What is marble? History of Art

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A Cycladic figurine in marble

What is marble? A Cycladic figurine in marble

Metamorphic limestone

Marble is a metamorphic rock made out of limestone. When there’s tremendous pressure on limestone 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. So people like to use it for buildings.

The patterned marble floor of the Roman Senate's meeting room

What is marble? The patterned marble floor of the Roman Senate’s meeting room

Colored marble

But marble is also rarer than limestone is, and more expensive. A lot of marble is white, but marble can come in all different colors. The color depends on what other elements are in the limestone. In ancient Greece and Rome, people used marble (especially white marble) to make statues. 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. So this was also a way of showing off. The architects were pointing out how powerful Rome was, that the Senate could bring stone from all these far away places that Rome had conquered.

Carving a marble statue

Marble revetments

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. We call that a revetment. When marble was too expensive, people used travertine, or limestone, or they used plaster frescoes on their walls that were painted to look like marble.

Here's a place where some of the marble is still in place on the wall.

Here’s a place where some of the marble is still in place on the wall of the palace of the Roman emperors.

Famous buildings that use marble

For example, they built the Parthenon in Athens entirely of marble – that was very expensive. But they built Notre Dame cathedral in Paris of limestone (partly because there isn’t as much marble near Paris). The Colosseum in Rome is built of brick and travertine, with marble only for the sculpture and the seats.  Domitian’s palace in Rome is brick, but with thin sheets of marble covering the brick walls. And many houses in Pompeii have only plaster walls painted to look like marble.

Main art page

Bibliography and further reading about ancient marble:

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.

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By | 2018-04-15T11:52:36+00:00 May 25th, 2017|Architecture, Art, Geology|0 Comments
Cite this page: Carr, K.E. What is marble? History of Art. Quatr.us Study Guides, May 25, 2017. Web. April 20, 2018.

About the Author:

Karen Carr
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.

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