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Red-Painted Stones in Roman Architecture

Author(s): Pier Luigi Tucci


Source: American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 115, No. 4 (October 2011), pp. 589-610
Published by: Archaeological Institute of America
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3764/aja.115.4.0589 .
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Red-Painted Stones in Roman Architecture


PIER LUIGI TUCCI

The practice of using red paint on the squared-stone


masonry of some of the most important buildings of imperial Rome has been generally overlooked. The only
exception is a very short passage by Lugli in his 1957
work on Roman building techniques, where he notes
that in some monuments (hall of the Forma Urbis,
Mausoleum of Hadrian, Temple of Divus Antoninus
and Diva Faustina) the blocks were painted, whilst laid
in place, with a red color, made of earth and water,
on one or more surfaces.1 For the hall of the Forma
Urbis, it is likely that Lugli had in mind the travertine
blocks of the rear wall of the southeast portico of the
Templum Pacis, whose section is visible on the right
side of the brick wall of the Severan Marble Plan. Although most of these blocks are now broken, two show
the original vertical ends, which still preserve some pale

traces of a red coat. Strangely, he does not mention


the blocks visible inside the monastery of SS. Cosma
e Damiano, where the red surfaces are much better
preserved (fig. 1) and were already visible in his day.
Luglis statement, however, is not correct for a
number of reasons. For instance, he seems to follow
a chronological order in his list of buildings, thus assigning the red-painted blocks of the Templum Pacis to the original Vespasianic phase of the building
(7175 C.E.), whereas they belong to the post-192 C.E.
Severan restoration.2 Furthermore, four other buildings can be added to Luglis list: the Colosseum, the
Temple of Divus Hadrianus in the Campus Martius,
the so-called podium by the Arch of Titus, and the
Arch of Septimius Severus. It is also worth noting that
in these buildings the red surfaces were painted well
before the blocks were laid in place and not whilst laid
in place. If the red paint really consisted of earth and
water, as Lugli believed, it would not have lasted until
today. Also, Luglis indication of the painted surfaces
(one or more surfaces) is vague; indeed, with just a
few exceptions, the red layer appears only on the lower
surface and on one vertical surface of each block.
Lugli admitted that the purpose of this colored coating was not clear, and he associated the red layer with
the practice of smearing the top surfaces of the already
laid blocks with a thin layer of pure and very diluted
lime, before placing a new row of blocks on them.3 Not
even this explanation is convincing, mainly because in
the three buildings mentioned by Lugli, the red layer
is accompanied by precisely that white layer of lime

* I gave a preliminary notice on this topic at the conference Les chantiers de construction en Italie et dans les provinces romaines: Lconomie des chantiers, held in Paris at
the cole Normale Suprieure (1011 December 2009); I decided, however, not to publish my paper in the proceedings
of that conference, and I thank Hlne Dessales for her understanding. I wish to thank Leonardo Lombardi and Marie
Jackson for their geological expertise; Janet DeLaine for her
advice on architectural matters; and Amanda Claridge, Lucos
Cozza, Marie-Laurence Haack, Clemente Marconi, Daniele
Manacorda, Enrico Zanini, Cecilia Bernardini, Domenico
Poggi, and Allan Ceen for their collaboration. Lynne Lancaster shared with me her knowledge of the Colosseum and gave
me her advice on a variety of issues. I also thank the friars of SS.
Cosma e Damiano for allowing me access to both monastery

and basilica over the years and the Nobile Collegio Chimico
Farmaceutico at S. Lorenzo in Miranda. I am also grateful to
the History of Art Department of the Johns Hopkins University for providing generous funds for the analysis of the red
samples. Last but not least, I wish to thank the reviewers of
the AJA and Editor-in-Chief Naomi J. Norman for her observations and support, as well as the AJA staff. Translations and
illustrations are by the author unless otherwise noted.
1
Lugli 1957, 1:242.
2
Lugli (1957, 1:3036) believed that the Temple of Divus
Antoninus and Diva Faustina was the last building made of
blocks of Lapis Albanus in Rome, thus implying that their use
in the Templum Pacis dated to the age of Vespasian. The same
mistake occurs in Frank 1924, 24.
3
Lugli 1957, 1:243.

Abstract
The presence of red paint on the surfaces of some travertine and Lapis Albanus blocks has rarely been noticed
and never investigated. Yet it deserves consideration since
it preserves evidence of an unknown building technique
that involved the use of red ocher and binders such as
burnt gypsum, which was employed in the city of Rome
from the late first to early third centuries C.E. I present
evidence for the presence of red-painted blocks in Rome
and investigate the composition of the red paint. I also
comment on what has previously been reported about the
subject and argue that the function of the red layer was
to certify that the architect and/or the contractor had
approved the painted surfaces.*

introduction

American Journal of Archaeology 115 (2011) 589610

589

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Fig. 1. Blocks of Lapis Albanus used in the Severan restoration of the Templum Pacis (now in the
monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano), with a red coat on the lower and vertical contact surfaces: left,
rear wall of the southeast portico (monasterys ground floor); right, junction between the rear wall
of the southwest portico and the side wall of the hall toward the Via Sacra (second landing of the
monasterys main staircase).

(fig. 2). To counter Luglis argument, I first present


the evidence I have collected on this subject and then
argue that the red paint served to mark the surfaces of
the blocks that were approved by the architect and/
or contractor and were available to be placed in the
building under construction.

occurrence of red-painted stones in rome


Blocks whose surfaces are characterized by a coat of
red paint are visible in at least seven important buildings, all in the city of Rome (fig. 3). With the exception of the Colosseum, built beginning in 71 C.E. and

restored after the fire of 217 C.E., the monuments of


the series were constructed with red-painted blocks during the second century C.E. They are the Mausoleum
and the Temple of Divus Hadrianus (built in 130139
C.E. and 138145 C.E., respectively), the Temple of
Divus Antoninus and Diva Faustina (after 140 C.E.),
the Templum Pacis as restored by Septimius Severus
(after 192 C.E.), the podium by the Arch of Titus (ca.
200 C.E.), and the Arch of Septimius Severus (195203
C.E.). Most of these buildings were made of blocks of
Lapis Tiburtinus (travertine) and Lapis Albanus (also
known as peperino).4

4
Lanciani (1881, 359) noticed a thin layer of limewash occasionally painted red in the piers of the Aqua Claudia (52 C.E.). Since
the restorations of this aqueduct were done in brick, Lancianis piers should belong to the original Claudian phase. Nevertheless,
some of the piers are built with different tuff blocks (Ceccherelli and Mancioli 2001, 172), which suggests possible restorations in
ashlar masonry. L. Cozza and A. Claridge (pers. comm. 2011) noticed the red layer in the northernmost of the attic rooms of the
Arch of Septimius Severus (dedicated in 203 C.E.). This room is missing all its concrete flooring; the block of travertine in the center
of the floor has been smashed into fragments, apparently during an attempt to extract it from the core of the arch. Some fragments
have been left in the hole, and one or two certainly had a dressed surface covered with red paint. Since the top surfaces of all the surrounding blocks and some of their vertical sides are exposed, without any traces of red paint, the surface in question is likely to be
the underside of the smashed block. Brilliant (1967, 667) mentioned this hole but not the red layer.

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RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

I have seen the red layer in different sectors of the


Flavian amphitheater, on the lower surfaces of a few
travertine blocks at level I (ground level); specifically,
it appears in the pier that is now closer to the arena between bays S and 1 (fig. 4a); in the seventh pier (starting from the exterior) between bays 38 and N (see fig.
4b); in the two inner piers of the outer ambulatory at
bay 44; in the sixth pier (starting from the exterior)
between bays 57 and W (where the lower surfaces of
two travertine blocks are clearly visible because of a
gap in the masonry); and in a single pier at level II
(the outer surviving pier, originally the third starting
from the exterior, between bays 58 and 59) (see fig.
4c).5 Substantial sections of the structure usually considered to be original Flavian work in fact belong to
the reconstructions made after the fire of 217 C.E.6
Thus, only the first two piers in my list are certainly
Flavian. The original piers in the ambulatories do not
show any traces of red paint, as if this were used only
in the smaller piers located along the short axis of the
Colosseum. All the other red blocks belong to the sectors rebuilt from the ground up in the Severan age.7
All in all, in the Colosseum the red layer seems to be
very well hidden, and I have never seen it in combination with the white layer in that building. Perhaps
it was precisely in the Flavian amphitheater that Roman builders began to use the red paint, possibly in
an experimental way. Its rarity may be due to very occasional use; indeed, in the second-century buildings
whose blocks are characterized by the red layer, the
colored surfaces are not difficult to find. Apparently
the red paint was used again and more extensively during the post-217 C.E. restoration of the amphitheater
itself (which is not surprising, considering that the
red paint is attested in other Severan buildings). Interestingly, the Colosseum witnessed the first and last
use of the red paint.8 It is also worth stressing that the
amphitheater and the Templum Pacis, both presumably paid for from the booty of the Jewish War, were
built at the same time and with blocks of travertine

