Painting in Stone: Architecture and the Poetics of Marble from Antiquity to the Enlightenment

This review will appear in the Vol. 29 No. 1 / SPRING-SUMMER 2022 issue of West 86th.

Painting in Stone: Architecture and the Poetics of Marble from Antiquity to the Enlightenment
Fabio Barry
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2020
432 pp.; 214 color and 116 b/w ills.
Cloth $65; paper, $40
ISBN 9780300248166; 9780300248173

Stone, and especially marble—in the broad, ancient, and traditional sense of a veined stone lending itself to be carved and polished—is a topical subject in the history of art and architecture. 1Its attraction is related to the “material turn” in the humanities and the associated attention to the aesthetic role of material agency, which our digital environment reveals by contrast and in retrospect. Fabio Barry, an art historian teaching at Stanford University who first studied architecture at the University of Cambridge, has been contributing substantial articles to this field since the 1990s.2The present book derives from his doctoral dissertation, supervised by Joseph Connors and submitted in 2011 at Columbia University under the title “Painting in Stone: The Symbolism of Colored Marbles in the Visual Arts and Literature from Antiquity until the Enlightenment.” 3This encyclopedic work has already been used by researchers as an intellectual quarry, and so its transformation into a book, meticulously edited and lavishly illustrated, is excellent news for the scholarly community and the interested public at large.

Barry explains that his original intention had been “to study marble symbolism over only two or three centuries (the fifteenth through eighteenth),” but that he “slowly grasped the millennial continuity of the themes that took possession” of him (viii). He has rewritten the text of his dissertation, halved it in length, and augmented it with three new chapters, one of which—chapter 1—looks at the apparition of “the first buildings in colored stones” at Uruk in Mesopotamia, around 3300 to 3100 bc (5). The book thus claims to span almost five millennia, “from the Atlantic to the Euphrates” (1), but it focuses on Greco-Roman antiquity and western Europe in the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the baroque period. This is vast and long enough, as the author rightly points out, but an engagement with existing studies of marble and stone in other cultures, such as ancient China, the Inca empire, or Moghul India, to which Barry refers in passing (1), might have brought a useful element of comparison and relativized a tendency to homogeneity. Barry writes that his book “narrates a history of premodern architecture through its lithic materials,” but he is less interested in the variables of time and place than in the diffusion and stability of what he calls a “lithic imagination,” one sustained by the “three salient characteristics” of the perception of marbles: as “images of substance,” as the dwelling of “astral light,” and as “a form of natural (hence, divine) painting” (1).

With but few exceptions, such as Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, in which “the ponderous apparatus of engineering was pushed to the exterior” so as to create within “a delicate vessel of light” (169), architecture is examined here less as form and process than as Bedeutungsträger, bearer of meaning.4 Barry notes that the marble paneling of Hagia Sophia “coats the nave walls with no regard to structural expression” (171), and he sees in the work of Pietro Lombardo, especially his church of S. Maria dei Miracoli (1481–87) in Venice, “a style in which relief sculpture and architecture blended to create a super-medium, ‘pictorial architecture.’” (231). Not only sculpture, but painting itself, mosaics, objects including gems or inlays of pietre dure, and occasionally wood marquetry and textiles, are summoned by him as models of, comparisons to, or descendants of the architectural works under discussion. Indeed, it is not always clear why architecture should dominate “a biography of a material . . . as a model for the history of the imagination” (1).

The subtitle of the book appeals to the “poetics of marble,” while that of the dissertation speaks of the material’s “symbolism . . . in the visual arts and literature.” Without referring to the work of Günter Bandmann, Thomas Raff, or Monika Wagner, Barry deals mainly with the semantics of marble and contributes to an iconology of materials.5 His main source, besides the buildings, is poetry, which he sees as “the closest textual parallel to artistic intention in the visual arts,” and he observes that his book “has become as much a history of poetry on marble as of the marble medium in its own right” (4). The availability of marble and marble types, from nature or from existing structures (spolia), plays a significant role in his narrative, in which the medieval abandonment of the antique quarries looms large, but he does not deal with the economics of the marble trade. He also rejects as hackneyed and reductive the sociopolitical interpretation of marble displays as serving “the agendas of conspicuous consumption and social prestige” or as demonstrating imperial power (2, 78, 116). Instead, he favors a metaphoric logic and allows political meanings to arise figuratively, as when the assemblage of diverse marbles or the ex uno lapide aesthetics—the appearance, rather than the fact, that a building or statue be made of one piece (65)—provide images of solidity, cohesion, and unity (69).

