roman marble

How did Romans cut marble?

Watching marble being extracted from a modern quarry is an impressive sight, one that requires a tricky combination of skill, coordination, and advanced machinery to achieve. But, without the aid of bulldozers and power tools, how did the ancient miners manage it?

Ever since ancient times, marble has been extracted from the Apuan Alps. Carrara has been acknowledged for the exceptional quality of its white or blue-grey marble and supplied the Roman Empire for the construction of the most prestigious monuments that make the glory of Rome.

The Pantheon and the Trajan’s Column in Rome are built of Carrara Marble. A famous saying of Augustus is: “I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble” (“Marmoream relinquish, quam latericiam accepi”). Many sculptures of the Renaissance (the David from Michelangelo, amongst many others) were also carved in marble blocks extracted from the Carrara’s quarry.​

The word “Carrara” itself is made of the Celtic “kair” or its Ligurian form “kar,” both meaning “stone”. The double consonant R is likely to come from the French “Carrière” (quarry). Due to its antiquity and production size, Carrara is a perfect case study for anyone who wants to study the evolution of the marble extraction techniques throughout the ages.

A lot of people think of Ancient Rome as a pretty monochrome place; in the popular imagination, its temples and palaces gleam with polished white marble, while a visit to the ruins of the Roman Forum (or viewing of Russell Crowe’s Gladiator) is tinted with beige and ochre. In reality, however, the ancient city was a riot of colour:

  • The walls of private residences were decorated with bright wall-frescoes.
  • Public spaces were adorned with garlands and flowers.
  • As recent research has shown, even the white statues were enhanced with garish paint.

No aspect of the ancient city, however, was more vivid or brilliant than its many-coloured marbles. These were not just different shades of white as you might expect (although there were many of these, just like a modern interior designer can choose between eggshell and ivory), but came in dozens of different varieties: yellow, black, red, as well as many blues and greens. Highly polished and often arranged in complex geometric patterns, they would have overwhelmed the senses and added to the splendour of what was then capital of the Mediterranean world.

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Island Goddesses

No doubt about it. Greece is a marble. From time immemorial, marble has been a ubiquitous material in the Greek lands, a vibrant, glowing stone first exploited in prehistoric sculpture in the Late Neolithic era (5300-4500 BC), but most visibly in the third millennium BC during the Aegean Early Bronze Age. The single most iconic product of prehistoric Cycladic culture, especially at its peak in the Early Cycladic II period (2800-2300 BC), were white marble figurines of women, possibly fertility goddesses, standing with their arms folded and heads tilted slightly back.

The simple, natural beauty and almost transparent quality of the marble used for Cycladic figurines have long intrigued viewers but, as we now know, for both this and later periods, the white stone was essentially a blank canvas that sculptors, in the final stage of their work, often enhanced with brightly coloured paints. Modern laboratory analyses have shown traces of prehistoric colour preserved not only on the marble figurines, but on marble and clay vessels as well, and even on bone tools, too.

roman marble

The Roman Period

The Romans named the Carrara marble Marmor lumens (“marble of Luni” due to the fact that it was loaded onto ships at the port of Luni, in the easternmost end of the Liguria region of northern Italy.

The extraction work, mainly manual, was performed by a workforce largely made by convicts to forced labour, slaves, and Christians. The first miners exploited the natural fissures of the rock, where fig wood wedges were inserted and inflated with water so that the natural expansion caused the detachment of the block.

For blocks of fixed size, usually of 2 meters thick, the Romans used the method of the “panel” practising in the selected block, a 15-20 cm deep cut in which were inserted metallic chisels. After a continuous pounding, the block was finally separated from the mountain.

The Use of Black Powder: Not Such a Good Idea

The use of black powder became part of the Carrara marble extraction techniques during the Eighteen Century. The Apennine landscape went through a profound change. Large buildups of debris (called “ravaneti”) showed how strongly the marble deposits were affected by the use of explosives.

Decorative stone extraction techniques carry their specificity where “the first concern is about not damaging the rock during the extraction, which would make it unsuitable for further use”, as already mentioned in a previous article.

Rival Producers

Marble quarries in the Bronze Age were found on many Aegean islands, but modern studies have also shown the main sources were Naxos, Keros, Paros and Ios. With the advent of the Archaic era (ca. 800 BC), marble-working again became a major artistic industry.

On Delos, the struggle between Naxos and Paros for hegemony over the sacred island resulted in the Naxians erecting monumental dedications to Apollo, crafted from their local stone, including their imposing Lions (late 7th c. BC), Colossos (late 7th/early 6th c. BC) and Oikos (575 BC), a building described by archaeologist Konstantinos Tsakos as “the first in the history of architecture in which the upper structure and roof were of marble.”

