Why is this bathtub one of the most precious works of art in the Vatican?

When you think of the priceless treasures of the Vatican Museum, you probably think of the work of art: Michelangelo Last judgement and the Sistine Chapel ceiling; the Pieta in Saint-Pierre; ancient and Renaissance works of art in museums; or even the priceless manuscripts and precious pieces hidden in libraries. If you’re anything like me, you probably don’t jump at vanity units. Nevertheless, one of Rome’s most prized possessions is a bathtub, the value of which is estimated at $2 billion. And you thought renovating your bathroom was expensive.

The bathtub – more technically known as the “porphyry basin” – is today installed in the Round Room of the Pio Clementino Museum. It was commissioned by the first-century Roman Emperor Nero for his famous decadent architectural vanity project, the Domus Aurea (Golden House). Built entirely of purple stone, the basin weighs over a thousand pounds. Over drinks at a recent Bible conference (I to knowfun!) Eric Vanden Eykel, associate professor of religion at Ferrum College, and I discussed the tub and its high price tag.

The reason it is so expensive, Vanden Eykel told me, is that it “was made from an extremely rare and therefore expensive marble called Imperial Porphyry. Nero and other emperors loved this stone because of its distinctive deep purple hue, but it also didn’t hurt that it was exclusive and extremely hard to find.

All imperial porphyry mined in the ancient world came from a single isolated quarry in the eastern part of Roman Egypt called the Mons porphyrites. It was discovered in 18 BCE when a Roman soldier named Caius Cominius Leugas noticed a purple-red hard rock in the desert. Technically, porphyry (which simply means “purple” in Greek) is an igneous rock containing coarse-grained crystals. Most imperial purple marble was used as an accent stone in tiled floors or on columns. You can find it fashioned into vases or busts, but the basin in Nero’s Golden House is exceptionally large and heavy. It is almost certainly the largest intact piece of porphyry marble in existence today. The mine established at Mons Pophryites was used continuously until 600 CE, when the Romans lost control of Egypt.

After being mined – which was no mean feat! –, the material had to be transported. The journey began with a long overland journey from the mine to the Nile. At Coptos, Marble boarded a ship on the river and crossed the Mediterranean making stops along the way. The last leg of the journey, from the port of Ostia to the city of Rome, also took place overland. Even for those not carrying heavy marble, it was a long journey that could take up to 10 weeks. As did Incunabula put on Twitter: “The Imperial Porphyry signaled not only power and prestige, but also that the Roman Empire could accomplish the near-impossible: cut and mine the immensely hard rock and transport it thousands of miles from the Egyptian desert to Rome was an admiration. inspiring feat of engineering.

It was the travel costs that made Imperial Porphyry so expensive and exclusive. Vanden Eykel told me that Imperial Marble is instantly recognizable by its distinctive marble hue. It signifies wealth and status. Just like having a white Hermes Birkin alligator says you have connections and 150k to engrave on a handbag, porphyry marble signals to your guests that you are someone important. What says it more, said Vanden Eykel, than a “gargantuan porphyry bathtub?” The only other porphyry objects of similar size were tombs and coffins: Nero, Holy Roman Emperors, and even Napoleon all chose it for their final resting place. Napoleon had to content himself with a vulgar red marble.

The Roman obsession with the imperial purple went beyond the marbles. They were also obsessed with purple textiles and, like marble, these were expensive. Tyrian or Imperial purple dye was made from the desiccated glands of predatory sea snails found in the eastern Mediterranean and off the coast of Morocco. The dark red-violet dye was used on ceremonial clothes for people of high rank; it was particularly popular because it did not discolor but was expensive (not to mention smelly) to manufacture. Like a Hermes Birkin and other luxury goods, the Tyrian Purple and the Imperial Porphyry were regularly imitated. Rosso antico marble (also known as Marble Taenarium), a fine red marble quarried in the southern Peloponnese, was one such imitator. It was used, as Lorenzo Lazzarini notes, “as a substitute for Egyptian red porphyry”. Although beautiful, the rosso antico lacks the stains and deep purple of Egyptian marble. If you wanted to get the imperial porphyry look today, you could try a rosso impero instead.

While it’s unclear exactly how or by how many people Nero’s tub was used, tubs have a kind of transhistorical appeal as a symbol of wealth and status. This is despite the fact that at many points in time bathing has been associated with debauchery, sexual licentiousness and disease. The job of the Sun King Louis XIV was to fill his red bath with smell of nerolia fashionable 17th century perfume based on orange blossom.

Bathing mythology aside, many of the problems associated with ancient marble continue to plague future modern Neros. Lee Stahl, president of TRH, a New York-based design-build firm, said The daily beast that transportation continues to be a problem. Even with modern technology, moving large slabs of marble is difficult. Stahl said, “The cost of transporting, insuring and lifting marble 14 stories into the air to fit it into a building has skyrocketed.” The more things change, it seems, the more they stay the same.

Although Nero is the most valuable bathtub in the world, its market value has not yet been proven. Until then, the title of most expensive goes to the Le Grand Queen bathtub, a tub designed by Simon Krapf and carved from the Caijou gemstone that sold at auction in 2016 for $1.74 million. It took four years and 120,000 man-hours to locate, dig and polish the materials in a unique two-person tub. Caijou is, technically speaking, 180 million year old petrified wood. It is prized by some for its purported healing and life-prolonging properties. Maybe the anonymous buyer considered it a medical expense.

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