Marmor carystium: ‘cipollino’ marble

Of all the decorative marbles that the Romans extracted from the length and breadth of their Empire—from Aquitaine to the Egyptian Desert, from African Numidia to the Propontis—none had such apparent popularity or was so widely employed throughout the Empire as marmor Carystium, which was available in such inexhaustible quantities in the foothills of Mount Ochi, and emerged from nature in a never-ending variety of subtly different patterns. Elegant and cool in its delicate marine colour, with long, green-blue veins on a translucent background, it was never dull and yet never overly demanded attention. It enhanced any other marble combined with it, and above all set off the white marble of sculpture with exemplary elegance. It was abundant, resilient, adaptable to construction, and not difficult to work. The Renaissance stone-workers called it Cipollino (‘onion-like’) not so much because it has the appearance of sliced onion, but because the veins of mica which colour the calcareous body of the stone,cause it to be easily cut along the seams in the fashion of an onion.
   Its illustrious career in Rome began, according to Cornelius Nepos (cited by Pliny, Nat. Hist. XXXVI 48) when it was introduced by Mamurra of Formiae, Julius Ceasar’s chief engineer in Gaul. It was extensively used in the Roman and Imperial Fora (Basilica Aemilia, Temple of Vespasian, the House of the Ves tal Virgins, the Palace of Domitian, Forum of Trajan, Basilica of Maxentius etc.), its translucence and col our being preserved and refreshed by annual applications of a solution of chalk and milk. Amongst the largest monolithic columns of Carystian marble are those supporting the portico of the Temple of Antoninus and Faustina overlooking the Forum: they measure 40 Roman feet (11.9m) and rise to 48 Rf (14.2m) with their Corinthian capitals. Interestingly, their girth and length is the same as those which have, for some reason, been left unfinished in the quarry at ‘Kylindri’ on Mount Ochi. This may have been a standard measure of column shaft however—albeit one rarely commissioned, because of the size and the problems inherent in its transportation. Loweringsuch massive weights down the mountainside in a controlled fashion and with minimum damage was a job of considerable complexity; at the port they were shipped to Rome, or other destinations, slung, just below water-level, between two barges lashed together in the form of a catamaran. Although this provided the best hope of stability at sea, many never made it to their destination.
   The Romans also extracted asbestos (whose curi ous properties so fascinated them: see Strabo, Geog. X, 1.6) from these same hills. All this meant a wealth of commerce for the port of Carystus. The official who oversaw it all was a figure of some importance, as is suggested by the lavish funerary monument of the local quarry master, whose ruins are still visible in the city centre.

   Cipollino is rarely seen properly polished today (apart from some statue-pedestals in the Vatican and Capitoline Museums in Rome), and it appears dull when not regularly maintained. Pieces can be gathered easily in the area of the quarries and are of a rewarding lustre and elegance when polished even by modern machinery.

Euboea Island, Greece

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