5
The numbers of the bays refer to the inscribed Roman numerals above the arches of the facade (Lancaster 1998, 147 n.
13, figs. 23, 24 [plans of levels III with labeled bays]).
6
Lancaster 1998.
7
No doubt other traces would be found if a more extensive search were conducted. Indeed, when my research was
concluded, the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma announced that traces of red paint on some piers of the outer
ambulatory at level II were discovered during the course of
a preliminary restoration ( JanuaryApril 2011) (La Repubblica [10 April 2011] 1). These traces have been tentatively
interpreted as the marks used to put in place the travertine
blocks before the inauguration of 80 C.E. (although the piers

591

Fig. 2. Blocks of the Templum Pacis, showing lime and


red paint: a, b, Flavian blocks of Tufo Lionato with white
layer of lime in the rear wall of the Templum Pacis (along
the clivus, where the white layer is often missing, and
inside the monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano, respectively); c, d, Severan blocks of Lapis Albanus in the rear
wall of the porticoes (now monasterys ground floor);
e, very thick white layer on the top surface of a Severan
travertine block (rear wall of the southeast portico, monasterys ground floor). In the inset, the white layer fills a
red-painted cavity in the lower surface of a Severan block
of Lapis Albanus (rear wall of the southwest portico, second landing of the monasterys main staircase).

in question would belong to the post-217 C.E. restoration).


8
At level II of the northern ambulatory of the amphitheater, an erratic block of travertine, now laid at the foot of a
pier, has a surface (the vertical one, in its actual position) with
clear traces of red paint preserved (see fig. 4d). The painted
surface is not perfectly smooth. This block may even belong
to a mid second-century restoration of the amphitheater: two
of the buildings with red-painted blocks are listed in the Historia Augusta among the works of Antoninus Piusthe templum Hadriani honori patris dicatum and the sepulchrum
Hadriani (SHA Ant. Pius 8.2)together with the earliest repairs to the Colosseum (instauratum amphitheatrum).

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Fig. 3. Locations of Roman buildings with red-painted stones (in chronological order): 1, Colosseum; 2, Mausoleum of Hadrian; 3, Temple of Divus Hadrianus; 4, Temple of Divus Antoninus and Diva Faustina; 5, Templum
Pacis (Severan restoration); 6, podium by the Arch of Titus; 7, Arch of Septimius Severus (modified from LTUR
3:484, fig. 190, s.v. Muri Aureliani).

and Tufo Lionato.9 The red layer was never applied


to the blocks of tuff, and its appearance in both the
Flavian and Severan piers of travertine in the Colosseum, but only on the Severan blocks of the Templum
Pacis, indicates that the practice of using red paint
cannot on its own be considered a reliable element
for dating construction.
In the Mausoleum of Hadrian, the red paint seems
to have been more systematically used. The colored
paint was invariably applied to the lower surface of
the blocks, both of travertine and Lapis Albanus, and

on one of the vertical contact surfaces; it never affects


any other finished surfaces. I have carefully examined
the west side of the circular drum, the facing of which
has been robbed over the centuries, leaving exposed
the concrete core and the ends of occasional headers intended to bond the facing to the core itself (fig.
5a, b). Here, the red surfaces of the blocks of Lapis
Albanus are often in contact with the concrete core,
suggesting that the purpose of the red layer was not
to make the blocks slide or to bind them together
indeed, the blocks were laid in place and eventually

After his triumph in 71 C.E., Vespasian built the Templum Pacis, having prodigious resources of wealth on which to draw
( Joseph. BJ 7.5.7). These resources might well have been the riches previously looted by Nero (cf. Plin. HN 34.19.84), but they are
generally connected with the booty of the Jewish War (see Claridge 1998, 15354), since the great majority of Roman temples were
victory monuments. Although the most important spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem were stored in the Templum Pacis itself,
nevertheless silver and gold and ivory in masses . . . flowing, so to speak, like a river were displayed during Vespasians triumphal
procession ( Joseph. BJ 7.5.5). The construction of the Colosseum out of the spoils of the Jewish War is attested by the Vespasianic
inscription CIL 6 40454a deciphered on a block of Proconnesian marble reused in 444 C.E. See Alfldi (1995) and particularly Feldman (2001, 60), who lists other buildings financed from the booty of the Jewish War. On an earlier reuse of that inscribed block, see
Conti 2008.

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RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

593

Fig. 4. Red paint on the lower surfaces of travertine


blocks at the Colosseum: a, level I (ground level), in the
pier that is now closer to the arena between bays S and 1;
b, level I, in the seventh pier (starting from the exterior)
between bays 38 and N; c, level II, in the outer surviving pier, originally the third starting from the exterior,
between bays 58 and 59; d, level II, block of travertine
in the northern ambulatory, not in situ.

Fig. 5. Red-painted blocks at the Mausoleum of


Hadrian: a, b, blocks of Lapis Albanus inserted into
the concrete core of the west side of the circular
drum; c, red underface of a block of travertine
above a modern passage in the entrance corridor;
df, travertine blocks and voussoirs painted red in
the funerary chamber.

surrounded by the concrete. One cannot exclude,


however, the possibility that most of the red-painted
surfaces of these headers originally matched other
blocks that are now missing (otherwise, their surviving ends would be rough). In the entrance corridor,
above a modern passage on the left, the red layer is
very well preserved on the inferior surface of a row of
travertine blocks (see fig. 5c); the dowel holes attest
that these were originally laid on a lower course of
blocks, apparently removed to open the passage itself.
The red paint appears elsewhere in the entrance corridor and also in the vestibule. There, the rectangular niche on the left is particularly noteworthy since
the underfaces of the travertine blocks of its ceiling

are perfectly dressed but not painted red, apparently


because they were not superimposed on other blocks.
The presence of dowel holes and a pour channel suggests a reuse or at least a change of destination of the
blocks themselves. The travertine blocks in the walls
of the funerary chamber are also painted red, as are
the voussoirs of both arches and vault (see fig. 5df),
whereas, as far as I could see, the red paint is totally
absent in the uppermost blocks of the Mausoleum.
The red layer also appears on the blocks of Lapis
Albanus of the Temple of Divus Hadrianus, which was
built as the Mausoleum of Hadrian was being completed. While a careful examination of the ashlar masonry of the exterior north side of the cella (toward the

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[AJA 115

Piazza di Pietra) is not possible from ground level, on


the opposite side of the same wall, through the gaps in
the structure and wherever the blocks are broken, the
red layer, as usual, appears only on the lower surface
and on one of the side surfaces (fig. 6).
In the Temple of Divus Antoninus and Diva Faustina, the red layer is clearly visible on the lower surfaces
of the blocks of Lapis Albanus used in the podium,
especially inside the holes left by the robbers who removed the iron clamps (fig. 7, bottom) and on a few
side faces (e.g., at the west corner of the podium, below the modern nameplate, and near the entrance to
the Roman Forum [see fig. 7, inset]). In the wall of
the cella toward the basilica of SS. Cosma e Damiano,
the red layer is not visible (the joints are extremely
dirty), but on the opposite side of the temple, within
the rooms of the convent of S. Lorenzo in Miranda,
the red layer can still be detected on the lower surfaces of some blocks (see fig. 7, top). It needs to be
stressed that the walls of the podium were so massive as to require rows of blocks placed transversely,
so that in most cases only their ends are visible. No
doubt these blocks were not lifted by means of lewis
irons, because whenever a long vertical surface is visible, the hole used for the forceps also appears. The
blocks of the side walls of the cella were also lifted by
means of forceps. This suggests that the use of red
paint has nothing to do with the way the blocks were
lifted: indeed, the red-painted blocks of Lapis Albanus
used in the Severan restoration of the Templum Pacis
were lifted by means of lewis irons.
In the podium by the Arch of Titus, which is usually
identified with the Temple of Jupiter Stator and dates
to ca. 200 C.E. (the same period as the restoration of

