd century AD with restorations in rosso antico and rosso antico brecciato. Between the 16th and the 17th century, shoulders and arms carved in Parian marble were added to the torso, and the head of Dionysus was inserted. The sculpture represents a typical technique of Baroque Rome, which established the trend of creating, through the reuse of precious ancient marbles, statues composed of fragmentary sculptures, rearranged and assembled together. In fact, the support that the torso rests on is made of giallo antico, the herm is made of alabaster with giallo antico below, while the lower base is in africano with ferine feet in bronze. The work was part of the important collection of the Earls of Rosebery at Mentmore Towers in Buckinghamshire.
The didactic room features a selection of tools for the working of marble, from the collection of Enrico and Sandro Fiorentini: lewis, pickaxe, mallet, bow drill, picchiarello, subbia, until the 20th century, the clattering of these objects enlivened the workshops of Rome’s marble workers; today, they have almost completely disappeared. On the occasion of the exhibition, the Fondazione Santarelli has commissioned a scientific documentary under the direction of Adriano Aymonino and Silvia Davoli, with striking images from the Capitoline Museums, the Colosseum Archaeological Park, the Pantheon and the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, with the aim of illustrating to the visitors the complex history of these materials, and their uses over the centuries and in the arts.
The exhibition design of the two rooms of the Capitoline Museums has been conceived in collaboration with Cookies (Alice Grégoire, Clément Périssé, Federico Martelli), an architecture studio based in Rotterdam and Paris. Their interest in stones and minerals brought them to Rome as fellows of the French Academy in Villa Medici, year 2020/2021, working on a project on mineral matter, from its natural origins to its transformation in architecture. Their research on the geological and mineral world and the way that human beings interact with it questions us daily in a city like Rome, on the matter of how stones are considered today. The polychrome architectural fragments displayed here are in fact precious traces of antiquity, showing how the modernist vision of a “white and pristine city” is mistaken. Pliny the Elder, in Naturalis Historia, already focused on the massive import of stones to Rome. His words, in addition to indicating the presence of polychrome marbles in ancient Rome, criticise the habit of altering nature to “take one’s repose in the midst of variegated stones” […] (second paragraph – book XXXVI).
The city of Rome itself can be interpreted as an immense archive, with countless layers that form a Wunderkammer of diverse artistic and architectural periods, dating back to the pre-Roman Etruscan era, along the banks of the Tiber. The tributaries of the river still flow below the city. Objects, with their personal and/or cultural value, intertwine with the urban fabric to which we, as its current inhabitants, add the experiences of our times with their varying and different values. Our personal, collective and cultural memories are part of a rich metaphorical sedimentation, bound to the city and to its continuous evolution, which runs parallel to its geological and geographical characteristics.
COLOURED MARBLES: HISTORY, MOTIVATIONS AND REFLECTIONS IN THE ARTS
Andrea G. De Marchi
Two rooms of the Capitoline Museums have been dedicated to a small exhibition which will last much longer than the usual temporary shows, and even than some of the increasingly frequent rearrangements of museum collections, often merely motivated by the directors’ narcissism. These spaces seek to summarise the theme of polychrome marbles, which is fundamental for the history of Rome, and deserves a broader illustration, perhaps in a future permanent section or in a museum dedicated to marble, which has been discussed for a long time. Some examples are given of the immense amount of imported stones, which had a considerable significance in the economic, administrative, architectural and artistic fields, because it crucially characterised the organisation of the empire and the appearance of the city, throughout the ancient, medieval and modern times.
The selection of marbles that are exhibited, although understandably very limited, nevertheless manages to capture anyone’s interest, whether they are an expert or just a curious visitor. The selection includes samples that are gathered to create systematic series, as they were collected since the 18th century, as well as pieces that have remained fragmentary. Among the latter, there are many tiles of standard and special sizes, together with some pieces that were carved for other artefacts.
The room where these pieces are collected is located a few meters from the place where the main communication routes of the Empire started. This is another reason why the exhibited types of marble have been grouped according to the main routes from which they reached Rome, sometimes after very long journeys. Therefore, just a simple glance is already very instructive: it reveals the preponderance of varieties coming from the south and the east, compared to the north and the west. This classifying criterion is different from the ones that have been put in place so far, which favoured organisations based on the varieties of stones or on the alphabetical order.
The layout allows the visitor to closely appreciate the physical and chromatic quality of many materials, along with the results of the workmanship, which – even in the case of pieces that were produced in series – is much finer than the dull finish of modern, machine-processed products. Man’s lack of intervention is also visible today in the choice of pieces, not just during the extraction, but more importantly during the production. The effects of this development are illustrated by countless examples. Among the best-known, there is probably the podium of the United Nations in New York, lined with slabs of green marble placed haphazardly, without formally organising the material’s natural patterns. It is yet another example of the disappearance of an art that was cultivated for centuries: choosing and combining the veins of the stone (as woodworkers do) to obtain new creations and a general harmony of composition.
Most of the marbles and of the themes selected that are here cannot be reduced to a question of sculpture, painting or architecture, because they contain elements common to all three disciplines. Our minimal overview aims at being concrete and reconnecting the material facts to the ones that are associated to an idea of art that is still too often spiritualised. Our belief is that, here as in other fields, the materiality of the work coincides with its qualitative, historic and poetic content.
Our volume accompanies the initiative and contains a few study hypotheses, formulated by archaeologists and architects, and by me: an art historian, mainly specialised in questions of painting, but who has been interested in marble for a long time. The rich polychromy of the marbles that were brought to Rome had various motivations, immense costs and broad aesthetic and organisational consequences. But first of all, it should be noted that this complex history seems to have been somewhat dulled by the major representations of this illustrious past. It is a strange syndrome, which has often caused the image of the capital of antiquity to be transmitted in muted tones.
Some coloured stones were worked as early as the Neolithic, when their value was less aesthetic than utilitarian and functional. Regarding some varieties, like the exceptionally hard green serpentine, we can follow their uninterrupted use from the Late Bronze Age (1600-1100 BC). This material was found inside settlements from that period, sometimes rather far from the extraction site, located near Sparta, in the Peloponnese. Two very refined pieces, one of which is fragmentary, are kept in the new museum of Mycenae. It reappears in the Roman world, to then be used again, and frequently even reworked, during all of the Middle Ages, until the Renaissance and the Italian Baroque. We know that various types of alabaster and granite were very appreciated many centuries before Christ, by several civilisations of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. In Egypt, the pharaohs used types of stones with different internal structures and tones, from those with a compact grain, like basanite, to speckled varieties. The last dynasty, the Ptolemies (305 – 30 BC), roughly corresponding to the Hellenistic period, expanded this range, which would later be so appreciated in Rome.
These and other coloured stones would mark the image of Rome, throughout its thousands of years of history. However, this fact seems much more evident in the concrete reuse of these materials, rather than in the overwhelming majority of the representations of the city, which have been, as we will see, affected by constant alterations. Maybe also because of this phenomenon, the studies on coloured marbles have flourished relatively late, and often thanks to authors in the field of archaeology. Among these, there is a Roman lawyer, active in the early 19th century, Faustino Corsi, to whom we owe the first contribution which goes beyond mere erudition. In the 20th century, a professor of Indian cultures, Raniero Gnoli, provided an in-depth look on the colours of Antiquity. We owe more recent works to architects, like Dario Del Bufalo, to art historians, like Caterina Napoleone, or to petrologists, like Lorenzo Lazzarini.
Finally, we also have to mention the exhibition on The coloured marbles of imperial Rome (2002/3): in addition to being among the most original and fascinating temporary exhibitions of the last twenty-five years, it is an illustrious precedent for this small initiative.
Rome and marbles
For many centuries, a widespread contempt for luxury prevailed in Rome, in accordance with a military rigor which tended to admit almost exclusively ideas and materials taken from its own tradition. This ideal led, among other things, to the well-known ban on building circuses and permanent theatres, which lasted until 88 BC. It seems that this martial conception was accompanied by a prejudice against various forms of art, in line with the disconcerting ideas on intellectuals and artists that could be traced back to Plato, in the field of philosophy.
