Did the ancients practice the art of coloring marble, or is it a recent American discovery ? The New York Times, of February 15, 1869, in an editorial headed Marble Coloring, says : The art of coloring marble, through the entire mass, is supposed to have been known to the ancients, inasmuch as among the ruins traces of colored marbles and stones are found. The Metropolitan Record, of February 20,1869, in an article headed, A New and Important Discovery in the Fine Arts, and its Special Application to Church Architecture, thinks there are plausible reasons why some writers have ranked the art of coloring marble among the lost arts, because among the ruins of. ancient temples and monuments, colored marbles and stones have been found, of whose original sources no trace can be obtained. If they came from quarries, the quarries are unknown in our day. In Venice and other cities of Lombardy are columns and altars of a translucent white marble, marmo statuario, which resembles the Parian, but is not quite so opaque. The quarries of this kind of marble are as yet unknown. Might it not be said with equally plausible reasons that the Italians knew the art of making this marble, but they lost it ? That analogues and quarries of ancient colored marbles have not been found, is hardly a sufficient reason for classing the art of coloring marble among the lost arts, for it may safely be asserted, that in all the countries which constituted the ancient world, Egypt, Asia Minor, Greece, Turkey, Italy, Northern Africa, and the Mediterranean Isles, have been in a state of stagnation since the fall of Rome and Constantinople; and that whenever accurate geologic and mineralogic surveys are made, the quarries may be re-discovered. A synopsis of what the ancients knew and did as to marble, will conclusively show that the art of coloring marble through the entire mass was neither known to, nor practiced by them. The word marmaros was applied by the earliest Greek writers to any rock, stone, block, or fragment, with the idea of shining, sparkling, bright. B. C. 800 Homer ( Iliad, xii., 880) and Euripides (B. C. 450, in his Phceniss, 678) used the term in that sense. It was evidently derived from marmarein, to shine, sparkle, gleam, glitter. B C. 270, Theocritus first applied marmaros to works of art in marble. The word marmaron, marble, also rock crystal, or feldspar, on account of their shining appearance, was of later date. The Latin word marmor is formed from it, and is neuter like its original, in spite of its termination or. The German, marmor; Italian, marmo;, French, marbre; English, marble, are but so many Graeco-Latin derivatives. Mineralogists have limited the word to rocks and stones, whose sole or chief ingredient is carbonate of lime, susceptible of polish. There were at Rome, as early as 493 B. C, two ediles, architectural engineers, whose duty was to superintend the erection, adorning, and repairing of public buildings, streets, markets, etc. B. C. 366, two more were added, styled curile ediles. Julius Caesar joined to them two ediles cereales, B. C. 44. The ediles had precedence in the Senate; their office was one of the most honored in the State. Would not one of these distinguished Roman savants and engineers have somewhere alluded to the art of coloring marble if such an art had been known and practiced ? Polygnotus, who was surnamed The Prometheus of painting, and whose works were so highly esteemed, no doubt knew all the colors and coloring of his epoch, B. C,; 469. Yet, in connection with him or his paintings, we find nothing of the art of coloring marble. Neither do we find any mention of such an art in connection with Polycletus, the famous sculptor and architect who built the theater at Epidaurus, which Pausanias pronounces, in symmetry and elegance, superior to every other theater, and not excepting those at Rome. Vitruvius, the ablest Latin writer on ancient architecture, does not allude to the art of coloring marble through the entire mass in his ten books. Yet he lived under Augustus, who zealously patronized the arts, and was wont to say, That he found the city built of brick, and left it constructed of marble. Pausanias (A. D. 120) visited Greece, Macedonia, Asia, Egypt, and even Africa, as far as the temple Jupiter Ammon, then retired to Rome, where he wrote his ten books on the edifices, monuments, and works of art he had examined, and contrasted them with those of Rome. In the work of this author, who is the highest authority on ancient archeology, there is no allusion to any art of coloring marble through the entire mass; yet this erudite writer not only describes the edifices and works of art, but furnishes historical records, anecdotes, and legends connected with them. Not even Belzoni (A. D. 1818), describing the vivid colors of his Room of Beauties,. Researches and Operations in Egypt, p. 227, pretended to assert that the ancients knew the art of coloring marble and granite through the entire mass, though he may have thought they could beautifully color and stain it on the surface. Hence, as neither the ediles from B. C. 493 to A. D. 476, a period of one thousand years, neither the ancient painters, sculptors, and architects, nor the ancient writers on archeology mentions the art of coloring marble through the entire mass, we may fairly conclude that the ancients knew nothing of this art, and that it is simply and purely an American discovery. No doubt, Winkelman, author of the History of Art among the Ancients, and Quatremere de Quincy could not help indorsing such a conclusion. As a synopsis of the finest marbles known to the ancients might throw more light on this subject, and be a guide to American explorers and pioneers, we shall give it in a future issue.
This article was originally published with the title "Art of Coloring Marble"