What is marble? History of Art

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Cycladic figurine

Cycladic figurine from Greece, ca. 2000 BC

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 than limestone is, 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 travertine, or limestone, or they used plaster frescoes on their walls that were painted to look like marble.

For example, the Parthenon in Athens is built entirely of marble – that was very expensive. But Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is built 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.

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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.

Limestone
Travertine
Tufa
Basalt
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By | 2017-05-25T11:18:07+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. December 12, 2017.

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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