School of Hard Knocks

Peter Campbell

  • The Materials of Sculpture by Nicholas Penny
    Yale, 318 pp, £35.00, November 1993, ISBN 0 300 05556 0

There are two forces at work in sculpture. One pushes it towards the waxwork, where materials suggest something quite contrary to their native qualities – marble flesh, wooden flowers, metal drapery and so on. The other takes it towards material for material’s sake, towards the pebble which lives by its pebble-ish nature alone. Nicholas Penny’s book shows how these forces are reconciled.

Materials bring meanings with them. Not even the most resonantly-named dyes and pigments (‘vermilion’, ‘ultramarine’, ‘indigo’) carry as much baggage as ‘alabaster’, ‘marble’, ‘onyx’ or ‘bronze’. While a history of the materials of painting could be compressed into a simple chronology, the materials used in sculpture demand their own chapters. Which is what Penny gives them – one each for hard stones, marble, coloured marble, wood, ivory, modelled clay and wax, cast bronze, embossed and chased metal, and so on. Of each material the same kind of questions are asked: in what sizes, colours and quantities was it available? How was it cut, cast, polished or patinated? How strong, heavy, malleable, is it? The book, like a natural history, is most interesting when it is most particular; when, for example, it offers a commentary on an individual piece.

The Blessed Stanislas Kostka was commissioned in 1702 by the Jesuits in Rome from the French sculptor Pierre Legros to promote the veneration of a pious Polish novice. He is represented lying on his deathbed wearing a robe of black Belgian marble. His face, hands and pillows are of white Carrara marble, the mattress is yellow marble and the cover below banded calcite. Although it is displayed in the room where the boy died the effect is not, Penny points out, illusionistic – as a waxwork in real clothes would be. Its polished stone is ‘at once more seductive and precious, and more durable, as befits a figure that is to be cherished and venerated’. In the post-Roman centuries some kinds of stone became precious in the way protected hardwoods like Australian Black Bean are precious today. The only sources were exhausted or lost, and the calcite base of the bed that Kostka lies on came from excavations of a Roman villa. It was not just the scale of ancient monuments which seemed magical, but the very stuff of which they were made. For centuries Roman ruins were the only source of porphyry, as Penny explains:

Even after the dissolution of the Empire of the West, porphyry enjoyed a special prestige, for the dream of reviving Roman imperial authority was never forgotten. However the quarries had been closed in the early fifth century, and the only way of obtaining the material was to reuse what remained of ancient Roman architecture and sculpture, as well as the blocks of unworked stone that remained in Rome. The porphyry disks set into medieval church floors in Rome were sawn from ancient columns found among the ruins. Those ornamenting the façades of Venetian palaces were cut from columns looted from Constantinople (some of which had, long before, been removed from Rome).

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