Marble is a highly desirable material ubiquitous throughout the fields of sculpture, architecture and design. It is a natural stone available in numerous colours and styles with connotations to antiquity and luxury. Here we explore its history both geologically and within the arts. We shed light on the famous region of Carrara, its quarries and workforce, and highlight exemplary uses within 20th century and contemporary design.
All marble is a type of limestone, however the term is somewhat broad and describes a group of rocks with varying petrographic aspects. In its most refined form – the famous white statuary marble of Carrara – it contains 98% calcite. This type was created over 200 million years ago from the skeletal remains of tiny calciferous sea creatures, which formed a deep sediment on the ocean bed. As the earth’s tectonic plates shifted this sediment was subjected to enormous heat and pressure causing the calcium carbonate to crystallise. Over millions more years this was slowly pushed to the surface and now forms the area we know as the Apuan Alps in Tuscany, Italy.
Carrara Bianco marble
On the opposite end of the spectrum to Carrara Bianco there are marbles which display a riot of rich colours and patterns. These are also sedimentary limestones but are usually from detrital (formed of other rocks) or chemical (formed from precipitation of calcium carbonate from sea water) origin and are coloured by a variety of minerals such as graphite and iron oxide. When speaking commercially, classification becomes even broader to include rocks with silicate minerals* from a magmatic beginning, such as types of quartzite. Although these have a different composition they have similar workability characteristics and sometimes appearance.
*rock forming minerals containing varying ratios of silicon and oxygen
Left: Brèche de Vendôme marble of detrital origin. Right: Azul Imperial quartzite
Evidence of marble sculpture and stonework within Europe goes back to the Neolithic era around 5000 – 4500 BC. Small carved figures of people and animals have been found from this time on Crete and the Cycladic islands. It is believed they used marble pebbles washed up on beaches complete with smooth edges courtesy of the undulating waves. During the succeeding Bronze Age – which roughly spans from 3200 to 600 BC – newly invented tools improved sculpting techniques and made working with larger, half eroded or partially freed marble possible. The ancient Romans began stonemasonry this way and used a much simpler system of categorisation than we do today. They had two categories; stones which could be polished were called ‘marmora’ and stones which couldn’t were called ‘lapis’. Interestingly, the word ‘marmora’ comes from the Greek ‘marmarios’, which means ‘shining’.
Marble female figure from the Cycladic culture, final Neolithic 4500–4000 BC. © Metropolitan Museum of Art
After designing implements for extracting and transporting large marble blocks, the Romans developed the first designated quarry sites. Luni or ‘Luna’ as it was then known, in the Italian vicinity of Carrara is a small port town founded around 177 BC. It was there and in the surrounding hills that the Carrara quarries were opened and the marble trade began. Augusto Danesi a sculptor and Carrara museum curator said in 2004 when speaking to Martin Gani a journalist writing for The World & I, “it’s not hard to tell how the Romans quarried, the hammers and iron pickaxes found here as well as grooved uneven surfaces clearly point at the Romans.”¹ They began by using wet wooden wedges that were inserted into natural cracks – the wood expands and the marble slab breaks away. Implements were then developed to make cracks and handsaws designed to improve cutting techniques. An improvement, yes, but a small one as it would take two workers a whole day just to cut seven or eight cm. The Carrara quarries were excavated using these rudimentary tools for hundreds of years and all the while the output grew in popularity. Marble was considered a luxury because it was expensive, imported from other regions and unnecessary because most cities would have had adequate stone resources nearby. Using such a luxurious material was a public display of wealth and wealth equated to power. Nevertheless in spite of its favour as the empire declined, so did Luni and the quarries of Carrara. The harbour gradually filled with silt until it became a mosquito-infested swamp and by the 5th century AD extraction had ceased entirely. In the years that followed those who wanted to enjoy the grandeur of marble would – after first receiving Papal consent – reuse or recycle columns, capitals and other features from Roman buildings. Until the 10th century AD when the bishops of Luni, who then dominated the Carrara region, reopen the quarries and gradually an export trade was re-established.
Apuan Alps, Tuscany, Italy
During the Renaissance Carrara and particularly its near-flawless 98% calcite Statuario marble received international recognition. It became the stone of choice for Michelangelo and many other artists for a number of reasons. Firstly, calcite is a soft mineral and is relatively easy to cut and shape. In addition the uniform fine grain allows for precise detail. Its purity means it boasts a luminous whiteness, enhanced by the fact calcite allows light to penetrate an inch or two deep. And in slight contrast, the surface itself has a waxy quality akin to human skin. These qualities make it the ideal material for those who want their image of man to transcend into a godlike figure.
