What is Marble? - History of Art
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What is Marble?

Marble is a metamorphic rock made out of limestone. When limestone is subjected to tremendous pressure for a long time (like if limestone is buried under a lot of other rock or an ocean) it gets squashed into marble. Marble is more beautiful than limestone and tougher, and so people like to use it for buildings.

marble senate floor
Multicolored marble on the floor of the
Roman Senate house

But marble is also rarer, and more expensive. A lot of marble is white, but marble can come in all different colors. In ancient Greece and Rome, people used marble (especially white marble) to make statues, and they used colored marble in patterns to make hard floors that would last a long time. Different colors of marble came from different parts of the Roman empire - the purple came from Egypt, for instance - and so this was also a way of showing off, of pointing out how powerful Rome was, that the Senate could bring stone from all these far away places that were ruled by Rome.


Carving a marble statue

Sometimes people also used marble in thin sheets on the walls of fancy buildings like churches or palaces, to make a brick wall look fancier. When marble was too expensive, people used plaster frescoes on their walls that were painted to look like marble.

Main art page

Bibliography and further reading:

DK Eyewitness Guides: Building, by Philip Wilkinson (2000).

Geology: A Golden Guide from St. Martin's Press, by Frank Rhodes (2001).

Ancient marble quarrying and trade (1986). A collection of papers by specialists, for specialists, about marble in ancient Greece and Rome.

Limestone
Travertine
Tufa
Basalt
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Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram, Pinterest, or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
Karen Carr is Associate Professor Emerita, Department of History, Portland State University. She holds a doctorate in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. Follow her on Instagram or Twitter, or buy her book, Vandals to Visigoths.
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