In the Republican period, some types of coloured marble were used, though rather occasionally. Some critics claim that they were only used for some sculptures in the round, but other examples are also found in architecture, starting with the black pavement of a sacred area of the Forums, named Lapis Niger. In the final stage of this political system, varieties which would later have a great success began to be imported, like the giallo of Numidia (Tunisia), the portasanta (Greece), the africano and the pavonazzetto (Turkey). The discipline that was imposed on the Roman citizens and their representatives started to loosen, until it changed radically with the end of the Republic. A colossal importation of stones was then put into motion. The new de facto monarch’s assertion is rather famous: according to Octavian Augustus, Rome had to align its appearance with the greatness of the domination that it exerted. He boasted of having turned into marble the city that he had found made of bricks (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, 28, 2). It may sound merely like a politician’s proclamation, taking credit for the collective achievement of a state of economic well-being and military affirmation as if it were a personal success. But that is not all there is to the story.
Augustus’ reference to terracotta bricks alluded to a typical material of the Roman tradition. It may have expressed a cautious and indirect attack against the glorious political constitution that he had sneakily interrupted. Besides, any open criticism of yesterday’s severe frugality could have seemed anti-Roman. Augustus himself lived in a rather simple way, in the private quarters of his house on the Palatine. To dull the awareness of the coup, carried out when the long civil war ended, Octavian wanted to spread messages of continuity. The new organisation of power would reduce internal conflict and, at the same time, result in a loosening of the citizens’ habits and customs. In this perspective, the spread of marble could also be flaunted as a form of freedom, even though it was limited to luxury. It also suggested a link with Greek classicism, in keeping with what was happening in sculpture, marked by a Neo-Attic revival. Virgil’s Aeneid also followed this model. We do not know whether the majority of Roman citizens had a real knowledge of Greek civilisation, but in any case, these references had to elicit a certain prestige, which helped distract public opinion from the monarchical usurpation.
Throughout history, a similar parallel between authoritarianism and lavish marble works would appear again. Though clearly different, the worlds of Constantine and Napoleon provide such examples, as well as various modern forms of fascism. Dictatorial turns are often celebrated through imposing buildings, conspicuously covered in precious stones. That is the case of Mussolini’s blindingly white Colosseo Quadrato, or Hitler’s New Reich Chancellery, whose somber stone façades were supposedly reused to decorate the Soviet War Memorial and a metro station in Berlin. But the Moscow underground shows similarly triumphant coverings: the peak is reached in the Arbatskaja station, built in the last years of Stalinism. Coloured marbles were used in Rome both in support structures, from columns to lintels, and in surfaces, such as walls and floorings. In figurative art, they were exploited to realise mosaic scene, tarsia (opus sectile), to sculpt reliefs and statues in the round, and even monuments and urban furniture of all sizes. The Roman landscape must have offered, thanks to the spread of these materials as well as others, a colourful and surprisingly precious sight, with artefacts of diverse sizes.
A colourful Antiquity
Throughout the 1st century AD, part of Roman society opposed the spread of luxury and foreign marbles. These views appear in authors such as Lucan, Tibullus, Horace and Propertius. Pliny the Elder stands out when he laments “painting, […] formerly illustrious, […] now entirely ousted by marbles […] embossed […] to represent objects and animals” (Natural History, AD 77-78, XXXV, 2), which had eroded the success of pictures and wall paintings. It is yet another sign that in Rome, and to some extent also in its dominions, the quantity and the quality of the stones that were used was growing, as they were intended for increasingly complex uses. Under Augustus, the number of quarries increased, and most of them became imperial property. It seems that in the Flavian period (AD 69-96), the greatest variety of available types was reached, in a city that was already characterized by small and gigantic works, which were sometimes incredibly luxurious. Statius’ writings, which reflect this specific character of the urban landscape, also date back to those years.
In the following century, with the advent of the Antonine dynasty, some varieties appear to have been abandoned, in favour of new discoveries. Overall, the volume of imports from areas outside Italy grew, favouring bigger quarries, to provide materials needed for imposing public buildings. A larger proportion of these quarries were the property of the state. From Hadrian to Commodus, the most important properties were enlivened by various types of stones, which were used to obtain a multitude of figures and objects of the most diverse shapes. The colours were brightened by sanding (or, as it was called in the Baroque period, impomiciatura, because of the use of pumice stone) and by applying fat or wax. The overall effect was supposed to create a brightly coloured interplay with the wall paintings, which have largely been lost, and with the finishes that were realised in wood and metal. In this respect, attempts at virtual reconstruction have been made, but the results often lacked credibility, usually done in saturated tones, which now evoke a certain type of dated, digital vulgarity.
Undoubtedly, the shapes and colours of Rome at the time were splendid. But this very splendour attracted a hostile, critical judgement, which soon became commonplace. According to this assumption, which was anticipated by Latin literature itself, the ancient capital was imbued with a pervasive bad taste, a propensity for excess that had distorted and corrupted the Greeks’ restrained simplicity. It is a very arbitrary idea, which we nonetheless repeatedly find in today’s art history textbooks. In many aspects, the concept can be compared to the secular accusations levelled against the Mannerism of the 15th century and against Baroque, periods which were judged as degradations of the Renaissance’s rigorous and perfect equilibrium, which did not leave room for improvement. Pliny’s old idea, substantially taken up by the Tuscan biographer Vasari, postulates that artistic progress reached a peak, after which all that remained was an inevitable decline. These are the periods which are hastily dismissed by schoolbooks as “decadence” (if not “the death of art”), usually without providing further explanations. It is a pattern which reflects some concepts emanating mostly from ethics and ideology in the field of aesthetics and history. We know that Roman art reached an extremely high quality, characterised by a conscious bond with the classical past, by regional variations and by the succession of trends, marked on the whole by a unitary state structure, which included most of the then-known world. Similarly, the revival of formal models of Greek heritage was developed by Roman civilisation in search of new solutions, which were not limited to architecture or portrait, fields in which its revolutionary techniques and original results have been recognised for a long time. Be it buildings, historical scenes, human faces or other works of nature, the artists of the time often obtained extraordinary, complex and powerful results. This pursuit is evident even in the reinterpretation of Greek originals that is carried out in copies. Therefore, our vision of Rome’s rich chromatism, which was certainly amplified by marbles, should be freed from such preconceptions.
A historical fact which is still debated
The outlines of the spectacular phenomenon that was concentrated mainly in Rome between the 1st and the 4th century AD have still not been completely brought into focus, starting from the motivations that fuelled it. Some are prone to narrow it down to a mere pursuit of aesthetic quality, linked to exotic luxury goods, in a society that had become extremely rich and powerful. Others have thought about an economic policy initiative, aimed at increasing tax revenue through the taxation of marbles. Many have searched for symbolic correlations with the vast military conquests and a certain Roman self-representation. These readings all seem true in some aspects, but they do not succeed in completely explaining the colossal scale of the phenomenon.
Rome’s major conquests were relatively quick, and rather close to the period in which an immense amount of marbles was gathered in the city. Often very hard to extract and heavy to transport, they were brought from distant locations, sometimes close to the most distant borders. Millions of tons of materials were extracted, rough-hewn and transported over long distances, with costs that were comparable to military campaigns. From quarries located thousands of kilometers away, enormous granite monoliths were brought to Rome, and sometimes to the major cities of the Empire. The quality of these granite blocks is not very different from the stones that were found in the neighbouring islands of the Tyrrhenian sea, which were easier to import. The marble extracted from Mons Claudianus, in the Egyptian desert, near the Red Sea, was massively imported. According to some, it was exclusively intended for the emperor’s use.
Notations which only take into account utility or value fall short of explaining the immense cost and effort of the enterprise, in a world that didn’t rely on machines yet. It seems logical to assume that the financial and logistical commitment intended to distinguish certain buildings and monuments with materials that a large part of the population could recognise as coming from places all over the new, very extended territory of the state (Naples, National Archaeological Museum, barbarian). For instance, the soft rosso antico marble came from the southern tip of the Peloponnese, an area that was going to mark crucial historical phases, from the Middle Ages to the sinking of some of the most important ships of the Italian fleet in 1941 (even if it is still found in other parts of the peninsula, where it is used in the modern age; Gythio, public paving). It is likely, then, that the shades and materials were used to represent the empire’s extent, diversity and territorial control. In provincial cities, marbles seem to have been used mostly in public buildings, indicating that these materials were somewhat linked to the state. In addition to all this, there was also a trend among the wealthiest classes of Roman society, who flaunted their fortune and their hierarchical level through the use of such decorations in their houses.
As mentioned, the locations of origin show a very clear trend: the prominent varieties were extracted, at varying distances from Rome, along the southern and eastern routes. Few come from the west and even fewer from the north, the majority of which are Italian. The first and most obvious explanation for this imbalance lies in the geological supply of the corresponding regions of the empire. But one might suspect that the phenomenon also depends on human factors, such as the accessibility of sea transportation towards Rome, and, above all, the presence of quarries and workshops that were already active at the time of the imperial conquest. This was the case in North Africa, Greece and Asia Minor. We have mentioned Egypt, which, when the conquerors arrived, already offered a rich variety of materials and techniques. While it may be assumed that Gaul, Britain and the areas close to the Danube did not have large quarries or buildings made of coloured marble, the situation changed over time: among the stones that were imported to Rome at a later period, there is the bianco e nero, extracted in the Pyrenees. Nottingham alabaster was used in Italy only from the Gothic period, in the 14th century. The chronology of certain quarries is not clear yet, such as the granite quarry of Felsberg, which, supposedly, was sometimes used instead of Mons Claudianus. The theme of substitutes and painted imitations is an interesting topic, which we can only mention.
Extraction, working and transportation required a very large number of workers, who had to be trained and disciplined. It is possible that Augustus and his successors deliberately wanted to finance this activity to promote ethnic and social cohesion within the huge expanse of the state, and to involve economically the conquered populations; in some way, this idea would have been a precursor to the Marshall Plan and to Keynesian economics. We know that Rome’s size was perceived as a problem at some point. So maybe it is no coincidence that Hadrian, the first emperor who focused on consolidating the borders rather than expanding them, seems to have increased the importation of non-Italian marbles. However, Aelius was not alone in sensing the urgency of harmonising an Empire that contained such different populations. Other substantial initiatives, adopted after him in various fields, must have had similar purposes. To name only the most famous ones, we can mention the Edict of Caracalla (AD 212), which granted Roman citizenship to all the subjects of the provinces, as well as the establishment of Christianism as the unique state religion, enforced by Theodosius I (AD 380).
It has often been argued that the quarries employed convicts who had been sentenced to hard labor for religious reasons, and that these damnati ad metalla were mostly Christians. However, it should be noted that, for a long time, things must have gone differently. As far as we know, the religious persecution carried out by Nero and Domitian was relatively limited, since it massively took hold only from AD 250, with the edict of Decius. Therefore, it’s hard to believe that in the 1st century AD, and probably even in the 2nd century, converts to Christianity would have been so numerous that they could meet the demands of this gigantic imperial industry, even if every single one of them had been condemned to the mines.
It seems likely that Augustus also promoted this sector to employ soldiers, who had composed the various armies that were involved in the civil wars, who had brought about his principate and who could not easily reintegrate society once peace was established. Quite a few of them were certainly excluded from the pensions that were allocated to veterans, because they hadn’t reached retirement age or, for a variety of other reasons, were left on the fringe of this historical and social transformation. These veterans, unhappy with the end of conflicts, formed a mass that was powerful and dangerous for the stability of the State, as history cruelly showed subsequently, in other comparable situations.
Therefore, the new de facto monarch would have had good reason to find employment for these men, who were well-versed in military logistics and knew how to operate in a coordinated manner. Their experience of collective maneuvers would be very useful for major operations of extraction and transportation. Besides, this choice would have allowed him to keep these “reservists” in service, far away from Italy and unable to stage a coup. If that wasn’t enough, a solution of this kind would have allowed to recall and possibly reconstitute new, efficient legions, in the case of military emergencies. It is understandable that sources are vague in this regard, given the delicate nature of such a political choice, if it ever was actually made. A situation of this kind may be echoed later, in the Diocletian age, in the hagiography of the Four Crowned Martyrs, who are alternatively described as stonemasons or as soldiers.
As imperial history unfolded, some varieties of marble became especially successful. The use of red porphyry and green serpentine, united by a similar hardness and a major role in the use of the upper hierarchy, was perpetuated. In the Antonine period, Thessalian verd antique, of only slightly lower value, was introduced. One can assume that these and other types of stones had a symbolic significance, but we do not know it with certainty and in detail, even though many hypotheses have been submitted. Red and green seem to have prevailed over other shades, as pointed out in a passage by Procopius about Justinian’s royal palace, which was full of marbles, including “some from Laconia [Peloponnese], which rival the emerald and imitate the flame”, namely serpentine and rosso antico (De aedificiis). Another one of his texts refers again to the flame, this time about a variety of marble, which was discovered miraculously thanks to this emperor. We also know that the colours of the teams that competed in the circus undoubtedly served as social aggregators.
Among the marbles that were most beautiful and characteristic of Late Antiquity, there is the bianco e nero of Aquitaine, while the cheaper greco fasciato was abundantly used in sculpted reliefs, as can be seen, for instance, in Ravenna (coffin of San Barbaziano). In Constantinople, the second capital, reestablished on the Bosphorus and destined for a long history of its own, these and other types of marble became widely used. They were sometimes mentioned by the literati of this hellenizsd civilisation, like Procopius of Caeserea and Paul the Silentiary (whose strange curial function finds a modern expression in the keepers of the Sistine Chapel, who have to crudely silence the visitors). In line with the culture of that world, marbles were involved in superstitious interpretations, while the ones in our ancient capital started being plundered or reused, along with other precious materials.
The transportation of marble
The complex organisation of extraction, distribution and logistical activities has been the subject of various studies, among which those led by the archaeologist Patrizio Pensabene stand out. He noted that the first great impulse dated back to Augustus, later grew during the Flavian period, and again under the Antonines. The stones reached Rome either in raw blocks, or rough-hewn, or completely finished. To reduce the weight of the pieces that were shipped and to store them easily during the trip, they were first rough-hewn directly in the quarries or in specialised centers. Once they reached Rome, they were finished in detail and polished to varying degrees.
In the passage we have quoted from his Natural History (XXXVI, 1), Pliny opposes the marble industry, for the wounds that it inflicts on nature, as well as for the huge waste of public resources. He regretfully notes that in his time, “ships were built especially for marble, and the tops of the mountains” were uselessly decapitated. And yet, despite his protests and many others, the trade, already colossal, continued growing.
Moreover, the transportation of marble was very risky along the entire route, given the relative fragility of the materials. One can easily imagine that the logistical and technological means of the time made the journey, until the last moment, heavily exposed to the risk of accidents, which would thwart the whole enterprise. The proportion of failed marble shipments must have been significant. Countless blocks and columns were broken or lost in shipwrecks, sometimes caused by the movement of the marble itself in the holds of the naves lapidarie. We find evidence of this situation in the pieces that were abandoned and discovered over the centuries, the ones that were restored in the past, and the ones that are regularly found by underwater archaeologists, sometimes in very shallow waters. The ships would also sink during the loading and unloading, or during the exchanges between seagoing vessels and river barges, for instance at the mouth of the Nile and of the Tiber.
A perfect example, from the Middle Ages, is found in the two famous columns that were erected in the Piazzetta San Marco in Venice around 1178, near the Molo, forever marking this well-known area, fundamental in the city’s civil, penal and touristic life. Soon dedicated to St. Theodore and St. Mark, they were spoils of war, originally composed of three pieces. Along with the two famous columns, made of granite from Egypt and Turkey, a third one also arrived from the East. But upon disembarkation, that column fell into the sea, just a few meters away from its intended location, forever swallowed up by the laguna’s shallow, slimy waters. This story indicates that the possibilities of recovering sunken objects were almost nonexistent.
Wherever possible, quarries were opened near the coast, in order to reap the benefits of transport by ship. Sometimes, those vessels were exceptionally large, such as the one that brought from Egypt to Rome the obelisk that ended up in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, together with hundreds of tons of lentils, used to stabilise the shipment, and, I believe, mostly as a protective packaging for the hull and its precious cargo. I remember that such precautions were still observed in Rome fifty years ago, to move sculptures immersed in cases full of rice. It is a brilliant system, still unsurpassed, compared to the ones that are popular today. If the coast was far away, roads specifically dedicated to the passage of these extremely heavy marble shipments often had to be built.
Researchers have been working on the identification of the extraction sites. Many still haven’t been identified with certainty, while others are known and still show the signs of the ancient organisation. Ultimately, some of these places have been denatured or destroyed forever when the extractive activities resumed in the modern age.
In the Middle Ages
The catastrophic military, political, administrative and economic dissolution of the West, which corresponds to the Early Middle Ages, caused the closure of most of the quarries. A new habit took hold: the reuse of ancient materials, which had remained in storage or had been put to use. Over the centuries, a new art developed, which exploited coloured marbles in an original manner. These were used to elaborate patterns composed of circular slices of columns and recuperated ancient tiles, whole or broken up into smaller polygons. An initial stage of this process is visible in the pavement of the Montecassino Abbey, largely composed of serpentine and porphyry quadrangles. The polygons later became more complex and organised in mixtilinear patterns, centered around these rotae. The techniques and solutions adopted in these fields were progressively perfected, until they also included vertical elements, such as small columns, Paschal candles, cornices, pulpits and other artefacts. Only a few long-lived family workshops mastered these techniques. The most famous one, the Cosmati, eventually gave its name to this type of solutions, sometimes in contact with the Arab East, which developed until the High Renaissance. It is surprising that one of the latest pavements of this kind is still in use in the space of the time that was most often remodelled: the Raphael Rooms, in the Vatican.
The Roman forum took on a double meaning, being ambiguously admired as evidence of a past greatness and, at the same time, dreaded because of its implicit reference to an embarrassing pagan heritage. These opposing positions, along with the absence of a new urbanistic function, led to the area being neglected. Its monuments, first protected by Constantinople’s inefficient authority, were later transformed into a supply of stones that were turned to lime or used as first-rate prefabricated components. The plunder of what used to be the administrative and religious center of the former capital of the world soon became the object of profiteering disputes between the potentates who shared dominion over the great, crumbling city. For centuries, thousands of columns, as well as other architectural and figurative elements, were taken from that zone. At first, they were mostly reused, especially to build churches, later for more markedly decorative purposes, and finally as collector’s items.
Roman coloured marbles outside of Rome
In the imperial age, almost all of the provinces took part in the phenomenon that we are discussing, albeit to a lesser extent than the capital. Coloured marbles were sent from Rome to Ravenna, to embellish the court that was transferred there by Honorius. They were also sent from both of these cities to Aachen, for Charlemagne’s residence. If porphyry was shipped from Rome for the Norman and Swabian tombs of Sicily, this very hard material as well as green serpentine were also sought-after and worked in Venice, along with other varieties of stones, even before the depredations inflicted on Constantinople around 1204. Among the latter, one stands out: the famous, Late Antique portrait of the four tetrarchs, placed at the base of the Doge’s Palace. We know that multiple Venetian buildings between the 14th and 17th century incorporated coloured slabs, taken from more ancient monuments of the region, including architectures in Ravenna and Aquileia. The trade of coloured marbles obtained through plundering lasted in more ordinary forms all through the Renaissance and further on, sometimes even outside the borders of Italy. But initiatives of this kind frequently failed, for lack of an adequate organisation.
A well-known example of this style has been present in London since 1268: the cosmatesque pavement of Westminster, which is somewhat referenced by Hans Holbein in his famous Ambassadors (1533; London, National Gallery). But in the same city, the case of the Catholic oratory of Brompton Road is almost unknown. Founded in 1854, it was built with many coloured marbles, some of them ancient, other more recent (like Sicilian jasper, which was probably only used starting from the Renaissance), all from Rome. Therefore, the church, for which copies of famous Italian paintings from the 16th century were created, mixed with authentic Baroque statues, has a wholly Catholic, apostolic and Roman style.
In Germany, we can mention the case of Sanssouci, in Potsdam, near Berlin. In the residence, initiated in 1747 by Frederick II of Prussia, and in the extensions that were carried out in 1841, large marble panels have been applied, mostly made of giallo antico and verd antique, once again imported, or rather plundered, from Rome. The chapel of St. John the Baptist in San Rocco, in Lisbon, commissioned in 1742 by John V of Braganza, offers a rich variety of incrustations coming from Rome, among which the bianco e nero of Aquitaine, various types of alabaster, and verd antique.
Visiting Italian cities, one often comes across coloured marbles. But it is rare to find a record of their Roman origin, as is the case for the Toschi chapel in the Reggio Emilia Cathedral, which offers a rich and unexpected collection from the 17th century. In spite of the continuous demand of colored vestiges from Rome, the prevailing image of the city has been transmitted through a discoloring filter.
A long history of reuse
For centuries, pre-existing archaeological structures were destroyed to be turned into lime or chopped into large and small fragments. Later, they started to be dedicated to a new decorative function, sometimes with some formal modifications. With the development of excavations, in the 17th and 18th century, the knowledge of antiquity grew. Coloured marble busts were realised, as bases for ancient or modern head portraits. In the early 17th century, sculpture found a lavish, classicist accent in the works of the French artist Nicolas Cordier, whose statues were made of carefully selected recuperated marbles. A few decades later, Alessandro Algardi reworked a Bacchus (Roma, Doria Pamphilj Gallery), probably of the Antonine period, entirely carved in rosso antico, which has now become almost ageless, following the extensive repolishing realised in the 19th century. This direction also endured in the applied arts of the late 18th century, as shown for example by the Valadier family’s activity.
The High Renaissance and, to an even greater extent, the Baroque period, saw the development of increasingly refined reworks of the remains that were taken from the ruins. The churches of Rome provide an unsurpassable catalogue concerning this phenomenon. The trend continued, in the most diverse periods and manners, continuing until the first half of the 20th century, when these archaeological materials were still used in the city’s religious buildings and, not infrequently, in civil buildings. Among the Roman monuments that reflect this situation, we can mention the Verano cemetery, the Vittoriano, or the monument that commemorates the breach of Porta Pia. We can also point out examples of more ordinary phases of urban life, with the marble frames of the windows of various shops in the historic center, especially in the area between Piazza di Spagna and Via dei Condotti, cornices made of africano marble, in Via dei Condotti).
After many years of uninterrupted despoliations and reworkings, the city appeared, in some ways, as a gigantic architectural landfill, made of heaps of archaeological ruins, immersed in this mass of fragments, products of this long history of destruction and reconstruction. Still today, a trained eye can spot plenty of them, mixed with the gravel of the alleys in the city’s parks, or even among the waste of modern buildings, abandoned almost everywhere, because of the incivility of many residents and of the municipality’s inefficiency in waste management. In the 17th century, a similar impression probably spurred the birth of the pictorial genre of the capriccio, with its constant representations of ruins.
It would seem then that, bypassing an Italian legislation that is as old as it is sketchy and unrealistic, an economic, discreet and intelligent way was chosen to aggregate those fragments, unclutter the city and give them a minimal value. On the basis of earlier experiences that were never abandoned, the habit of inserting those splinters within pavements took hold. This is true of the entrance floors of various civil buildings, built starting from the end of the 19th century in neighbourhoods that had developed inside or just outside the city walls (Rome, Via Nomentana). They are generally simple realisations, with a certain quality of composition and craftsmanship, and a technique roughly defined as “Venetian”. These pavements were organised by placing in mortar smooth, white and coloured archaeological pieces, mixed with others of modern extraction. It proved to be an unpretentious way to free the city from that embarrassing state of ruin, achieved by pre-rationalist architecture, which would become the target of so much hypocritical criticism.
After the mid-twentieth century, a few more floors of this type were made, combining ancient fragments. But these works were rarer, and were devoid of quality in their selection and composition, leading to rather disorderly examples of bollettonato, also called “crazy paving”, to define stones of irregular size and shape laid haphazardly. Another distant reflection of this millenary tradition, dating from after the unification of Italy, is found in the coloured, cement-based “marmittoni” (marble grit) produced for the floors, once again imitating the greens and reds of the hardest and most representative stones. Many of them can still be seen in the Prati and Esquilino areas, where those charming industrial imitations of porphyry and serpentine are gradually being replaced by the inevitable parquet. A small testimony of the lengthy plundering of these tiny pieces is offered by a small box, recently acquired on the English market, filled with minuscule fragments taken from Rome and Pompeii. This barbaric looting was carried out by very civilised Anglo-Saxon travellers, the last, late-nineteenth-century specimens who followed the usual routes of the Grand Tour. After being exhibited, the small booty, of purely documentary interest, may be donated to the city, as long as it is displayed as a warning against the most rapacious tourism, and as a small example of the history of the dispersion of our antiquities.
The colours of marbles in painting
We have mentioned the reuse of stones that were collected in imperial Rome: the colours of these stones had a long-lasting impact, in more or less direct forms. A blatant example of these echoes is found in architecture, particularly in the sacred buildings of the Romanesque and Gothic period in Tuscany, but also in other Italian regions, where façades and campaniles were decorated in a striped two-color pattern. Most of the time, this two-tone partition alternated white with a sharper color. Serpentine’s deep green was replaced by Prato marble’s more subdued hue, Egyptian porphyry’s scarlet by Maremma’s pale red. The imitation of these ancient marbles, as well as others, can be observed in the glorious tradition of Tuscan 13th century painting, both in the details that are inserted in the scenes and in the non-figurative side of the panels. This practice seems to have been especially frequent in the Siena area, but it is also found in other regions of the peninsula, as in Marche. This tempera applied on the back of the panels had a decorative function, but it was also meant to protect the material. In fact, paintings that were treated in this way have generally been preserved better than the others, because they reached a more balanced condition in the dynamics of the exchanges of humidity. This caused a stabilisation of the support, and therefore, of the preparatory layers and of the color, which defused the chain of events that leads to the need for continuous restoration.
In any case, we can state rather safely that as a whole, the references to coloured marbles in architecture and painting throughout the Middle Ages show attention and respect toward the chromatic dimension of Rome’s legacy. In Venice, which, as we know, has always been a unique case, coloured stones have continuously been employed, both in architectural reuse and in pictorial representations. In addition, depictions of marbles embellish some scenes painted by Gentile Bellini and by Vittorio Carpaccio. Compared to others areas of the peninsula, Venice seems to have recreated with greater faithfulness this polychrome heritage. This attitude, among other things, may have played a role in the development of the unique tonal style of 16th century Venetian painting, while the rest of Italy followed another direction.
Indeed, one would expect that the classicist focus that coincided with humanism would deepen and accentuate the connection to these ancient traces. But on the contrary, surprisingly, these were described less consistently, when logic would suggest otherwise. If the Renaissance gave way to a more organic and structured revival of antiquity, compared to precedent attempts, this fact goes against that trend. In this complex revival, there seems to have been a twofold reaction to the rich tones of the illustrious past: one was to make them fade, the other was to reinvent them completely. These alterations are at odds with the Renaissance’s type of re-evocation, and strangely, they are seldom mentioned by specialists. The reality of the phenomenon actually seems almost ignored, despite its significance. Over time, the tendency to discolour antiquity has prevailed, with such persistence that we are all used to it, without even realising it. Let’s look at some examples.
In Florence, the undisputed capital of the early Renaissance, 15th-century architecture offers some paradigmatic cases. In Michelozzo’s famous library (1454), in San Marco, notwithstanding a few traces of imitation marble that have recently resurfaced, which were probably used for the panels in the corridors of the convent, monochromy definitely prevails: it seems to bring to light the project’s spatial scheme, dampening the chromatic “noise” of the environment. The constituent materials of the structure have subdued hues, to prevent any distraction from the basilica’s rhythm, punctuated by serene stone columns, of almost neutral colours. Similar considerations can also be made, for instance, about Alberti’s façades in Mantova, as well as other 15th-century buildings, where white marbles were largely favoured when the stone coverings were selected.
We observe a parallel phenomenon in the painting of that century, which contained allusions to coloured marbles, often subjecting them, however, to “translations” far removed from the actual reality of the evoked models. Fra Angelico, a protagonist of the first generation of the Florentine Renaissance, often worked in Rome, where he had the time and the opportunity to familiarise himself with those materials. Still, despite those contacts, his floors, altars and columns are mainly white or very light. When, on several occasions, he wanted (or was asked) to represent coloured stones, he obtained results that were completely disconnected from historical and even geological facts. His marbles are unrealistically made of polychrome spots, which seem to be nebulised, almost as if they were spray-painted. It is the case of the pavement that the characters stand on in his Perugia Altarpiece (1438, Perugia, Gallerie Nazionali dell’Umbria). Therefore, Fra Angelico manifests both of the reactions that we have mentioned, discolouring or wholly reinventing the ancient models.
In some respects, Filippo Lippi is the artist who best represents the 14th-century Florentine pictorial tradition. He imitated coloured marbles approximately in the manner that we have just described, as we can see in the throne of his Madonna of Tarquinia (1437, Roma, Gallerie Nazionali di Arte Antica di Palazzo Barberini). Soon after, in Florence, Domenico Veneziano reinvented the colours of Tuscan architecture, rather than reflecting their archaeological source, in his Santa Lucia de’ Magnoli Altarpiece (Florence, Uffizi, 1445), with its structures coloured in muted greens and pinks. Piero della Francesca sometimes faithfully imitated porphyry and serpentine, but they were accompanied by other marbles that were completely invented, while the architectural frames of his spaces are always composed of very white stones. In Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie, there is a famous Annunciation (circa 1470), which the Pollaiolo brothers set in a magnificent building, richly ornated with speckled panels: they are beautiful and impossible materials, but they indicate a growing search for plausibility. Similar inventions can be seen in the structures that the figures of Virtue attributed to Piero del Pollaiolo sit in, for the Tribunale della Mercanzia in Florence, one of which was realised by Botticelli.
The continuity and the consistency of the phenomenon seem to disprove some symbolic readings, carried out in the iconological field, regarding some isolated works or artists, but rather indicate a defining character of the Renaissance. Its reconstruction of antiquity seems to have been so cerebral and connected to spatial theories that it led to a predominance of drawing over color, seen as a potentially distracting source of “noise”. Then again, we will see that this type of filter will endure for centuries to come.
As for the rest of Italy, we must direct our attention to the most illustrious painter-archaeologist of the 15th century: Andrea Mantegna faithfully represented a few pieces of porphyry and serpentine, for example in his most famous undertaking, the Camera degli Sposi in Mantua. With the intention of alluding to other Roman varieties, around 1495-1500, he painted richly veined stone surfaces for his series of monochrome heroines, kept at the National Gallery in London. But even those imitations of sculptural reliefs fall short of describing existent varieties.
The bizarre, almost anti-Renaissance approach of Carlo Crivelli’s language would lead us to expect even more fanciful choices. Admittedly, there is no shortage of such elements in his catalogue, or in the works of some artists from the Marche region who were influenced by him, such as Lorenzo d’Alessandro da San Severino, who reach staggering results. But Crivelli’s works also include frequent and precise depictions of red porphyry, showing how deeply connected he was to Venice’s past, even though the city had rejected him, as it would later do with other talented and “unaligned” natives.
Luca Signorelli worked in Rome, in the Sistine Chapel. He was undoubtedly inspired by coloured marbles, featured in works such as The Circumcision (London, National Gallery, NG1128, circa 1490/91) or the Santo Spirito Banner (Urbino, Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, 1494, inv. D61), where the Madonna and the apostles are standing on a pavement composed of a multitude of varieties. And yet, despite his evident care, almost none of the stones that he painted correspond to ancient or real varieties.
In the early 16th century, we encounter a generation of Northern artists who, following the example of Jan Gossaert, came to Rome and assimilated the forms of the Tuscan and Roman Renaissance, to spread them in their countries once they returned. Raphael’s cartoons for the Sistine Chapel tapestries, which were woven in Brussels, also played an important role. This combination created a resounding setback for the great tradition of the Netherlands. Some paintings by those Romanised foreigners contain allusions to archaeological stones, often reinterpreted in a precious style, similar to a cabinet of curiosities. It is another unrealistic and creative reflection elicited by ancient varieties.
In other words, a broad phenomenon is taking shape, although it is not always homogeneous. One can observe a wide pictorial tendency to alter the patterns and tones of the ancient marbles that are represented. The ignorance of the models cannot be the only explanation, since many decorative details, such as pilasters that were painted or sculpted in those stages of the Renaissance, are so similar to those of the Julio-Claudian age as to be almost confounding. The variety of colors of the stones could have inspired the artists, like the butterfly wings that Jupiter is painting in a famous picture by Dosso; but this was not the case.
Initially, Renaissance painting seems to have neutralised the patterns of the marbles, before alluding to them in unrealistic and fanciful ways, until it gradually sought a form of verisimilitude. Faithful reproductions were generally limited to a very restricted selection of the varieties that were described. The majority of painters showed a tendency to remodulate the colours of ancient Rome, even though they were still visible.
In the High Renaissance, a new tendency started to take hold, characterised by more realistic illustrations of marble works. Raphael’s mature phase reveals this change, marked by its systematic and continuous nature. Although this aspect has been neglected until now, it must have developed in harmony with the artist’s interest regarding the protection of Roman antiquities. The change is visible in the staggering evolution that characterises the walls of the Vatican Rooms. It is only starting with The Fire in the Borgo (1514-1517) that several varieties of coloured marble come into play, all finally represented realistically. The cartoons for the Sistine Chapel tapestries also show this new development. Under the direction of Raphael, in 1519, Baldassarre Peruzzi decorated the walls of the Hall of Perspectives in the Villa Farnesina, painting a series of pilasters that impeccably illustrate the green Thessalian stone, one of the most beautiful and sought-after varieties of the imperial age, along with alabasters, columns of africano marble and other varieties (Rome, Villa Farnesina). This faithful attention to Rome’s materiality was evidently also sought by Sodoma and his collaborators, who frescoed the adjoining room with The Marriage of Alexander and Roxana. Further confirmation of this new path can be found in the Madonna of the Cat (Naples, Museo e Real Bosco di Capodimonte), painted by Giulio Romano between 1522 and 1523, whose figures rest on a luxurious floor made of large panels of giallo antico and verd antique. But Raphael’s “discovery” was not enough to permanently link the reality of ancient materials to the continuous reconstructions of Rome’s illustrious past. The alterations that we have discussed will keep reappearing.
From the mid-sixteenth century, we observe a growth of marble tarsia, often made with ancient materials. This occurred in Rome and Florence, where the Opificio delle Pietre Dure was founded in 1588 and imports from the ancient capital grew. Stones began to be worked more intensely, within artistic disciplines that had long been considered “second rate”. For example, table tops and other items were produced using the commesso technique. It is probably not a coincidence that this new development happened when one great Florentine painter started developing his own language.
After being linked to Pontormo in his early years, Bronzino began to develop formulas that were very much in line with what was happening in the field of tarsia. Just before the mid-16th century, he began to create scenes with clearly delineated fields of pure colours. This is how his ceiling in the chapel of Eleanor of Toledo, in the Palazzo Vecchio, achieved an effect very similar to that of a marble setting. In this work by the artist, as well as others, the empty space often becomes lapis lazuli, beloved in Florence, including in stone compositions, whereas the Roman style seems to be characterised by a greater use of other archaeological varieties. His more mature portraits stand out against rich, deep blue backgrounds, which goes against the Renaissance-era description of space and suggests a smoothness that recalls the commesso method.
Among the countless examples of the 17th and 18th century, an interesting case is provided by Pierre-Étienne Monnot’s wooden model, recently bought by the Italian state, realised for the monument of Pope Innocent XI in the Vatican. It faithfully represents several types of stones, which were later removed in the finished work. The meaning of the modification was not grasped in the exhibition that was dedicated to the piece (Rome, Palazzo Barberini, 2020-2021): it is significant as the first occurrence in Rome of the French style that marked the reign of Louis XIV. Accurately painted marbles play an important role in the decoration of the Villa Falconieri in Frascati (1727), which we want to mention because their author, Pier Leone Ghezzi, is also known for one of the oldest, most precious and systematic volumes presenting different varieties of marble, with illustrations (ms. 322, Rome, Biblioteca Alessandrina).
As to painting directly on stone, we know that this technique began in the first half of the 16th century with the use of slabs of slate, painted covering the entire surface. It then developed, between the end of that century and the beginning of the next, eventually employing diverse varieties and leaving unpainted portions of stone to be combined in motifs with the composition. Varieties of modern extraction were predominantly used, although pieces made with ancient recuperated flakes are also common. Among the latter, some varieties of alabaster from the Nile valley stand out, while the use of other varieties is rarer. Of the various paintings executed on porphyry around the middle of the 16th century, only one Male portrait can be mentioned, mentioned by Vasari in his Lives, preserved in the Musée National de la Renaissance in Écouen. It is a small tondo, off-center with respect to the support: it may have been part of a piece of furniture, or it may have had a special, irregular frame. The Portrait attributed to Francesco Salviati (New York, Grassi collection) has the same strange shape and is from around the same period; in its base, we can recognise a slab of africano marble, also used for a Magdalene in a private Roman collection, with a composition somewhat in the manner of Tintoretto, and a slightly later date. A Madonna painted on the “cheek” of a portasanta column (Rome, Dino and Ernesta Santarelli Foundation) is perhaps the most significant example that we know, for the size of the ancient fragment that was used, and it is certainly among the very few paintings executed on Chios stone.
The 17th century saw the greatest development of this artistic technique, coveted by various collectors. The Cornaro family, patrons of the very famous chapel in Santa Maria della Vittoria, a masterpiece of Baroque sculpture, composed of various coloured marbles, are a potential example of this deliberateness. We know that they also had a picture gallery, with a proportion of paintings on stone that was much higher than that of other contemporary Roman collections. In our time, we must mention Vittorio Giulini, who gathered the largest collection in the world related to this field, assigning it to the Foundation that bears his name.
An Antiquity in black and white
We have shown how that evocation of Roman antiquity has often translated the reality of stones into imaginary formulas, or has discoloured them, turning them black and white. This tendency seems to have emerged in the Renaissance, and then involved a large part of the archaeological culture of the 18th century, which took off in a fully Neoclassical style, not surprisingly devoted to the whitest stones. The phenomenon continued until the late 19th-century echoes of that tradition, as can be seen, for example, in several of Friedrich Schinkel’s projects in Berlin. The emergence of educational galleries filled with plaster casts of famous statues accentuated this heavily bleached collective image.
Our brief overview of this type of dissociative syndrome ends here; but we must admit that it leaves some questions open. First of all, some might think that the colouring of the marbles risked creating an interference in the debate, so omnipresent between the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which opposed sculpture and painting. Otherwise, some might speculate that the matter falls within the well-known critical distinction between the Renaissance and the preceding renaissances: that is, that an inaccurate description of ancient materials might respond to an awareness of the now unbridgeable distance from the imitated model. Such hypotheses, rather predictable on the part of the academic world, seem at least a little forced. Pursuing them would be yet another specious enterprise in the already overconfident field of art history, increasingly careless and unable to observe the matters that it should study. If the memories of this venerated past have been so misrepresented, it might also be because these nostalgic artists didn’t always have a firsthand knowledge of these vestiges. It is obvious that those who lived long enough in Rome might have had a greater familiarity with the rich chromatic variety of its ruins; and we know that many of the illustrators of antiquity did not have that opportunity. But not even this explanation of the phenomenon seems to settle the matter.
If, in the early Renaissance, the knowledge of ancient painting was even narrower than it is today, we know without a doubt that the colours of Rome were in fact visible, thanks to the shades of the marbles, which at the time must have been present in immeasurably greater quantities than today. They had not undergone several centuries of uninterrupted spoliation, nor had they paled due to atmospheric pollution. Especially on rainy days, the columns, panels and reliefs must have given the ruins tones that we very rarely see reflected in the countless related images, starting from the architectural backgrounds produced by Veronese, which enjoyed enormous success between the 17th and the 18th century.
In fact, the alterations of the ancient colours may have served to emphasise the clear chronological distance that existed. The deliberate fading or alteration of the actual colours would seem to be necessary, so as to make the reconstruction of the past more credible. This is something that we see in other fields of representation.
Automatisms of the mind or deep, widely shared attitudes have induced us to see flashbacks in black and white, or blurry, or with extremely saturated colours. This chromatic modification aims to immediately create a temporal dissociation. This habit seems to link the representations of the past to dreams. This device relies on the propensity towards monochromy and seems to provide those fields of evocation with more reliable results. A sort of collectively accepted filter emerges, which must be placed before the artistic image if it is to be used as a time machine, which is the goal of many pictorial reconstructions.
Exceptions that indicate attempts made in the opposite direction are less frequent. Few have ventured to describe ancient Rome by accentuating its colours. In the field of cinema, Fellini’s Satyricon stands out on the one hand, and Ridley Scott’s Gladiator on the other. Some scenes in the story of the general who was mistreated by Commodus seem to be inspired by the palette of English painters of the Victorian era, such as Lord Leighton and Alma-Tadema.
The chromatism of Antiquity, though it was toned down in the manners and in the periods that we have alluded to, could be discussed using countless other examples. Who knows if the multicoloured toys that English speakers call “marbles” are related to our coloured marbles?
FONDAZIONE SANTARELLI’S ACTIVITIES
The Dino and Ernesta Santarelli Foundation — which follows the path of the cultural association Miliarum, founded in 1999 in tribute to Dino Santarelli — is a non-profit organization of social utility: since 2004, it promotes the popularization and the study of ancient history, with a focus on Rome, through publications and art exhibitions in Italy and abroad. The Foundation supports research, seminars and scholarships for deserving students, in collaboration with the Federico Zeri Foundation and the University of Bologna. It also preserves and showcases Federico Zeri’s collection of stones, promoting its study.
In the very rooms that currently host the exhibition The colors of Antiquity. Santarelli Marbles at the Capitoline Museums, the entire Santarelli glyptic collection has been exhibited since 2012 — composed of around six hundred works (cameos, carvings, scarabs and seals), which span five millennia of history — as part of a ten-year commodate. The introduction of the collection into the museum was inaugurated in February of that same year in the two rooms adjacent to the Capitoline Coin Cabinet. In the first room, through an exposition system that evoked a cabinet of curiosities, the gemstones were displayed and classified by eras: Mesopotamia, Etruria, Ancient Greece, Republican and Imperial Rome, Early Middle Ages, the Frederician period, Renaissance, Baroque until Neoclassicism. The second room, aimed at educational purposes, contained illustrative panels and multimedia material, including a video realized in collaboration with the Opificio delle Pietre Dure of Firenze, concerning the technical processes of the art of glyptics.
In 2016, to support the people of Amatrice, severely affected by two earthquakes, Amatrice. Storia, arte e cultura was published. It was edited by A. Viscogliosi, whose studies had started around two years before; this volume generated an important fundraising, intended for the realization of the monumental model (10 x 6 m) of the old town as of the early twentieth century, located inside a pavilion of the municipality of Amatrice, which will be used as a basis for the reconstruction of the town.
In 2019, the volume Amatrice con gli occhi di prima was published, edited by F. di Napoli Rampolla, establishing a fruitful collaboration with the Mibact; in 2022, Amatrice 2.0, edited by Alessandro Viscogliosi, will follow. This work is the fruit of years of research on the Latium town in terms of urbanism, accompanied by innovative pre- and post-earthquake renderings in 3D and Oculus. Subsequently, always with the Mibact, La chiesa di San Francesco ad Amatrice was published: it is the first monograph entirely dedicated to the historic building and symbolic monument of Amatrice, also intended to raise funds for its reconstruction.
Since 2018, the Foundation has been supporting the Villa Lontana project, curated by Vittoria Bonifati. The first series of exhibitions was developed in collaboration with Dr Jo Melvin, taking the archive of the Santarelli collection as a starting point for the curatorial development of the exhibition program. The ancient artifacts are the thematic focus around which the dialogue grows, fully including contemporary works. Villa Lontana is a non-profit project that is developed in a large garage entirely made of reinforced concrete. It has been hosting Italian and international artists from different generations, displaying both existing work and new productions in collaboration with the Foundation. The project includes publications, artist books, musical performances and, since 2019, the independent record label Villa Lontana Records, in dialogue with the curatorial program.
The first exhibition was inaugurated in May 2018, under the title SCULPTURELESS SCULPTURE, and it focused on the performativity of classical sculpture in relation to the medium of video. ARCHEOLOGI. Archeology of the mind: the metadata of Villa Lontana (2018) metaphorically represented the idea of the “archaeological site” as the conceptual paradigm for the exhibition. In MACHISMO (2019), the theme of masculinity was tackled. MEMORY GAME (2020) used as a starting point a 19th-century dresser containing 560 samples of polychrome marbles, considering their historical, economic and geographical significance through the expansion of the Roman empire. In PAINTING STONE (2021), the attention turned to a selection of paintings on stone, realized in the 16th and the 17th century, which illustrate the way stone was used as a pictorial surface.
The publication of the first of five volumes dedicated to Federico Zeri’s correspondence is due in early 2022: it will deal with the exchange of letters between the scholar and the art historian Roberto Longhi. This series is edited by Professor Mauro Natale.
The Foundation regularly loans works for exhibitions around the world, believing that the accessibility of artworks is a significant form of cultural promotion and sharing, with respect for their conservation and integrity.
It was present in the following exhibitions:
I marmi colorati della Roma Imperiale, Rome, Trajan’s Market (28 September 2002 – 19 January 2003); Maestà di Roma da Napoleone all’Unità d’Italia, Rome, Scuderie del Quirinale (7 March – 29 June 2003); Il male. Esercizi di pittura crudele, Turin, Palazzina di Caccia di Stupinigi (26 February – 26 June 2005); La lupa e la Sfinge. Roma e l’Egitto dalla storia al mito, Rome, National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo (11 July – 9 November 2008); Exempla, la rinascita dell’antico nell’arte italiana. Da Federico II ad Andrea Pisano, Rimini, Castel Sismondo (20 April – 7 September 2008); I Sabini popolo d’Italia. Dalla storia al mito, Rome, Complesso del Vittoriano (20 March – 25 April 2009); Glanz der Kentauren, Munich, Antikensammlungen und Glyptothek (15 June – 11 October 2009); Le forme del Rinascimento. Donatello, Andrea Bregno, Michelangelo e la scultura a Roma nel Quattrocento, Rome, Palazzo di Venezia (16 June 2010 – 5 September 2010); Roma e l’Antico. Realtà e visione nel ‘700, Rome, Palazzo Sciarra (30 November 2010 – 6 March 2011); Il volto dei Potenti, Rome, Capitoline Museums (10 March – 25 September 2011); Festival Poiesis, Fratelli d’Italia, Fabriano, Hospital of Santa Maria del Buon Gesù (20 – 22 May 2011); Sculture dalle collezioni Santarelli e Zeri, Rome, Palazzo Sciarra (14 April – 1 July 2012); Gems of the Medici, Huston, Museum of Natural Science, Santa Ana (Los Angeles), Bowers Museum (14 April – 10 September 2013); Mestres do Renascimento. Obras-primas italianas, Brazil, São Paulo, Brasilia, Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil (14 July 2013 – 7 January 2014); Cleopatra, Rome, Chiostro del Bramante (12 October 2013 – 9 February 2014); Verso il 2015. La cultura del vino in Italia, Rome, Complesso del Vittoriano (15 October – 17 November 2013); Augusto, Rome, Scuderie del Quirinale (17 October 2013 – 9 February 2014); Antoniazzo Romano Pictor Urbis, Rome, Palazzo Barberini (31 October 2013.- 2 March 2014); Roma 1914, Rome, Trajan’s Market (5 – 11 March 2014); Le Mythe Cléopâtre, Paris, Pinacothèque de Paris (10 April – 7 September 2014); Regere populos. Augusto e l’arte del comando, Rome, Museum of the Ara Pacis (24 April – 7 September 2014); Michelangelo. Difficoltà e voli di un artista universale, Rome, Capitoline Museums (26 May – 14 September 2014); Roma Eterna. 2000 Jahre Skulptur aus den Sammlungen Santarelli und Zeri, Basel, Antikenmuseum Basel und Sammlung Ludwig (4 June 2014 – 19 January 2014); Siria. Splendore e dramma, Rome, National Museum of Palazzo di Venezia (19 June – 31 August 2014); L’età dell’angoscia. Da Commodo a Diocleziano, Rome, Capitoline Museums (28 January – 4 October 2014); La Colonna Traiana nei disegni di Vincenzo Camuccini, Rome, Palazzo Valentini (21 – 27 April 2015); Myth of Cleopatra, Singapore, Fort Canning Park (29 May – 11 October 2015); Roma eterna. Capolavori di scultura classica. La collezione Santarelli, Mendrisio, CH, Museo d’Arte (24 October 2015 – 31 January 2016); Cleopatra. L’incantesimo d’Egitto, Madrid, Madrid, Centro de Arte Canal (30 November 2015 – 8 May 2016); Sicily: Culture and Conquest, London, British Museum (21 April – 14 August 2016); Museo del gioiello, Vicenza, Basilica Palladiana (15 December 2016 – 15 December 2018); Rinascite. Opere d’arte salvate dal sisma di Amatrice e Accumoli, Rome, Museo delle Terme di Diocleziano (16 November 2017 – 11 February 2018); Amatrice e il suo territorio, Rome, Società Geografica Italiana Onlus, Palazzetto Mattei in Villa Celimontana (22 – 23 June 2018); A cavallo del tempo, l’arte di cavalcare dall’Antichità al Medioevo, Florence, Limonaia monumentale del Giardino di Boboli (26 June – 7 October 2018); Il mito di Ercole, La Venaria Reale (12 September 2018 – 21 May 2019); Cani in posa, dall’Antichità fino ad oggi, La Venaria Reale (18 October 2018 – 14 July 2019), Leonardo da Vinci. Disegnare il futuro, Turin, Musei Reali (15 April – 14 July 2019); Roma Aeterna, Opere dalla Fondazione Dino ed Ernesta Santarelli, Ljubljana, Narodni muzej Slovenije (3 June – 3 November 2019); Costruire un capolavoro: la Colonna Traiana, Florence, Uffizi Gallery, Limonaia del giardino di Boboli (18 June – 6 October 2019); O della materia spirituale dell’arte, Rome, MAXXI (16 October 2019 – March 2020); Roma Aeterna, Opere dalla Fondazione Dino ed Ernesta Santarelli, Tbilisi, Georgian National Museum (10 December 2019 – 29 February 2020); Castrum Superius. Il palazzo dei re normanni, Palermo, Palazzo Reale (13 January – 23 February 2020); Roma Aeterna, Opere dalla Fondazione Dino ed Ernesta Santarelli, Novi Sad, Museum of the City of Novi Sad, Collection of Foreign Art (1 July – 11 September 2020). In 2020, the following exhibitions were scheduled: Hercules-Immortal Hero, Heidelberg, Kurpfälzisches Museum der Stadt Heidelberg (25 March – 12 July); L’Art à Rome al XVIIIe siècle. 1700-1758, Ajaccio, Palais Fesch – Musée des Beaux-Arts (26 June – 5 October), both delayed because of the COVID crisis. In 2021, it took part in the exhibition Savinio. Incanto e mito, Rome, Palazzo Altemps (8 February – 13 June).
In collaboration with Italy’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Foundation will continue the exhibition Roma Aeterna, with constant developments and displaying different works, which will be shown in Buenos Aires, at the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, and subsequently in Uruguay, in Montevideo and Seoul, and from 2022 in the major capitals of Northern Europe, always in dialogue with local artistic traditions.
The Santarelli Foundation has realized the following volumes:
Studi normanni e federiciani, co-edited with L’Erma di Bretschneider, edited by A. Giuliano: it has co-financed the reedition of Antike Porphyrwerke by R. Delbrueck (2007), in collaboration with the National Committee of the University of Marble Workers to celebrate the 600th anniversary of the University; it has contributed to the publication of the volume L’Aventino dal Rinascimento a oggi (2010), edited by M. Bevilacqua and D. Gallavotti Cavallero, promoted by the National Institute of Roman Studies and by the Center for Studies on Rome’s Culture and Image. In 2010 the volumes Studi di glittica were published, with texts by A. Giuliano, U. Pannuti and L. Pirzio Biroli Stefanelli, and the Catalogo illustrato della glittica nella collezione Santarelli, directed by D. Del Bufalo; in 2012, the volume La glittica Santarelli ai Musei Capitolini. Intagli, cammei e sigilli, directed by A. Gallottini, was published. The collection of essays Villa Lontana. Una dimora nobilitata da Poniatowski, Canova e Thorvaldsen, edited by S. Ceccarelli, was published in 2013. In 2016, Le sculture antiche della Fondazione Dino ed Ernesta Santarelli, I, Ritratti e rilievi, edited by M. Papini, the first of six volumes compiling the works of the Santarelli Foundation, was published. The collection will continue with the volumes: II – Sculture Ideali, III – Dal Tardoantico al Cinquecento, IV – Dal Seicento all’Ottocento, V – Frammenti architettonici di marmi colorati della Roma imperiale, VI – Campionari di marmi colorati. The Foundation has contributed, in 2016, to the publication of the volume Splendor Marmoris. I colori del marmo tra Roma e l’Europa, da Paolo III a Napoleone III, edited by G. Extermann and A. Varela Braga. In the same year, Amatrice. Storia, arte e cultura, edited by A. Viscogliosi, was published, and later, in 2019, Amatrice con gli occhi di prima, edited by F. di Napoli Rampolla.
The Villa Lontana project published the following volumes, edited by Vittoria Bonifati and Jo Melvin: Sculptureless Sculpture (2018); Archeologi. Archeology of the mind: the metadata of Villa Lontana (2018); Machismo (2019); Memory Game (in press); Painting Stone (in press).
Press release from Zètema Progetto Cultura