the Templum Pacis), the red paint is visible on the


lower and vertical joints of both travertine and Lapis
Albanus blocks, the painted surfaces of which are not
perfectly smooth (fig. 8). Unfortunately, this structure
is so badly preserved that it is virtually impossible to
reconstruct its original layout.10
In contrast, the walls made of blocks of Lapis Albanus and travertine from the Templum Pacis, restored after the fire of 192 C.E. and incorporated into
the monastery and basilica of SS. Cosma e Damiano,
are still standing to their full height despite a series
of demolitions that occurred over the centuries. The
Severan red-painted blocks can be seen at the extremities of the surviving stretch of ashlar wall toward
the Basilica of Maxentius and in the rear wall of the
southeast and southwest porticoes.11 The red layer, instead, is clearly missing from the blocks of travertine
and Tufo Lionato from the original Flavian phase.12
The Severan blocks invariably show the red coat on
the lower surface and only one contact surface; it does
not matter whether they were veneered with marble
slabs, as attested by the typical holes for bronze hooks;
hidden by wooden ceilings and roofs; or free, as in
the upper rows.13
The Templum Pacis is a perfect case study because
the preservation of the red paint in that structure is
excellent, and blocks at different levels can be examined. In addition, the rear wall of its southeast portico,
the thickness of which is approximately 90 cm (3 Roman feet), consists of courses of single blocks, including the corner between the rear walls of the southeast
and southwest porticoes as well as the joint between
the latter and the side wall of the ancient hall corresponding to the basilica of SS. Cosma e Damiano. Such

10
On the identification of the podium, see Ziolkowski
2004, 6584.
11
I have noticed the imprints of at least 20 courses of blocks
75 cm high left on the northwest buttress of the Basilica of
Maxentius, attesting that the perimeter wall of the Templum
Pacis was almost completely rebuilt with blocks of Lapis Albanus. Indeed, some red blocks not in situ were brought to
light near this buttress during Cozzas excavation of the hall
of the Severan Marble Plan (19551956). Now, these blocks
also show some red-painted marks, which were surely painted
during Cozzas excavation. Other painted blocks were found
in the recent excavation of the axial hall of the Templum Pacis; again in this case, the red layer has not been noticed by
the diggers (Fogagnolo and Rossi 2010). Reused fragments
of blocks of Lapis Albanus with red surfaces can be seen in a
wall built against the Basilica of Maxentius near the hall of the
Marble Plan, as well as in the 17th-century foundation (now
above ground level) of the southeast wall of the basilica of SS.
Cosma e Damiano. (The fragments should be the remainders
of the demolition of the southeast wall of the hall toward the
Via Sacra.)
12
The walls of the Templum Pacis at SS. Cosma e Dami-

ano clearly show that the blocks of Tufo Lionato constitute


the original Flavian structure, while the blocks of Lapis Albanus belong to a second phase structurally linked to the
Severan brickwork. In the first phase, both the travertine
and the tuff blocks were lifted by means of forceps, while
the use of lewis irons is typical of the higher blocks of Lapis
Albanus. In the case of the Templum Pacis, the presence of
the red layer does constitute another key factor in distinguishing between the Flavian and Severan phases, even in
the case of travertine blocks, attesting that the Severan restoration after the fire of 192 C.E. was more radical than was
generally assumed (and showingtogether with Peruzzis
drawings (Florence, Uffizi Gallery, architectural drawings
38283)that the Christian basilica was installed in a Flavian hall of the complex). On the Templum Pacis, see Tucci
2009, (forthcoming).
13
The marble threshold between the hall of SS. Cosma e
Damiano and the so-called Temple of Romulus may also be
Severan, like the marble elements reused for the main entrance toward the Via Sacra. Its lower surface, which bears the
traces left by the chisel, is completely painted red.

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RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

Fig. 6. Red-painted blocks of Lapis Albanus at the Temple of Divus Hadrianus (north wall
of the cella, toward the interior). The red layer appears on the lower surfaces (top, bottom)
and on the vertical surfaces (inset ).

Fig. 7. Red-painted blocks of Lapis Albanus at the Temple of Divus Antoninus and Diva
Faustina (northwest wall of the cella): interior (top) and exterior (bottom) lower surfaces
and vertical surface (inset ).

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PIER LUIGI TUCCI

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Fig. 8. Red layer on the blocks of the podium by the Arch of Titus: lower surfaces of blocks of
travertine and Lapis Albanus (top and bottom, respectively) and a general view of one of the surviving parts of the podium (inset ).

a simple structure helps illuminate how the blocks


were laid in place and why only certain surfaces were
painted red. In addition, we are dealing with one of
the last examples of red-painted blocks in Rome, when
the practice of using red paint had become almost
standard (at least in imperial commissions). These
elements explain why the Templum Pacis is given
precedence here over the other buildings mentioned
above. All these buildings taken together reveal that
the presence of red paint is not useful for dating and
cannot be related to specific lifting devices (the painted blocks were lifted with iron dowels and forceps as
well); but it can be associated with particular building
materials (Lapis Tiburtinus, Lapis Albanus) and can
be seen only on the lower surface and on one vertical
contact surface of a given block. Last but not least,
the red paint must have something to do with imperial commissions. I believe, however, that the only way
to take a step forward and determine the function of
the red paint is to focus on the Severan blocks of the
Templum Pacis and find a common context for them
and their predecessors.

For instance, evidence from the blocks at the Templum Pacis demonstrates that the red paint was applied
when the holes for the iron dowels had already been
prepared. Indeed, at the ground floor of the monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano, next to the corner between the rear walls of the southeast and southwest
porticoes, the red paint appears inside the dowel hole
carved in the lower surface of a block of Lapis Albanus
(the iron dowel has been stolen) (fig. 9, left). The
same detail can be noticed in another dowel hole at
the first landing of the modern staircase (see fig. 9,
right). The painted edges of these two holes are also
rounded, and it is unlikely that this rounding was made
when the iron dowels were already inserted (it would
have been useless and difficult to achieve). Since the
holes for the iron dowels were carved on the construction site, the red traces inside them indicate that the
lower surfaces of the blocks were painted in the area
of the Templum Pacis, possibly when the blocks were
upside down or at least lying on their sides; no doubt
the iron dowels could not be inserted when the lower
surface of a block was lying on the ground.14

14
Even if the red paint simply seeped between the iron dowel and the surfaces of the holes, the blocks would have been painted at
the Templum Pacis. The same detail can be seen in a dowel hole of one of the Severan blocks of the Colosseum (see fig. 4c).

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RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

597

Fig. 9. Red paint inside the dowel holes of two blocks of Lapis Albanus from the rear wall of the southeast
portico of the Templum Pacis (now in the monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano): left, ground level; right, first
landing of the main staircase.

analyzing and re-creating the red paint


Analysis of the red layer from the Templum Pacis,
conducted in June 2009 by the laboratory Artelab in
Rome, produced very interesting results concerning
not only the identification of the red pigment but also
the composition of both the red paint and the white
layer.15 A little fragment nearly detached from the lower surface of a block of Lapis Albanus, covered by the
red layer and containing a few traces of the white layer
from the block below, was taken from the ground floor
of the monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano, between
the voussoirs of the Severan door in the rear wall of
the southeast portico of the Templum Pacis and the
recess of the capital at the corner between the southeast and southwest porticoes (cf. fig. 2e).
Red ocher was first identified by its color and its optical properties; the particles of the red coat were examined in reflected light through a stereomicroscope. This

15
The analyses of two more samples were conducted in
December 2010 by Artelab (see my discussion of the podium
near the Arch of Titus and the Severan brickwork of the Templum Pacis). I thank the Johns Hopkins University for funding these tests.
16
Cf. Augusti 1967, 7792.
17
In infrared spectroscopy, infrared radiation is passed
through a sample; some of the infrared radiation is absorbed

coat is characterized by a microgranular structure (fig.


10, top) due to the presence of several colorless and
translucent granules, which generally are identifiable
as quartz and are mixed in a fine red matrix consisting
of scarcely hydrated iron oxide (hematite [Fe2O3]).16
The presence of iron oxide was confirmed through
a specific microchemical test: a drop of hydrochloric
acid (HCl) was poured on the sample, and, when this
cooled, a drop of potassium ferrocyanide was added.
The appearance of a blue color revealed the presence
of iron. A more sophisticated chemical-mineralogical
analysis identified the main components of the red coat.
Under the stereomicroscope, a few dozen milligrams of
the red paint were taken with a lancet from the surface
of the fragment to be used for investigation by Fourier
transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR).17 The main
components are listed below according to the decreasing intensity of the peaks in the spectrum (fig. 11):

by the sample itself and some of it is passed through (transmitted). The resulting spectrum creates a molecular fingerprint
of the sample. Like a fingerprint, no two unique molecular
structures produce the same infrared spectrum, and for most
common materials (esp. inorganic compounds) the spectrum of an unknown material can be identified by comparison with a library of known compounds.