Michelangelo’s statue of David
Thanks in part to the Renaissance sculptors the quarries of Carrara have had no rest to this day. Supply and demand is now greater than ever due to technological advances and globalisation. However in the run-up to the 20th century boom, the slow and arduous quarrying process was only occasionally relieved by new inventions. In the mid-1800s three-strand wire saws made abrasive with sand and lubricated by water were introduced. Quarrymen were finally able to put down their handsaws, but the huge problem of wastage remained. Excavated blocks would be rolled down the mountain and during this 85% would be lost to rubble. Oxen and carts would transport what remained to port. Sometime sleds, or ‘lizza’, would be used for extra heavy pieces of twenty-five to thirty tons. Charles Dickens visited and poetically described this process as “a stream meandering down to the bottom of the valley over a bed of stones of all forms and sizes…rudimentary carts of five-hundred years ago or so are still in use. Two, four, ten, twenty pairs of oxen per block, depending on size, are used.”² Another Brit, the industrialist William Walton took an interest in Carrara and invested in building railroads. By 1910 80% of marble left the region this way. At this point quarrying became electrified and pneumatic hammers were introduced. By the 1950s and 60s diamond-toothed wire saws had arrived and the railways were abandoned in favour of trucks – both of which are still used today.
Despite these new technologies quarrying still requires a huge amount of intrinsic knowledge, something which quarrymen learn only through experience. They feel a deep connection to the area – many families go back generations – and talk of marble as a living entity. It contains ‘anima’ or soul, it ‘sings’ and its ‘nerves’ make it strong. The groans and movements which come from the mountains show that it is ‘awake’. It is unsurprising that such rich terminology has developed as the quarries are otherworldly places. The translucency and patterning of the stone, the vibrant bright white light it reflects and the sheer scale. Vast excavations which cut deep into mountains millions of years old speak of human endeavour in all its beauty and brutality.
Il Capo by Yuri Ancarani
In the 1970s the Tuscan regional government introduced mining regulations and turned the Apuan Alps into a national park. Since then there has been a sizeable reduction in the number of quarries, from 501 in 1956 to 211 in 1987. Records show that 138 of these were in Carrara and by 2003 this had reduced to 83. To protect the surface environment much quarrying has gone underground. However this impacts upon the human workforce as the noise of jackhammers, bulldozers, excavators etc. echoing through the chambers becomes literally deafening. What’s more despite the reduced number of quarries production remains at an all-time high. Speaking in Martin Gani’s article for The World & I, geologist Antonio Criscuolo said “it is calculated that thanks to technological development, in the last fifty years more has been mined than in the whole of one thousand nine hundred and fifty years that preceded that. Today around 1.1 million tons are being quarried a year. There is no shortage in sight in the foreseeable future, and the rate of production will depend on demand and environmental issues.”³
Underground marble mine, Carrara, Italy
Wastage has been dramatically reduced with new extraction methods but not eliminated. A regional waste industry has been established and now marble unfit for traditional use is repurposed in a variety of ways. Some rubble is kept within the quarries and used to cushion the fall when large blocks are excavated. Some is powdered and sold as architectural render known as ‘stucco’. Refined marble powder compromising mainly of calcium carbonate has a PH value of 9.91 meaning it is neutral to slightly alkaline and is suitable for acid neutralisation purposes. It is added to lakes and rivers to help restore a healthy habitat for aquatic life. Powder which has been further distilled is known as ‘whiting’ and is used in many over-the-counter acid reflux medicines. These are just a few examples, usage goes as far as ceramics, glue, paper, dyes and paints. However dealing with waste marble is just one of many complimentary industries. Augusto Danesi estimates that “for each quarryman there are probably no fewer than a thousand others who work in the transportation, transformation and commercialisation of Carrara marble.”⁴ The region even processes marble mined elsewhere. There are countless workshops that deal with the cutting, sculpting, polishing and finishing of all types of marble. Artists will submit designs and have a Carraresi craftsperson sculpt it for them. Studios produce windowsills, tiles, gravestones, columns – all types of architectural embellishments exported prêt-à-porter style.
