by Emmi Micallef
January 04, 2017
My soul is that of an artist and I would give anything to live that 18th century bohemian life, painting in my small atelier in Southern France. Food being unimportant and with so little material needs - bills, too. I would soak up 12 hours in a day lost to my exploration of line, tone, value and emotion. Out of my reverie, 2017 crashes before me and my artist's temperament is forced to take a back seat to a competitive world where the bottom dollar and sales crush my spirit. Ugh. Sigh.
Thinking of my 10 year-old daughter and the strong-willed role model mother I want to be for her...I begin, obviously, searching for why black and white marble floors are so iconic? So beautiful? I have my opinions, of course. First, I like the more simple geometric black and white marble floor - the black and white checker marble floor for example or the famous white octagon and black cabochon marble floor. I like larger, chunkier motifs where I can visually see the forms that remain curiously calming, keeping my eye held in interest. As a color cleansing palate or a focal point contrast - I also like black and marble floors for what they do for a home. What do they do, you ask?
As an artist, I see beauty and emotion with contrast - but in a subtle, quiet way - like a splash of crimson on a mostly grey sepia painting. Those minimal crimson brushstrokes, placed on the canvas to draw attention to something important - like a whisper when everyone is yelling - is the correct ratio I believe. John Singer Sargent...one of his portraits below...says it all.
Thus ushers in the black and white marble floor. Entry way? Surrounded by warm woods and touches of...crimson...or apricot? Heavenly.
A kitchen floor? With periwinkle grey blue cabinets and a black marble counter top? The neutral black and white marble floor soaks up color contrast like a winter rock bathing in sunshine. These are images that make me happy...and curious. Returning to the point of my blog - the questions remains WHY. Why are these black and white marble floors so iconic? They speak of elegance, of history...but what history? From where? From whom do I owe my gratitude?
Enter in the Mosaics of Khivbat al-Mafjar. A few kilometers north of Jericho, at 12,000 years old, this is one of the oldest cities in the world. This image below depicts the ruins of a palace and the largest and most artistically accomplished mosaic floor to survive the ancient world.
Drawing from Byzantine and Sasanian (Persian) traditions, the artists at Khivbat al-Mafjar created a new aesthetic of intricate geometric motifs. Based on infinitely repeatable patterns of squares and circles, these forms were overlapped and interlaced. The defining term came to be known as tessellations, "a flat surface upon which is the tilling of a plane using one or more geometric shapes called tiles, with no gaps". A phyical tessellation is the tiling made of materials such as "cemented ceramic squares or hexagons with functions like a durable and water resistant pavement for floors and wall coverings". This iconic art form came to be a characteristic of geometric art across the Islamic world.
Enter now Alexander the Great.
Alexander III of Macedon (20/21 July 356 BC – 10/11 June 323 BC) was a king of the Ancient Greek kingdom of Macedon. At the age of twenty he succeeded his father and spent most of his ruling years on an unprecedented military campaign through Asia and northeast Africa. He created one of the largest empires of the ancient world, stretching from Greece to northwestern India.
Following the conquests of Alexander the Great, Greek or Hellenistic culture interacted with the magnificent cultures of Persia, Central Asia, India and Egypt. As a result in terms just of art and architecture, the Greek culture was heavily influenced by stone sculptures and mosaic patterns and tiling of the Arabian peninsula.
The image above is an ancient Greek mosaic floor in one of Greece's largest Panhellenic sanctuaries holding athletic and religious festivals.
This now leads us to Rome, the Roman conquest of Greece in 146 BC and the Roman victory established as a super regional power by the second century BC. During the 450 years of conquest before victory, the culture of ancient Greece influenced the Romans and was their basis of art, philosophy, society, and education. Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome were two interlocking civilizations, and created a Greco-Roman world in which Greek and Roman society flourished and wielded great influence through Europe, North Africa and Southern Asia.
In terms of Roman art and architecture, from the influence of ancient Persia via Ancient Greece, those iconic mosaic floors became signatures of the Papacy and the nobility alike. The essence of Greek art was noble simplicity and sedate grandeur and thus, the adoption of patterned tiles with larger geometric formats came into play. Using materials indigenous to Roman antiquity, exclusive shops and artisans preferred the white marble from a city called Carrara for it's elegance and white polished patina.
The above image is a floor of a women's bathhouse in the ruined ancient Greco-Roman city of Herculaneum near modern day Naples, Italy.
Surviving fragments and archaeological discoveries from classical antiquity continued it's influential push from which the Renaissance was born. Proceeding further into modern-day history during the 18th and 19th centuries, the ever-important Neo-Classical Revival movement helped shape the art and architecture in Europe and America. From government building to châteaux, the iconic black and white marble floors were always present and have always evoked a symbol of nobility and wealth - an ode, a whisper of Greek antiquity, but a knowing look to ancient Persia.
Reading over my blog, I feel I have come full-circle. I look at this image above now and my mind fires with new knowledge. I know from where this floor comes. I also know why, I believe, so many are drawn to these floors. These floors are humanity's lineage in a way - tracing back to antiquity to cultures maybe not our own, but like the movements of a sea - we are all swept up and back and mixed up and jumbled. As humans we connect to what we feel is meaningful and beautiful - and for me, aside from contrast and color theory in interior design, these black and white marble floors anchor my eyes and mind to a subconscious I did not understand until now. I am sure with knowledge, all things are interconnected on a minutiae scale. And with a soul of an artist and a mother to a 10 year old, I can report back to her that today, I was caught up in reverie of the beauty before us...called humanity. Thanks to these iconic black and white marble floors.
Emmi Micallef, co-founder Historic Decorative Materials, a division of Pavé Tile, Wood & Stone, Inc.
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