M is for Marble

The marble-tiled floor of St. Marks in Venice. Photo by kajmeister.

It’s just rock. A geological anomaly of a particular type of creature squeezed in a certain way than pushed out of place by a few tectonic events. Voila! A sculptor’s paradise; an architect’s dream. Imagine the floor! They did…

What Is that Stuff?

Ever since Italians noticed that they had mountains full of this really pretty stone, they’ve been sending blocks of it over to wherever sculptors are drooling. Lots of sculpture is carved from granite, which is cheaper and does last, but not as smooth. Marble forms because limestone is getting heated to “really extreme temperatures” so that minerals within the rock get fused together. In a purty way!

More marble flooring in St. Mark’s. Photo by KK.

Why Is It There?

As Luca Lotelli and Sam Anderson explained in a fascinating NY Times piece, the Italian Apuan alps is the site of one of the oldest quarries of white marble in the world. Cosimo de Medici extracted stone here for marble that the Renaissance artists used.

Countless generations of tiny creatures lived, died and drifted slowly to the bottom of a primordial sea, where their bodies were slowly compressed by gravity, layer upon layer upon layer, tighter and tighter, until eventually they all congealed and petrified into the interlocking white crystals we know as marble. ‘‘Marmo,’’ the Italians call it — an oddly soft, round word for such a hard and heavy material.

From “The Majestic Marble Quarries of Northern Italy,” 2017.
The valley of marble. Photo by Luca Locatelli, NYT.

Michaelangelo, of course, used it for the giant statue of David. But tons of other Renaissance sculptors worked with marble, from Sicily to northern Germany.

How Did They Use It?

Tombs were particularly good subject for Italian white marble because the lack of color evokes of sense of purity and other-worldliness–but the upward sort for artists.

Tomb in Venice’s Fratri Church. Photo by kajmeister.

But the Italians weren’t the only ones to carve in marble. The stone was often sent significant distances, over roads which the Romans had built centuries earlier. Still, the artists in the north, from Germany to Amsterdam to England, also knew how to carve with the rock.

Claus Slute’s Well of Mosesi, photo from MyModernMet.com.

Always makes me think of T. S. Eliot:

In the room, the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo…

from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

Well, wouldn’t you, if you were looking at Italian marble? Someone famously petitioned Michelangelo to explain how he carved in marble, and he said he just needed to remove all the parts that weren’t David. Or something like that.

That means in those Apuan Alps, still being quarried, there could be hundreds of sculptures, just waiting for a future artist to get rid of all the non-artist bits.

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