We continue our series of The Art of Furniture Encyclopedia with a material often found in English antique furniture: marble.
Marble is the rock formed from a mineral or texture change of sedentary carbonate rocks, usually limestone or dolomite rock, and is most commonly used for sculpture and as a building material. The natural state of these rocks are often unremarkable to look at, it is only when they have been cut and polished to a bright reflective lustre, that their inherent beauty is revealed. The classic pure white marble is a the result if a very pure limestone with hardly any silicate deposits, the distinguishing veins of colour on others are the result of mineral impurities such as clay or sand, which usually form in layers.
People have been using stone for decoration and adornment since the prehistoric age. The ancient Greeks pioneered the use of white marble for classical architecture and sculpture, while the ancient Romans developed a passion for coloured stones mastering the art of mosaic. Following on, slabs of precious stone of all sizes were increasingly used as decorative inlay for floors, walls, sarcophagi and later furniture, a style known as pietra dura today.
A majority of the most sought after marbles come from Italy, including Sienna, Carrara and Sicilian jasper. Along with other precious samples, they proved incredibly popular among the young, intrepid Englishmen on the Grand Tour during the eighteenth century. Collectable samples, the travellers would often return home and display the colourful varieties as exquisite table tops, recognisable today as the ‘specimen’ marble table.
Luminously white with an almost transparent quality, Carrara marble is considered the most exceptional of marbles. Carrara, the Tuscan city in which the marble is quarried, has attracted craftsmen and tourists for centuries. In Ancient Rome, slabs of Carrara marble were used in the construction of numerous temples and public monuments, including the Pantheon. Demand for the marble declined sharply with the fall of Rome, but was renewed in the late 15th century when Michelangelo and other sculptors took inspiration from the marble nudes of antiquity, many of which were excavated during the artists’ lifetime.
Both Michelangelo’s Pieta and his iconic sculpture of David are hewn from Carrara marble, a stone that complements the clarity and strength of form in his works. Beyond the Italian Renaissance, Carrara marble appears in monumental architecture throughout the world, from London’s Marble Arch to mosques in Abu Dhabi, and continues to be used by contemporary artists drawn to the marble’s purity.