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598

PIER LUIGI TUCCI

Fig. 10. Top, detail of the red paint on the lower surface of a block of Lapis Albanus (courtesy Artelab);
bottom, lower surface of a block of Lapis Albanus,
painted red with a brush. The dotted line indicates
the direction of the strokes, visible with a raking
light. Both are from the rear wall of the southeast
portico of the Templum Pacis (ground floor of the
monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano).

1. Gypsum (calcium sulphate dihydrate


[CaSO4 2H20])
2. Calcite (calcium carbonate [CaCO3])
3. Phyllosilicates (hydrated aluminum silicates
containing alkaline earth metals)
4. Quartz (SiO2)

18
According to the database of FT-IR spectra, the presence
of red ocher would be indicated by bands appearing near
3600 cm-1.
19
To avoid misunderstandings, it should be noted that the
red paint was not laid on a white layer of gypsum (i.e., there is
no white ground for painting, or undercoat, made of gypsum,
as has been suggested in the case of the red stripes and symbols painted on the brickwork in Hadrians Villa); cf. Attoui
2008. A great amount of gypsum has been identified in the
colored layers applied on the columns of the Temple of Divus

[AJA 115

5. Calcium oxalates, dihydrate and/or hemihydrate


(CaC2O4 2H2O and/or CaC2O4 0.5H2O)
6. Nitrates (NO3 )
7. Various silicatic components
FT-IR analysis can detect iron oxide if it is associated with other compounds and if it is present in a
high enough percentage. In our case, the bands, or
absorption peaks, of the iron oxides are not visible in
the diagram because they are hidden by those of other
components;18 the infrared spectrum is dominated by
bands revealing the presence of gypsum. It is difficult
to ascertain whether gypsum was used as an aggregate
in its mineral form (as a sort of white pigment) or as
a binder; when burnt gypsum is mixed with water, the
resulting element is gypsum again. Nevertheless, the
great amount of gypsum detected by FT-IR suggests
that it was used as a binder, which is not surprising
since we are not dealing with decorative painting. The
presence of gypsum cannot be explained as the result
of a possible alteration of the calcite in the red layer,
considering the white layer is actually made of unaltered crystals of calcite.19
In conclusion, the main ingredients of the red paint
were water (which is to be expected), red ocher, and
burnt gypsum (commonly known as plaster of Paris,
or calcium sulphate hemihydrate [CaSO4 0.5H2O]),
possibly mixed with some organic substances. Red
ocher was first described by Theophrastus (ca. 371
287 B.C.E.) in On Stones (paras. 514); other ancient
sources include Cato the Elder (Agr. Orig. 128), Strabo
(Geographica 12.540), Vitruvius (De arch. 7.7.2), Pliny
the Elder (HN 35.1316), and Pedanius Dioscorides
(De materia medica 5.93, 5.96; cf. 5.126).20 None of these
authors, however, mentions its use in Roman ashlar
masonry. In Rome and its surroundings, there must
have been a local production of red ochers, which is
not mentioned by ancient sources. For instance, the
metalliferous basin of the Monti della Tolfa, north of
Rome, is rich in different ferrous earths colored in
yellow, red, and brown; red earths are also found in
various localities of the Apennine Mountains, for instance at Filettino and Subiaco along the Aniene River,
where at the end of the 19th century there was an in-

Hadrianus, suggesting the use of a paint (not necessarily original) made with lime and gypsum (Cozza 1982, 503). Such an
intentional mixture has been noticed in the modern restorations of ancient and modern Roman buildings and has been
confirmed by archival documents (Pochetti et al. 1991).
20
See Wellmann 2004, 3:67, 3:95. Pliny (HN 35.1316) lists
different varieties of red ocher, specifying uses and names,
and he gives a useful classification of red pigments based on
quality and price.

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RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

599

Fig. 11. Identification of the main components of the red paint from the Templum Pacis by Fourier transform infrared
spectroscopy (FT-IR), according to the intensity of the peaks in the spectrum (courtesy Artelab).

dustrial production of this material.21 Red ocher can


also be artificially produced by roasting yellow ocher,
called in Greek and sil in Latin. However, since
most yellow ochers contain a considerable proportion
of sand and clay, the final product has a lower proportion of ferric oxide and, for this reason, a lower
tinting strength. Vitruvius (De arch. 7.11.2) and Pliny
the Elder (HN 35.16.35, 35.20.38), as well as Pedanius
Dioscorides (De materia medica 5.93 [cf. 5.103.17]), allude to the conversion of sil into rubrica (red ocher) by
roasting but add very little to the procedure described
by Theophrastus (On Stones, paras. 534).22 Vitruvius
(De arch. 7.7.1) remarks that sil is found in many
places, including Italy. Pliny (HN 33.56.15859) lists
four different kinds of sil and stresses that the sil mar-

morosum, a cheaper variety, was extracted also from


some mountains twenty miles distant from the City
(effoditur et ad XX ab urbe lapidem in montibus).
As for gypsum, Pliny (HN 36.59.18283) was aware that
when moistened, [it] should be used instantly, since
it coheres with great rapidity. Indeed, gypsum plaster
sets within 1020 minutes. Furthermore, when used in
large percentages, especially with iron oxide pigments,
the resulting mixture is very prone to settle.23
With these characteristics in mind, I tried to replicate the red paint using Rosso di Pozzuoli as a pigment,
since its color is very similar to the red surfaces of the
blocks used in the Roman buildings discussed here.
In my final test, I employed two measures of plaster of
Paris, two of Rosso di Pozzuoli (a simple ratio of 1:1,

21
Direzione Generale della Statistica, Italy 1881, xxxxxxi;
Mantovani 1884, 327 (esp. the Carta Geologica).
22
Cf. Barat 1997, 2930.
23
Cf. Plin. HN 36.59.18283. In the case of gypsum, it cannot be established whether this component of the red paint
was quarried locally or imported. Around Rome there are
many deposits of gypsum. Toward the end of the 19th cen-

tury, they were quarried for industrial purposes (e.g., at Torre


dOrlando near Corneto and in many other sites near Civitavecchia); cf. Direzione Generale della Statistica, Italy 1881,
xxxiii. Deposits of gypsum are also found within the nearby
Monti della Tolfa, where red ocher was quarried as well, and
between the Monti della Tolfa and the Monti Sabatini (cf.
Mantovani 1884, 327 [esp. the Carta Geologica]).

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600

PIER LUIGI TUCCI

though the absorption peaks mentioned above suggest


that the actual quantity of red pigment was slightly less
than that of plaster of Paris), and three of water, noting that the mixture was very dense and tended to set
immediately. The resulting color was very similar to the
red paint visible on the ancient blocks (fig. 12, left).
I also tested a red ocher produced by heating yellow
ocher available in the environs of Rome, following the
same percentages as the Rosso di Pozzuoli. The resulting paint had a brownish color, slightly different from
the red visible on most of the blocks of the buildings
discussed here (see fig. 12, right). This might depend
on the temperature for heating the yellow ocher, on
the kind of yellow ocher employed, or on the use of
a rubrica richer in iron oxides. In addition, the surviving red layers are more than 18 centuries old, so their
color is inevitably different from the red paint I was
able to produce.
Of course, my experiment is inconclusive as regards
the identification of the red pigment, but I did get substantive information concerning the time needed to
prepare and apply the paint and the quantity needed
to cover a particular surface. Approximately 50 g of red
ocher were necessary to paint 1 m2 of stone. Therefore,
to paint two faces of a block of Lapis Albanus 2 m long
with a section of 90 x 75 cm (the average dimensions
of the blocks used at the Templum Pacis), approximately 125 g of ocher would have been needed, an
amount that could have been held in the palm of the
hand.24 It is likely that the red paint was prepared in
small quantities to be used immediately.
As for the binder, the analysis of a sample of red
paint taken from the Severan podium near the Arch of
Titus (more precisely, from a block of Lapis Albanus
in the pier closer to the arch, along the Via di San
Bonaventura) confirmed, on the one hand, the use
of red ocher, but on the other did not reveal the presence of gypsum (even though the painted surfaces
of the podium have long been exposed to the open
air, with the risk of alteration of the calcite of the red