A similar message is regarded by Barry as theological when he relates the variety of marbles in the cladding of Hagia Sophia to the paradoxical notion that “the infinite but singular God can only be represented by the greatest diversity, which simultaneously best expresses non-multiplicity” (175). Religion, much more than economics or politics, is a determining factor in Painting in Stone, but in an essentially Christian guise, considered irenically and with a Neoplatonic slant. The use of marble within Islam, which has recently garnered welcome attention, is mentioned only in passing.6 The ultimate explanation for the uses of marble in architecture and arts rests, in Barry’s eyes, on a conception of “living rock” that was formulated in ancient Greece (49) but appears to have been universal until modern science relegated it to the realm of myth, folklore, and the history of ideas. Stone, and in particular marble—etymologically related to water in movement (30, 197)—was understood to be organic, born, animate, and capable of regeneration. A momentary solidification of the earth’s “exhalations” (3), it was influenced by stars, capturing their light, especially when polished and translucent, gem-like, and it helped turn lumen, created light, into lux, increate light (141). Fossils were regarded as images (158, 197, 297), and the similitudes perceived in marble demonstrated the fecundity of nature and the possibility of divine intervention. Barry notes that “there is no modern study of geological theory and mineralogy between Theophrastos (315/314 bc) and Agricola (1556),” and his book provides many useful insights on this topic, but one wishes he had gathered them all in one place instead of returning to it so often.

Many episodes of this “biography of a material” do not deal with marble itself—even in the broad sense—but with imitations of it, starting with the “synthetic substances” preceding the use of colored marbles in the Ancient Near East (7). Barry’s 2017 essay in the Art Bulletin thus spoke of a “metamedium,” justifying the term, in the context of Giotto’s painted marble revetments in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua (ca. 1303–5), by observing that the fresco not only represented marble but also was made with earths and minerals ground down into pigment and, once bound with lime plaster, “petrified in unison to become another species of ‘painting in stone.’”7 This panlithic quality, however, applies but in part to the “marbleized versos” of quattrocento panel paintings (214–18) and not at all to the fabrics often compared to marble claddings or to the “Indian tortoise-shell” laid upon the doors of Cleopatra’s throne room (61/65 ad), according to Lucan (111). Raphael Rosenberg has recently suggested that the use of marble is only one form (albeit the name-giving one) of “marbling,” which he defines as any surface with irregular patterns.8 This radical expansion limits the relevant properties of the materials to the optical, a step that Barry, attaching great importance to the chthonic and sidereal associations of marbles, would not take. But he similarly disregards the haptic qualities of stone and is himself open to transmaterial generalizations, as when, for example, he discusses the skeuomorphic theory of Vitruvius (23–24); or observes that the painted marble at Pompeii and Herculaneum, rather than being “a cheaper substitute for real marble cladding,” was “an image not of what was but of what could be” (94); or defines “notations for stone veining” as “one of the greatest longues durées in the history of ornament” (152) and proposes to include among them the geometric patterns carved into the nave columns of Durham Cathedral (1093–1133).9The question to be raised, if one agrees with Raff’s contention that “to each material are attributed certain properties, meanings or forces that are in one way or another transferred to the works of art by way of the materials,” is which properties, meanings, or forces were transferred from one material (marble) to another, or were transferred to the works of art in a similar fashion by one material (marble) and by another.10

The title of Barry’s book is borrowed from Pliny the Elder’s critical observation that by the late first century ad, fresco painting had been “ousted” by cladding in colored marbles and the Romans had “even begun to paint in stone” (Natural History 35.1.2–3). Barry suggests that two centuries earlier the painted marble of the First Style “realized all its painterly potential when it began to birth ‘chance’ images” (96), but he is ambivalent about the use of marble itself for iconic purposes, as he is about its iconic interpretations. According to him, there is currently an “unacknowledged bias that [marble] columns and revetments must have held a coherently mimetic significance, and one that was figurally imagistic” (179). The vocabulary is confused, and semiotics, as well as distinctions between degrees of genericity and specificity in iconic suggestion, might have helped clarify the issue.11 Barry’s notion of marble as an “image of substance” and his insistence on the “autonomous metaphoricity” of Hagia Sophia (183), for example, point to a form of indexicality comparable to that claimed by later relics such as the Stone of Unction (219).12Relating “the final demise of Byzantine iconoclasm” (180) to the increasing frequency of the description of marble surfaces—especially book-matched ones, where slabs coming from the same block are flipped and arranged side by side so as to produce bilateral symmetries—as depicting “humans, animals, even entire figural compositions,” is a valid hypothesis, but Barry’s treatment of the matter is weakened by his omission of important arguments and by his use of terms such as “superstition” (180), “contamination,” and “compromise” (183) in ways that recall the assertions of the superiority of “aniconism” in the Protestant-influenced history of religions and the historiography of abstraction.13

In his epilogue, Barry justifies choosing to “discontinue the narrative of this particular book” in the eighteenth century by reference to “the advent of geology and geochemistry as analytical sciences, and the narrowing focus on the rational faculty and empirical data [that] contrasted with and contested the mythopoetic vision of the old macrocosm-microcosm” (331–32). A concluding discussion of two works by living artists, Stephen Cox and Marina Abramović, respectively, who in Barry’s understanding aspire “to coerce a miraculous presence from the cold stone,” points to another dimension of this turning point, in the assertion that the two “rescue colored marbles and translucent stones from the more familiar abasement they have suffered in multiple corporate lobbies and back-lit bars” (338). Barry’s historical thesis, in tune with Max Weber’s theory of the “disenchantment of the world,” is plausible, but it does not do justice to the fact that the extraordinary “revival in colored stones and architectural polychromy” that arose in the nineteenth and continued well into the twentieth century (332–36) was contemporary with this development. Even its revivalist quality was in line with its models, since one can already speak of an “afterlife” of colored marble revetments in medieval Constantinople (148), and Italian fifteenth- and sixteenth-century realizations such as Antonio Manetti’s Cardinal of Portugal Chapel in S. Miniato al Monte, Florence (1460–68), can be described as historicizing, archaizing, even archeological (243–45). Although Barry is primarily interested in the original design of the structures he analyzes, he must recognize that almost without exception they owe much of their current appearance to the interventions of conservators and restorers (145). Moreover, there are reasons to doubt that “disenchantment” was ever absolute. According to Gaston Bachelard, from whom Barry borrows his notion of “material imagination,” the “material elements that inspired traditional philosophies and antique cosmologies” remain relevant for the study of the modern imagination, and the Australian anthropologist Alison Leitch, conducting ethnographic research in Carrara in the 1980s, found that the stonecutters there “frequently talked about the marble quarries as living entities, and of marble as an organic material that grows.”14 One thing that did change, however, and that is of prime importance for the ”history of the imagination,” is that things seen in marble ceased to be shared and came to be regarded as “entirely subjective and personal,” as Barry himself judges when dismissing “visual evidence” proposed by John Mitchell (179).15

Whichever view one takes on these issues, Painting in Stone is a major accomplishment, and it will bring welcome attention to the marble “decorations” generally left in the shadow of wall paintings and mosaics. It is to be hoped that Barry, who knows them better than anyone, will endeavor to study more closely their facture, about which he gives few but fascinating details (102, 177, 314). The art of composing in colored marbles was once acknowledged and highly valued, as by patrons such as the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great, who in 508/509 ad asked the prefect of Rome Agapitus to send him “the most expert marble-workers of the City, so that they may join together those things that have been choicely divided, and that, when they are connected and their veins sport together, they may admirably feign a natural appearance” (178). But it has tended to become invisible and now requires the most expert observers, historians, and interpreters.16

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Dario Gamboni is emeritus professor of art history at the University of Geneva. He has been a fellow at CASVA, the Henry Moore Institute, the Clark Art Institute, the Freie Universität Berlin, the Swiss Institute for Art Research, the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, and the Getty Research Institute and a guest professor across three continents.

• • •

  1. 1 Among recent publications, see Joris van Gastel, Il Marmo Spirante: Sculpture and Experience in Seventeenth-Century Rome (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2013); Johanna Beate Lohff, Malerei auf Stein: Antonio Tempestas Bilder auf Stein im Kontext der Kunst- und Naturtheorie seiner Zeit (Munich: Hirmer, 2015); Grégoire Extermann and Ariane Varela Braga, eds., Splendor marmoris: I colori del marmo, tra Roma e l’Europa, da Paolo III a Napoleone III (Rome: De Luca, 2016); J. Nicholas Napoli and William Tronzo, eds., Radical Marble: Architectural Innovation from Antiquity to the Present (London: Routledge, 2018); Isabella Augart, Maurice Sass, and Iris Wenderholm, eds., Steinformen: Materialität, Qualität, Imitation (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019); and Dario Gamboni, Gerhard Wolf, and Jessica N. Richardson, eds., The Aesthetics of Marble: From Late Antiquity to the Present (Munich: Hirmer, 2021).
  2. 2 See in particular Fabio Barry, “ʻI marmi loquaci’: Painting in Stone,” Daidalos 56 (1995): 106–21; Barry, “Walking on Water: Cosmic Floors in Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” Art Bulletin 89, no. 4 (2007): 627–56; and Barry, “ʻPainting in Stone’: Early Modern Experiments in a Metamedium,” Art Bulletin 99, no. 3 (2017): 30–61.
  3. 3 Available through ProQuest,
  4. 4 See Günter Bandmann, Mittelalterliche Architektur als Bedeutungsträger (Berlin: Gebr. Mann, 1951); translated by Kendall Wallis as Early Medieval Architecture as Bearer of Meaning (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005).
  5. 5 See Günter Bandmann, “Bemerkungen zu einer Ikonologie des Materials,” Städel-Jahrbuch, n.s., 2 (1969): 75-100; Thomas Raff, Die Sprache der Materialien: Anleitung zu einer Ikonologie der Werkstoffe (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1994); Monika Wagner, Das Material der Kunst: Eine andere Geschichte der Moderne (Munich: Beck, 2001); and Dietmar Rübel, Monika Wagner, and Vera Wolff, eds., Materialästhetik: Quellentexte zu Kunst, Design und Architektur (Berlin: Reimer, 2005).
  6. 6 See 151, 164, 179, 204–5, 265; and see, for example, Finbarr Barry Flood, The Great Mosque of Damascus: Studies on the Makings of an Umayyad Visual Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2001); Michael Greenhalgh, “Islam and Marble: From the Origins to Saddam Hussein” (PhD diss., Australian National University, Canberra, 2005); Marcus Milwright, “ʻWaves of the Sea’: Responses to Marble in Written Sources (Ninth–Fifteenth Centuries),” in The Iconography of Islamic Art: Studies in Honour of Robert Hillenbrand, ed. Bernard O’Kane (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2005), 211–21; and Mattia Guidetti, “Churches and Mosques: Aesthetics and Transfer of Marble in Early Islam,” in Gamboni, Wolf, and Richardson, Aesthetics of Marble, 62–75.
  7. 7 Barry, “Painting in Stone,” 31.
  8. 8 Raphael Rosenberg, “The Amimetic Aesthetic of Marbling,” in Gamboni, Wolf, and Richardson, Aesthetics of Marble, 186–213.
  9. 9 On skeuomorphism, see Alina Payne, From Ornament to Object: Genealogies of Architectural Modernism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2012): 100–104.
  10. 10 Raff, Die Sprache der Materialien, 30.
  11. 11 See Dario Gamboni, “Marble for Iconophiles and for Iconophobes,” in Gamboni, Wolf, and Richardson, Aesthetics of Marble, 328–65.
  12. 12 See also Daniela Mondini, “Sacred Marbles and Holy Spots in Rome: Interpretations and Re-Interpretations in the Middle Ages,” in Gamboni, Wolf, and Richardson, Aesthetics of Marble, 76–89.
  13. 13 Two important essays included in the bibliography but not discussed in the text, for example, are James Trilling, “The Image Not Made by Hands and the Byzantine Way of Seeing,” in The Holy Face and the Paradox of Representation, ed. Herbert L. Kessler and Gerhard Wolf (Bologna: Nuova Alfa Edtoriale, 1998): 109–27; and Philippe Cordez, “Les marbres de Giotto: Astrologie et naturalisme à la Chapelle Scrovegni,” Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 55, no. 1 (2013): 9–25. One can also usefully compare Barry’s interpretation of the reference to an acheiropoieton in the sixth-century hymn celebrating the Edessa cathedral’s marble cladding (181–83) with the more recent one by Gerhard Wolf (“Marble Metamorphosis,” in Gamboni, Wolf, and Richardson, Aesthetics of Marble, 24–25).
  14. 14 Gaston Bachelard, L’eau et les rêves: Essai sur l’imagination de la matière (Paris: Corti, 1942): 9–10; and Alison Leitch, “Materiality of Marble: Explorations in the Artistic Life of Stone,” Thesis Eleven 103, no. 1 (2010): 67–70.
  15. 15 The reference is to John Mitchell, “Believing Is Seeing: The Natural Image in Late Antiquity,” in Architecture and Interpretation, ed. Jill A. Franklin, T. A. Heslop, and Christine Stevenson (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 2012): 16–41.
  16. 16 The source is Theodor Mommsen, ed., Cassiodori Senatoris variae (Berlin: Wiedmann, 1894): 16–17.

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