The travertino of Marmore and its millenial fame: from the Naturalis Historia of Plinio to the Vite of Vasari
“In exitu paludis Reatinae saxum crescere”, or“Where finish the Reatina swampy area grows the stone”, wrote Pliny the Elder, famous naturalist of the ancient time, author of the monumental Naturalis Historia. To understand his statement is necessary to know that Pliny was a geologist ante litteram, animated by the curiosity that dead poisoned by the smoke of the Vesuvius during the very well-known eruption dated back to the 79 AD that destroied Pompei and Ercolano; attracted from the extraordinary phenomenon, Pliny decided in fact to take a ship and arrived to the interested area to observe better the eruption and spent the night in Stabia, in a friend's house, where found the death becuase of the gas.
The stone where Pliny wrote, that he knew they formed spontaneously through a process of precipitations of carbonate of calcium (travertine), of whom the Velino's waters are riched, should be confused, from the inhabitants of the place, with the marble. This is the real cause of the historical mistake that the Waterfall has the toponomy with whom is became famous all over the world.
But we try to understand better the peculiarities of this stone: it is travertine, made by a spongy solidity; the most known term is spongy stone, from latin Spongia=Spugna. This kind of stone has been used since the ancient time both in Terni and Rieti, or the two main populated centres near the Waterfall, the calcareous stone of Marmore has been found a large use as a material for building up to the seventies of the XX century, for example in the several buidlings designed from the Roman architect, but Ternan of adoption, Mario Ridolfi. This kind of particular travertine was appreciated by Ridolfi, because was a very light stone and of good work, but on the contrary becomes resistant and solid with the contact of the air. For these resons it is conceivable that as soon as the cliff of Marmore, that was continually full of stagnant waters of the Velino river, was released, the ancients had to start to extract blocks for the construction, with the possibility to admire the hardness and the white colour. Characteristics recognized by many scholars.
The monuments of the ancient Interamna Nahars (the name of the Ternanan Municipality of the Roman time) is a result of a large use of the travertine of Marmore, an evident sign of the intensive use of the caves since the III century BC. Great blocks of rough and irregular form are easy to recognize in the wall of the bridge called "Del Toro", near the Waterfall, and in the wide tract of the citizen walls that are still there in that street that once had tha name of "Via delle Mura" (a title that the toponomastic office has cancelled without a good reason), between piazza Briccialdi and the entrance to the Park “Gianfranco Ciaurro”. Without considering that other visible tracts are included in the medioeval Walls that from the entrance of the park arrive up to Viale della Rinascita: some blocks have still today carved the signs of the cave, as for example taht is extracted from the Marmore Plain.
Centuries later, we find the same spongy stone, but in a more refined way and form, to obtain square tiles (cubilia) that form the barrier in opus reticulatum of the Roman Amphitheatre, so as the external perimeter of the Theatre (the bulding technique still evident in the finds, today unfortunately degraded, located in Via del Pozzo).
In the Middle Age, moreover, the Marmore's stone, has been extracted in loco and wasn't expensive for the purchase ans the transportation, was the unique building material that we could find in the city and around. We find it in all the worship buildings of medieval foundations (the Ternanan churches as San Salvatore, San Pietro, San Lorenzo, San Tommaso, San Cristoforo, San Francesco, San Marco, Sant’Alò, the monastery of San Benedetto in Fundis near Stroncone, the parish church of Santo Stefano near Collescipoli,the Sanctuary of San Francesco in Piediluco, the Abbey of San Nicolò in San Gemini, ecc.) and the civil construction building (the medioeval walls, the tower-houses, the most ancient palaces in the historic centre). In coclusion, all the great works, since the Roman domination up to the end of the XV century, have been realized only thanks to the rich deposits of spongy distributed both in the Marmore cliff and at valley. there were different caves, between whom one is still perfectly recognized near the Upper Outlook, along the trail n.5 of the excursio-tourist area.
Another marble mine of the same origin for calcareous rainfall has been remembered in the natural cavities sources that remember Cesi, where the German writer Johann Jacob Volkmann admired “the solitified drops that for its clearness seemed to the crystal" (critical-historic information of Italy, 1770-71). Par excellence moreover, also the calcareous rocks used in the northern Nerina Valley, for example that are used for the construction of the Sant’Eutizio Abbey in Preci, are called from the Historicians of the Architecture the so-called spoongy stones. For centuries has been used also another vocabulary, by now obsolete, or “tartar”: it has been defined in nature thanks to the crystallization of the limestone on the vegetable organism as musk and lichene that grows up in the humid environments as lakes, swampy areas and Waterfalls.
A famous French writer, the marquess De Sade illustrated by words about the result of the calcareous action in the Voyage in Italy, 1775-76.
Speaking bout the use of the the spongy stones in the history, we know that in the XVI century the fame of the travertine in Marmore crossed the local borders. We can date the historical goal because we know the exat day in which the florentine architect Antonio da Sangallo il Giovane (author of the extraordinary buildings as Palazzo Farnese in Rome, Forte Michelangelo in Civitavecchia, the St. Patrick Well in Orvieto, the Rocca Paolina in Perugia), axcepted the Pope Paolo III Farnese assignment who ordered him the construction of a new emissary of the Velino river, deeper that the Canale Reatino, to improve the downflow of the stagnant waters in the Nera river. On 11 December 1545 Sangallo was in Marmore for the beginning of the works, and few months later in Florence, as gift to Cosimo I de’ Medici, the future Grand Duke of Toscana, some “tartar” blocks, that maybe has been used for the rustic decorations of the Boboli Garden Fountains, that has been designed by the architect Niccolò Tribolo right in that period, after the Palazzo Pitti passage of propoerty to the Medici family (1549).
In a letter dated 22 March 1546 (on 3 August of that year Sangallo would be died of malariawhile he was working in the Marmore Waterfall for the construction of the Paolina channel), the brillant Tuscan architect celebrated enthusiastically that stones.
At the moment is cenrtainly that the quote that for centuries has passed under the silence of Vasari, tells about the glorious history of the italian Art during the Renaissance period and is included in the cultural heritage of Terni.