Like most natural materials the supply and value of marble is based on demand and availability. White varieties have essentially remained fashionable since the Renaissance though the taste for colourful marbles – in the broader sense of the term – has fluctuated. Between the 17th and 18th centuries unusual and rare types were very popular, but Neoclassicism pulled the focus firmly to white. The flavour for chromatic types was re-established by Modernist architects such as Gio Ponti, Adolf Loos and Mies van der Rohe. Notably the latter two were both sons of stonemasons. Rather than creating patterned inlays or intricate stonework as was tradition, this new wave emphasised the stone’s inherent beauty by using large slabs in the form of tiles, panels and table tops. Whilst this approach was different the connotations of marble being precious, luxurious and sophisticated remained.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion. © Fundació Mies van der Rohe Barcelona
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe designed his famous Barcelona Pavilion for German’s contribution to the 1929 Barcelona International Exhibition. He used North African golden onyx, vert antique and green marble from the Greek island of Tinos. The building was originally designed to be temporary and was dismantled within a year. However over the following years the design was consistently referenced and in the mid-1980s a group of Catalan architects reconstructed it to the original specifications. Nowadays Mies van der Rohe’s pavilion is widely regarded as a benchmark of 20th century modernist architecture.
Franz Füeg, St Pius, Meggen, Switzerland
In 1964 the architect Franz Füeg used large, thin slices of Greek Penthelian Dionyssos marble to great effect for his St Pius church in Meggen, Switzerland. Each panel measures 1.5 by 1.02 meters and only 28 millimeters thick. From the building’s exterior the marble appears a soft grey-white, but inside with sunlight streaming through the marble becomes a rich ochre.
From Entryways of Milan by Karl Kolbitz, published by Taschen. Photograph by Delfino Sisto Legnani
Gio Ponti, Antonio Fornaroli and Alberto Rosselli created this entrance to a Milanese residential building in 1952-56.
Adolf Loos Austrian mahogany and breccia marble table, circa 1920
From the modernist era onwards numerous architects and designers have and continue to incorporate marble into their furniture and lighting designs. It remains extremely popular with many classic 20th century pieces still in production, as well as being a go-to material for contemporary designers and manufacturers. Highlighted here are some key examples from the mid-twentieth century onwards.
Biagio table lamp by Tobia Scarpa, produced by Flos
Tobia Scarpa, son of the Venetian architect Carlo Scarpa, designed his Biagio table lamp in 1968. The body of the design, which is produced by Flos, is carved from one piece of Carrara marble. This video shows the skill and precision which goes into the making of each lamp:
Eero Saarinen’s pedestal based collection is arguably one of the most famous marble tables still in production today. Designed in 1957, Knoll offer a range of marbles for the table top. Pictured is the new option – rosso rubino with a high-shine polish. This finish is preferable as colours appear more saturated and the marble is less porous.
Saarinen dining table in rosso rubino marble by Eero Saarinen for Knoll
Guilio Cappellini kept the form of his angular Vendôme table minimal in pleasing contrast to the fabulous Brèche de Vendôme marble. Designed in 2015 for Cappellini, this statement piece comes in square or rectangular form.
Vendôme table by Giulio Cappellini for Cappellini
Piero Lissoni’s Materic table was launched by Porro in 2017. The black stained ash base supports a marble top available with or without a central ‘lazy Susan’ turning table. Porro offer six marble finishes: calacatta oro, Carrara, covelano fantastic, grey valentine, verde rameggiato and Sahara noir (pictured).
Materic table by Piero Lissoni for Porro
These are only a few of the many classic and modern designs featuring marble available to order here. The brands we work with are consistently using the stone in new ways as technology advances. New releases are added to our catalogue and the knowledgeable Aram Store sales team are always ready to discuss any queries.
¹ ² ³ ⁴ Marble is Life: The Quarries of Carrara, Tuscany by Martin Gani. Published in The World & I. Vol 19: Part 5. 2004.
Classical marble: geochemistry, technology, trade: Advanced research workshop on marble in Ancient Greece and Rome: geology, quarries, commerce, artifacts: Papers. Published by Kluwer, 1988.
Carrara: The Marble Quarries of Tuscany by Joel Leivick. Published by Stanford University Press, 1999.
Fine Marble in Architecture by Studio Marmo, text by Frederick Bradley. Published by W.W. Norton & Co. 2001.
New Stone Architecture by David Dernie. Published by Laurence King, 2003.
Fundació Mies van der Rohe Barcelona