I found a city of bricks and left a city of marble
Posted on May 27, 2016
The emperor’s purple robe, stained from the rare porphyra dye obtained from Phoenician seashells, swept across the palace floor resplendent in marbles from around the ancient world; marbles from Greece, Spain, Turkey, Gaul, and Egypt, and of course, those stones quarried nearby from the slopes of the Apennines that jutted 2000 feet from the Tyrrhenian Sea 150 miles north of Rome.
“URBEM LATERICIUM INVENIT, MARMOREA RELIQUIT – (I) found a city of bricks and left a city of marble” was a proud, but true, boast of Emperor Augustus; for Augustus knew that if Rome were to be the center of the world it must be a city of beauty like no other.
The Romans had an advantage over other kingdoms that had used marble in the construction of their cities and temples. The use of concrete made from the volcanic ash of Mount Vesuvius had allowed the Romans to build massive buildings of brick and mortar. Unlike the ancient capitals like Athens, where marble buildings were built of solid marble blocks, the Romans were now able to simply clad their buildings in thin sheets of the precious material.
The Romans became experts in blending the unique patterns and colors of marbles into both large geometric patterns and small mosaics; some, micro-mosaics with pieces no larger than a baby’s first tooth.
Emperors would seek out the most precious materials from the bright cobalt-blue lapis to the hardest of stones, the Egyptian porphory- considered the stone of kings for its strength and blood-red color. Men would quarry large blocks from remote places, transporting them by both ox cart and ship great distances and then spend months sawing a single slab using only an iron bar, sand & water. Then, polish the stones by hand to bring out their luxurious and unique colors.
These methods changed little over the centuries as the merchants of Venice and Florence and the popes of Rome challenged their architects, Bernini, Raphael & Michelangelo and many others to best the ancients.
Now, the process of slicing a slab takes mere hours and modern mechanical equipment eases the transportation of the heavy material, making marble a common commodity worldwide. As architects today, we rarely use marble for any thing other than counter tops, bathroom floors and the occasional sheet-cladding of a building.
But not today, I have come for special and rare marbles that will clad the walls and floor of a great estate. I can see my breath as I stare up at the ceiling of the cold cavernous space, the ceiling some 70 feet above me is veined in purple, grey, gold; the whole of the space in which I stand is a cavern of Breccia Capria, one of my favorite marbles for its movement and color; the walls, floor and that gorgeous ceiling are of one big vast marble space.
I look out through the mouth of the cave and see in the distance a snow capped mountain; yet, it’s not snow at all, but marble dust from the quarry where Michelangelo once freed the pure white block of marble from which he created his David; and beyond its peak, the shimmering misty blue of the Tyrrhenian Sea.
We make our way back down the mountain, down a narrow rocky road, through the lush Tuscan forest, to the towns below, Pietra Santo and Carrera (after it’s famous namesake stone). We visit several stone yards where we find fine samples of stone from the mountains above. But what I’ve really come for is one yard; a small yard that I have visited before, the yard that holds the ancient blocks; those blocks recovered from forgotten places. You can tell them by their dimpled surface; dimples left by the many chisel marks made when the stone was wrestled from the earth by hand centuries before. These are the stones of emperors & kings. If you are lucky, you may find one with the Roman numerals used by the ancient Romans that record the very area of the quarry from which the block came.
These are the stones that lure men like Professor Dario Del Bufalo, an architectural geoarcheologist and a Roman aristocrat. He sits in the study of his castillo (once the country home of a pope) surrounded by his books, marble busts and ancient curiosities; among them the many lithoteka, chest of the precious marbles classified by type in a manner Darwin made popular at the time.
Known as the Indiana Jones of marble, Del Bufalo’s specialty is finding ancient stones and quarries. His long forgotten maps, combined with modern satellite photography, GPS and drones have pointed him on expeditions to the deserts of Portugal, Spain & Egypt seeking lost quarries and ancient rivers from which to dredge sunken stones.
Professor Del Bufalo has authored the books used by museums around the world and has negotiated at the base of the pyramids the recovery of ancient papyrus codices (one, now owned by Bill Gates), from the fate of being used to stoke Egyptian cooking fires. Quite the ladies’ man, the charming Italian has been both followed by National Geographic, and shot at and held captive in the wilds of the Sahara; yet, he has been rewarded many times for his efforts. Coveted blocks, columns with the bronze seal of emperor and rough blocks of the royal porphyry litter the grounds of his castello outside of Rome.
As an architect, I find the idea of understanding of the latent possibilities of raw stone; to pry it from the earth, transport, shape & polish it into an expression of architectural beauty, not only fascinating, but both comforting and challenging. Thousands of years of knowledge and artistry have been forgotten; yet, if we seek, and if we strive, we too can possess the very brush that was used to paint the classical world. Perhaps, if we can learn by their art, we may even achieve such beauty in our time. Perhaps, rather than constantly seeking to invent beauty, we can simply learn from those who understood it best.