24

The surfaces painted redas regards the remains of the


Templum Pacis actually incorporated into the monastery of
SS. Cosma e Damiano, together with the missing parts that
can be reasonably reconstructedwere equivalent to ca. 450
m2 (rear walls of the southeast and southwest porticoes) and
100 m2 (wall toward the clivus). It can be assessed that the redpainted surfaces in the whole Templum Pacis were equivalent
to ca. 12,000 m2, more or less the area of the square of the
Templum Pacis itself. At least 600 kg of red ocher would have
been necessary to paint this surface.
25
Lugli (1957, 1:243) believed that the practice of using
lime in Roman squared-stone masonry was attested from the
middle of the second century to the end of the first century
B.C.E., the only exceptions being the restoration of the Tem-

[AJA 115

layer). This means that, even in the same periodthe


Severan age in this casethe red paint could be made
using different binders. In the red paint used in the
podium, the highest peak in the spectrum of the FT-IR
is due to the presence of apatite, which suggests the use
of an organic binder such as milk and its by-products
(e.g., casein). Going back to the Templum Pacis, the
red paint used on a few courses of bricks in the hall
behind the Forma Urbismore precisely, inside the
central niche toward the southeast porticorevealed
the presence of burnt gypsum but also a higher use
of lime, which is not surprising considering the masons were building a brick wall with a concrete core
and joints of mortar. The pigment, as usual, is a red
ocher (the presence of minium has been excluded by
a specific test for the identification of lead). To sum
up, apparently there was not a fixed recipe for the
production of red paint.

the joints: red vs. white layer


According to Lugli, the purpose of the red coating
could be associated with the practice of smearing the
top surfaces of the already laid blocks with a thin layer
of pure and diluted lime. The white layer would have
helped the next blocks slide into place and at the same
time made the wall more cohesive, helping transfer
the load more evenly from block to block. The white
layer, however, is too thin to have actually bound the
blocks together, and Lugli himself excluded the possibility that it acted as an adhesive.25
In fact, the red paint has nothing to do with the
white layer. Given the presence of burnt gypsum and
other binders, the red mixture is likely to be a quicksetting paint, and the red lower and vertical surfaces
of a given block would have already been dry when
the block itself was put into position. Consequently,
the function of the red paint was neither to make
the blocks slide nor to cement them together. Moreover, the painted lower surfaces were not completely
smooth, and the red coat was not a colored stucco used

ple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum and the Colosseum. The white layer also appears in the Servian Wall (see
Corazza et al. 1987, 234 n. 1), in the piers of the Aqua Claudia, in the Templum Pacis (original Vespasianic phase and
Severan restoration), and in the Temple of Divus Hadrianus.
Blake (1959, 158), too, noticed that mortar was sometimes
used like lime to even the beds but not to cement the blocks
together (cf. Blake 1959, 80 [on the Aqua Claudia], 93 [on
the Colosseum]). Adam (1994, 49) thought that the layer of
lime in ashlar masonry was limited to Rome and to the Republican age and was used in monuments built with blocks
of poor-quality tuffs, such as the Temple of Portunus in the
Forum Boarium (to be added to Luglis list).

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2011]

RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

601

Fig. 12. Re-creation of the red paint with Rosso di Pozzuoli (left ) and red ocher (right ). This figure illustrates
the colors of different mixtures in comparison with the samples from the Templum Pacis. The numbers in
parentheses indicate how many measures of each ingredient are used.

to fill the irregularities on the surfaces themselves.


Moreover, the presence of the iron dowels would
have allowed the blocks to slide for just 12 cm, and
the white layer provided just enough wiggle room to
accomplish this.26 Another fundamental difference is
that the red layer was painted on the inferior surface
and on one of the vertical surfaces of the blocks to be
placed; this is the exact opposite of the white layer of
lime. The composition of the two substances is also
quite different: the white layer consists of pure calcite
(calcium carbonate), as revealed by the microchemical test for the identification of carbonates on the

sample from the Templum Pacis.27 It is likely that it


was made by mixing slaked lime with a small amount
of water, obtaining something between lime putty and
milk of lime.28
In all the buildings with red-painted blocks discussed here, the white layer is always present, more or
less preserved.29 In the horizontal joints of the Severan
repair to the Templum Pacis, the white layer typically
appears as a very thin film, but its thickness is variable, and, especially when laid on the upper surfaces
of porous travertine blocks, it may appear as a thick,
compact (yet friable), and uniform white stratum (see

26
Each block was clearly lowered with great precision; there
are no traces of lever holes for sliding them into place. Moreover, some of the blocks appear to have been lowered directly
into recessed slots 12 cm deep, which were carved into the
upper surface of the course below.
27
The same test was made by L. Lombardi (pers. comm.
2009) on another sample from the Templum Pacis and gave
the same result.
28
Cf. Forcellino 1990, 50 n. 51; Bellini 2001; Esposito 2001;

Rattazzi 2007.
29
In the Flavian structure of the Colosseum, both the tuff
and the travertine blocks occasionally present this thin layer of
lime. The white layer was already noticed by Gori (1875, 124);
Blake (1959, 93), who saw it only in the blocks of Tufo Lionato; and Gabucci (1999, 107), who claims that a thin layer of
mortar was laid on the surfaces to help position a given block
through the use of levers; see also Lancaster 2005, 645.

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602

PIER LUIGI TUCCI

fig. 2e). These observations disprove Luglis assumption that the function of the red layer was comparable
with that of the white layer.30

dressing the surfaces of the blocks: greek


vs. roman techniques
A Greek building technique involving the use of red
ocher is attested by an inscription dating to the second
century B.C.E. from the city of Lebadeia.31 This building contract refers to the dressing of 13 blocks on the
floor along the south side of the cella of the local temple of Zeus and describes in detail how the fine jointing
between the stones was achieved by means of what has
been wrongly called a minium test. Bundgaard, who
published a long study on the architectural aspects of
this inscription, used a faulty nomenclature for the
red pigment, based on a mistranslation of the Greek
term , which, in fact, does not mean minium
but red ocher.32 The test consisted of checking the
contact surfaces of the blocks with wooden or stone
rules thinly coated with red paint; the stonemasons
would then cut down the higher areas marked by the
red paint and would repeat the process until they had
a perfectly dressed surface.33
At Lebadeia, the stonemasons began by dressing the
face on which any given block was to rest, and then
they prepared the vertical sides; the upper surface
was not treated at all until all 13 stones were in position.34 Since the blocks were to be positioned along
a row of blocks already in place, the side faces of the
latter had to be reworked. Thus, the stonemason first
marked off a line in the presence of the architect and
then removed the surplus stones, making the entire
edge true and sharp; finally, he had to test the edge

30

Lugli (1957, 1:243) warned that for what concerns travertine it should be noted that often what seems to be a limewash between the blocks is just a calcareous secretion due to
water infiltration. To establish whether the white layer consisted of artificial lime or of carbonate salt crusts is just a secondary issue; in both cases, its function cannot be comparable
with that of the red layer.
31
IG 7 3073; cf. Bundgaard 1946; Dworakowska 1979; Turner 1994.
32
Bundgaard 1946, 14.
33
Fabricius (1881, 67) and Choisy (1884, 205) pointed out
that this method was still in use in their days.
34
While in Roman squared-stone masonry, both the horizontal and vertical faces were dressed to a plane, in Greek
buildings, usually the vertical faces had the central area
worked back more or less roughly, and only a narrow band
around the sides and top of each face made contact with the
next block. This treatment of the vertical joint faces, called
anathyrosis, was prescribed also by the Lebadeian contract,
and the miltos test was used to dress and check these bands
around the joint faces.
35
IG 7 3073, lines 13236. A wooden rule at least 6 m long,

[AJA 115

of all the thirteen placed floor blocks with red ocher


against a long rule of not less than 20 feet . . . and make
the red ocher test with a smooth, sharp chisel.35 The
contract stresses that afterward, the stonemason shall
grind the side faces of the placed floor blocks against
which he is to lay (the new ones) with true rubbing
stone.36 This provision means that red ocher was used
only in this intermediate step and that it would eventually have been removed by the rest of the process.
The contract specified that the stonemason shall use
pure oil for all rules and red ocher from Sinope . . .
and he shall not be permitted to cramp any stone until
he satisfies the building commission that he has used
approved red ocher from Sinope and pure oil.37 Finally, the already dressed surfaces were washed with
nitron (soda or sodium carbonate), which would have
removed the mixture of oil and red pigment, and
eventually the surfaces were washed with clean water
so they would not be affected by the chemical action
of the nitron.38
This contract is not the only Greek document that
mentions the use of red ocher during the construction
process.39 The verification of the dressing of the blocks
with red paint is recorded at Mytilene on the island of
Lesbos, at Didyma, and on Delos.40 The surfaces, which
were checked with a rule covered with red pigment
as they were being dressed, were called
in contracts from Lebadeia and Delos.41 In addition,
there is some evidence that large circular marble slabs
were used in the construction of the Older Parthenon
on the Acropolis of Athens to check the smoothness
of the column drums, and similar painted slabs were
used to check the contact faces of ordinary blocks in
squared-stone masonry.42

with a cross-section of ca. 12 x 16 cm, was used for this test.