Paros ultimately prevailed, however, at least in the race for marble supremacy, as its homogeneous white marble was of superior quality and easy to carve. Parian marble became the premier material sought after by sculptors across the Aegean and mainland Greece. Quarried underground in long shafts, where slaves worked by lamplight, the stone became known as “Lychnitis,” from the word “lychnos” or lamp. The island’s enormous Quarry of the Nymphs, according to architect Manolis Korres, must have produced nearly 100,000 cubic meters of usable marble.

At Delphi, in the 6th and early 5th centuries BC, Parian marble was used for the Treasury of the Siphnians and the façades of the second Temple of Apollo and the Treasury of the Athenians. Not to be overlooked, the Naxians erected a white marble sphinx (550 BC) on a tall column just below the Temple of Apollo, where ascending visitors saw it first, gleaming in the foreground.

Attic Marbles

Attica also produced great quantities of marble in antiquity, with the Classical sanctuary of Athena on the Athenian Acropolis, famously renovated by Pericles in the 5th century BC, providing a magnificent showcase for the extraordinary stone of Mt Penteli.

The first use of Pentelic marble on the Acropolis was in the Older Parthenon, begun just after the Greek victory over the Persians at Marathon (490 BC). This temple of Athena was still unfinished when the Persians invaded Athens in 480 BC and desecrated the Acropolis. With the launch of Pericles’ building program in the 440s BC, Pentelic marble became the primary material of the Acropolis’ new buildings, as well as of buildings in the surrounding area and many sculpted votive offerings and other statues.

Pentelic marble first appeared in sculpture about 570 BC, while marble of lesser quality from Mt Ymittos was employed in the Archaic era for inscribed steles on the Acropolis. Quarries at Agrileza in southern Attica produced a soft, crumbly marble, which was nevertheless exploited for the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio (444-440 BC). Numerous marble male “Kouros” statues have been found in Attica, but not all were carved from local stone. The marble of the Sounion Kouros (ca. 600 BC) reveals it was an artwork imported from Naxos.

Periclean Perfection

The sheer amount of Pentelic marble required to construct the Periclean Parthenon is breathtaking. Although the foundations are limestone, the entire original superstructure was marble, including the stepped crepidoma (base); 108 exterior and interior columns; 444 coffered ceiling panels; 92 sculpted metopes; the 160 m-long Ionic friezes; the cella’s walls; the pediments, cornices, architraves and beams; the pedimental sculptures and roof-top criteria; and 9,000 marble roof tiles. Today’s restoration works on the Parthenon also rely on marble from Mt Penteli, nearly identical to the original material, which is extricated from an area behind the prominent peak, whose ancient quarrying scars can still be seen.

Around the Acropolis, the Temple of Hephaestus (begun 445 BC) in the Athenian Agora was also built of Pentelic marble. However, its cornice, ceiling, sculpted frieze and other carved architectural elements were rendered in Parian marble. Opposite, the Stoa of Attalos (2nd c. BC), in its current restored state, contains both Pentelic marble and limestone. The Lysicrates Monument (335/334 BC) in Plaka is pure Pentelic marble.

Timeless Labor Of Love

The perfection of ancient marble buildings, most notably the Parthenon, is something we can only wonder at nowadays as, even with modern power tools and space-age methods, we’re just beginning to replicate the extraordinary precision and speed of the ancient masons. Using hand tools, including a variety of iron chisels, sharp-tipped points, saws, hammers, wooden and iron wedges, squares, compasses and graduated measuring bars, they achieved final products with margins of error amounting to only a few millimetres. These craftsmen took enormous pride in their work and considered their efforts a gift to Athena or the other gods.

Master marble masons were highly experienced in selecting the best marble to carve, as the material can have cracks, weaknesses and other hidden flaws. Then, aided by other workers, they had to extract the stone from mountain quarries and transport it to the worksite, using ropes and wooden winches, cranes, sledges, carts and rollers.

Rough shaping might take place at the quarry, but final finishing was done on-site, including the carving of a column’s delicate flutes after its final placement. Today’s restoration masons follow age-old techniques but are trained somewhat differently. For example, while a contemporary craftsman might “plough marble in straight lines with his chisel, the marks visible on ancient stones reveal his classical forerunners often sat on a block and chiselled around themselves in circular, zigzag patterns.

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Roman Luxury

Roman rule in Greece witnessed a resurgence in the use of Pentelic marble, as Julius Caesar and Octavian (Augustus) employed it in Athens for the “archaizing” gateway of their new Roman Agora (1st c. BC). In the 2nd century AD, the enormous Temple of Olympian Zeus was completed and an elegant city gate erected by the philhellene emperor Hadrian. At the same time, the Panathenaic Stadium (Kallimarmaro) was entirely veneered by Herodes Atticus – a project reported by Pausanias to have nearly exhausted Pendeli’s supply of marble.

