A Book of Stone: Adam Wirsing’s Marmora (1776)

“Marble is a brilliant material”, exclaims the art historian Michael Greenhalgh, while listing the stone’s admirable properties: beauty, solidity, polish, and the ability to endure. Without this stately rock, the Great Pyramid of Giza, Parthenon, and Taj Mahal would have decayed to dust long ago. From the Greek word for “shining stone”, marble illuminates the past by letting it stay visible. And the words we use to distinguish its types are almost as lustrous as the thing itself. Calacatta, Talathello, Carrara, Levadia, Makrana . . . and more.

“There are few productions of the natural world that exhibit a greater variety of kinds or species than marble”, wrote a correspondent for The Monthly Review in 1776, praising Adam Ludwig Wirsing’s Marmora et adfines aliquos lapides coloribus suis exprimi (Illustrations of marble types and some related stones). An engraver, art dealer, and limner, Wirsing published his book in Latin and German, adopting the Latinized sobriquet of Adamicus Ludovicus for the occasion. Though born in Dresden, he focused on his adult environs, the area surrounding Nuremberg, and worried less about aesthetics than authenticity. He produced his guide to “banish the confusion, and prevent the frauds, that take place in this branch of natural history”.

Today, Wirsing is best remembered for the quiet elegance of his illustrations. Composed in numbered squares, six to a page, these images are colourful and complex odes to stone. In some, the patterns look like landscapes in miniature, abstract anticipations of artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, who shared Wirsing’s marbled pallet. Squinting at other squares, marble’s limestone origins appear preserved within the vivid plates: archaic lifeforms, transformed under geological pressure, swirling and circling just out of sight. Long after the last copy of Wirsing’s Marmora crumbles between a careful reader’s fingers, his object of study will remain unfazed, graceful, and awaiting rediscovery.

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