Also, some rules of stones were employed, which were apparently blocks of considerable dimensions that acted as rubbing stones and actually made the ground surfaces straight.
See Martin (1965, 231) for the lines marked with red ocher
and eventually engraved.
36
IG 7 3073, lines 14245.
37
IG 7 3073, lines 15459.
38
Martin remarked that in Greek buildings, the block surfaces were not always cleaned, as prescribed at Lebadeia, since
traces of a red coating left by the miltos test could be occasionally noticed on blocks and column drums (e.g., at Messa
on Lesbos). For Lesbos, see Koldewey 1890, 54; Lattermann
1914.
39
Cf. Martin 1965, 18586
40
For Lesbos, see IG 12 2 10, line 25; Haussoullier 1919,
21125, esp. 212; Heisserer 1988; cf. Durrbach 1911, 438, no.
31; Durrbach 1929, 321, no. 507; Wiegand 1958, 39; McCabe
and Plunkett 1985, 34, inscription no. 102.
41
Cf. Durrbach 1929, 305, no. 500.
42
Korres 1995, 501, 1089, figs. 31, 32; see also 77, no. 40.
This technique was employed in the recent restoration of the

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2011]

RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

The red surfaces visible in Rome rule out the possibility of a so-called rubrica test. Indeed, the surfaces
in Rome bearing the red paint are not smooth and
polished (fig. 13). That the irregularities and cavities of those surfaces are red proves that the surfaces
themselves were actually painted with a brush, as examination with a raking light has confirmed (see fig.
10, bottom). In Greece, the contact faces were eventually polished and cleaned so that no red traces would
be visible; this procedure was not applied in Rome,
where the painted surfaces of the blocks still preserve
the red layer. To sum up, the Roman red surfaces have
nothing to do with the Greek red surfaces.
Several clues (the use of quick-setting paint, the red
paint in the holes for the iron dowels, the single coat of
paint) seem to attest that the Roman red blocks were
positioned when the paint was already dry. I would
exclude the possibility that a Roman innovation may
have been to use the blocks for the same purpose as
the wooden/stone rules or the large circular slabs used
in ancient Greece; in other words, I do not believe the
Roman blocks were employed in a rubrica test to verify
their match with the blocks already in place. Indeed,
the red paint is not visible on both contact faces, and
it is unlikely that, after the test, the red paint was removed from the blocks already placed and left on the
blocks yet to be placed. Last but not least, the contact
surfaces were not perfectly smooth, which is not the
ideal condition for a successful test.

the function of the red-painted surfaces


in ancient rome
Apart from Luglis suggestions, the red paint on Roman building stones has not been discussed adequately
or interpreted by architectural historians.43 Around
the middle of the 15th century, however, Leon Battista Alberti noticed the presence of a thin stratum of
paint made of red ocher, together with a white layer, in
the squared-stone masonry of some ancient buildings

Parthenon by the team of the Acropolis Restoration Project


directed by Korres.
43
On the Colosseum, see Pennini (2005, 306 n. 31), who
reports that a red layer would be visible between the blocks of
travertine of a pillar in the northern passage. This indication
is not clear enough but may correspond to the pier located
along the longitudinal axis that I describe above. On the Mausoleum of Hadrian, see Artioli (1938, 2), who recalls the thousands of blocks or fragments excavated in his days and il color
docra rossa che ne tingeva le facce; see also Angeletti 1991,
156; 1998, 58. On the Temple of Divus Hadrianus, see Pennini (2005, 296, 298), who made a chemical analysis of the red
paint and found that it contains hematite crystals (it could be
a red ocher). The other components of the red paint are not
discussed. As for its purpose, Pennini (2005) supports Luglis
(1957, 1:242) view without questioning it. A white layer com-

603

(presumably in Rome). Alberti observed that neither


the white layer nor the red paint could have bound
the blocks together:
Those who have noticed that, when very big stones are
used in ancient buildings, the joints are painted in red
ocher, have suggested that it was being used as a mortar. To me this seems unlikely, mainly because I have
seen this on one, and not both sides of the joint.44

He did not offer an alternate explanation.


The Roman practice of painting the surfaces of
blocks red is not attested archaeologically outside
Rome. Nor is it mentioned by literary sources, which
refer primarily to wall painting, only in a few cases to
the actual act of building, and never to the joints of
squared-stone masonry. In fact, the last author who
discusses building techniques at length is Pliny the
Elder, who died in 79 C.E., when the red layer had
just made its first appearance on the travertine blocks
of the Colosseum. The silence of ancient sources may
support the hypothesis that this practice was not a
widespread working method in Plinys day but became
typical of second-century contractors. Cato the Elder
(Agr. Orig. 128) mentions the use of chalky earth or
red ocher (terra cretosa vel rubricosa) for wall painting.
Vitruvius (De arch. 7.7.1, 7.11.2) simply remarks that
yellow ocher was suitable for stucco works. Pliny the Elder recalls that rubricae were used for coloring wood
(HN 35.13) and that among the remaining kinds of
red ocher the most useful for builders are the Egyptian
and the African varieties, as they are most thoroughly
absorbed by plaster (HN 35.15).45 While all Roman
writers associate the use of red ocher with plaster
in fact, although Pliny mentions builders in general
(fabri ), he does so in relation to plaster, thus implying that he has plasterers (tectores) in mind46Greek
authors indicate that red pigment was used by carpenters only: the term , which is used by some
Greek authors in relation with , refers to wood

posed of calcite was noticed, too, but only between the blocks
of the highest row. Thus, its presence has been considered
exceptional; it would have enabled the blocks to slide, [and
it] must also have been used for static purposes, as noted by
Lugli (Pennini 2005, 296).
44
De re aedificatoria 3.10.45; Orlandi 1966, 21417. Cf. Rykwert et al. (1988, 75), who translate the passage as the joints
are painted in red clay. In fact, Alberti uses the Latin word
rubrica (red ocher).
45
Giving the blocks a red ocherbased coating seems to be
a practice very close to the skills of painters and plasterers.
Were they responsible for applying the red paint? Or was it
the task of the stonemasons who actually dressed and laid the
blocks in place?
46
See Blanc 1983, 1984.

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604

PIER LUIGI TUCCI

[AJA 115

Fig. 13. Left, lower irregular surface of a Severan travertine block above the recess for the Corinthian capital of a flat
pilaster belonging to the Templum Pacis southeast portico (atrium of the monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano); right,
vertical contact surface of a block of Lapis Albanus, showing traces of the chisel, at the corner of the rear walls of the
porticoes of the Templum Pacis (second landing of the monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano).

workers. A first-century C.E. epigram by Philippus of


Thessalonica (6.103) describes the tools of the carpenter Leontichus and particularly his straight-running
saw that follows the drops of red ocher and his taut
ocher-stained line just touched by the extreme edge
of the rule.47 Pedanius Dioscorides (De materia medica
5.96) mentions a red ocher from Egypt and Carthage
that was used by carpenters, and Galen (De methodo
medendi 1.5; De simplicium medicamentorum temperamentis
ac facultatibus 9), too, refers to carpenters.48
Considering that literary or epigraphic sources are
absolutely silent as to the function of the red-painted
surfaces of Roman blocksand that the red paint was
applied neither to make the blocks slide nor to make
their surfaces perfectly smoothI conclude that it was
used to mark the blocks that were approved for placement in the building. It can be no coincidence that
such a red code is attested in Roman architecture.
A typical example comes from an inscription painted
on the side surface of a travertine block discovered

47

See also Philippus of Thessalonica 6.205.


Khn 18211833, 10:5, 12:170 (respectively).
49
Manacorda and Zanini 1997, 253, fig. 9. Another similar
inscription was recently noticed at the nearby Crypta Balbi,
on two side faces of a travertine block belonging to the original foundation of a pier in the north portico; see Cante 2004,
8, figs. 13, 14. Other painted inscriptions from Rome are recorded in Bruzza 1870.
48

in 1996, inserted in the Domitianic floor south of the


Temple of Via delle Botteghe Oscure. Its rough surface
is characterized by cursive letters or numbers painted
with a red paint (the pigment has been identified with
minium, even though it was not analyzed). These red
marks were possibly painted to indicate the position of
the block in the actual floor.49 Red-painted inscriptions
also appeared on a group of limestone blocks found in
1971 in the area of the Forum of Lutetia (Paris), and
other blocks with similar inscriptions were recently
found at Reims, attesting to the widespread use of
red paint. The painted inscriptions found in France
have been interpreted either as an indication of the
destination of the blocks or as an indication of their
provenance.50 Be that as it may, those red-painted inscriptions are not comparable with the red surfaces of
the blocks of the buildings considered here.
In Roman architecture, the practice of using red
paint is also documented on brickwork, precisely in
the same period as on ashlar masonry. The dates writ-

50
I thank Rose-Marie Mousseaux, conservateur du patrimoine at the Dpartement de lHistoire de lArchitecture et
de lArchologie de Paris, for showing me the blocks found in
Paris. On the blocks found at Reims, see Brunet-Gaston 2008,
54, figs. 3.93.11; 61, fig. 4.2. Some of the blocks still visible in
the area of the quarry of Tor Blanc at Glanum (Saint-Rmyde-Provence) bear red-painted inscriptions, too (Rolland
1946, 1958).

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RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

605

ten with red paint on the walls of a gallery beneath


the Baths of Trajan obviously refer to the progress of
the construction.51 Also related to the building process are the red stripes painted on bipedalis courses
or, more frequently, on the courses of bricks and
broken bipedales that occur at more or less regular
intervalssometimes coinciding with putlog holes for
scaffoldingin the brick-faced walls of many imperial
buildings. Lugli called these courses red lines, but in
fact we are dealing with actual stripes (the red paint
also affects the joints of mortar above and below the
bricks), which might have marked either an assigned
amount of work or the end of a days work. According
to Lugli, this procedure began with Commodus buildings and came to an end in the third century C.E., but
it has been recently noticed in the first Flavian phase of
the inferior peristyle of the Domus Augustana on the
Palatine, where red stripes mark a series of horizontal
levels and attest that the use of red paintfor both
bricks and stones, as in the Colosseumgoes back to
the Vespasianic age.52 As for the buildings examined
in this article, these red stripes can be seen only in
the Templum Pacis, on the bipedalis courses of the
Severan wall of the Forma Urbis, and elsewhere at SS.
Cosma e Damiano (e.g., on another Severan brick wall
toward the top of the rear wall of the southeast portico
and at the lower level of the monastery on both sides
of the Severan niche mentioned above).53 This procedure attests that the red paint was familiar in Roman
construction sites, where it must have been used to give
instructions to stonemasons and contractors.
This use of colored paint can also help explain the
red areas in the surviving recesses for the Corinthian
capitals of the pilasters in the rear wall of the Templum Pacis southeast portico, visible at the entrance
to the monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano (fig. 14).
After the fire of 192 C.E., the original Vespasianic
wall was preserved up to the level of the abacus of the
capitals, but, to insert the marble slabs with the new
capitals, the recesses were slightly reworked. The left
side of the recess, which is still intact next to the door

of the sacristy, is orthogonal to the back surface and


is painted red, together with the vertical area of the
back surface next to it. Its right-hand side is oblique

51
Volpe 2002, 383. Volpe assumes that the red pigment is
minium, but no chemical analyses have been mentioned to
support this identification.
52
Lugli 1957, 1:573. I thank one of the anonymous reviewers for the AJA and especially Evelyne Bukowiecki for information on the Domus Augustana, where she noticed that the
red stripes are missing in the Domitianic phase, when actual bonding courses of bipedales make their appearance. Indeed, the technique of associating the bipedalis courses with
the putlog holes and the springing of arches seems to be an
experimental one under Vespasian, but it was fully established
by the time of Domitian (Lancaster 2005, 69 n. 42). On the
mattoni rubricati con minio of the Basilica of Maxentius,
which would extend the use of red stripes to the early fourth

century C.E., see Amici 2008, 23 (it is not clear whether the
red pigment has been analyzed). See also the case of Hadrians Villa (Attoui 2008, 546); the red paint is made of red
ocher and gypsum, even though it would seem that the latter
was an actual layer.
53
I would also mention the presence of red paint on the
Severan Forma Urbis, which was displayed precisely in the
Templum Pacis. The red coat surviving on a recently discovered fragment depicting the road between the Palatine and
the Circus Maximus has been identified as mordente or
bolo armeno (Ciancio Rossetto 2006, 135)even though
these materials were used for completely different purposes;
in fact, no chemical analysis has been published so far, and
very likely it has not even been made.

Fig. 14. Top, recess for the Corinthian capital of a


flat pilaster of the southeast portico of the Templum
Pacis (atrium of the monastery of SS. Cosma e Damiano) (only the left side is painted red); bottom left,
left side of the recess (orthogonal to the back surface
and painted red); bottom right, right side of the recess
(not orthogonal).

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606

PIER LUIGI TUCCI

[AJA 115

(thus, the slab with the Corinthian capital must have


been inserted from above, before the blocks of travertine of the upper course were put in place) and not
painted at all (see fig. 14, bottom). The only surviving
side of the next recess is orthogonal to the back surface and painted red. Again, as for the red stripes, we
are dealing with a color code for those at work on the
construction site; in this last case, the red paint could
have meant these surfaces are orthogonal. Red paint
was still used by masons in the mid 15th century when,
for example, Alberti (De re aedificatoria 10.201.28,
10.202.17) suggested the use of rubrica to mark the
dimensions of a pier or the intrados of an arch on a
preexisting wall that needed to be reinforced.54 The
use of red ocher by builders, stonemasons, carpenters,
and painters to trace guidelines is attested in the following centuries as well.55
The following is my reconstruction of the working
method of the Roman stonemasons who painted the
blocks of the buildings discussed here. At the Templum Pacis, for instance, the blocks of travertine and
Lapis Albanus were delivered to the construction site
in a rough state, judging from the actual noncontact
surfaces (fig. 15). It is reasonable to assume that the
stonemasons first dressed with great care what would
become the lower surface of the block and one of the
vertical ends, since only these two surfaces were destined to match the blocks already placed. The other
four surfaces were left rough until the block was set.
Only at that point would the opposite vertical end be
dressed, while the actual top surface would be carefully made level when the row of blocks was completed.
The two long side faces instead remained undressed,
either because this facilitated the adhesion of the mortar used in the marble veneer or because they would
not be visible from below.56 Particularly interesting is a
block of travertine visible just over the floor of the first
landing of the modern staircase of the monastery of
SS. Cosma e Damiano (fig. 16). This block constitutes
the toothing between the side wall of the hall toward
the Via Sacra and the rear wall of the southwest portico of the Templum Pacis. Its free end is smooth but
not red (see fig. 16, right), whereas its long vertical

side, visible inside a modern passage and originally


matching a block of Lapis Albanus (the opposite end
of which is still in situ) has a surface that is smooth and
red for a length of at least 89 cm, corresponding precisely to the width of the partially missing block originally laid against it. A further vertical area 8 cm wide
is still partially red, but the rest of the surface (which
would have been free inside the hall toward the Via

54
Again, Rykwert et al. (1988, 359) translate rubrica as red
chalk, or simply chalk; see Orlandi 1966, 99091. I would
also mention the use of black lines to mark the intrados of the
vaults to be constructedanother hitherto unknown procedurein the Roman houses beneath S. Maria in Aracoeli on
the Capitoline Hill. (I am currently working on the publication of these remains).
55
The carpenters use of red ocher to square timber is described in a late 17th-century edition of Mattiolis commentary on Dioscorides De materia medica (Mattioli et al. 1680,
515); cf. Mattioli 1554, 607. An interesting example is visible

again in the basilica of SS. Cosma e Damiano, where two horizontal red lines are painted on the fourth-century brickwork,
just below the gabled facades of the hall toward the Via Sacra,
and continue along the new side walls of the basilica. These
lines, traced through cords stained with red ocher on the wall,
correspond to the structure of the wooden ceiling made under Pope Urban VIII and apparently were painted by the 17thcentury carpenters; see also Fabricius 1881, 67; Choisy 1884,
205.
56
Alberti De re aedificatoria 6.12; Rykwert et al. 1988, 181
82; see also Brilliant 1967, 456.

Fig. 15. Dressing, painting, and placing a red-painted block


at the Templum Pacis: 1, the process begins with a rough
block from the quarry; 2, only two orthogonal surfaces are
dressed and checked; 3, once approved, the two surfaces can
be painted red; 4, when the two surfaces are completely red,
the two iron dowels are inserted; 5, the block is turned upside down and the hole for the lewis irons is carved; 6, the
block is laid in place.

