Travertine is a sedimentary limestone formed when hot springs water seeps through carbonate minerals. As the mineral and carbon dioxide rich water washes over limestone formations, the water permeates the stone, pitting and scarring the stone. Changes in temperature release the carbon dioxide from the water into the air, leaving mineral pockets that capture moss, algae and debris as re-crystallization occurs, enhancing the colors and character of the stone. The natural rock is porous and full of small cavities.
The Origins of Travertine
The largest deposits of travertine in the world are found near Tivoli, Italy. The name of the stone translates to the original name of Tivoli, Tibur and means “Tibur stone.” Over the centuries, the name evolved to travertine. The Tivoli area remains one of the world’s largest suppliers of travertine to this day. The springs around Tivoli, heated by volcanic activity associated with nearby Mt. Etna, provide the perfect environment for travertine formation. Marcus Vitruvius Pollio first recorded the properties and characteristics of travertine in detail. Vitruvuis lived from approximately 75 BC to sometime after 15 BC, during the rule of Julius Caesar.
Travertine Construction in Ancient History
Travertine has been used in many famous buildings and construction throughout history. Because travertine occurs around lakes, valleys and other natural water sources, it is a common building material dating back to earliest recorded history. Travertine was used in stone masonry dating back to the first Dynasty of Egypt in 3200 BC.
The Turkish city of Hierapolis, which means “sacred city,” was founded by the god Apollo according to ancient legend. Historical accounts indicate that the city was founded by Eumenes II, king of Pergamum in 197-159 BC, but archaeological evidence suggests that Hierapolis may actually have been established by the Seleucid kings in the fourth century BC. Hierapolis sits in the area of Pamukkale, surrounded by hot springs and gleaming white travertine. Ancient construction used this material almost exclusively, and today you can still visit the ruins of the theater of Hierapolis, a well-preserved amphitheater constructed around 200 BC with beautifully decorated stage buildings and about 30 rows of seating still intact.
The Etruscans used travertine to build a wall around the town of Perugia in the third century BC, and later for tombs, church construction and the town aqueduct.
The area currently known as the municipality of Vyšné Ružbachy in Slovakia was settled during the Paleolithic period. Early construction using travertine from a nearby mine provided the archeological evidence necessary for dating. Not surprisingly, Vyšné Ružbachy is famous for the therapeutic waters of its hot springs.
The largest known building made entirely of travertine is the Coliseum in Rome, completed in 80 AD by Imperator Vespasiano to honor the grandiosity of the Roman Empire.
The extravagant Basilique du Sacre Coeur in Paris was constructed of Château-Landon stone, a variety of travertine that bleaches over time to a gleaming white. First conceived in 1870, the church was finished in 1914 at a cost of 40 million francs. Romano-Byzantine triple domed design, magnificent soaring ceilings, and intricate mosaic work makes the Basilique du Sacre Coeur one of the premier tourist destinations in Paris.
Modern Use of Travertine
Travertine is still commonly used as a building material today, although building methods have changed from early solid-block construction. Today, travertine is often represented in polished tiled walls and floors, used for façades as opposed to construction.
One modern exception to this construction practice can be seen at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, California. The remarkably beautiful building is built from 1.2 million square feet of travertine imported from Bagni di Tivoli. Architect Richard Meier designed a mixture of natural and polished stone elements to create an organic structure that complements the natural environment while reflecting historical building concepts.
The 108-story Willis Tower, formerly known as the Sears Tower, was the tallest building in the world when it was built in 1974, surpassing even the World Trade Center. The lobby is graced by polished granite flooring and soaring travertine walls. Another famous building with travertine walls is the UCLA Medical Center, designed by architect Welton Becket who used travertine in nearly all of his design projects.
Travertine was a prized building material dating back to a time when earliest man first hewed blocks of rock using crude tools and brute force. The natural beauty of the stone continues to attract the eye of designers and architects all over the world. Today, travertine is available to anyone interested in gracing a home or business with timeless, elegant flooring.