Stone like water like water like stone

My thinking about the wateriness of stone and the stoniness of water began with a research project on fountains in fascist-era Rome.


As spaces where water and stone coalesce, these fountains stage the interplay of materials. Water sculpted alongside stone, stone alongside water, each one continuing to sculpt the other. A fountain is a living thing. Its restlessness a reminder of the shifting status of the materials that make it, one morphing into the other and back again. In looking at fountains, I have been drawn to the ways in which stone is like water and water is like stone, and to what this might mean for meaning. These snapshots are a record of this looking and thinking.

Stone like water

The porticoed entrance of the Palazzo dell’Arte at the Mostra d’Oltremare in Naples is clad in Verde Serpentino marble.


Named for its greenish colour and snakeskin appearance, the cross cut slabs of the revetment reveal other serpentine qualities in the twisting swirls of its rich veins. Snaking through the stone, mineral deposits pool in inky ripples and spill into whiteness like waves breaking into sea foam.

Surrounding fountains at each end of the portico, the veins flow towards spouts that would once have sent streams of water into basins below.

This comingling of real and represented water makes each one a guide to our reading of the other. The walls a geological echo of the pooling and rippling in the basins, which stage in real time the play of water crystallised in marble.

This doubling of water in stone speaks to the function of the site. Built for the 1940 Mostra Triennale delle Terre Italiane d’Oltremare (Triennial Exhibition of Italian Overseas Territories), the Palazzo, like the rest of the exhibition, was designed to put Fascism’s imperial expansion on show. The building’s watery foundations can thus be seen to summon the seas over which the empire was built.

Stone as water

The symbolic weight of sea-like stone would find myriad uses in the architecture of a regime preoccupied with the Roman past as a model for empire building at home and abroad. In a series of marble maps showing the development of empire from the Roman past to the fascist present, grey-green Cipollino was used to stand for the sea.


Installed along Rome’s Via dell’Impero in the 1930s, these maps spoke in stone to the lithic remains of earlier empires in the surrounding Imperial Fora.

If the Palazzo dell’Arte used stone as simile, the Via dell’Impero uses marble as metaphor. Stone = sea. While Cipollino gets its name from the onion-like layers of its mineral pattern, its waves of greyish green veins have given it a long history of water mimicry. This ‘natural semiotic quality’ had been strengthened by centuries of cultural use.[1] In bath complexes across the Roman empire, Cipollino was repeatedly merged with water to create an immersive bathing experience that exceeded the limits of the pool.[2] Recalling this ancient heritage, the marble maps make a bath of the sea, employing vein cut Cipollino to give neat layers of linear ripples, evoking the calm seas of a well-ordered empire.

One of the many Roman concepts taken up by Fascism was the denomination of Mare Nostrum for the Mediterranean Sea. For the Romans, this linguistic possessiveness reflected territorial expansion; for the Fascists, it announced an ambition to follow in their footsteps. The marble maps provide a lithic translation of this concept. To make the Mediterranean in Italian marble was to take possession of it in stone. A possession that exceeds antiquity, reaching back deep into geological time. A destiny crystallised in the bedrock.

[1] Patrick Crowley has described the sea-like qualities of African onyx in these terms. Patrick R. Crowley, The Phantom Image: Seeing the Dead in Ancient Rome (Chicago and London: Chicago University Press, 2019), 193.

[2] Fabio Barry, ‘Walking on Water: Cosmic Floors in Antiquity and the Middle Ages,’ The Art Bulletin 89, no. 4 (December 2007): 632-3.

Water like stone

The concept of overseas empire as stone-sanctioned destiny resurfaces in paint. At the Casa Madre dei Mutilati in Rome, the headquarters of the National Association of War Wounded, a fresco cycle dedicated to Italy’s military victories stakes a claim to Libya in fragments of stone.


Read as material traces of the Roman imperial past, these oversized ruins dominate Libya’s landmass as monuments to an ancient occupation used to justify the modern one.

Painted by Cipriano Efisio Oppo in 1937, the fresco depicts cities along Libya’s Mediterranean coastline planted with Italian flags, shown as fluttering dabs of green, white and red rising above clusters of whitewashed buildings. These emblems of ownership find an echo in the sea beyond the coastline, described in grey-green layers of scalloped curves. Seen alongside the oversized fragments of Roman statuary, these gentle waves appear as stony as the drapery and foliage of those fragments appear fluid. Looking from one to the other, those scalloped curves begin to resemble chisel marks in carved stone as the sculptural folds and frills seem to flow like water, in an interplay of lithification and liquification.