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RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

607

Fig. 16. Severan block of travertine at the junction between the southwest portico of the Templum Pacis and the hall
toward the Via Sacra (first landing of the monasterys main staircase). Its end (right ) is smooth but not red; its long
vertical surface, originally matching a block of Lapis Albanus (one of the clamp holes is visible), is smooth and red for
at least 89 cm (3 Roman feet), corresponding precisely to the width of the missing block. Another area 8 cm wide (indicated by the arrow) is partially red (left ), but the rest of the surface (which would have been inside the hall toward
the Via Sacra) is rough and not painted.

Sacra) is rough and bears no traces of red paint. This


block alone confirms that the red paint highlighted
the smooth contact surfaces. However, the same travertine block was shaped and dressed precisely to fit the
next one; therefore, the possibility that the red paint
indicated the surfaces destined to match the already
positioned block is unlikely. Indeed, it would have
been impossible to place that block differently. Thus,
I would conclude that the smooth contact surfaces
here were painted red not (or not only) to indicate
their position in the structure but to certify that they
had been approved by the contractor and/or the architect (possibly in conjunction with a written record
and estimate).57
More generally, the same concern seems to have
inspired the builders of the other monuments. It was
essential to make sure that the underface of the block,
which was to come in contact with the lower row of
blocks, was well dressed so that it would sit properly
and make the structure stable. The vertical contact face,
which would join an already placed block, is often less
smooth than the horizontal one; this, however, does
not pose a problem since it played no role concerning the distribution of the load. A check with rule and

square would have verified that the two contact faces


were planar (not necessarily even) and orthogonal.
After the architects approval, these surfaces could be
painted red (cf. fig. 15). Eventually, the iron dowels
would have been inserted into their respective holes
(there are two for each block at the Templum Pacis,
which were apparently not sealed with lead) and the
block turned upside down, its lower surface not laid
directly on the ground because of the iron dowels. At
this point, the red vertical surface (the only one visible)
might have indicated at a distance that a given block
had been approved and was ready. Eventually, the
hole for the lewis irons could be carved at the center
of the top surface, and the block would be lifted and
laid into place, while the stonemasons working on an
independent scaffolding or on the actual wall would
have already made level the top surface of the upper
course of blocks and carved the holes corresponding
to the iron dowels just fixed in the red-painted block.
These stonemasons also would have smeared the thin
layer of lime on the vertical surface of the last placed
block and on the upper surfaces of the blocks already
in place, which were destined to match the red surfaces
of the arriving block. Once a new block was positioned,

57
At the Templum Pacis, I have noticed only four smooth surfaces, all belonging to travertine blocks that were not contact faces
(and indeed, they did not receive a coat in red pigment).

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608

PIER LUIGI TUCCI

[AJA 115

the final operations would have been to pull out the


lewis irons, pour molten lead into the cavities corresponding to the dowels of the block itself (by means of
channels cut from the holes out to the facings), and set
the iron clamps with lead over the joint (although it is
likely that the iron clamps were all set only when the
top surface of a whole course of blocks was made level).
Apparently, this scenario implies that the red paint was
applied to the arriving blocks, since the lower surface
could not be painted red a posteriori when the block
was in situ. It is thus reasonable to assume that the vertical surface was painted at the same time as the lower
one.58 Even though these operations were routine, the
preparationlaying and drying the red paintwould
have taken precious time. Painting a whole surface and
not simply a few signs, as in the case of the block at the
Temple of Via delle Botteghe Oscure, might seem a
waste of time. But note that the bipedalis courses of
the wall of the Forma Urbis were painted red for their
entire length (each red stripe is ca. 18 m long), even
though a short stretch would have sufficed; apparently,
if a whole course of bipedales was under consideration,
then it had to be painted completely. I posit that the
same idea governed marking the surfaces of blocks that
had been approved for placement.59
In conclusion, the seven examples discussed here all
come from the city of Rome and, with the exception
of the Colosseum, derive from some of the most im-

portant building projects of the second century C.E.,


including an imperial mausoleum, at least two temples
dedicated to deified emperors, and a triumphal arch.
This may suggest that the technique is characteristic
of second- or early third-century construction in the
city. It is worth noting that the fortification walls of
the Castra Albana, the camp of the Second Parthian
Legion built at the beginning of the third century
C.E. on the site of the modern center of Albano, are
made of blocks of Lapis Albanus (used for the very last
time there), which were laid without metal clamps and
without white or red layers, indicating that the practice of using red-painted blocks was likely confined to
Rome.60 Because the use of red-painted blocks was so
characteristic of a particular place and period as well
as of particular patrons (the emperors) and materials
(travertine and Lapis Albanus), it might be assumed
that some of these buildings were built or restored by
two or even more generations of the same family of
contractors for imperial buildings (redemptores operum
Caesaris), whose idiosyncratic technique might have
involved blocks of Lapis Albanus and red paint.61
The practice of using red ocher in Roman stone masonry provides many clues about the working methods
of Roman stonemasons. It teaches us that imperial Roman construction involved extensive use of modest materials, such as gypsum and red ocher, and that Greek
techniques had not disappeared, although they were

58
Since the red paint was spread exclusively on the lower
(horizontal) surface and on one (vertical) end of a block (see
fig. 16), in the Severan restoration of the Templum Pacis, it is
also possible to reconstruct the sequence of how the blocks
were placed during the course of the construction process.
Row after row, the blocks were placed starting from the hall
of the Marble Plan toward the corner of the southeast and
southwest porticoes, and the same direction was followed in
the construction of the surviving stretches of the rear wall of
the southwest portico and the side wall of the hall toward the
Via Sacra. If, however, the structure was not lineare.g., at
the Mausoleum of Hadrian, in the Temples of Divus Hadrianus and Divus Antoninus and Diva Faustina, or in the podium next to the Arch of Titusthe vertical painted surfaces
were usually the long ones. At the Templum Pacis, this occurs
only in the joints between orthogonal walls, notably in the
block mentioned above (see fig. 16) and on the upper landing of the modern staircase (see fig. 13, right).
59
I had also considered the possible symbolic significance
of the red paint. E.g., Pliny the Elder (HN 33.38.115) mentions the description of Odysseus ships in the Iliad (2.637):
their prows were painted with red ocher to show that rubrica
in honore erat (Augusti 1967, 81; Katsaros 2008). The red
paint between the joints, like the use of coins in the foundations, might have been a sort of good omen. It is worth recalling the custom of painting the face of the triumphing general
with red paint, in the same way the cult statue of Jupiter in
the Capitoline Temple was painted (Cic. Fam. 9.16.8; Plin.
HN 33.36.11112; Haack 2005). Suetonius (Calig. 17.2, 35.1,

55.3; Dom. 4.4; Iul. 49.3, 84.1; Ner. 25.1, 30.3, 32.3) considered
purple a great privilege reserved for generals and emperors.
Neros ashes were deposited inside a sarcophagus (solium)
of porphyry (Suet. Ner. 6.50), and it has been suggested that
Hadrian was buried in a huge sarcophagus of the same marble (DOnofrio 1971, 14573; Herklotz 2000, 19). The use
of red porphyry became extensive precisely from Trajan onward, and with Antoninus Pius, there would seem to be legal
restrictions that regulated the use of this material, destined
exclusively to gods and emperors (Ambrogi 1995, 302). Septimius Severus ashes, too, were kept in an urn of purple stone
(very likely red porphyry), which was deposited in the Mausoleum of Hadrian (Dio Cass. 77.15.4). It may be argued that a
busy contractor would not have wasted time painting surfaces
red for symbolic reasons. The counter argument to this is, of
course, that the very act of painting the blocks is in itself a
time-consuming process, but apparently the Roman contractors found it worthwhile nonetheless.
60
See Lugli 1919, 21516.
61
A similar case, for what concerns the Flavian age, is that
of the Haterii, whose commissions in the city of Rome were
proudly carved on a famous funerary relief showing five monuments, including the Colosseum. On the relief, see Coarelli
2009, 429. Of course, the contractor responsible for the buildings with red-painted blocks might not have marked his own
material with that distinctive paint with the intention of indicating his ownership, since the joints of the blocks themselves
would not be visible again.

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2011]

RED-PAINTED STONES IN ROMAN ARCHITECTURE

applied differently. The red-painted stones provide


us with yet more proof of the importance attached by
Roman builders, like their Greek predecessors, to the
dressing of stone blocks.

history of art department


178 gilman hall
the johns hopkins university
3400 n. charles street
baltimore, maryland 21218-2685
pierluigi.tucci@jhu.edu

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