No marble in antiquity found greater favour with the sculptor’s craft than Parian marble: it is the white marble par excellence. It excels even Naxiot marble in both transparency and in the fineness of its crystal line structure. Whiter marbles such as Carrara marble—marmor Lunense as the Romans called it—have since been used and were the staples of Michelangelo, Bernini and Canova; but they do not approach Par ian in warmth and softness. The quarries on Paros in fact produce more than one kind of marble: the most valued quality was referred to as ‘lychnites’, from “λύχνος”, a lamp. According to Pliny (Nat. Hist., XXXVI, 14) and Varro, this was because it was ‘quarried by the light of oil lamps’. Hesychius, on the other hand, said the name referred to the celebrated translucence of the marble which could transmit the glow of an oil lamp. It is lychnites which was extracted in the underground galleries here at Marathi. But it could be obtained only in smaller blocks, large enough for most sculpture, but not in the quantities or dimensions necessary for construction. Sometimes even a statue in lychnites would have to be composed of two pieces from the start: this is the case with the Venus de Milo for example, which is joined at the upper rim of the garment. In Roman times, only the head of a statue might be executed in Parian marble, while the rest would be in another marble. Lesser qualities of Parian marble were quarried much more easily on the surface further up the same valley, but these were less transparent, had a coarser grain and were veined with grey. This quality of marble can be seen in the walls of the Kastro in Parikia.
The physical characteristics of Parian marble were significant. The transparence was particularly important because the majority of ancient sculpture of the Archaic and Classical periods was coloured—latterly by the application of pigment in a warm wax which penetrated the marble and increased its potential translucence almost two-fold. The artist who coloured a statue was often different from the sculptor: Praxiteles said that he trusted only one person, the painter Nikias, to colour his statues with sufficient sensitivity. The regular, fine-grain, crystalline consistency of the marble was also important, since this meant that it could be polished with emery to an extraordinarily smooth surface. Much of the tactile and formal appeal of the Early Cycladic figurines is owed to this quality.
All marbles handle differently and respond to the artist’s tools in a different manner. With a natural monopoly on the finest material, the Parian sculptors were swift to exercise a monopoly on its crafting. There were important schools of sculpture on Paros, and Parian sculptors often travelled with their material to superintend its sculpting at its destination. The greatest sculptures on the Archaic acropolis of Athens and those at Delphi, such as the frieze of the Siphnian Treasury, are in Parian marble. Praxiteles’s Hermes, as well as his lost, Cnidian Aphrodite, the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Nike of Paionios—are all in the same lychnites of Paros, even though each has acquired a different patina with the passage of time and the circumstances of its particular history.
Travel Guide to Paros & Greece