Upcycling Ancient Beauty – How Precious Stones, Monuments, and Jewels Have Been Re-Used
Sculptures, monuments, jewels, and even floors of churches and palaces… Impressive artifacts, outstanding pieces of art, and treasures which could satisfy even the most demanding person... Many of these items were created during ancient times, but very often they became victims of their own beauty.
What could satisfy the rich and vain more than wearing a necklace once owned by a Roman Empress, drinking from Cleopatra’s chalices, or wearing a crown made from ancient kings’ treasures? How could one save money on monuments of saints but still have the most impressive depictions of St Peter or Paul in the world? How does one go about finding incredible columns which look exactly like they were taken from an ancient temple or palace? The desires of royals and nobles made it so ancient treasures changed their location, form, and owners. There are so many examples of this “recycling” that it is impossible to mention them all.
Diocletian's Palace was built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian at the turn of the 4th century AD. Today the structure forms about half the old town and city center of Split, Croatia. (Ballota/CC BY SA 3.0)
Finding the Church’s “Perfect” Floor
The style of geometric decorative stonework which is often seen on the floors of medieval churches in Italy, France, and the UK (as well as several other countries) is known as Cosmati or Cosmatesque. This beautiful way of creating unusual shapes and sequences of stones continues to be one of the most sophisticated aspects of European architecture. The name of the style comes from the surname of a few generations of artists who created them between 1190 and 1235 – the Cosmati family.
Detail of Cosmatesque floor, in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, Rome. (Manfred Heyde/CC BY SA 3.0)
Looking at the structures of churches in Rome, for example, visitors may wonder where the architects found such perfect pieces of marble and other stones - the answer lies in ancient ruins.
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Ruins served as a source for precious stones, columns, and other parts of construction. These architectural features were taken from ancient sites and then re-arranged into new shapes. If one looks closely while stepping on the floors of places like the Basilica of St Peter in the Vatican and churches in Roman Laterano, one can see the remnants of ancient temples.
A Cosmatesque screen in Basilica di San Giovanni in Laterano, Rome. (Anthony Majanlahti/CC BY 2.0)
Moreover, many of the oldest monumental sculptures of saints were often created from previous representations of philosophers and ancient leaders. Trading and transforming ancient sculptures was very common. After battles near ancient sites, armies would search for treasures which they could use or give to their rulers for new decorations in temples, churches, palaces, etc.
Re-used reliefs as decoration in Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome. (Vincent de Groot/CC BY SA 3.0)
Magnificent Ancient Details Hidden in Versailles
One of the greatest examples of the re-use of ancient stones was the palace of the famous King Louis XIV of France. It was built in such a style that no other palace could compete with it. However, to achieve this incredible image the architects needed to find elements which were unique, but also “good enough” to satisfy the powerful king. The answer to this problem was found thousands of kilometers away– in the ancient city of Leptis Magna.
Over 600 columns from Leptis Magna were reused in Versailles. Some of them were taken from the original location between 1686 and 1708 by the French consul in Tripoli, Claude Lemaire. Apart from the famous palace near Paris, Lemaire donated a few columns to Windsor Palace in London as well. Moreover, the precious statues of deities (such as the Diana once found in Versailles) came from Leptis Magna.
Artemis, better known as “Diana of Versailles.” (Sting/CC BY SA 2.5)
Another example of recycling ancient features can be found in the facade of St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice. It is decorated with horses known also as the “Triumphal Quadriga.” The origins of this decoration are uncertain. Some researchers believe they were made by the Greek artist Lysippos during the 4th century BC. However, others have dated it back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD and think that the horses come from sculptures made for Marcus Aurelius or Septimius Severus.
Both hypotheses may actually be wrong - it seems that the decoration has its roots in Constantinople. They were taken to Venice by the order of the Crusader, Doge Enrico Dandolo in 1254. The decorative feature topped the cathedral until the 1980s, when it was taken to a museum and replaced with copies.
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Replica of the Triumphal Quadriga, the famous horses on the church of Saint Mark in Venice. (Errabee/CC BY SA 3.0)
Where are All the Precious Jewels?
Before there was an appreciation and respect for ancient personal items as artifacts, humanity was driven by vanity. People wanted to wear jewels and own objects which had belonged to their great ancestors or famous historical figures.
Chamber of Art and Curiosities. (1636) By Frans Francken the Younger. (Public Domain)
For a very long time, treasures that were “accidentally found” were added to noble and royal treasuries. Therefore, many looted tombs lost their jewels forever. A lot of the artifacts are still in use or can be found amongst the treasures held by old royal dynasties in England, Spain, Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, and other countries.
Other precious jewelry found its way into museums and private collections. But most of the time, the ancient shape and purpose was changed or lost. The stones and metals were modified to suit new tastes in style. Yet in some cases it is possible to recognize the characteristic shapes of the old stones even after they were altered.
Pretiosensaal in the Historic Green Vault in Dresden. (SvenS D/CC BY 3.0) The Green Vault is a historic museum that contains one of the largest collections of treasures in Europe.
How to Identify Lost Treasures
Nowadays, it is very difficult to identify most of the ancient treasures which were “up-cycled” into other items, buildings, etc. Even the original identity of statues is often difficult to guess. There is hope, however, if researchers can find an ancient inscription hidden on an artifact or document describing it in detail. Otherwise, the origins of altered ancient artifacts often remains a mystery.
Sculpture of tetrarchs embracing in a sign of harmony (4th century). Produced in Asia Minor, today this sculpture is attached to a corner of Saint Mark's in Venice. (Nino Barbieri/CC BY SA 3.0) The tetrarchs were four co-rulers that governed the Roman Empire as long as Diocletian's reform lasted.
Top Image: ‘Bonaparte at the Pyramids’ by Maurice Orange. Source: Public Domain
Pierre Verlet, Le chateau de Versailles, 1985.
Clare Phillips, Jewelry: From Antiquity to the Present, 1996.
Leptis Magna, available at:
David Buckton, The Treasury of San Marco Venice, 1984, available at: