Marble Matters

Christine Casey

23 September 2021

…at Rome the love of marble possesses most people like a new sense.’
William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, 1845

Marble or polished stone has been valued as a structural and facing material since Antiquity and remains in extensive use in the built environment from floor and wall coverings to chimneypieces, columns, and the serried ranks of funerary monuments across the globe. Scholarship on marble in Antiquity and the Middle Ages has flourished in recent decades while research on the early modern and modern periods is fast developing. However, until now there has been no single forum for shared scholarship on marble across the ages.

At a workshop entitled ‘Marble: connections and refractions’, held at the Bibliotheca Hertziana in Rome on 16-18 September 2021 a new research initiative was formally launched. NeReMa is an international network for research on marble and decorative stones established by scholars at the universities of Zürich, Erlangen-Nürnberg, Seville, and Vienna, led by Ariane Varela Braga and Joris van Gastel of the University of Zürich. The workshop commenced with a keynote address by Dario Gamboni of the Université de Genève who has jointly edited a newly published volume The Aesthetics of Marble, which brings together a range of international scholars on the perception of marble since Antiquity. The address considered the production and perception of marble from responses to book-matching or mirror-imaging of marble panels to the expressive role of fictive painted marble, such as Giotto’s Arena Chapel frescoes, to the dramatic use of marble in modernist buildings, such as the onyx panel whose scale informed the ceiling height of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavilion.

The workshop was structured as a series of short papers followed by the comments of respondents and an extensive discussion of each topic by all attendees, an open, fluid, and productive format unlike the more rigid structure of standard conference proceedings. The work of early career researchers was combined with that of long-established scholars in the field, in particular Pascal Julien whose several volumes on French seventeenth-century marble are landmark publications in terms of tracing marble production from quarry to palace ( His provocative thesis on white marble and western elitism, discussed by Grégoire Extermann of Universidad de Sevilla, stimulated counter argument and lengthy discussion of the reasons for the dominance of Carrara and other white marbles in European art and architecture.

Iris Wenderholm, joint author of the newly published Stein: Eine Materialgeschichte in Quellen der Vormoderne, explored the value of the frontispiece in early modern treatises on stone as a means of understanding the perception of marble in the period, a topic discussed by Joris Van Gastel, whose research focuses on marble sculpture and decoration in early modern Italy. Greg Sullivan, who will be known to Irish scholars for his work on Sir Francis Chantrey, presented a paper on the ‘geological eye’ which emerged in Britain in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries and which influenced the attitudes of sculptors to the handling of stone, a theme developed in dialogue with Marthe Kretzschmar of Universität Wien who is exploring European geological culture in the period. Ireland’s 18th and 19th century employment of foreign and native marble was included in Christine Casey’s paper with emphasis on reconciling the competing claims of making and meaning in the interpretation of stone. This was discussed by Ariane Varela Braga whose research on the mid to late 19th century marries the industrial and symbolic dimensions of marble production in the period. This discussion prompted wider comment on the ecological dimension of marble production, the impact of globalisation in the marble industry and the challenges which ‘extractivism’ presents to scholarship. The complexity of attitudes to reproduction in this period was introduced by Anna Frasca-Rath of Friedrich-Alexander-Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg by way of prelude to Buket Altinoba’s (LMU München) discussion of machines for reproducing sculpture with focus on a collection of diminutive busts in the Thompson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. The mechanisation of sculptural process in the period was represented in the public press as a ‘look no hands’ type of virtuosity which concealed the amount of traditional sculptural activity still required in the process. The presenters and respondents were joined by a small gathering of experts and students in the field who contributed much to the discussion. The current research of Amalie Skovmøller of Københavns Universitet is of particular interest for Britain and Ireland in that it traces the supply of marble across Europe in the eighteenth century. Together these papers and responses stimulated wide-ranging discussion of how geological scholarship has impacted on the wider perception of marble and precious stone, on how people react to the complexity of pattern in marble, and on how the technical and conceptual dimensions of marble production and perception can be combined.

The conference concluded with site visits to churches, palaces, and institutions in the city of Rome including the 1760s Palazzo Rondanini whose Hall of the Cardinal Virtues has a remarkable inlaid floor exhibiting in a systematic way a kaleidoscopic display  of ancient and modern marble. The medieval church of Sant Agnese fuori le mura was deeply instructive in the remarkable range of spolia incorporated in its fabric. However, the highlight of the visits was undoubtedly access to the sanctuary area of Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Cappella Gregoriana to view the original porphyry steps reused from the Constantinian Basilica, the grave and archaicising spolia of the transept apses attributed to Michelangelo and the vigorous polychromy of Giacomo della Porta in the Gregorian Chapel. In these visits the expertise of Pascal Julien, Grégoire Extermann, Ruggero Longo, Joris Van Gastel, and Cigdem Özel informed viewing of the marbles. Seeing at close quarters the many segments which constituted the rotae or great roundels of the church floors, the depth of the porphyry blocks in the sanctuary steps at Saint Peter’s, the intricacy of pattern negotiated by the Roman marble masons and the problems in facing walls with marble revetments illuminated the processes of antique and early modern marble production. Likewise, only at close quarters can one observe the alien texture of the censoring pentimenti added to the allegorical figures in Bernini’s monument to Alexander VII. The enduring appeal of marble and its significance for the history of European industry and culture were vibrantly demonstrated by the workshop and will doubtless be well served by the NeReMa initiative.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: