Celestial Light and Nature’s Painting

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

by Fabio Barry
2020 Yale University Press, 438 pages, $65 hardcover, $45 paperback
Purchase this book

A work of rare conceptual rigor and enormous range and depth of research, Painting in Stone is a “biography” of a material common to many of the most celebrated buildings in the Western canon. It is the product of long thought, much travel, and years of reading. It is also gorgeous, with many sumptuous color illustrations.

The author aims to reconstruct the premodern “lithic imagination,” in which marble was understood to be a product of the earth’s exhalations that trapped celestial light, and its veins were Nature’s painting. Its properties made marble a bridge between earthly “chthonic generation” and heavenly transcendence, and therefore an ideal material for buildings made to house divinity. Its qualities conferred agency: “in the dialogue between artist and material … the animate marble always spoke first.”

Painting in Stone begins with a description of radiant architectures in the ancient Near East and Egypt and the white marble temples and statues in Greece and Rome. It also describes the Greek and Roman theories of the formation of stones and of Mother Earth as a living body, the reflection of such ideas in masonry, the Roman preference for colored marbles, the Minoan invention of buon fresco, the painted simulation of stone, and the Hellenistic First Style as a precursor to real marble revetment. 

The expansion of revetments from temples to palaces reflected fictional visions of palaces shining with brilliant colors and gems. The subsequent “depressing” story of marbling in the Western Middle Ages moves from shining revetted churches and translucent windows to the perception of marbling as vanitas, the “loophole” of simulating marbling in paint, white faux-masonry (a metaphor for the “living stones” of Scripture), and the discovery of “substitute stones” like Purbeck.

Much happier is the story of marble in Byzantium, centered as it is on Hagia Sophia, the linchpin of Barry’s argument. Covered with dramatic book-matched revetments and gold mosaic, Hagia Sophia is the summit of the painted marble architectural aesthetic. Numerous eyewitness accounts attest to its unearthly effects. The generation of these effects by marble nearly sidelines the building’s renowned architects, Anthemios of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus; they figure as part of a “collaborative culture” that created the building’s design. 

Western interest in colored marbles was reignited in the Italian Renaissance in the fifteenth century. Some stones became relics, as colors and patterns were metaphorically and even physically associated with sacred persons and events, while an historicizing impulse led architects like Alberti to emulate ancient revetments still visible in Rome. 

Marble-fronted palaces appeared in Venice and were emulated elsewhere in paint. Jeweled façades, made with real or painted gem-like pieces of marble, celebrated the virtues of princely inhabitants; diamond-point façades even more so. In the sixteenth century the tradition of architectural marble was “decisively revitalized” by the archaeological precision of Raphael and his humanist associates; witness the fiery stone in the Chigi Chapel and Peruzzi’s painted marbling of the Villa Farnesina.

This Roman renaissance was succeeded by the “reinvention” of marbled church interiors in the context of an ardent Christian antiquarianism. The Cappella Gregoriana in Saint Peter’s echoes that of Hagia Sophia, with revetments conjuring images of meadows, mountains, waters, and radiating light. Artists vied with Nature by painting on stone as well as in stone, in opus sectile and marquetry. 

Applied to architecture, the pictorial marquetry of the Spada family chapel illustrated the possibility of architecture as painting; the idea was fully realized in the works of Bernini. In the Cornaro Chapel, Bernini constructed a “brilliant mirage of color” representing the light, heat, and cloud of Saint Teresa’s divine visitation. 

Unlike Anthemios and Isidore, Bernini shared authorship of his work only with Nature, in a “dialogue between matter and vision.” The “cloud architecture” he created at Sant’ Andrea al Quirinale was influential into the eighteenth century, after which marble abruptly lost its “dialectical role.” The epilogue briefly recounts why this happened. 

Even while in awe of the whole book, specialists inevitably will find faults in the areas of their expertise. The medievalist is dismayed that the author takes the Renaissance view of the Middle Ages, and repeats the canard that medieval spoliation left ancient buildings “stripped…to the bare bones.” 

He dislikes spoliate column basilicas (“optical havoc”) and omits them from his history. The omission is necessitated by the terms of his argument, but it draws attention to the argument’s singular specificity. This is not a history of architecture, nor of marble, but of marble revetment. 

For this reader, the greatest contribution of Painting in Stone is its masterly demonstration of “materiality” as a heuristic device. Too often a buzzword used to remark the obvious, that art is realized in matter, materiality here is a critical tool for recovering meaning through the analysis of innate properties of materials.

In most cases, the architectural programs of the buildings examined—especially the leading paradigms, Hagia Sophia and the Cornaro Chapel—were already familiar, revealed long since through the traditional means of matching primary sources to visual effects. New, however, are the repeated proofs that programs (i.e., the manifestation of intentions by visual means) are not only embodied in, but spawned by the unique properties of the materials in which they appear.