This reciprocity of forms evokes Fascism’s legitimising use of water and stone. In the rhetoric of the regime, the claim to ownership of the sea, like the claim to ownership of Roman ruins, warranted Italy’s colonisation of Libya. In painting the Mediterranean as a stony sea, hardened by sculptural remains, Oppo gives form to the colonialist discourse that sought to remake Libya as Italy’s Fourth Shore.

Water as stone

Fixed in a photograph, water in motion appears set in stone. The photograph a stilled record of the water’s own record of motion. Looking out across the Tyrrhenian Sea on a sunny November afternoon, the play of light and shade shapes the gently rippling surface of the water.


Glistening peaks and inky troughs carve sculptural ridges that suggest seeing the sea as stone might be more than a stylistic device or a rhetorical trope.

Other lithic qualities emerge looking overboard into the wake of a passenger ferry crossing that same sea in the bright light of July.


Swirls of white foam whipped up by the ship’s propellers marble the surface of the water.[1] Blooms of frothy white contrast with deep petrol blue like serpentine seams crystallised in stone. Experienced in real time, these wake waves are thrown up in constantly repeating patterns, whose very motion might seem antithetical to stone. Yet the constancy of motion creates a kind of fixity. The ceaseless renewal replacing what was as though it never went away. In this sense, the enduring stillness of the photograph, extracted from the flow of time, captures the static motion of repeating waves. In tracing stillness from agitation, like the petrified restlessness of marble veins, geological time is mimicked in the instantaneity of the snapshot. 

[1] On boats and wakes, see Tristan Gooley, How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles to the Sea (London: Sceptre, 2017), 304-8.

Stone is water, water is stone

Seeing water in stone and stone in water exceeds visual resemblance; water and stone are materially intertwined. Marble is metamorphosed limestone, which is formed from the precipitation of carbonate minerals deposited by water. Stony water is thus a precondition for the formation of watery stone. Those veins in marble used to imitate the sea are formed by crystallised minerals left behind by the flow of water. Their aqueous appearance has, geologically speaking, an indexical quality; a wateriness produced by water itself.

This shared materiality can flow both ways. Limestone’s vulnerability to water makes a threat of its life force.[1] The fountain designed by Richard Meier for the Ara Pacis Museum in Rome (2006) seems to embody this contradiction.


Water cascades over a wall formed of blocks of cleft cut Travertine. This finish results in rough textures that present the natural qualities of the limestone. The open pores that characterise Travertine pepper the uneven surfaces of the blocks. These deep holes and bumpy textures bring the stone’s watery origins to the surface, while exhibiting the same porosity that allows water a destructive way in. Rich in calcium carbonate, Roman water flows abundantly over the surface of the blocks, carrying with it a material memory of the stone’s formation. At the same time, each spill of water over stone anticipates and enacts the process of erosion. In framing this interplay of materials, the fountain stages the looped life cycle of Travertine in accelerated time: water giving form to stone dissolving into water giving form to stone dissolving into water, ad infinitum.

[1] Hettie Judah, Lapidarium: The Secret Lives of Stone (London: John Murray, 2022), 41.

Lara Pucci is Assistant Professor in History of Art at the University of Nottingham. Her research focuses on art and visual culture in twentieth-century Italy, especially during the interwar and immediate post-war periods. She is particularly interested in the role of the visual and material in the political cultures of the fascist regime, the anti-fascist resistance, and the Italian Communist Party. 

Lara's interest in water and stone developed during a fellowship at the British School at Rome (BSR) in 2018, while researching the function of fountains in fascist-era architectural schemes. Thinking through this project in a city abundant in fountains and stone, being able to look closely and touch, led to a heightened awareness of materials and their relationship to place. Learning from artists and archaeologists at the BSR, whose sharing of knowledge of the materiality of materials proved transformative, she began to explore the material qualities of water and stone and their relationship to one another.  

Another period of research at the BSR in 2022, this time working on landscape in fascist Italy, allowed her to revisit these themes in thinking about water and stone as the stuff of landscape. It also allowed her, crucially, to meet Laura, with whom she has shared many thought-provoking conversations about things and their make-up. 

This opportunity to contribute to Tenderfoot has enabled her to reflect on her thinking about water and stone over the past five years, and to return to sites she had visited and photographed but never before written about. It has allowed her to explore new ideas about how materials shaped and were shaped by fascist discourses. And, importantly, encouraged her to consider her encounters with water and stone beyond fascism too.