The Romans were not merely satisfied with white marble, however. At the start of the empire, discovering the spectrum of polychrome marbles that could be acquired around the eastern Mediterranean, they began to import green and red marble from the Peloponnese, grey marble from Evia and black marble from Chios. Green marble also came from Skyros and Tinos, while Thasos provided a fine white marble that could rival Pentelic.

The marble industry also thrived on Mt Ymittos, where quarries produced a grey or bluish-grey stone much beloved by the Romans. A cave on Ymittos above Vari contains a carved relief of a quarryman (“Archedemus”) holding a hammer and square (ca. 400 BC); the mysterious marble “dragon houses” above Kaisariani may have been accommodations for ancient quarry workers.

Marble Traditions

Today, traditional marble working is carried on primarily by craftsmen trained on the island of Tinos. Tinian masons were employed in the reconstruction of the Stoa of Attalos (the 1950s), and their sons ascended the Acropolis in the mid-1970s to begin work on the Erechtheion. Now, notes Acropolis Restoration Service (YSMA) architect Lena Lambrinou, the third generation of these craftsmen are engaged in the works on the Parthenon.

A long-held Tinian legend claims the island’s inhabitants were originally taught the art of sculpture by Phidias himself, whose ship, en route to Delos, was forced by strong winds to shelter at Tino’s. Whether this story is true or not, the Tinians did play a role in the development of modern Athens, where today one finds many modern grand marble edifices, including the Academy of Athens, the Athens Concert Hall and the National Library. Many Athenian apartments built in the 1960s and 70s have traditional marble kitchen sinks, and even many curbs lining the streets are marble.

Greek or Roman?

As said before, the Romans loved Greek culture. The patrician families enjoyed decorating their villas with Greek statues and reliefs, and many were set up at the publicly.

Many works of art were imported from Greece to Rome until the Romans started quarrying their marble. From that point, it was cheaper to pay the artist to make you a copy of Greek sculpture. That’s why it’s often hard to tell if the sculpture is a Greek original or a Roman copy. Greek sculptures are traditionally more valuable, simply because they’re older. But since there are many replicas, it’s challenging to determine the origin. Certain stylistic features can help you differentiate the two.

Differences Between Greek and Roman Sculpture

Roman statues are usually larger, as Greeks loved to portray the real proportions of humans. Even the Roman copies of Greek sculptures are oversized. Because the Romans messed with the proportions, their statues were often unsteady. That’s why Roman artists had to attach a small block of marble to their statues, to achieve a better balance. If you see that block, you can be sure that the statue is Roman, as it never appears in Greek art.

Greeks never liked natural portrayals. Instead, they opted for the ideal beauty, in both male and female form. Their statues depict young and strong bodies with ethereally beautiful faces. That’s a great difference from Roman verism and their realistic approach to style. Some emperors and empresses, however, fashioned their portraits by following the classical Greek style with muscular male or voluptuous female bodies.

The emperor Hadrian was a great fan of Greek culture, so you can easily recognize his portraits – they are bearded. Romans disliked growing beard, and you’ll rarely find a male portrait that isn’t clean-shaved. Greeks, on the other hand, adored facial hair. To them, long and full beards represented intellect and power. That’s why all of their gods are bearded, just like philosophers and mythological heroes.

Greeks were also more relaxed when it comes to nudity. Because the canonical male and female bodies were worshipped extensively, Greek artists often didn’t cover their figures with clothes. Romans liked to dress up their sculptures with togas or military uniforms. They also added more details to statues, while Greeks loved simplicity.

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The Helical Wire: A Real Revolution

The real revolution of the marble extraction techniques took place at the end of the 19th century with the invention of the helical wire and the penetrating pulley. The technique is based on a 4 to 6 millimetres diameter steel wire combined with the abrasive action of silica sand and an abundant amount of water as a lubricant.

The helical wire is a continuous loop of tensioned steel that moves at a speed of 5 to 6 meters per second and cut the marble at a rate of 20 centimetres per hour. The use of this new technique almost completely substituted the use of explosives and determined a visible change in the landscape. The mountain began to be cut with precision, creating surreal landscapes made of huge flights of steps and platforms, called “piazzali di cava”.

Diamond wire sawing is still in use today in the marble industry, especially in Carrara. The diamond wire sawing requires drilling initially two perpendicular holes (one horizontal at the base of the bench and a vertical from the top) which meet, according to the block size to cut.

Then the cable is rotated by a machine placed on rails. By turning, the cable saws the rock. The machine backs progressively on the rails so as to keep the cable tensioned until the end of cutting. This technique is widely used as it allows for calibrated and easy to rework blocks with sharp edges.

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