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Thursday, 3 October, 2002, 08:48 GMT 09:48 UK
Roman 'marbles' go on display
Marble hippopotamus
The hippopotamus has come from Copenhagen

Wealthy ancient Romans were the first to adorn their homes and public buildings with coloured marbles.

An exhibition that has just opened in Rome brings together more than 300 examples of coloured marble statues and other objects, inlaid marble floors, and wall panels that have endured for nearly 2,000 years.

These ancient marbles still gleam with a gem-like quality

Greek sculptors preferred to carve their statues from pure white marble, sometimes painting them with colours which have long since faded away.

But the Romans developed a taste for the much richer - and permanent - effects of the many brightly coloured, veined and speckled marbles, which came from the farthest corners of their Mediterranean Empire.


Two colours predominated, the purple or deep red of porphyry, a much prized marble quarried in the Egyptian desert and generally reserved for statues of Roman emperors and their families, and the pale yellow of giallo antico.

Matidia, sister-in-law of Emperor Hadrian
Matilda's statue was found in the ruins of an amphitheatre
These same colours of yellow and dark red are now the official colours not only of the modern city of Rome but also of the Roma soccer team, which last year won the Italian football championship.

As the taste of wealthy Romans for rare exotic - and expensive - coloured marbles quarried in the mountains of Turkey, Egypt and North Africa grew, Roman artists were able to match the colours of their sculptures to the subjects they were depicting.

This is particularly effective in the case of an African baby hippopotamus, carved from a gem-like stone called rosso antico, sent to Rome for exhibition from a museum in Copenhagen.

A larger than life size statue in speckled grey marble of a north African dog, found buried in a Roman garden just over a century ago, sits proudly and realistically on his haunches.

Transport techniques

A hungry looking crocodile - which once decorated the replica of a Nile river scene which the emperor Hadrian had built in the extensive grounds of his sumptuous villa near Rome - is carved out of a greenish greyish stone which mimics the reptile's skin.

The Emperor was probably Hadrian
This statue is on display in Italy for the first time
Matidia, a Roman emperor's sister-in-law, is sculpted larger than life and poses strikingly in black and white marble.

The exhibition also explains how the Romans managed to transport blocks of coloured marble weighing many tonnes from the four corners of their huge empire by sea on 50 metre-long cargo ships.

Blocks and columns weighing many tonnes were transported on land on ox-carts or rolled along with the simplest of engineering tools including pulleys, ropes and levers.

A plaster cast taken from the family tomb of a wealthy Roman building contractor, believed to have built at least part of the original Coliseum, shows the mechanism of one type of crane used for lifting the heavy marble blocks and columns into place.

It was powered by slaves using a huge treadmill wheel.

Callipers and compasses used by Roman stone masons are also on show.

Many centuries later, in the 18th and 19th Centuries, European art collectors began to appreciate once again the qualities and varieties of coloured marble used by the Romans.

The exhibition shows some of the sample cases created by these art lovers.

From the deep green of malachite to the royal purple of porphyry, to the piercing blue of lapis lazuli, and the red of antico rosso these ancient marbles still gleam with a gem-like quality.

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23 May 02 | Entertainment
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